Last week I went to Nehirim, the queer shabbaton up at Camp Isabella Freedman in Connecticut, after mixed reviews from friends who had attended last year. Despite going in with reservations, I had a fabulous time; many attendees were there for the first time and open to new experiences, I made several friends who I know will last, and even the damp, cool weather wasn’t as much of a downer as I thought it was going to be.

But after living in New York and coming to think of myself as a pretty progressive kind of yiddishe maidel, I found myself in the odd position of being one of the more “traditional” Jews at Nehirim. Over the last few years I’ve learned to be comfortable at services with piano or guitar accompaniment, but the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat drumming sent my brain into “audience” mode, and even though the drumming was great, I couldn’t think of it as a service.

Then came Shabbat morning. The previous evening, we had been alerted over dinner to the fact that the “traditional egalitarian” Saturday morning service would have separate seating for those who had expressed a strong desire for it. Not a mechitza, exactly, but a trichitza, where there would be separate seating for those who wanted a single-gender prayer experience, and a larger section for those of us who wanted to sit with all of our friends.

Since I was reading from the torah on Saturday, I approached the organizers with my concern; if there were men who wanted to sit apart from women, wouldn’t it be problematic for them to listen to a woman reading from the torah? No, I was told, they had no problem with a woman reading from the torah, just as long as a woman wasn’t leading the service. Hmm. Since I wasn’t leading, I shrugged my shoulders, not wanting to put up a fight during shabbat, but already composing a letter in my head that I could send afterward.

I awakened early on Saturday and walked down to visit the chickens and goats before services, then went to the the sanctuary. On either side of the bimah was a divider, putting the men’s section to the left and the women’s to the right, and leaving the bulk of the space open for those of us who were there for an “egalitarian” service.

When it was time for my aliyah, I read a full column of text. It was a shaky start (Moroccan trope is hard to get in your head with a room full of people helpfully telling you how to start singing the Ashkenazic variety!), but once I got going, I blasted through with only 2 corrections from the gabbais. Each of the men sitting in the men’s-only space congratulated me on my reading afterward. At lunch I was invited to join the Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva and Day School Alumni group at their next meeting in Central Park. It seemed that I had become one of the “traditional” Jews, without any question of whether or not my torah reading was enough to make the service “egalitarian.”

So why couldn’t the service have been truly egalitarian? Why the need for a mechitza, when the men who requested it obviously had no problems with my presence and my voice? And how on earth does segregation even make sense in a queer context?

My own slowly-increasing comfort with instruments in the synagogue teaches me that change is difficult; each of us becomes ingrained in whatever traditions we grew up with, and it’s difficult to feel at home with something new. Any change takes work, which is why we learn to overcome our early training in so many ways. We’re rarely taught as children that American history is painful and complex, that Israel’s history is even more painful and complex, that gender is fluid, that other traditions are equally meaningful to others as ours are to us. Our parents teach us what they know, for better or for worse, and it’s up to each of us to learn for ourselves as adults who we are and how we are going to understand the world around us. And if we’re lucky, we’ve learned to be critical thinkers with the skills to maintain a strong identity and belief system of our own.

After always thinking of myself a such a progressive Jew, it was a shock to find that in the context of Nehirim, I was considered one of the “traditional” Jews. And, it seemed, one of only a handful of “traditional” Jews who were also serious about egalitarianism. But I found it heartening that a number of people did push their boundaries over the course of shabbat, including me, and despite our discomfort, we all came away having encountered traditions different from our own and learned from them. The true test will be if a mechitza is still necessary next year.