“Passover,” Arthur Szyk, 1948. Yeshiva University Museum.
There is no holiday that brings out the screaming in my head as much as Passover.
There are two sets of noise that take hold of my brain at this time of year: the pre-Pesach (Passover) trauma and the Seder night trauma. Or as I have come to experience it, the trauma created by women’s stuff, and the trauma created by men’s stuff.
Growing up, the pre-Pesach anxiety began as soon as Purim was over. We were only allowed to eat from a pre-determined collection in the kitchen, we were on a schedule around what rooms were already sterilized, and my mother’s mood went from the usual cold and cranky to the downright hostile. Nothing was ever right, we walked on eggshells, and life was insane and frenetic. Although I often wonder how many of my traumas are from religion and how many are from my particular family, in this particular case I have come to learn that this kind of thing was going on not only my own house but also in many Jewish homes around the world. Even women of privilege engage in the panic. (I’ll never forget the time, years ago, when a mother frantically came to pick up her daughter from a play date around a week before Pesach, saying, “Hurry, I have to rush home and watch my cleaning lady do the kitchen.”) Pre-Pesach insanity, it seemed, was the Women’s Way, no matter how you celebrated the holiday.
I’ve been living in Israel for over 20 years, and it is still astounding for me to watch how this culture takes over Jewish women’s lives, no matter what kind of religious observance they adhere to during the year. Conversations in shops, on the street, and online, revolve around Jewish women of all backgrounds managing the minutia of obsessive cleaning, shopping, and cooking. There seems to be an uncontrolled lust for women comparing themselves to one another—who started cleaning and cooking earlier, who is having more guests, who is more efficient, who is more creative, and ironically also who has more time-saving hacks. Facebook doesn’t help, by the way.
Growing up in Orthodox Brooklyn, I found this pre-Pesach cleaning-cooking-hosting-mania was compounded by the other assault on women’s bodies: clothing shopping. Our job, as religious girls, was not only to manage the kitchen, but also to look gorgeous as we did it. We prepared our shul and Seder outfits meticulously and expensively, down to the last perfectly-matching accessory. But let me tell you something: there is nothing quite as dysfunctional within the female experience as surrounding yourself with copious amounts of food and then forbidding yourself from eating it. Women’s and girls’ table conversation, once we finished serving, invariably revolved around calories, points, fat content, carbs, gluten, GI, cellulite, whatever. (Each year, the measures for what we should or shouldn’t eat changed, led by trends announced by The New York Times. This added to women’s competition...
This was the Dvar Torah I delivered at the Toronto Partnership Minyan, March 5, 2016:
The “half shekel” is a fascinating story. In this community custom, which began in the desert and continued throughout the Temple periods, Jewish adult men would have a half shekel to the priest leadership during the month of Adar each year, in advance of the new fiscal year, which began on the first of Nisan. According to the Mishna (Shekalim, chap. 4) the courts would post reminders regarding this tax a month earlier, on the 1st of Adar.
The practice can be viewed in one of three ways. It can be seen as a tax, as a charity, or as a spiritual practice.
Viewed as a tax, the half shekel was a collection that enabled the new leadership to provide services for the collective. According to the Mishna, the half shekel tax was used to purchase the animals which were used for the communal sacrifices. The leftover funds were used for a variety of communal purposes, including providing salaries for the judges and maintenance of the Temple and the city walls )Mishna Shekalim chapter 4).
The tax view gives it a bit of a cynical rendering. In political theory, what gives a governing entity authority is the ability to incarcerate and to tax. It is an expression of “Consent of the governed” – that is, if you can convince people to part with their money, you have authority. In that sense, if this is a tax, it is about giving authority to the priests by giving them the ability to tax, thereby creating a powerful financial component to the central religious authority.
Viewed as more of a charity, the practice is more utopian and less cynical. It is perhaps the original charity offering of the Jews. Put differently, it was the Jews’ first collective budgeting tool – like a precursor to the Federation system or to giving circles. It is about coming together to embrace giving to create a collective enterprise. Perhaps it had echoes of the kibbutz – pooling what you have in order to create a communal life built on a shared ethos. It gave everyone an equal part in the collective.
