I thought about it as she went on to explain that even something like choosing a spouse, which looks like choice, often isn't; it's predetermined (although prayer can influence an enormous amount of that predetermination).
And it's true that lot of other things I've done, like becoming frum and deciding to live in Eretz Yisrael were more emotional decisions rather than decisions that first underwent heavy deliberations.
Yes, I did spend around half an hour seriously weighing whether I should put off making aliyah immediately to make more money or whether I should make aliyah at the first possible opportunity — but the decision to live in Eretz Yisrael for the rest of my life was definitely a decision of the heart, not the head.
I became frum while exploring frumkeit. But I mostly explored it and read the pros and cons in order to reassure myself that it was the right decision. Some things bothered me, but I just kept at it anyway and I don't know intellectually why.
Deep down, I knew I wanted to keep Torah & mitzvot — that's it.
Of course we still must take responsibility for our decisions. In Shamayim, we're still held responsible for our actions.
And of course, the wiser we are, the more we are able to step back and weigh a decision intelligently. (Reading mussar books really help with this.)
The rebbetzin told me this to help me foster more compassion and understanding for others...and also for myself.
(I wanted to be more like her, so she revealed this as one of her key attitudes toward being relatively non-judgmental toward others, which enabled her to be incredibly helpful.)
Recalling this also reminds me of my first experiences with the concept of a shul mechitzah (a partition separating men and women in the synagogue.)
Oppression & Discrimination – Wherefore art Thou?
I suppose it was similar to today's Birthright program.
Anyway, in the movement for Conservative (which is actually way too liberal) "Judaism," there is a concept of keeping Shabbat.
Where I grew up, only the rabbi & cantor actually kept Shabbat (and even then, the cantor's wife allowed herself to turn off lights).
Only those who lived near thriving Orthodox communities (which was not our situation) tended to be more Orthodox in their practice.
Anyway, our tour group went to the Kotel, which was an AMAZING experience.
But I didn't really notice the mechitzah and didn't think of the Kotel area as shul anyway. The cover-up thing we were given by the guard to tie over immodest clothing felt totally appropriate for some reason, and we'd been warned that would happen before we arrived, so it wasn't a shock either.
But as for a real Orthodox shul experience? That happened later.
One Shabbat, the program decided to take us to an Orthodox shul. I was intrigued because I'd vaguely heard about these Orthodox shuls with their terribly oppressive mechitzahs, a form of ancient Mesopotamian chauvinism (or so I'd been brainwashed).
To reinforce this concept, a girl from my group (who was from one of those communities influenced by a surrounding Orthodox community) walked with us toward the shul like she was heading to the gallows. (Let's call her "Mara.")
When I expressed how excited I was to experience services in a real Orthodox synagogue for the first time (and excited to experience authentic ancient oppression of my gender just like in all those embittered feminist stories!), she made some negative statement about it.
Since then, I've met other young women like her and what I didn't realize at the time was how badly their living between the two worlds of Torah-true Judaism and the "Conservative" rip-off messes with their mind. It doesn't allow them to enjoy Judaism unless it's within the very narrow framework of whatever their specific understanding of Judaism allows.
The concept of mechitzah (or even separated seating without a mechitzah) had never been mentioned in my congregation. It simply was not an issue or even a topic. But for her, it was an issue that had been debated with passion. And probably anger.
Anyway, we arrived at the Orthodox shul, and guess what?
The mechitzah was not oppressive — not even one little bit!
It consisted of a series of wooden partitions on wheels with lattice-work at the top. Yes, your view of things was blocked to an extent, but you could still more or less see what was going on.
The men in their light-colored button-down shirts and knitted kippahs seemed to be having a good time and when the women wanted to see the Sefer Torah, one of the gray-haired men pushed the mechitzah aside to grant the women a better view.
I could not believe how un-oppressed & un-discriminated against I felt.
It was exhilarating to see that my heritage was even better than I'd been led to believe.
