I’m thrilled to announce the launch of a brand new online course called “Embodied” on the topic of disabilities from a Jewish feminist perspective. The course is the brainchild of the brilliant feminist thinker, rabbinical student and disabilities advocate Ruti Regan, who not only proposed this course to me but also opened up a world of enlightening insights, and a visionary perspective on what it means to be a Jewish feminist.
The topic of disabilities is not one that we hear frequently discussed in Jewish feminist conversations and settings. And as Ruti taught me, that is unfortunate. If we are going to take seriously the feminist agenda, there are several compelling reasons why the issue of disabilities should be on our radar:
Feminism is about inclusion. It is about reaching out to the margins of society, to those rendered invisible or incorrect, and creating spaces to ensure their visibility. This idea, often described in language of “intersectionality” – that is, our multiple identities that render us marginalized – is one of the primary lessons from being a woman in society. It is about realizing that despite mainstream society’s frustrating insistence that only certain types of people count, that the world is much more diverse. Our experiences of trying to empower women as seen and counted should give us the wisdom to ask who else needs reaching out to.
Feminism is about bodies. There is an interesting and important overlap between social constructs of body in the feminist community and in the disabilities community. So much of our work as feminist – especially Jewish feminists – is about challenging notions of whose body is considered “normal” or “correct” or “normative”. Women’s bodies – in Judaism and beyond – are marked, measured, gazed upon, judged, controlled and corrected. We are constantly reminded that our bodies are threatening, and need to be covered and concealed. Much of the language about disabilities overlaps with these ideas – whose bodies need to be corrected, concealed and controlled. These issues find expression in some really tragic ways in areas such as sexuality and fertility. They also find expression in the language of life – whose life is worthy, whose life is worth saving, who deserves to live.
Feminism is about deconstructing power hierarchies. On the most fundamental level, feminism is about challenging the social structures that create a class of people in power and another class of people who are acted upon. Unpacking these hierarchies is a basic feminist goal. As such, feminism should take a keen interest in allying with the disabilities community, in challenging notions of who has agency and who doesn’t, who has power or voice and who is objectified and spoken on behalf of.
I am so grateful to Ruti for opening my eyes to these ideas and more, and for entrusting the Center for Jewish Feminism to facilitate this course.
This six week course is structured around panel discussions with leading experts in the field of disabilities studies and Jewish life, including...
Below is the link to a podcast of my talk "Rabbis who abuse" from the 2015 Limmud UK Conference
Download the podcast. You may need to right-click and choose "Save as..."
Limmud Conference 2015
An exploration of the seeming explosion in the number of rabbis caught out as sexual abusers. Why does this happen, why is it happening now, and what does it mean for the rest of us?
Jewish Peoplehood, Social issues and Community...
I had a rather surreal experience last week, the kind where you wonder if the universe is playing with you or just using you as a toy in some bigger agenda that you’re only vaguely in the loop about.
The New York Times ran a profile, almost a tribute, to serial sexual abuser Marc Gafni a day before I gave a talk at Limmud UK titled “Rabbis who abuse”. Gafni, formerly Mordechai Winiarz, who was described by the shameless writer as having gained “stature” despite a “troubled past” and having “sexual encounters” with a 13-year-old (No, Mr. Oppenheimer, there is no such thing as a “sexual encounter” between an adult and a 13-year-old; there is only rape), has never been tried or jailed despite four decades of accusations of sexual abuse. And as we know, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Thanks to The Times, the world now knows that Gafni is having a phenomenal rebirth, again, as some kind of scholar somewhere, supported by powerful business and New Age leaders around the world. Like so many other abusive rabbis, he has managed to shake it all off and pretend that sexual abuse is just some dust on his elegant jacket, to be flicked off with a charming nod and a wink to his friends, while he finds a new adoring audience to maintain his self-established pedestal.
I have been researching this phenomenon of abusive leaders for some time. I had prepared my Limmud talk way before the Gafni story emerged (again), and planned just a passing mention of his story, among the dozen or so other anecdotes that I referred to in order to illustrate how rabbis get away with so much abuse. But Gafni’s reemergence in the Times as a man of “stature” colored my entire talk, and was a source of buzz during the whole week of Limmud. One could argue that Oppenheimer’s articles have had some positive effects of prompting some former Gafni supporters to publicly distance themselves from him (apparently 25 New Age leaders like Deepak Choprahave publicly distanced themselves from Gafni ). Still, one has to wonder why so many “leaders” have been pow-wowing with Gafni despite all the evidence that he is a sexual predator. Meanwhile, all the smiling Gafni headshots and Oppenheimer’s insistence on giving Gafni supporters many inches of column space have been more illustrative of how abusers gain influence rather than how abusers get prosecuted.
