When most newcomers want to experience Orthodox Judaism, they visit a synagogue first.That's a logical decision; the synagogue is a public Jewish place. However, many women have expressed disappointment over their first visit because they are uncomfortable with the separate seating, the impeded view of the Torah scroll, and their lack of prominence in the synagogue service overall. And unfortunately, some of them are so turned off by their experiences that they never return.
I am sympathetic to these women's feelings. The separation can seem strange, even discriminatory, if one does not know the reasons for it. Therefore, I implore such women to keep an open mind. Judaism is a way of life and affects every facet of life.
Just like you, we Orthodox Jews do not live in synagogues; we live in homes. Thus, the home, and not the synagogue is the most important institution in Judaism. If your first experience of an Orthodox Shabbos began and ended in synagogue, if it did not include a festive meal in someone's home, then your experience is far from complete.
Most newcomers would be surprised at the level of hospitality the Orthodox practice. I personally know dozens of families for whom having guests is as much of the protocol of a meal as serving food. Thus, finding an Orthodox Jewish home to visit on a Shabbos is actually quite easy. In advance of Shabbos, call the synagogue you plan to attend and ask for "Shabbos hospitality." You need not feel shy about making the initial contact, but if you do, email me and I'll try to help you. For more on this subject, read my article, "The Kindness of Strangers."
Visiting an Orthodox home will give you a far greater perspective on Jewish life. More than prayer, Judaism is about living life. Prayer is not the only way in which we serve G-d. We serve G-d in the way we eat by keeping kosher and making blessings. We serve Him in the way we dress with the laws of modesty. We serve Him in the ways we interact with other people by refraining from gossip, anger, and lying. These are only a few examples; the point is that as Jews, we must use every second of our lives to serve G-d.
One thing you will see in a Jewish home is the woman of the house in her own element. She will serve a meal she cooked in honor of Shabbos. The conversation during the meal will revolve around spiritual concepts from the Torah, and she will most certainly have thoughts to share. Throughout the meal, she will probably give her children moral direction in many ways, whether by enlisting their help in the serving, encouraging them as they present the Torah concepts they learned in school, or in correcting any misbehavior that occurs.
Because the home is a Jewish woman's greatest sphere of influence, the spiritual atmosphere of her home is largely a reflection of her efforts. Drink in the atmosphere of the home you visit and consider what your hostess has achieved. Talk to her about her life. Learn where the power of a Jewish woman lies.
Because a Jewish woman is so busy building a Jewish home, she is exempt from synagogue services. If a woman is unmarried, childless, or has children old enough to attend synagogue themselves, she most likely does attend synagogue. But if she has young children, her staying home and taking care of them is a far more pressing mitzvah. This is a kindness from Hashem, both to women and to children. Children have a right to their mothers' presence and attention, and when they are small, they demand so much of it that obligating women to arrive for prayer services on time would only add stress to their lives. For a more detailed explanation about women's exemption from certain mitzvohs, read my article On Equality.
Nonetheless, if you are able, your experience should include a visit to synagogue, and you will not be alone in the women's section. In fact, one of the effects of separate seating is that it creates a women's community. Standing alongside other women in prayer enhances one's sense of sisterhood. Yet this is arguably only a side benefit of separate seating, not the underlying reason for it. And it is wise to understand that reason; it should be clear that the separate seating is not an indication of secondary status in any way.
We learn our requirement to separate the genders from the Talmudic discussion of the celebration of Simchas Bais Ha Shoeva during the holiday of Sukkos (Talmud Bavli, Succah 51b). This practice existed to limit fraternizing between the genders and thus prevented sin. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt"l, one of the most widely respected rabbis of this century, wrote that this Talmudic discussion teaches us that failing to separate the genders is an issur d'oraisa (Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim V. 1 § 39 ). This means it is in that category of mitzvohs which have the strongest force, and laxity in its observance is one of the gravest sins.
Different synagogues comply with the Law this in different ways. Some have a divider separating the room, called a mechitza. Some place the mechitza vertically, dividing the room so that the men's and women's sections are next to each other, while others divide the room horizontally. Some synagogues designate separate rooms for men and women. Most typically, in those synagogues, the women sit upstairs in a balcony. All of these methods are correct; the important thing is that they fulfill the requirement of separating the genders to prevent them from mingling. Synagogues are not social halls; they are places to acknowledge, thank, and express one's love for Hashem.
In light of that, we can see that our physical location in synagogue has no relevance to the service. Similarly, the view we have of the Torah scroll is unimportant. What matters is that we establish a spiritual connection to the words of Torah. Women have equal opportunity to do that; when the cantor reads aloud from the Torah scroll, we should read along from printed copies of the Five Books of Moses, the same way men do. That is the way to participate in services. It is not necessary to watch the service take place. Rather, focus on its non-visual aspects. Let the mood of the praying people around you lift your spirits. Your prayers can reach Heaven from anywhere you sit on Earth.