The constancy of the donation, built on a vision of horizontal equality, may have been natural in the desert, where there was actual equality. Everyone had the same tent, the same lifestyle, the same expectations, the same amount of rain. Nobody was getting rich off of the manna or building gold-plated bathrooms. Among Israelite men, equality was the given. The half-shekel practice in later generations – even when conditions changed towards more stratifications –idealized the equality-among-brothers, maintaining an echo of desert life in the community’s consciousness. Thus, even in temple times, when socio-economic differences existed, the Torah insisted on equal half-shekel donations to remind people of fundamental human equality, at least among free Jewish men. “The rich [man] will not give more and the poor [man] will not give less than the...
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...
By Allison Kaplan Sommer, in Haaretz:
"Historically, notes feminist scholar and former JOFA executive director Dr. Elana Sztokman, Simhat Torah, together with Purim were the two holidays that the early women’s tefilla movement in the 1990’s latched onto because these were considered exceptional times of the year, and it was easier to convince women that it would be acceptable to read from the Megilla and the Torah. Simhat Torah became the most influential of the two, she says, because “I think that reading from the Torah has been the most impassioned area of empowerment for Orthodox women.”
Sztokman’s major step on her personal feminist journey took place the first time she read from the Torah on Simhat Torah. “It was an entry drug, those Torah readings ... My father was a Torah reader and a chazan, so for me, reading from the Torah was the pinnacle of participation. Once you learn to read Torah, you never look at the text the same way again … Reading from the Torah gives you a real connection. It altered everything for me - it changed my relationship to being Jewish - you are standing at the center, you own the tradition and the heritage. You can’t go back.”
Read more: http://www.haaretz.com/blogs/routine-emergencies/.premium-1.677715...
The annoying thing about the Internet (or one of them) is that when ridiculous posts go viral, the kind of posts that are full of lies and misconceptions, you may find yourself in the no-win situation of figuring out how to respond. This is especially true when those posts are about you, or about something you know something about, like your life or your body. The choice to engage with trolls and haters means drawing more attention to them. It also means that you actually have to spend time reading the drivel and letting it enter your brain in order to formulate the right response. It means diverting your energies away from your creative work in order to fight off the nutters. However, the choice not to engage means that they win, because they get the last word. It’s a lose-lose for the good guys.
Such is the case this week with the rubbish being tossed about over at Cross-Currents — a publication that touts itself as “a journal of thought and reflections, from an array of Orthodox Jewish writers”—about the removal of women’s images and names from public spaces and media. A rabbi wrote some really idiotic thoughts about why he thinks it’s okay for him to demand that his world be rid of women’s faces, names, voices and bodies. And some other men responded. And then the original poster complained that people were being mean to him (has he seen the kinds of vitriol that feminist bloggers have to deal with ? Suddenly it’s a problem when you’re on the receiving end, huh). And then another man responded about why erasing women is bad for the Jews. And somewhere outside of this discussion, women were reaching for their buckets. I can still hear the hurling.
Still, here I am responding. So I would like to make a few things clear. First of all, if a group of people is having a discussion about the lives of another group of people in a setting where that other group is not represented, there is a problem. Imagine a conference on Jewish history or anti-Semitism where there were no Jews present. Jews would never take such a conversation seriously, and would more likely be up in arms and calling their Congresspeople. That is how the Cross-Currents conversation looks to some of us women. A site that hasn’t had a woman writer in months if not years (I scrolled back as far as I could to find a woman writer and there were none on the horizon), if such a site publishes a bunch of men talking about women, why should anyone care? What possible interest could such a conversation have? I mean, what kinds of relevant or interesting ideas can anyone expect them to have? They do not even recognize the exclusion of women in their own midst, and certainly don’t view it as a problem, so of course we cannot expect them to have deep insights about excluding women. Sure, it is so easy...
Introducing Safe Sanctuaries: A three-part mini-telecourse, just in time for the high holidays, exploring the meaning and experience of feminist synagogues with some of the greatest Jewish feminist spiritual teachers of our time:
What do feminist synagogues look like?How do you create them?Do they exist?
Sundays August 30, Sept 6, Sept 209:30-10:30 AM LA time, 12:30-1:30 PM NY time, 7:30-8:30 PM Israel time, 5:30-6:30 UK time, 2:30 AM-3:30 AM Melbourne/Sydney time
Sessions are live and recorded, and can be viewed at any time
WEEK 1: LITURGY (AUG 30)
What is feminist liturgy? What are some of the challenges in our liturgical traditions for advancing gender inclusion? What do we do about God language? What are specific challenges around the High Holidays?
