This JewFem blog focuses on feminist issues in Jewish life. It tackles Jewish education, synagogue life, Israel, Jewish community, bits of pop culture, and more. This blog is written by Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman, writer, educator, and researcher, contributing writer at the Forward Sisterhood, author of the book, “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World”.
Courtesy of Blue Thread Communications
[crossposted from The Jewish Week]In the many communal conversations about shifting Jewish identities and trends -– swelling ultra-Orthodoxy, burgeoning indie-groups, religious escapees, religious returnees, denominational switching and more –- one of the missing narratives is of those who leave religion but then come back in another way. It’s a version of Jewish identity that requires years or decades to truly understand and appreciate, and may apply to thousands of Jews, though we wouldn’t know because such a trajectory does not (yet) have a name. It’s a story about those who leave their religious lives because of abuse or tyranny or a need for freedom and independence, yet still cling to aspects of the heritage that they never really intended to leave behind. It is a story of longing and pain that holds up a mirror to the complexity of Jewish life
This is the story that Susan Reimer-Torn tells in her beautifully-written memoir,“Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return” (Blue Thread Communications). It is a story that spans forty years and an oceanic divide. It is an evocative and intricately-woven narrative about a free-spirited, dancing Orthodox teenage girl who escapes the confines of her strictly unbending father’s house and creates a new, completely secular Jewish life in France. Yet during that self-imposed exile, the author never escapes what she calls sehnsucht, a soul-yearning. Her Saturdays in France are filled and yet empty. She discovers that there was something in what she shed all those years ago that she wants back.
When Reimer-Torn finally returns to New York after 22 years, she finds herself seeking out a Jewish experience that will fill those aching holes in her spirit. She begins attending services at Bnai Jeshurun (BJ) on the Upper West Side, as well as a lunchtime Talmud class in a skyscraper in midtown. She expertly weaves together the textual learnings, childhood memories, current experiences and deep reflections on meaning, identity and relationships. Her writing is artistically mastered and redolent, and the reader feels the sehnsucht along with her.
“I come to BJ services dragging my weighty baggage: In the beginning there was total childhood devotion, then reckless adolescent rebellion,” she writes. “After fierce loyalty and spiteful betrayal, can I possibly come to the center? After all that has come to pass in childhood and adolescence, might I now cobble together such a thing as a happy Jewish adulthood?.... What exactly are the risks? Some part of me is drawn to this midlife wager, while another is deeply suspicious. Then there’s another part of me — cautious, observant, curious and baffled — that has agreed to go along for the ride.“
The bible, the midrash and the Talmud all come alive around the pains of relationships and childhood hurts. During the journey, in which we meet a whole cast of colorful characters, some alive and many no longer, Reimer-Torn develops a relationship with biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg, and she describes her classes and their...
Shayna Rehberg is an unlikely superstar. A 30-year-old religious mother of four originally from Texas and now living in Safed, Shayna walked onto the stage of Israel’s popular singing competition show, Kochav Haba [Next Star], donning her headscarf and long skirt, and made it to the next round following a rendition of Alanis Morisette’s “Ironic”. She impressed the judges perhaps less with her singing — which at times was lilting and commanding and at other times withdrawn and fragile — and more with her life story. She told the judges, and thousands of viewers, that she had stopped singing for ten years because of religion.
“This is like coming out of the closet,” Judge Harel Skaat sympathetically told her, adding that it was no different from his own experience of coming out as gay. “You’re coming out of a cage, even if it’s a self-imposed one.”
This exchange with Harel Skaat was not only beautiful for its empathy, but also incredibly revealing and insightful about the dynamics of being an Orthodox Jewish woman.
The powerful idea that emerged from this exchange is that the custom of women not singing hurts women. It’s a restriction, like Ariel’s curse in The Little Mermaid, of silencing not only voice but also passion and even personality. Singing is a vital expression of life. Music has profound spiritual and emotional meanings. A life without singing can be a deeply painful one, especially for a person who has a special voice. Orthodox Judaism would never consider imposing such a rule on men. It would never enter anyone’s mind to say that a man who loves singing should stop singing. And yet, this is what Orthodoxy does to women all the time.
