2 weeks ago our rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Linzer, spoke to us about a particular incident that he had to deal with in regards to the mechitza in our minyan (prob. the particular incident is not suppose to be public knowledge). After these sort of talks we break up into small groups to discuss these real life issues. I learned something that caught me very off guard. I have just always assumed that the less "obtrusive" the mechitza the more comfortable most women will feel at a minyan or shul . I learned that I was way off.
About a month ago there were 3 days when the Columbia/Barnard Hillel minyan was not running, so many of them joined our minyan. A student in my group mentioned that he had overheard a number of the women who had joined us temporarily in the YCT minyan saying "If i can avoid it, I'm never davening in this minyan again. I dont like the fact that men can look at us during davening etc." They did not like the fact that our mechitza is "low" (about shoulder high) and that it is pretty see through. I don't think guys were staring at them or anything, but they said that they didn't like the fact that men could look at them in davening.
So there goes my conception that the ideal mechitza should always aim to be as unobtrusive as possible (both in terms of size and design) in order to make women feel comfortable. I guess if a woman grows up davening in a shul with a big mechitza then that is what one is use too and comfortable with.....it's not necessarily an intellectual matter (comfort etc.). Perhaps some women don't want to feel like a part of the minyan?
I'm assuming this emotional/non-intellectual relationship with mechitza because of my reationship with mechitza. I grew up davening in my parent's shul which had mixed seating and an "orthodox" rabbi. I never really gave much thought to the issue....I don't recall the presence of women distracting me.
Towards the end of my 2nd year of high school I started davening in a little local orthodox shul (the one where the retired rabbi of my parent's shul davens) with a standard mechitza down the middle. After davening in minyans with a mechitza for 4 years I was required to daven and speak in my parents shul for one of the chagim. They had given me a large scholarship to go to israel and the scholarship obligated me to speak at the shul. I felt very uncomfortale davening and was distracted. This was for several reasons and not only b/c of the "distraction" of women. One factor was that the seperation of the sexes had become something that I asscocated with davening. It was "the Jewish way" and my gut feeling (not intellectual) was that family pews was not the jewish way and it felt inauthentic.
[Sidenote: Family pews in shuls are understood by most historians to be an imitation of American protestant churches where the family pews phenomenon began. The first reform temples to have mixed seating were in America and then this phenomenon spread to some Temples in Germany and was even less common outside of Germany. ]
Also, there was the issue of the distraction of seeing women. This was never something that I had even thought of growing up, so I think my increase in "frumkeit" and the mechitza had and has sensitized me to being more easily distracted by women during davening. I certainly cannot daven in a minyan without a mechitza. This was not a conscious choice, but a result of davening in minyanim with mechitzas. I think that the mechitza served as a reminder 3 times a day that it is an issue and it eventually became an issue subconsciously. I have spoken to several guys who grew up davening in shuls with mixed seating who have experienced the same transformation.
I was also thinking that perhaps those students were offended by our minyan because once u try as hard as possile to make an in-offensive mechitza u are saying and reminding people that it's offensive. These mechitzas can be seen as condescending. Also, maybe a significant mechitza (especially the kind that are in the back of the shul) allow some woman to feel more comfortable because it allows them to feel like thay have their own service and not almost part of the congregation which is the message that a little mechitza can send. This was at least the feeling of a friend of mine who davened at the Yakar minyan who liked the mechtiza set up (mechitza in the back).
Can't forget about the women who grew up davening in shuls w/o mechitzas and can't stand it, but do it anyways b/c they're "orthodox" and those who avoid davening in a shul with a mechitza at all costs.
I would like to hear peoples' thoughts about this issue from an emotional (personal) and sociological perspective and not a halachic perspective. My speculation into how women feel about various mechitzas is just that ---specualtion. It maybe very off. The halachic argument is not what interests me here and I think that it is fitting for a different kind of forum ( I personally believe the issue is not primarily a halachic one).