This issue, of how and why high-profile leaders support high-profile abusers, is not really understood in the Jewish community, or arguably in the wider world. (How many women had to come forward before anyone took testimony against Bill Cosby seriously?) This dynamic is clearly not understood by many journalists, some of whom are so eager for a NYT byline that they are willing to throw victims of child sexual abuse under the bus by referring to rape as “sexual encounters”. But Oppenheimer is not alone in offering precious column space to the veneration of abusive leaders while giving half-hearted mention to...
What an amazing week I had at Limmud UK last week. I was privileged to be there as part of the UJIA Israel delegation, courtesy of Dr Helena Miller, Director of Research & Evaluation at UJIA and Dr Michael Wegier UJIA Executive Director. It was an exceptional privilege to be a presenter at Limmud, where I delivered five talks, facilitated two panels, including a film, met dozens of phenomenal people from around the world -- some of whom I knew only from Facebook! -- participated in several really interesting informal discussions in the bar and over meals, including a "dine and discuss" group over dinner facilitated by Dr. Miller, and overall felt really lucky to be in the company of so many amazing Jewish educators, activists, thinkers, and community members.
I was live-FB-ing the conference (as you might have noticed, I don't really do much tweeint; FB is really where to find me). Below are some of my recaps from the four day event:
DAY #1of Limmud:
Saw some people, briefly IRL like Sara Averick Eve Sacks Keith Kahn-Harris Devora Steinmetz, Bevery Gribetz, Allison Kaplan Sommer, Manny Waks Alan Meerkin Helena Miller (and others i'm surely forgetting)......
Gave two sessions -- the first on "Rabbis who abuse", teasing out the ways in which Jewish communal life enables abusers and disables victims, and why high profile abusers often receive high profile support. (sad that this session coincided with Dan Brown's session on Jewish philanthropy that i wanted to go to.)
The second session on religion and state in Israel, on issues like marriage, divorce, conversion, mikveh, and control of public spaces reflect a growing religious radicalism in israel backed by law....
Neither of these for the faint of heart....Tomorrow's session, "A revolution of dolphins", about Orthodox feminism, will be much more uplifting, hopefully..
Anyway, I had some really great exchanges and discussions over dinner and in the bar-lounge and in corridors, and I'm looking forward to more tomorrow.
Part of me wants to stay up and do fun late-night things. But after so much traveling following by intense teaching, my eyelids and my muscles rebel. More tomorrow.....
Still looking for some people: Amanda Borschel-Dan where are you? Gabrielle Birkner looking for you too.......
LIMMUD DAY #2:
Loved meeting people IRL, some of whom I had only met on Facebook (!), like a lovely breakfast with Danya Ruttenberg and Robyn Tessler Shames discussing feminism, creative processes and parenting.... meeting Nadia Jacobson Eve Sacks Manny Waks Dyonna Ginsburg..... Also enjoyed seeing (briefly) Levi Lauer Sally Berkovic and Jacqueline Nicholls. Went to some great sessions: watched Manny Waks' really intense film "Code of Silence" about what he and his family went through because of his experience of sexual abuse in Yeshiva College...... Levi Lauer on the really difficult and heart-wrenching topic of prostitution and sex trafficking. Dyonna Ginsburg on Israel's history of international development work.....
AND, gave a talk called "A revolution of dolphins", about the public and private revolutions of Orthodox feminists. Despite some technical...
So excited to be going to LImmud UK as part of the UJIA delegation! I'll be speaking about a bunch of different topics, including:
* "A revolution of dolphins": Orthodox women transforming Jewish life* Educating religious girls: A joint session with Dr Beverly Gribetz * Women and theocracy in Israel: How religion and state threaten women's lives in Israel * "Like a thousand paper cuts": Non-contact sexual abuse
AND i'll be on a panel called "JNEB" fashioned by Keith Kahn-Harris where criticism is welcome and celebrated. My talk is called: The sh*t that Jewish women go through... or more mildly, "Why it's tough being a Jewish woman". I'm really looking forward to that one...