In her interview, Shayna said, “I decided that kol isha is not erva” — that is, that the halakhic description of women’s voices as causing sin is wrong. This was such an inspiring model of empowerment. It is a close-up view of what it means for women to talk back to their culture. I don’t know if the audience realized how hard this is. To be hearing for years — for your whole life, perhaps — about what women’s bodies and voices are or aren’t, and then to wake up and decide that your culture is wrong, well, that’s an incredible moment of awakening.
There are a few more interesting points to this performance worth harping on. One is about her marriage. When one of the judges asked her what she had to overcome in order to be able to sing, her response was a shocking, “I filed for divorce.” The implication here, even though not stated explicitly, is that her husband was not letting her sing. This was not surprising for me to learn, even if the public admission had some of the audience booing. But this was also a huge admission of truth. I belong to several different online forums for religious women, and there are constant posts in the style of, “I would...
(cross-posted from Lilith)
Last month, the Israeli government announced that it is establishing a team to formulate a working plan to advance UN Resolution 1325 in Israel—the resolution that calls for women’s equal inclusion in all aspects of decision-making, especially around issues of peace and security.
The team will be comprised of senior representatives from almost all government offices, including the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the Ministry for Internal Security, and the perhaps more obvious Welfare Ministry and Education Ministry. It will be headed by Vered Swid, the Director of the Office for Gender Equality of the Prime Minister’s Office (until recently titled The Office on the Status of Women) and will also include academics, researchers, and representatives from NGOs working on issues of gender, equality and social justice.
The purpose of the committee, according to the announcement, is to ensure that Israel complies with UN Resolution 1325. This means ensuring women’s representation in all areas of decision-making, promoting women’s safety and security, and redefining “security” to include a more holistic understanding of women’s lives.
Women’s groups have been working tirelessly for seven years to reach this moment and have faced sometimes daunting obstacles. “This is the first time that the government has committed to an action plan on gender, a tangible working plan with timetables, targets, and measurable objectives that can be evaluated and followed up on,” said attorney Anat Thon Ashkenazy, Coordinator of 1325 Israel on behalf of Itach-Maaki Women Lawyers for Social Justice, which has spearheaded this initiative for the past seven years. “It is also the first time that all the various discussions on gender have been connected – women’s representation, women’s security, and gender mainstreaming. That’s the essence of Resolution 1325, that all these issues are tied together.”
Also significant is the list of participants in the process. This is the first time that gender is seen not as an issue of concern to the ministries of welfare and education alone, but rather as demanding the attention of all ministries. Until very recently, these ministries did not believe that they are part of the gender problem. Member of the Knesset Aliza Lavie, who heads the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, which has been advancing this initiative, received a response from the Ministry of Defense earlier this year saying that they did not understand what their office has to do with gender.
There is quite a lot for them to learn. The negotiations over the recent Gaza war, for example, took place with zero women around the table–not even Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, whose official job title was to be head of negotiations. Prime Minister Netanyahu found a way to replace her with his own male representative. (Could this manipulation have anything to do with Livni’s powerful campaign to replace him in the upcoming elections? I wonder.)
The gender problem cuts across the board in Israel. A 2014 state comptroller’s report found that women fill less than one third of all senior management positions...
I'm honored to be included on the Forward's list of top ten women worth reading (Thank you Batya Ungar-Sargon!)