Prof Rachel Adler
Rabbi Dalia Marx
WEEK 2: THE SANCTUARY (SEPT 6)
What does a feminist sanctuary look like? Is it possible to have feminist sanctuaries that have partitions? What else should a community do to advance gender inclusion, across denominations?
Shira Ben Sasson Furstenberg
WEEK 3: THE COMMUNITY (SEPT 20)
What does a feminist prayer community look like? What does it mean to create gender inclusion outside of the sanctuary?
Dr Tova Hartman
Rabbi Dr. Judith Hauptman
Dr Debbie Weissman
There was a sense of subdued determination among the 450 people swarming the halls of the Wohl Conference Center at Bar Ilan University during this year’s Kolech conference. Some of the attendees had been coming to Kolech conferences for years, while others had not been born when Kolech, Israel’s premiere religious feminist organization, was established in 1998. Still other Orthodox feminists told The Times of Israel they did not attend the July 13 event because it was no longer necessary for them to be there.
However, judging by the range of topics covered, the unapologetic perseverance driving Orthodox feminism today leaves no stone unturned and no stained-glass ceiling unshattered.
The lives of Orthodox Jewish women have changed dramatically in a relatively short period of time. Just six years ago, no Orthodox women had received rabbinic ordination, only a handful of “partnership minyanim” (Orthodox synagogues that promote women’s inclusion) existed in Israel, sexual abuse was still largely swept under the rug, and Jewish lesbians were still a small and mostly unseen community.
In fact, at the 2009 conference, participants were surveyed about what title they would theoretically give a woman rabbi – rabbanit, rabba, and “important woman” were all on the list. The title of “maharat” had not yet been invented: Back then, it was all still hypothetical.
READ the rest at Times of Israel...
"Help! Our 'Half-Jewish' Daughter is Becoming Frum
"Both my wife and I are half-Jewish, and raised our kids as mostly cultural Jews. For the record, our kids are technically Jewish because my wife’s mother was Jewish. This past year while away at college, one of our daughters became increasingly drawn into the Chabad and has told us that she wants to both keep kosher and observe Shabbat this summer and plans on studying in Israel next spring.
"We want to support her in wherever her heart and mind goes and are excited to learn from her. But we are also aware of the second-tier status of women in certain Orthodox sects, including the Chabad, and are worried this particular path into Judaism might get in the way of her ambitions. Seesaw, how do you suggest approaching her about this? We suspect this might be a crucial moment and want to get it right.
Elana Maryles Sztokman writes:
"Help Her Rememeber Her Old Self Too
"There are many beautiful aspects of Orthodoxy, and of Chabad, that can be very attractive to young people coming from non-Orthodox backgrounds. The richness of traditional practices, the seeming tranquility of Shabbat meals, the communal singing, and the escape from secular pressures around material culture and body. All of these can be very alluring, especially to a 20-year-old forging a vision of her own life. The problem is that the allure itself can be entrapping. Orthodox language, especially language aimed at convincing non-practicing Jews to embrace Orthodoxy, is often absolute and black and white. The lifestyle is often presented (especially in places like Chabad) as an all-or-nothing endeavor. And the demands to keep the most extreme formulations of religion are often engulfed in a combination of super-suave marketing and God-pressure. As in, “God has asked this of you, and even though it looks strange it will give you the greatest high.” So to speak.This pressure is especially felt with women, who often go from surfing on the beach or having creative career ambitions to putting on long skirts and scarves and giving up all former iterations of the self in favor of frenetic motherhood.
Read more: http://forward.com/opinion/spirituality/310436/help-her-rememeber-her-old-self-too/#ixzz3gK8azoNr...
Image: Yeshivat Maharat
The past two weeks have been historic for Jewish women. Orthodox women in both Israel and New York were ordained as clergy – although with a variety of titles from Maharat to Rabba to Rabbi, but effectively all as rabbis. While Yeshivat Maharat is now the veteran institution with five years of experience at this, Yeshivat Har’el appears more liberal in calling women “rabbi” or “rabba.” Israeli Orthodoxy thus effectively caught up with and then surpassed American Orthodoxy, creating a bizarre and beautiful historic twist in which organizations seem to racing against one another to demonstrate the greatest commitment to women’s advancement in religious Judaism.