If you're there, pls come and say hi :-)
Today is my birthday. I am turning 46 years old. WHOO HOO
Here are some of my thoughts today. Birthday gratitude and blessings:
Grateful for friends near and far, long-standing and new, those who i've met IRL and those who haven't, for every kind word or sharing of support and care......Grateful for every compassionate exchange, even amid the chaosGrateful for honesty and genuine sharing, for those willing to open up vulnerabilities and invite others inGrateful for those who respond to those vulnerable moments with gentle tendernessGrateful for those who have shared learning moments, even difficult and painful onesGrateful for those who wished me well, even if only in their hearts, and for those who gave me the opportunity to wish them well, tooGrateful to be surrounded by love in my homeGrateful for warm blankets, food in the refrigerator, and nice neighborsGrateful to be able to work, and to do work that fills me with purpose and strength.... and at times that swadharma thing....Grateful to teachers and guides, in all formsGrateful to be able to live in Israel and be part of this 2000 year-old missionGrateful to all those protecting the protectors, the ones looking after my children-soldiers as they protect the Jewish peopleGrateful for sane voices amid insanityGrateful for moments of hopeGrateful to God for giving me yet another year to try and get things right....
And what i wish for the world on this birthday (blessings):
I wish for more things like this to be grateful for, more moments of hope, sanity, compassion and vulnerabilityI wish for surprising and exciting experiences of love, friendship and connectivityI wish for warring parties to be gripped with the realization that the people they are hurting are people just like themselvesI wish for an end to sexism and patriarchy, big and small, whispered and systemic, deliberate and incidentalI wish for the men (and others) who harm women (and others) -- whether they are aware or not whether with words, bodies or other weapons -- to find humility and self-silence I wish for women of the world to find their/our powersI wish for an end to conscious or unconscious racism, homophobia, and all other ideas that enable people to think of another person as an object to be hunted rather than as a human being with a spiritI wish for terrorists of all faiths, ideologies and personalities to have their weapons and ideas disabled once and for all
These are the things that i wish for this year.... the things that keep me up at night that i pray for constantly.
That... and a new laptop, a working dryer, and a car.....
But mostly peace in the world......<3
The obsession with covering girls’ knees is no longer the territory of religious schools alone. Earlier this month, according to a report in Ha’aretz, a group of 12th-grade girls at the Israeli state Ben Zvi High School in Kiryat Ono were asked to cover their knees for yearbook photos, or stand behind a bench to hide their legs. Their exposed knees, they were told, were not “respectful” of the school.” No boys were asked to cover their knees.
The truth is that the spread of the “modesty” obsession from religious school settings to public school settings has been going on for some time, in both Israel and the United States. In Israel, already in 2012, parents at the secular junior high school Gevanim in Kadima complained that the principal was sending girls home for wearing pants that were deemed too short, and for holding “pants checks” for girls at the entrance to the school. In Ben Zvi, girls were also reportedly not allowed to wear sleeveless t-shirts for school photos, and those who did found their arms covered via Photoshop.
But it’s not just Israel. In the United States, “modesty” (a tragic misnomer for an idea that has nothing to do with humility) has become a catchphrase for body-policing as well. Schools around the country have been imposing dress codes on girls against pants that are “too tight,”strapless dresses for an eighth grade dance, tops that are considered too low-cut, and even a kindergarten girl whose skirt was considered too short.
In many cases, public shaming is considered acceptable practice in the name of imposing so-called “modesty.” Principals and teachers have no compunction against humiliating students, with such practices as rounding up the girls for a spot-check of their knees; making girls wear a “shame suit”; refusing entry to girls at their high school dance after being made to flap their arms up and down and turn in circles in front of male administrators whose stated goal was to make sure that girls had “no curvature of their breasts showing”; or simply yelling at female students, as the Ben Zvi teachers did, in front of the whole school.
Much of this public shaming for the sake of “modesty” is of course familiar to me, as it probably is to any other female graduate of an Orthodox day school, where teachers and rabbis would routinely stand by the front door checking our knees. “Skirting” in Orthodox schools, accompanied by this kind of public shaming, has become so routine that even when it is protested – as it was by an outraged student of the Yeshivah of Flatbush last year — educators are mostly unwilling to show remorse or reflection on these common practices.
Still, despite their familiarity, it is worthwhile to look at the kinds of ideas that are used to justify the shaming-for-modesty educational practices. The rationales are different but similar in religious and secular settings. Religious educators often cite a kind of esoteric piety, like the need for girls to be “pure,” or the unsubstantiated idea that covering one’s body is...