It's been an amazing 2014, full of intense writing, debate and community building. Some of the highlights for me were:
* Creating the Facebook group for people who are FEDDD UPPPP with the status of women in Orthodoxy (FEDDD UPPPPP: Feminist Forum For Empowerment and Exchange to Discuss, Debate, Defuse and Unpack Unfair and Uncompassionate Patriarchal Practices and Paradigms in Positive and Proactive ways...) that now has nearly 1800 members and has become an amazing place of support and collegiality (a virtual conscious-raising group)
*Covering the awful Freundel scandal ("the pervert with the pulpit") and helping be a part of a community-wide conversation to change power structures and control of wommen's intimate lives in the religious Jewish world
* Launching my new book, The War on Women in Israel, and going on a great book tour (two actually) around the United States to talk to people about this important topic
* Doing an interview on the Brian Lehrer show on NPR :-) (And thanks to all the other interviews as well -- NPR Chicago Jerome MacDonnell, Voice of Israel, TLV, The Jewish Channel, etc)
* Weighing in on the terrible war in Israel, and coming out with my own story of political evolution, from yeshivah girl to feminist peace activist at Lilith (expect more on this in 2015)
* Winning the National Jewish Book Council for my previous book, Educating in the Divine Image, with my colleague and co-author Dr Chaya Gorsetman (my SECOND JBC award.... wow)
* My El Al experience with haredi men on Tablet that went viral (who would have thought.....)
* My commentary on Kallah Teachers that also went viral
* Joining the board of the amazing El Halev with Yudit Sidikman (more on this in 2015 too)
* Helping my husband, Jacob Sztokman, provide 275,000 hot nutritious meals to children in the slums of Mumbai, 1000 each day prepared by 140 women in a women's empowerment cooperative. Read more about Gabriel Project Mumbai here
Thanks everyone for the great conversation and for all the important work in trying to make the world a better place for women (and MEN!)
Have a great 2015!
I had a great round of talks in the US, starting with a lecture at the Standard Club in Chicago, followed by a talk at the JCC of Greater Washington, and finishing up with a talk at Moishe's House on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which you can read about on the Jewish Book Council blog by Nat Bernstein. Thanks to all the hosts and attendees and to all those who bought the book :-)
Meanwhile, here is a link to Part I of an interview I did for the NPR show WorldView with Jerome McDonnel.
Sometimes a family outing is just a family outing. And sometimes a family outing becomes a whole other thing.
So last Friday, my daughters and I decided to go on little trip before Shabbat to see a natural water spring around 20 kilometers away. One of my daughters brought a male friend along, and off we went, climbing 100 meters up the side of a mountain to find this lovely site. The place was not too crowded – though I noticed that we were the only females there. Some 20-30 teenage boys were enjoying the spot along with their beers, cigarettes and nargilla. (That's so Israel, I thought, where the place for such adolescent hangouts is a beautiful nature spot that the boys are genuinely enjoying.) We were all having a lovely time swimming and laughing. Until a religious man showed up.
The man, in his forties or fifties, wearing a black velvet skullcap and sporting a beard, looked at us and began holding little conferences with some of the boys, while obviously looking at my girls with side glances. My daughter whispered to me, “He’s going to ask us to leave in a minute.” Sure enough, the man called over my daughter’s friend – apparently the “man” of our group, even if he is only 17 – and started talking to him. I called out, “What’s the issue?” If they are going to be talking about me, I wanted the courtesy of at least being part of the conversation.
“He wants you to leave so he can do his ritual dunk before Shabbat,” my daughter’s friend said. Apparently this man used this particular spring as his own private mikveh.
“There’s plenty of time before Shabbat,” I said, directly to the man. “Don’t worry.”
This got him at least talking directly to me. “Just climb up the mountain and stay there for 15-20 minutes so I can have the spring,” he said, not as a question.
I was sitting on the side of the spring at the time, next to my daughter who I don’t see often enough, really enjoying the moment, as well as the feel of the cold, natural water on my ankles and calves. I had just walked straight up the side of a mountain to get here, and there was no way I was getting off my spot to continue climbing and sit in the hot sun in a spot with no water.
“We’ll be leaving soon,” I responded, looking at my daughter’s watch. “Another 15 or 20 minutes and we’ll be done.” He walked away and puffed on the nargilla while he watched us. My daughter whispered, “You know he’s going to be nudging us in 10 minutes to go.” We left the spring, as promised, 15 minutes later, a little bit before I was really ready. (We hadn’t even eaten our sandwiches yet that the kids had spent time making.) But Shabbat was indeed coming and I still had a lot of things to do....
