Religion & Jewish Life

Sex segregation spreads among the Orthodox

NEW YORK (Forward) — When a recent online expose revealed that women on a New York City-franchised bus were required to sit in the back, those who seemed to be least outraged were the women who actually ride the bus and live in the two heavily Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhoods it connects.

“It never bothered me,” said Rachel Freier, a lawyer from Borough Park who rides another segregated bus to Manhattan from her summer home in the Orthodox enclave of Kiryas Joel. “It is not that I feel I am being segregated. As a woman, it is my own sphere of privacy.”

The revelation that gender segregation was enforced on a bus franchised by the city raised the hackles of New York officials, who soon pressured the private bus company holding the city franchise to reverse its policy. But to many who live in the haredi Orthodox world, the practice of sex segregation, which appears to be spreading increasingly into the public sphere in Orthodox communities, is an unremarkable fact.

In early October, in the largely Chasidic community of Williamsburg, Yiddish signs hung on trees shading public sidewalks instructing women, “Precious Jewish daughter, please move to the side when a man approaches.” The signs, whose existence was first highlighted on the website Failed Messiah, eventually were taken down by city workers because it is illegal to place private signage on public trees.

But in New Square, N.Y., a Chasidic enclave upstate, similar signs remain posted, and residents walk streets strictly divided by gender, with women on one side and men on the other. Local women also are not allowed to drive, though this restriction stems from their deference to rabbinic decree and communal pressure rather than from injunctions promoted via public means.

Orthodox individuals interviewed by the Forward insisted that they were hewing to age-old traditions by separating men and women in public spaces. But outside observers said that the gender segregation on city buses — as well as other recent incidents — pointed to the fact that sex separation in the haredi world has become more entrenched in recent years. What’s more, they say, by taking these practices from private worship halls and extending them into public spaces like buses and streets, the haredi Orthodox community is asserting itself in new ways, staking its claim as a cultural force of American life.

“What is special about this isn’t the segregation of sexes but the segregation in the public domain,” said Samuel Heilman, a sociologist at Queens College who has written extensively on the haredi Orthodox. “That didn’t happen before. They separated men and women, but they would have never thought to do it on turf that isn’t completely theirs. They are saying, ‘We own the street, we own the bus, we own the public square.’ ”

The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s news site, New York World, first reported Oct. 18 that a woman boarding the bus was told forcefully by the other passengers to move to the back. A follow-up report in The New York Times noted that the rule consigning women to the back also was posted in writing on the bus.

Though operated by a private, Orthodox-owned company, the B110 bus, which runs between Borough Park and Williamsburg, trolls a public bus route that the city awarded to the company as a franchise in a competitive bidding process. Therefore it must play by the city’s rules, which in line with local and federal public accommodation laws bar discrimination on the basis of gender or race.

The story was widely reported in the media and garnered a response from Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a news conference.

“Private people, you can have a private bus. Go rent a bus, and do what you want on it,” the mayor said. On city buses, he said, sex segregation was “obviously not permitted.”

For many in the secular world, the Borough Park-Williamsburg bus story evoked memories of civil rights activist Rosa Parks, who refused to sit at the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala., during the era of legal segregation in the South. But for haredim, the practice of sex segregation on private and public buses alike has a reference point in Israel.

In Jerusalem, gender segregation on city buses has been a flashpoint of controversy for years, pitting haredim who want separate-gender seating on bus lines against their secular counterparts. In early October, the Israeli transportation minister said that while the haredi were free to do what they wanted on private buses, the Israeli government could not enforce segregation on city lines.

According to Gershom Gorenberg, author of the upcoming book “The Unmaking of Israel,” pressure for sex segregation in public spaces is part of a ramped-up religious vigilance in the haredi world caused in part by a lack of passed-down direct knowledge of how traditional Jews in earlier generations actually lived day to day. Many such religious and cultural practices were obliterated during the Holocaust, he said, and in their absence, haredi communities in Israel and beyond have adopted a “stricter is better” approach to Jewish, or halachic, law.

In fact, they are innovations, Gorenberg said.

“What I think is remarkable about this is that it is taking place in a community which is declaredly conservative and anti-innovation,” he said.

According to Heilman, when American haredi Jews visit their Israeli counterparts, a kind of cultural cross-pollination takes place, with New Yorkers adopting the practices of their peers in the Holy Land.

“In Brooklyn they are getting their cue from Israel,” he said. “The difference is that in Israel, it is a Jewish state.”

In America, he said, the significance of the practice is more subtle. Signs, such as those posted in Williamsburg urging women to step aside when men approach, promote communitywide norms with which the observant, and even the non-observant, feel bound to comply. By this means, Heilman said, haredi Jews extend religious rules to public spaces, thus flexing their muscles as major players in American cultural life.

Ezra Friedlander, a Borough Park native and CEO of the public relations firm the Friedlander Group, disagreed, saying that the community’s rules were not meant to apply to outsiders. In the case of the Williamsburg-Borough Park bus, he said, the haredi riders likely were unaware that they were riding a public bus instead of a private one. Now that they know, he said, they won’t be caught off guard should a secular woman decide to sit in the front with the men.

“Now that people know that it is a city franchise, I think everyone will understand that you sit on a Borough Park-Williamsburg bus the same way you will sit on a New York City subway,” he said. “If men and women of their own volition choose to sit in separate areas, you can’t blame them for that. If a woman wants to sit where she wants to sit, that is a right that should be protected.

“At the end of the day,” he added, “secular law has to carry the day.”

Friedlander also contested the characterization of gender segregation in public spaces as a new phenomenon, noting that segregated buses have always traversed the Borough Park streets. Freier agreed, saying the phenomenon is an outgrowth of long-held laws of modesty, which permeate every aspect of haredi life.

“It has always been this way,” she said. “There is no resentment. This is how we have been raised, and we are happy.”

(This story originally appeared in the Forward newspaper. To read more, please go to