The advancement of Orthodox women is part of a historical narrative around women’s leadership in the Jewish world. All the denominations have roots in the conception of Jewish leadership as exclusive men’s clubs. The fight for women’s inclusion in the rabbinate began in earnest with the feminist movement of the 1960s – although in reality it began much earlier. The first Reform woman rabbi, Sally Preisand, was ordained in 1972. The first woman Reconstructionist rabbi, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, was ordained in 1974. The first Conservative woman rabbi, Amy Ellberg, was ordained in 1985. The first woman rabbi in Israel, Naamah Kelman, was ordained in 1992. Three women received private ordination from Orthodox rabbis before Yeshivat Maharat opened: Mimi Feigelson in 1994, Evelyn Goodman-Tau in 2000 and Haviva Ner-David in 2004.
The ascent of women has been slow but gradual – and nevertheless invigorating. There are few areas of the Jewish feminist movement that can show such clear markers of impact as the struggle for women’s rabbinic leadership. Even if the struggle is far from over – with high-status positions still male-dominated, and issues of equal pay, work-life balance, LGBT inclusion, and others still painfully unresolved – the fact that women have gained titles is extremely significant. Titles are a vital step to being seen, heard and respected, which are vital for women to be included as leaders.
Actually, though, the story of women’s rabbinic leadership begins earlier than third wave feminism. The very first woman rabbi, Regina Jonas, was ordained in Germany in 1935. And the truth is, Jewish history is replete with women who served as rabbis – informally and without being ordained – before denominational divides had fully taken over Jewish life. Chana Rochel Wernermacher became “rebbe” of Ludmir (1805-1888). Pearl Shapiro, the daughter of the Maggid of Koznitz, prayed with tallit and tefillin, and held court like any other rebbe (1768-1848). Merish daughter of Eliezer of Lizhensk, served as a rebbe in her community, as did Freida and Devora Leah, the daughters of Rabbi Shneir Zalman Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement. Gershon Winkler’s beautiful book, “They Called her Rebbe: The Maiden of Ludomir,” has an extensive compilation of women in the shtetls of Europe who served as rabbis. Women have often served as leaders, just without recognition and without systematic impact on women’s lives.
Remembering the history of women’s struggles for...
[Cross-posted from The Jewish Week]
This week would have been the 85th birthday of Adrienne Rich, the Jewish feminist poet who died three years ago leaving behind a tremendous legacy of ideas and words that helped shape many people’s gender identities and inspired the work of feminist activism.
Adrienne Rich narrated her life and our world through her poems. Her poetry chronicles her transformation from bored, repressed suburban wife to restless, passionate, lesbian feminist activist. Her descriptions of the inner lives of women – radically spoken at the time from a woman’s point of view – were revolutionary then and continue to resonate today. As women (and others) struggle to break free from societal expectations of gender, Rich’s voice gives power and credence to the process of social change and discovering freedom. She embodied the personal as political.
She did not merely narrate feminism; she also urged it along with power and vision. Her impact on the evolution of the feminist movement can be felt in the many tributes to her since her death, which testify to the sometimes very personal ways in which her writing affected people, liberated women and often validated the desire to live fully and embrace their passions and identities. The Jewish Women’s Archive also paid tribute to her last month as part of Poetry month.
Still, I think that in the Jewish world, her impact has perhaps not yet been fully actualized. We still have a lot to learn from her. Her poetry leaves signposts for Jewish feminist activists, bits of power and encouragement along the way.
One poem that articulates the mission in a way that particularly relates to Jewish life is “The Roofwalker” (1961), where Rich wrote of the “half-finished houses”. She asks, “Was it worth while to lay--/with infinite exertion--/a roof I can't live under?/All those blueprints/ closings of gaps/ measurings, calculations?/A life I didn't choose/ chose me: even/my tools are the wrong ones/for what I have to do.” This resonates deeply with me, and possibly with others who are trying to make changes around gender within Jewish life. I also feel that the life chose me, of fixing the roof of the half-finished house that I am not sure I can live under. It is half-finished because Jewish women have not been fully able to make our mark on the culture. And the “measurings, calculations” remind me of all the Talmudic and halakhic discourse with which the Jewish house is built. There are other, better tools out there, and Rich reminds me to search for them and use them.
Adrienne Rich also brilliantly revealed the ways in which gender oppression take place on the female body. In the poem "Tear Gas," she wrote "The will to change begins in the body not in the mind/My politics is in my body." Her book, “Of Woman Born,” goes even further in unpacking the myriad societal constructs around motherhood. Indeed, in Judaism the female body is at the center of incessant discourse...