[Published on JTA] MODIIN, Israel (JTA) — With the news that Rabbi Barry Freundel, a prominent Orthodox rabbi, has been arrested for peeping at the naked bodies of his female congregants through a secret camera in the mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, many disturbing questions are being raised about the implications of his suspected transgressions: Does it matter that Freundel is an Orthodox rabbi? Is he just a regular (alleged) creepy pervert? Or did his position of power — and the culture surrounding it — contribute to the acts of which he stands accused?
Did Rabbi Barry Freundel’s position of power — and the culture surrounding it — contribute to the acts of which he stands accused?
On the one hand, there are some really lovely and good-hearted Orthodox rabbis who have nothing to do with Freundel and abhor the entire story; they do not deserve to be demonized by association. One bad apple — or rabbi, as it may be – shouldn’t spoil the whole basket. Furthermore, there are sex offenders in pretty much every culture, religion, ethnic group and social class. Violence against women is ubiquitous, unfortunately, so perhaps the particulars of the offender’s social context are not relevant.
On the other hand, one cannot help but notice the multiple layers of power, authority and gender hierarchy involved in this story. After all, the scene of the alleged crimes was a mikvah, where women are naked, exposed and reliant on a system of intricate rules about their bodies that have been determined by men. Jewish women traditionally use the mikvah to immerse — fully nude — following menstruation or during conversion, and in some cases to mark significant life events. The practice of ritual immersion is usually overseen by female attendants, except in the case of Orthodox conversion, when three male rabbis also must be present to give approval.
If the allegations against Freundel are true, they confirm the worst suspicions about the status of women in Orthodoxy: that the all-male rabbinical clubs support their own members in their efforts to control women’s bodies all the time. Freundel, after all, is suspected of using his authority to grab what he wanted from unsuspecting women.
Moreover, Freundel may have targeted female converts — the subset of mikvah-goers who are most at risk of abuse. These very women often do not have enough security in their social position or Jewish knowledge to question the strange demands made by rabbis in the shower room. Thus the scandal raises disturbing questions about the social structures that give men like Freundel unfettered power over Orthodox conversion. (Freudel himself has been extremely active on the conversion issue in recent years, maintaining control of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Conversion Committee and speaking widely as an expert on conversion.)
Read more: http://www.jta.org/2014/10/21/default/op-ed-what-the-freundel-scandal-says-about-orthodoxy-1#ixzz3GoGXgpwA...
Last year, I participated in the AJC Conversion Colloquium, a meeting of some 75 Jewish leaders on the Israel conversion crisis (that is, stories of conversions being reversed and not accepted, etc), in which Freundel was one of the "star" speakers, given a large cushy time slot to share his approach to conversion. He promoted himself as the key person to resolve the whole crisis btwn Israel and the US, made himself out to be the one "rescuing" converts by brokering secret deals with the Israeli rabbinate. (Seth Farber was infuriated at the whole thing, as his entire life work was trampled on, and he and Freundel had a very memorable shouting match, but Farber did not formally get the floor, so he lost. Anyway, that's a whole other thing.) So Freundel, who headed the RCA's conversion committee, said something that still sticks with me -- about how "There are people walking around the streets of Israel who think that they're Jewish and probably aren't". And to me - i was like, why should you care that way? What does that even mean that we are thinking about a Jew walking on the streets of Israel who you have determined may not be Jewish? I couldn't get past this imagery. It all smacked of a kind of megalomania, a need to stand at the gates and determine who goes in and who does not. I remember listening to that and thinking, this entire conversion thing is all wrong. Too much obsessive rabbinic control over the people -- especially women, who constitute 80% of converts.
But at the time, that's not what I said. When it was my turn on the panel (I was one of three women speakers in the whole day), I pointed out that gender was the "elephant in the room" at the heart of the entire discussion. How the overwhelming majority of speakers were men, how decisions were made exclusively by men, how the ones disproportionately affected by these decisions were powerless women, and how disturbing it was that a roomful of men could sit in this sterile place making determinations about women's lives without having women in positions of power. My comments went nowhere (except to Gary Rosenblatt's story about the event), and the day continued as it was, ignoring gender and allowing men with power to engage with one another and forget about their gender privilege and those whose lives they were controlling.
