Abstract: This is not common among all Jews or all strains of Judaism. It’s part of an extreme reactionary movement within Judaism that is attempting to wall itself off from modern influences.
The Background: First, “Jewish” isn’t primarily a religion. It’s an ethnic or more accurately tribal identity. Jews in Ethiopia, Russia, India Ireland and Iraq are more closely related to one another than they are to the people they live around. Jews have a tribal religion the same way that Mongols, Dogons and Inuit do or did. The religion embodies a large number of customs which have allowed Jews to survive as a coherent and distinct ethnic group over thousands of years of diaspora.
This has required a balancing act. Move too much and you disappear like a drop of ink in a bowl of milk. Fail to move enough, and you can’t adapt to changing conditions. Local conditions and cultures have changed the particular balance.
The Reform Movement in Judaism was one such. It envisioned a more modern set of Jewish practices and doctrine. Reform Judaism has been associated with a wide variety of Progressive causes over its roughly two hundred years including feminism, prison reform, organized labor, the Civil Rights struggle, women’s suffrage and so on. The Modern Orthodox and the Conservative movements maintained varyingly more traditional practice.
Some Jewish populations integrated. Others were not permitted to. Pograms, the ghetto, and Islamic laws governing the rights of Jews kept some isolated and perforce culturally conservative. Some immigrant communities particularly from Central Europe maintained the ghetto mentality and used evermore strict measures to ensure that they would remain cohesive and unified in (for instance) the United States.
Then came WWII. Most of the extremely traditional groups - lets over-simplify and call them Haredi - were decimated. For all of their vaunted piety and the supernatural regard in which they held their rabbis they were caught completely by surprise. When there was warning their leaders tended to tell the to pray and stay put. They died by the millions.
Many of the survivors adopted ideologies like Zionism (both religious and secular) and liberalism. Others became much more tradition-bound. In Israel and the United States they began adopting more severe social control. Kosher wasn’t good enough. It had to be glatt kosher. Learning Torah isn’t enough. Any sort of secular education is sinful.
Traditionally, Jews have been fairly modest. The Haredi adopted the practice of Shomer Negiah (Guardian of Touch) eschewing all physical contact with members of the opposite sex. The ancient taboos surrounding menstruation (Niddah) were tightened to the point where men don’t sit on the same seat as a woman for fear that she might be menstruating rendering the man who shakes her hand or whose clothes touch the bench ritually impure. It isn’t enough for a woman to wear a head scarf. She has to shave her head. It isn’t enough to make lifestyle choices. Jews who disagree are declared to be heretics and not really Jews.
As the secular world impinges the attempts at separation have increased. In Israel it led to Haredi rabbis demanding that bus seats be segregated in buses traveling through Haredi neighborhoods. And yes, women to the back. Lately the ultra-religious have been getting bolder. Since they were indulged in that part they’ve begun demanding that it be extended. Unfortunately, the Haredi tend to vote as a bloc. Whatever Party their rabbi supports they all vote for. Since representation in the Knesset is proportional rather than winner-take-all this gives them disproportionate influence. It has also given them complete power over deciding who is a Jew and over marriages since there is no civil marriage in Israel.
In short, this is part of a romantic-reactionary attempt to turn the modern world away and return to a seventeenth century which never was. It isn’t how most Jews live or want to live. It isn’t even the way that extremely observant Jews lived a century or two ago.
What it is is neurosis deathly afraid it won’t make the jump to full-blown psychosis and trying harder.