The following is a guest blog post by Naomi Pelled, the new Technical Director of "A Jewish Feminist", and a self-described third-generation Jewish feminist.
When I was asked to work with Elana on the tech side running and recording a Telecourse series on Jewish Feminism, I was delighted. I thought how fascinating it would be, a series on issues affecting Jewish Women from every walk of life, and where I could listen and learn from some world renowned Jewish Women, who have expertise in many pressing women's issues. I had always considered myself a feminist, following in the footsteps of my mother and her mother before her, but I wasn't an ‘active feminist'. When we met, Elana gave me a copy of her book, 'The War on Women In Israel'. I thought to myself, what a great new Shabbat reading book, but feared that it would irritate my Israeli husband, who is so closed when it comes to Feminism. This is not because he is anti-women's rights, but because he grew up in the Israeli religious school system and is very naive about these issues.
I started reading the book on Shabbat and realised that there are so many news items in Israel, that I take for granted, which I should actually be questioning and not just accepting. I was so proud as a religious Jewish women, that I have my own mind and do not vote according to what my husband says, but was struck by the number of religious women, whose political affiliations are controlled by their husbands, to the detriments of their human and women's rights. I always believed in woman's rights and equality between men and women. Before making Aliyah, I worked for corporations in HR. One aspect of my role was to enforce HR governance, working to ensure men and women were paid fairly and equitably to one another. I grew up in the UK, the youngest of three children, and the only daughter. My mother separated from my father when I was two and a half years old. My mother never remarried and says her life is far less complicated without a man. My father, on the other hand, remarried within eighteen months. My mother demonstrated that she was self-sufficient and an emotionally intelligent woman who could hold down a full time job, be a single mother, look after her children and do all home duties, to a high standard. She was a great role model. She taught us all that she, as a woman, could be a successful teacher and sensitive mother. My elder brother, helped around the house with vacuuming, cooking and clearing away and babysitting for me. He has grown up to be a great dad, who shares all household responsibilities from caring for the children, as soon as they woke up, to cooking and cleaning. He is involved in many other tasks that 50 years ago would have been considered a woman's duty, When I see my father now I see...
Here are 7 tips for how to make the most of your Dynamics of Jewish Feminism telecourse:
Watch with friends! Invite your friends over -- you know, the ones who you are ALWAYS talking to about these things -- plug into a nice big screen, find comfy seats and make a fresh batch of coffee. And the added bonus: you get to split the registration fee! A win-win.
Shut everything else off. Take a little break from your cellphone, your email, and shuttling your kids around. Turn this into "me-time", a little present for yourself
Save the recording. If you can't watch live, you can make a time to watch any time.
Join the conversation. Sign in to the group conversation and find out what other people are thinking, too.
Collect the reading list. You will be receiving lots of book and article recommendations. It's a treasure chest for Jewish feminist readers!
Tell others about it. Tell other people about it -- colleagues, co-workers, community members, neighbors -- and find out who shares your interest in Jewish feminism.
To register, click here
Have you signed up yet for the “Dynamics of Jewish Feminism” telecourse? Still deliberating? Well, here are SEVEN great reasons to join that will help you make up your mind:
Engage with the best and the brightest. Hear Prof Judith Plaskow (author of “Standing again at Sinai”) talking with Prof Rachel Adler, (author of “The Jew who wasn’t there”) discuss and debate what Jewish feminism means.
Take on the hard issues. Send in your own questions to Lilith founder Susan Weidman Schneider and feminist artist Jacqueline Nicholls as they debate “s*lut-shaming” in Jewish life
Break open taboos. Be part of the conversation on sexuality in Jewish life, with experts Talli Yehuda Rosenbaum, Rabbi Haviva Ner David (founder of the Reut mikveh), and Carrie Bornstein (Mayyim Hayyim)
Help make change. Find out how women like Debbie Gross, Lori Weinstein (Director of Jewish Women International), Debbie Gross (founder of the Crisis Center for Religious Women) and Yudit Sidikman (founder of El-Halev) address sexual abuse and violence against women.
Demand action. Learn what veteran agunah activists Dr Susan Weiss and Dr Susan Aronoff are working on to fix this problem.
Envision the future. Be part of the conversation where Rabbi Naamah Kelman(HUC) , Nancy Kaufman (NCJW) and author Letty Cottin Pogrebin discuss and debate women’s leadership
Connect with others just like you. Be part of an online community like no other, a group of like-minded Jewish feminists from around the world
So what are you waiting for? Sign up today!...