I keep thinking about this, about the layers and layers of rabbinic male control over women, over our bodies and our status and our "permissibility" and our inclusion and our identity. And i'm thinking, really enough. The whole system is wrong. It's all wrong. We are allowing men to be gatekeepers over women's lives and identities and enough is enough. Enough is enough. This story validates our worst fears coming true. The entire conversion system is quite possibly one big male sexual fantasy. It's time to uproot the whole system from its core....
I just chatted with an RCA rabbi who has been personally pleading with the RCA for the past TWO YEARS to take Freundel off of the conversion committee because there are apparently MANY testimonies to the fact that he manipulated and abused female conversion candidates.
"I knew he was abusive to converts and I had been trying to pressure the RCA to deal with it for 2 years...... His abuse included intimidation, manipulation, forcing them to work as free assistants in his office to 'expedite' their process......He doted way too much on certain girls he picked as favorite.....If i had a nickel for every young female conversion candidate who came to my doorstep because she was afraid of him, felt manipulated by him or whatever, i'd be a rich man...Too many of them were afraid to come forward for fear of having conversions stopped or revoked... oh, and the best part...he would go to them and ask them for money to the tune of thousands of dollars so he could make sure their conversions 'continued to be recognized'." The RCA, rather than deal with Freundel, ostracized the complaining rabbi, dubbing him "not orthodox" and dubbing the women "crazy".
The rabbi is now talking anonymously to reporters. This story is indeed confirming the worst suspicions of the Orthodox leadership and the systematic abuse of women....
I've spent the past few days on Facebook (yeah, that's pretty much it), writing and chatting about the Freundel scandal. Feel free to friend me there and engage with me. I will upload some of my posts here as well. In the meantime, I am sharing an interview I did with Elanit Jakabovics, the Kesher Israel president and hero of this whole episode. I interviewed her in 2012 shortly after she became the first female president of the shul. Here is the interview, which was originally posted on the JOFA blog:
Interview with Elanit Z Rothschild Jakabovics
Elanit Z Rothschild Jakabovics was recently elected as the first woman president of Kesher Israel Synagogue in Washington, DC. Elanit, a 33-year old management consultant with Grant Thornton and a mother of two originally from Staten Island, is not only the first woman but also the youngest president in the shul, whose rabbi is Rabbi Barry Freundel. JOFA Executive Director Elana Sztokman sat down with Elanit to hear about her new position, and to hear about ways that other women can be inspired to follow suit in their own shuls:
WHEN AND HOW DID YOU BECOME SHUL PRESIDENT?
The technical answer to this question is that a slate was proposed to the shulmembership in early June 2012 and was voted on at the annual membership meeting at the end of June. My term began on July 1, 2012. Coincidentally enough, I was placed on modified bed rest the last week in June and didn’t make it back to shul for Shabbat until my son’s brit on August 11. I was able to attend some meetings between July 1 and August 4 (when my son was born) during the week, since I drove and stayed off my feet for the most part, but I didn’t really go out on Shabbat, nervous my water would break during my walk. to/from.
I think the answer you’re looking for, however, is that I was on the Kesher Board since 2004 and shul president was never a role that many ran towards. So, just based on experience at the shul and a few other variables, it sort of fell in my lap.
In 2011, the Board revised its by-laws to explicitly allow for female presidents. See here for a copy of the by-laws and the psak halakha by Rabbi Freundel about it: http://kesher.org/governance/documents/CongregationKesherIsraelBy-Laws-FinalAmendedJune2011.pdf
WAS THIS SOMETHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO DO?
Yes and no. I was intrigued by the possibilities but was nervous about the implications and responsibilities that it entailed. Remember, Kesher Israel is a small synagogue, with only two paid employees, so almost everything that is done is by volunteer. The role of president at Kesher isn’t just a role where you get to sit and think about the long term vision of the shul. There are a lot of day-to-day operational/programmatic issues to take care of. Not one day goes by where I’m not taking care of something else that is shul-related.
HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR JOB?
It’s better than anticipated. I enjoy the relationships and connections I am making with people I did...