When Yael Mandel nursed her baby girl during kiddush in her Orthodox synagogue’s sanctuary, no one seemed to mind. Even the rabbi walked over to her seat and said a warm gut Shabbos.
But not everyone welcomed the image of a woman breastfeeding in a sacred space.
One synagogue member posted anonymously in an Orthodox men’s Facebook group. “Why is this even remotely ok,” he wrote, adding: “Wtf is the actual sanctuary of shul the appropriate place for this?!”
Several friends forwarded the post to Mandel — it had enough identifying details to be clearly about her, she says. “Some people sexualize the breast so much that they can’t even handle the idea of a woman nursing in public,” she noted.
“Nursing is so hard on its own. If I were to seclude myself every time I nurse, I would have no part of shul or any social scene,” Mandel told me. “I’d have to separate myself so frequently - to banish myself to another room. If I would ever feel that I can’t be part of my community - it would be detrimental to my health.”
And in houses of worship, the question is just as pertinent, as nursing mothers want to participate in communal prayer. “If a woman with a young baby wants to get out of the house on Shabbos and see her friends and socialize - it becomes too complicated if she can’t nurse,” said Avie Herman, a postpartum doula and Orthodox mother based in Toronto. “If women can’t feed our babies in shul - does that mean we’re not welcome in shul?”
This issue is particularly relevant in the Orthodox community, where women on average spend more years child-bearing (with birthrate currently 5.64 per Orthodox woman between the ages of 40-49) — and where separate women’s spaces exist, which could theoretically provide a comfortable place to nurse children discreetly, yet rarely do.
Women being shamed for breastfeeding their children in synagogue is not uncommon. Sarah Zell Young, 30, had just come to a new Orthodox synagogue in Highland Park, NJ, where she was confronted in the kiddush room by two female congregants for nursing her child.
“They said it’s really inappropriate, that it’s disrespectful to men,” she recounted to me over the phone. “I said to them that I’m completely covered. I’m not even near any men. So then one of the women told me: ‘Why are you not davening? If it’s so important for you to be here, why aren’t you praying? You should just go home. Why are you even here?’”
Young said that after this experience, she and her husband decided not to join the synagogue.
Even in women’s-only spaces in synagogues, mothers are often pressured not to breastfeed — it is still considered by some as unseemly. “Tznius only applies in front of men, to my mind,” Herman said, referring to Orthodox views on women’s modesty. “In shul, you’re in a women’s section, there are no men around, it’s not really a tznius issue. It should be the place that’s most comfortable to nurse.” Instead, she said, “There’s a lot of anxiety in it.”
Some women have found solutions by arranging family rooms in their synagogues. Last Yom Kippur, in the Young Israel of St, Louis, Missouri, Rachel Shorr Deutsch needed somewhere to feed her then-five-month-old son.
“There was a bathroom with a toilet and a rocking chair,” she said. “I walked in - it reeked, I couldn’t stand there, let alone sit and nurse. And I didn’t want to go home back and forth on a fast day.”
Deutsch found what she called a “junky storage closet,” filled with old books and unused furniture, and nursed her baby there. After the holiday, she mentioned the space to the rabbi and to friends in the community, suggesting it be reimagined as a family room — and a small renovation project was born.
“We went through the machzorim, old stuff, organizing and sorting and cleaning out,” she said. Deutsch and her friends sold the unused furniture on Facebook Marketplace, and then used that money to pay for the nursing room. “We sanded and painted the walls ourselves, and asked people for like-new items that they could donate. We wanted women to come in and feel like the shul is a second home. There’s no reason you should sit in a dirty room to feed your child.”
Within two months, the young couples of the community collected a changing table, water bottles, toys, artwork (including one painting made by a shul member), and a clock.
“I used to ask myself, ‘Should I really go to shul now, if the baby has to nurse again in thirty minutes?’” Deutsch said. “Now that’s no longer a question.”
Deutsch posted pictures of her nursing room project on Facebook — then inspiring other Orthodox women to do the same in other communities. Over on the West Coast, Rena Katrikh, a mother in Los Angeles, brought up the issue of a nursing space during a Shabbat meal with her synagogue’s Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn. Some female congregants had complained to Thomas-Newborn about having to nurse in the B’nai David-Judea Congregation’s bathroom, which had two rocking chairs set aside for nursing mothers.
“I was not yet a mom,” Rabbanit Thomas-Newborn wrote in an email (during her maternity leave). “But as a woman and future-mom, I was fully invested in it. Nursing rooms and family rooms (which are for both moms and dads) are becoming more and more present in workplaces and businesses, so why not in shuls?”