Mara stood near me with the same sober, agonized look on her face.
"I don't feel bad at all!" I enthused to her. "It feels more or less normal!"
Staring straight ahead, she winced at my enthusiasm and murmured, "Yeah. But women aren't allowed to touch the Sefer Torah."
I looked around. It seemed like not all the men managed to kiss the Sefer Torah either.
Also, in my congregation back home, we could all touch the Sefer Torah to kiss it and it's not like bells and whistles went off whenever I did it.
And now, I simply did not feel the lack.
In fact, I didn't even know we weren't allowed. The Sefer Torah was there in view, but not close enough to reach. It was all very natural.
In other words, it wasn't a big noticeable deal.
I asked her if it was true than women were really forbidden from touching the Sefer Torah and why would that be? But she couldn't give me a coherent answer.
Anyway, looking around at the Orthodox congregation, everyone seemed happy and also able to follow the service without anyone needing to tell them what page to turn.
I just saw a bunch of happy, knowledgeable Jews and found it all attractive.
And Mara never seemed happy the entire tour because things either weren't frum enough or were too frum.
Like I said, since then, I met other young women like her from that denomination, and they are often conditioned to be so uptight and unable to fully enjoy whatever Judaism they do practice.
But back to my mechitzah experiences...
Great Observations at the Great Synagogue
On our way there, we passed the radical Leftist group, Women in Black.
I didn't really know what they were, just that they stood their in their shapeless black gowns with their homely faces and their chins raised with a very proud & self-righteous look on their faces.
I understood they were for "peace," but they did not look very nice or peaceful to me.
We found ourselves in the women's section above (that kind of mechitzah also felt completely unoppressive, BTW) and then one of the Women in Black strutted in, seated herself with a great deal of pride, and sat up straight with her chin raised for the rest of the time, a holier-than-thou look on her face the whole time.
This also did not say "peace" to me.
I thought she looked a bit intimidating, like she was looking for a fight.
In fact, she reminded me of those bullies from school that looked for any excuse to put down & humiliate others, so it was best to avoid talking to them at all.
At one point, a very little girl dressed modestly in lots of pink and frills and ruffles ran into the men's section downstairs.
Would they bellow at her? Block her? Reprimand her?
I saw a chassidish man rush toward her and I tensed even more.
He lovingly scooped her up in his arms and returned to his place.
So much for that stereotype of crazed bellowing chassidim who overreact to the slightest thing.
Still No Oppression or Misogyny
We attended an Orthodox shul which catered to a very mixed crowd. The rabbi himself was fully frum. The worshipers ranged from fully frum to those who drove to shul on Shabbat and got out of their cars wearing a kippah and tallis.
So the mechitzah was as unobtrusive as possible while still being more or less kosher.
I didn't feel a thing. Meaning, the seating felt totally normal.
Also, the decor of the shul was so attractive, much nicer than my non-frum congregation's decor of orange & brown, left over from the Seventies when orange & brown was considered really cool.
Finally, the separate seating did make sense to me because having grown up in mixed seating, of course I was well-aware of how boys and girls were checking out each other when they should have been praying.
All the huffy objections like how men and women should be able to control themselves and how families should be able to sit together didn't hold water because I'd already seen the reality.
So Much is a Matter of Mazal
And indeed, they were.
But the thing is, circumstances could have turned out so differently.
The wooden mechitzah with the lattice top could have really bothered me.
I could have been influenced by tense, unhappy, brainwashed Mara.
I could have had negative experiences with the mechitzah or the frum Jews davening in those shuls. (After all, some people do have legitimately negative experiences.)
Or just the idea of separate seating could have still bothered me, despite the practical reality that it didn't interfere at all with the shul experience.
Why wasn't I bothered or negatively affected?
I don't know why.
It wasn't anything I did. It wasn't a choice.
I guess it's just that Hashem wanted me to experience things as I did.
And that's that.
(And a lot of life is like that.)