In Shul, Do as the Shul-Goers

Ever see the picture of President Barack Obama wearing a Somali tribal costume? Hillary Clinton with a Muslim headscarf? Britain’s Prince William shoeless?

There are some things that are universally recognized as just the decent thing for a visitor to do. Except, it seems sometimes, when it comes to Orthodox Judaism.

Elected officials, world-renowned journalists and even civil rights activists do in Rome like the Romans do. Women cover their hair when going into a mosque, visitors remove their shoes at Hindu temples, and people put on bandanas when walking into a Sikh temple.

But when a mayoral candidate walked into a shul in Boro Park Wednesday in middle of chazaras hashatz, the city’s full court press converged to hear the details of how three women were asked to leave.

“Joe Lhota does nothing as women with him are kicked out of Brooklyn synagogue,” screamed a Daily News headline. “Lhota campaigns at men-only ultra-Orthodox synagogue,” said Newsday.

The incident began about 4:00 on Wednesday afternoon, when Lhota was walking down 13th Avenue. He had just met with a Boro Park kehillah and was on his way to another meeting, this time on New Utrecht Avenue. (I should mention that women were present at both of the other events, which did not involve davening.)

As Lhota passed various stores, he entered some of them, speaking with shopkeepers and greeting passersby. About a block away from Shomer Shabbos shul, the celebrated “Minyan factory” of Boro Park, an aide suggested that he go in. The candidate put on a yarmulke and walked in. There were no stares; the shul’s approximately dozen denizens were all davening.

Along with Lhota and his mostly male entourage, came a female NYPD officer, a female aide and Erin Durkin, a Daily News reporter. Since it was in middle of davening, when halachah mandates that women not be in the men’s section (there is a women’s section for a reason), they were immediately asked to wait outside until Lhota emerged.

Durkin then took to Twitter to voice her displeasure. “Female reporters and staffers ejected from [Lhota] stop at Borough Park synagogue,” she posted.

Seeing the tweet, I asked Durkin what Lhota had to do with the request to leave, which was done on religious grounds.

“Oh, I did not mean he had anything to do with that,” she replied.

But that began a 24-hour period in which hallowed Jewish law was ridiculed in the media, thrown in with the usual fare which marked the tabloids’ coverage of this year’s circus-like mayoral campaign.

It’s another day, another issue for the media, but when politics creeps into our shuls, and our 3,000-year-old traditions are treated with the cynical brush of the 24-hour news cycle, it’s a sad day for the community and a tragic one for human decency.

Confronted afterward by the media scrum, Lhota responded well, defending the rights of religion to decide their own laws.

“Throughout the Orthodox world, the Orthodox Jewish world as well as the Orthodox Muslim world, there are certain places that women are not involved in,” he said. “I will not as mayor violate their First Amendment constitutional rights for their religious practices.”

The Democratic candidate, Bill de Blasio, also threw himself into the mix. What he said, however, is more vague.

The Associated Press quoted him as saying outside a Manhattan rally Thursday, “I find it perplexing that he would have organized an event in a situation [where] women wouldn’t have access to.”

It is a disheartening quote, not because he is incorrect — Lhota’s aides should indeed have prevented the situation from occurring — but because it cheapens the sanctity of shuls for the politics of moment. (It also was not an “organized event,” but a spontaneous decision to go in.)

A “no comment” would have been more appropriate and sensitive, especially for a former councilman who represented parts of Boro Park. De Blasio’s comment is the sort of political strategizing that operatives discuss but keep to themselves.

However, Dan Levitan, a de Blasio spokesman, disputed the AP quote, emailing Hamodia what he said was the correct wording. “He actually said: ‘Obviously, when you plan a public event it needs to be in a space that is open to all,’” Levitan wrote.

That sounds much better, of course. What’s obvious to one is obvious to all. But an email an hour later corrects the previous email. No, the AP quote is also correct.

To be clear, this is not about the mayoral race. Lhota is commendable for his defense of Jewish tradition, but he got it wrong for basing it on the Constitution.

It is a matter of decency, not right or wrong. Jews have had separate areas for women in shuls since Har Sinai, even as social norms have waxed and waned. It figures then that when entering a shul, visitors conduct themselves with that in mind.