That is the question posed by the National Jewish Book Council in honor of Jewish Book month. Thirty writers gave their answers, including me. Here is my answer. So honored to be included in this amazing group.
Guest post By Eve Sacks, originally posted at The Center for Jewish Feminism
By Eve Sacks
My two oldest children attended four different Orthodox Jewish nursery schools (kindergarten / gan) in four consecutive years. Of these three were affiliated to Jewish primary schools and one was a stand alone nursery. All four had Shabbat parties where parents were invited. In my work with JOFA I have also spoken to others about their gender experiences in other London Orthodox Jewish schools and nurseries, so I am aware of the issues in many London primary schools.
My first Jewish nursery school experience was nine years ago when my daughter started nursery just before she turned three. We chose a nursery that was local, and connected to the synagogue we were members of, an orthodox synagogue with a mixed membership, including both shomer shabbat (religiously observant) families and also those who rarely attended and were not observant.
The nursery had a great reputation; the children in the nursery came from a mixed of religious backgrounds; indeed at the Chanukah party most Dad’s did not wear kippot and in the summer the mums didn’t think twice about collecting their children wearing vest tops or gym leggings. Less than a quarter of the 18 children would have been from shomer shabbat homes and it’s also worth noting this was a reasonably affluent suburb of London.
Within a few weeks of starting she was asked to be Shabbat Ima – the Shabbat “mother”. I was very excited and took my mother in law with me. My daughter was also very excited to be Shabbat Ima. But I was shocked with what I saw, and as this was the first time I set foot into the nursery I began to worry about what else she was being taught.
“So”, said the teacher, “let’s start with getting ready for Shabbat. Will all the girls now stand up? The Mummies are going to do the cooking and the cleaning for Shabbat.”
My jaw dropped in amazement as I saw the little girls all stand up and pretend to be first cooking and then cleaning for Shabbat. As the Shabbat Ima my daughter was also given props, some play food and then a broom!
“Now”, said the teacher, “the boys can stand up as the Daddies are getting ready for Shabbat! They are all at work and will be coming home soon. Daddies please all march around the room to come home for Shabbat!”
So the boys all stood up and marched around the room.
It continued, my daughter lit the candles and the 3-year-old Daddy went to shul. I don’t remember much more, I just remember being totally shocked that I had chosen a nursery for its orthodox yet inclusive nature and this is what she was being taught? And who knows what else they were teaching the rest of the time? It was even more surprising as the nursery teacher was young; certainly younger than the mums!
Later, my mother-in-law commented on what a “traditional”...
Guest post By Shimona Hirchberg, originally posted at The Center for Jewish Feminism
I’m continuously surprised by the interconnections of life. I had shared my post-Shabbat book recommendations and one provoked a discussion on sexual education in Jewish private schools. Taught in Toronto schools in grade 6, the book in question included a sexual assault (Julie of the Wolves). For myself and the commentator, none of our teachers adequately (hindsight is 20/20) addressed the sexual assault that took place in the book’s pages in preventing negative internalizations and trauma. While not included in last week’s telecourse, Gender issues in Jewish Education topics per se, Marcia Beck, Sally Berkovic, and Elana Sztokman talked about the role of educators in how we internalize messages about modesty, bodies, and sexuality.
We like to think we’re in control of our bodies and world, but we’re not. This week’s two panelists Marcia Beck and Sally Berkovic discussed the impacts of female bodies being policed, controlled, and manipulated via modesty by schools (dress codes) and other people. It’s very damaging for girls and women to have their bodies viewed as powerful & corrupting, internalized from comments by educators, peers, community members, and self-disciplined (‘your skirt/sleeves show too much skin’). Reactions to being told to cover up can be internalized as viewing your/our bodies as sexualized/ugly/fat, all negative messages.
“Of course we’re not okay… we’re punished no matter what we choose [hair, clothes, makeup]; it’s impossible to escape judgment” Marcia Beck’s comment on eating disorders as a functional coping mechanism of these internalized messages was most startling to hear. Bodies, beauty (the thin-kind is the underlying assumption of what beauty looks like), and sexuality are mainly judged in relation to marriage and social status, which carry a lot of weight in the Jewish world (contextualized within the US, Canada, and Israel by the panelists and facilitator).
Read the rest at The Center for Jewish Feminism