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I've visited several Orthodox communities but never been part of one. One of the things that has always been a stumbling-block for me is the role of women. Here are two things I've observed about the communities I've visited -- whether they're typical I don't know:

  1. Women are more home- and child-focused, not synagogue-focused. Few come to services to pray, and of course there are halachic issues that impede full participation. Discussion and activity at the kiddush tend to be about the kids.

  2. Learning opportunities for adult women are limited -- there are some women's classes on a restricted set of topics (usually home- and child-related) and the occasional mixed-gender lecture, but a woman who, say, wants to learn gemara is generally going to be out of luck.

As a woman with no children, a professional (techie) career, and a thirst for knowledge, who currently studies and socialized with mixed-gender groups, I've felt out of place in my visits so far. But maybe there are important things I'm missing, that you have to be an insider or a regular to understand.

So my question is: if I wanted to become more involved in an Orthodox community, then (a) what options for meaningful adult-oriented participation (especially learning, worship, social) are likely to be available to me, and (b) assuming this varies, what if any are the general patterns (e.g. such-and-such group tends to be better for X, thus-and-such for Y)? I know there are different groups within Orthodoxy; locally we have Modern Orthodox, Lubavich, Young Israel, a place that's called "black hat" (not sure what it is formally), and some others. If I wanted to look for a community where someone like me would fit in, where should I look?

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this is very broad because each community is different. Where my parents live, the Orthodox synagogue has equal opportunities in terms of events and classes. In other places, while there are fewer classes for (and/or by) women and maybe not advanced gemara shiurim, all else is equal. I have yet to see a community limiting opportunities to restricted sets of topics or expecting wives to be at home. –  Danno Feb 10 '13 at 20:48
@MonicaCellio the broadness I see is not just in the scope of the question, but in the assumption of general patterns across geographically diverse communities. The YI in New Rochelle is different from the one in Scarsdale let alone the alphabet shul in West Orange or the YI in Houston. I think that the experience of each community is very local. –  Danno Feb 10 '13 at 21:35
There's a wide spectrum among orthodoxy. its true among the right-wing women don't generally learn gemara, but its different among more modern orthodox. e.g. YU has the Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmudic Study yu.edu/cjf/graduate/GPATS –  Ariel K Feb 10 '13 at 23:00
It's worth noting that even communities which would ideologically approve of a regular advanced women's Talmud class, don't often offer one because, due to historical education reasons, practically most women in the community don't have the same background skills as the men. If you can find a couple other women to join, you might be able (with the right rabbi) to get a class going. No gurantees of course, but just don't be afraid to try and be a leader in whatever community you pick (assuming of course that you're within range of what the community finds appropriate). –  Double AA Feb 11 '13 at 0:31
You mentioned you are in Pittsburgh. I think you will enjoy the JLI classes. See: myjli.com/index.html?task=location&lid=484 It seems a class just started but you can still go to the rest of them and/or sign up to the mailing list so you know when the next one is. Also the instructors usually tape the class so you can ask for it. There are usually about 4-5 different classes per year (in case this topic doesn't interest you, or you want to start from the first class). –  Ariel Feb 11 '13 at 0:38
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1 Answer

I've lived in four different countries, and in many different orthodox communities, and the dynamics were always different. First of all, in any orthodox community, social interaction between males and females will be limited to an extent not seen in non-orthodox communities. The communities I have seen, however, each had an established "nshei", which is a local womens group which organizes shiurim and social get-togethers of all kinds. The frequency and type of nshei meetings usually depends on the drive of the women (or woman) running it. Every place is different, and you should check out what is available in the area where you live.

As far as learning, although it is true that in general orthodox (and especially ultra-orthodox) women's learning endeavours will be on a somewhat lower level (mostly caused by the inevitable direction most of their lives take; marriage, kids, home etc) it seems that those women who have a thirst of knowledge have found how to quench that thirst. There are several "Rebbetzins" who write columns in various orthodox newspapers and magazines whose level in erudition in Jewish thought and learning is impressively high. It may be a good idea to contact some of them and ask them how they did it!

Finally, best of luck!

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