Alongside other synagogue members, Katrikh and Thomas-Newborn spearheaded a “family room” — a space with a diaper-changing table, a rocking chair, a couch (“so you can bring in a friend and not feel so isolated,” Katrikh explained), nursing pillows, toys, and a baby bouncer seat. “It’s also good for older children with special needs who need to be changed,” she added.
“Unquestionably, having a female clergy person helped,” Katrikh said. “So much of this was motivated by [Rabbanit Thomas-Newborn] asking and bringing this question and wondering how we can address some of the concerns.”
But even for women who have “clout” in their synagogues — it doesn’t always occur to them to speak up. Dina Rabhan, CEO of Jerusalem U and long-time rebbetzin, spent years nursing her seven daughters wherever she could find. “I spent hours and hours nursing in the weirdest places in shuls,” she told me. “I have nursed in bathrooms stalls, leaning against the sink in bathrooms with women walking around me staring, in playrooms and [children’s] groups, coatrooms.”
Rabhan said that she once nursed in the corner of the women’s section in a sanctuary, and women around her were “highly upset”. Years later, Rabhan remembers with regret that she was quiet. “I didn’t even think I had a voice. My husband was the rabbi in most of these shuls, and it didn’t occur to me, I should have said, ‘Hey, I’m nursing baby after baby, can we figure out a space for me to do it that’s comfortable and appropriate in synagogue?’”
For Rabhan, the choice to remain quiet was just part of how many religious women are conditioned. “The tales we’re told, of women suffering for the sake of their family, for Yiddishkeit. It’s part of who we are! Now, there is some nobility in sacrifice for family and Judaism, but not in sacrificing unnecessarily. The younger generation, my children among them, will have nothing of that — they want to be frum, but they don’t want sacrifice that doesn’t make sense anymore. They’re educating me that it doesn’t have to be like this.”
Though many synagogues and temples in non-Orthodox denominations have embraced welcoming policies to breastfeeding mothers — the Conservative movement’s law committee passed a religious opinion in 2005 endorsing women’s breastfeeding in the sanctuary. According to Rabbi Leora Kaye, Director of Program for the Union for Reform Judaism, “Reform congregations are encouraged to create an inclusive environment where families can always feel at ease feeding their children, including parents that are nursing.” Still, some mothers face pushback in non-Orthodox synagogues, despite official policies focusing on inclusion.
And these questions are of course not limited to Jewish houses of worship either — women have been asked to leave church services, too. Pope Francis himself has had to step forward and encourage women to nurse in the Sistine Chapel. “Countless other Christian women, trying to feed their children without having to miss a sermon, have faced the disapproval of others who think breasts have no place in the sanctuary,” Rachel Marie Stone wrote in Christianity Today.
And a woman’s ability to feed her children is just part of larger obstacles that young mothers face, when trying to find a place for themselves in communal prayer services, Herman, the postpartum doula, adds — whether it’s babysitting services, changing tables, or stroller parking. “What happens when there’s no changing table in the men’s bathroom?” she asked. “It’s so subtle, but it sends a big message about what’s important.” Not having a changing table in the men’s room, she says, messages that “men are davening, and their davening matters, while the mother can step out to change a diaper, because her davening is less important.”
“It makes you feel like ‘I’m not really supposed to be here,’” she said.
“There is a real need among parents to nourish their souls, get self-care, and feel supported as adults in their life-stage,” Thomas-Newborn said. In advising synagogues to improve their services to families, Thomas-Newborn suggested talking with parents about their schedules in advance, when planning Torah classes and communal meetings. “Offer childcare at shul lunches, onegs, and Shabbat afternoon events,” she said. “And build a strong base of parents of small children to whom you can turn to get their perspective on how to be more inclusive of them and their friends. It can feel like when you have a young child that you have to put your own spiritual life on hold, but a shul community that encourages a full family life should strive to find a way to nourish every family member — parents included.”
Herman agreed — wondering aloud about the ironies of life as an Orthodox young mother.
“I feel this a lot, as a frum young mother,” said Herman. “I’m doing exactly ‘what I’m supposed to be doing’, what the community wants from me. I’m having babies! So why am I facing barriers? Why is this so difficult for me?”
Sefira Lightstone is a visual artist based in Seattle, Washington. She grew up in a home that was deeply involved in the arts, where she developed her skill and passion for creative expression through imagery. Her work has appeared on Chabad.org, Jewish in Seattle Mag, The JWE and more. You can reach her through her website, or you can follow her on Instagram @sefiracreative.
Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the Life/Features editor at the Forward. She was previously a New York-based reporter for Haaretz. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and Tablet, among others. Avital teaches journalism at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, and does pastoral work alongside her husband Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt in New York City.