The first thing I did when I finished reading Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner David’s new book, “Chana’s Voice” is to set out to learn how to bake challah. Haviva’s writing is like that; she inspires you to open your heart and approach yourself to new possibilities. For Haviva, baking challah is one of three stations on her journey through Judaism and gender, the other two being sex and Shabbat. In order to begin my quest I called my friends Dr. Ariella Zeller and Chaim Kram who, like Haviva, bake challah every Shabbat in an entirely egalitarian way (Ariella’s job is the white bread, Chaim’s job is whole wheat; In Haviva’s house her husband Jacob has taken over the challah-baking entirely). As my friends taught me their tricks of the yeast, we discussed feminism, food, and Haviva’s book.
The experience of sitting in my friends’ kitchen preparing for Shabbat while exploring gender issues felt like the perfect reaction to Haviva’s book, and in fact to her entire life work. It was communal, conversational, relationship-centered and real. Haviva’s vision for Judaism and the world, as chronicled in this book, is a personal voyage through significant Jewish symbols and stations, one that for Haviva is swathed in courage, integrity, and an authentic search for meaningful connection to God within the fundamental parameters of human dignity and equality. “She took us on her journey,” my friend Ariella said after she read and loved the book, “and I felt like I was completely with her.”
The book uses the theme of “CHaNaH”, an acronym for the three commandments supposedly “given” to women – Challah, Niddah (menstruation) and Hadlakat Nerot (Shabbat candle-lighting). From the title alone, which implies a rather retro, essentialist, difference-oriented feminist approach with echoes of anti-feminist apologetics, I would not have picked up the book. Yet, the book itself is exactly the opposite of what the name implies. Haviva’s message is about embracing the values in the so-called “women’s” mitzvoth and creating a world in which men are taught to embrace those values too – whether that means men baking and immersing, or reinventing wedding ceremonies. For Haviva, the journey is about looking for the value in what has traditionally been “women’s culture” and bringing it out into the wider world.
Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/213828/baking-challah-with-haviva/?#ixzz3QPv7q9ZF...
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...
[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...
THE FOLLOWING IS A GUEST POST BY NOTED AUTHOR AND EDUCATOR YAEL UNTERMAN
I heard Yael Unterman speak about her book a few months ago and found her narratives to be captivating, intelligent and insightful. Yael Unterman is a lecturer, author and creative Torah teacher. Her first book, Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar was a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards. Her second book, The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing, was published in 2014. Her website is www.yaelunterman.com Enjoy!
In my book "The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love and Longing”, I spin tales of Jewish women and men who are lacking and searching (as do most of us who have any kind of pulse). These seekers of mine are Orthodox. One might suppose that Orthodoxy pushes in the opposite direction, requiring conformity and simple faith, but for me it is here that some of the most interesting and fruitful tensions arise between the old world and the new, forcing me willy-nilly to encounter the clash of values and make personal existential decisions born out of that encounter.
The second story in my book, “Species”, tells of Hannah, a 30-year-old single teetering on the brink of changes in her life. Tired of being boxed in by matchmakers and society, of feeling weak, she is crossing various red lines and feeling increasingly attracted to feminism. When she goes to stay on a modern Orthodox kibbutz for Succot, she takes her set of arba minim (the four species waved at Succot) to shul, loving the mitzvah, the smell and the feel of the plants. Standing in the women’s section, she notices she is the only one with a set, and is saddened by the fact that she does not have women’s companionship in this mitzvah. As she shakes the set with gusto and sings the Hallel, she wonders if she stands out, and whether it is arrogant to be the only woman there with a set.
At that moment, something rather dramatic occurs. An etrog is hurled over the partition at her, followed by another and another, and then the men start yelling and cursing and lobbing more and more diverse items at her, joined by the women. In the midst of this mayhem, the rabbi seems most concerned to get back to the orderly prayer service. Finally, Hannah, battered and bruised, picks up her lulav and begins swinging back, inspired by the feminist cause, and shouting that she is not doing anything wrong, on the contrary this is a mitzvah. At the same time, she calls out to her attackers to stop, to see her, to accept her and give her support. She does not want to be the outsider – single, feminist, other – she craves the love and acceptance of the community.
I leave the story’s end to readers to discover. But I will share that when I read this story out at a book launch in a private house in London,...