Jewfem Blog

Voyeurism and the Yeshiva Girl

Madonna has got me thinking about Barry Freundel. To be honest, Madonna often gets me thinking about body, sexuality, and women’s power. I consider Madonna one of the most body-empowered women out there. She has full command of her body, and uses it as her artistic canvas. She can do anything she wants with it, put on any item of clothing and pose in any position, and the effect is one of power and ownership. I frequently find myself wondering whether she represents an ideal of body empowerment, whether on some level I should be teaching my daughters to admire and emulate her for her complete ownership of her life and seeming ability to do anything she wants. (Of course, then the Orthodox voice in my brain usually kicks in and reminds me of how far Madonna is from anything familiar to me in my own relationships with my body.) Anyway, knowing this about Madonna, I was surprised to discover a few months ago that she took to twitter to express her anger that a photo of her was leaked without her permission. The photo was an unpolished image of her in bra and underwear, apparently in a dressing room. “This is a fitting photo I did not release,” she wrote. “I am asking my true fans and supporters who respect me as an artist and a human to not get involved with the purchasing trading or posting of unreleased images or music.” The reason I was surprised at her reaction was because the week before, she had done a topless photo shoot for a French magazine. It was a strange juxtaposition to me, that she would upset about this photo of her in her underwear when just days before the entire world just saw her undressed. But then I realized, it’s all about control, about power. The French shoot was her choice and with her direction. The leaked photo, despite everything Madonna had done, was still an invasion of her privacy. I have been thinking about this the past few days since posting a blog about the impact of Freundel’s actions on his victims and on other practicing Jewish women. What I argued in this post is that there is a such thing as sexual abuse that does not involve physical contact, and that we should not dismiss the impact of this kind of abuse on its victims just because there was no sexual penetration. In fact, I wrote, that the recovery from this so-called non-violent abuse can be just as emotionally challenging as violent sexual abuse because of the way it plays with the victim’s mind. - See more at:

  3550 Hits

Stop Minimizing Barry Freundel's Actions By Saying He is Nonviolent

One of the most infuriating responses to the Freundel scandal I‘ve heard is the argument, “But it wasn’t rape.” As if to say, what he did was not such a big deal — after all it’s not categorized as a “violent” crime. In one really frustrating exchange I had, a radio host kept insisting that the requested 17-year prison term was too long because “it wasn’t rape,” he said, “I would rather be watched than penetrated.” This comment is absurd in that it assumes that victims have a choice about how to be violated and that one is “better” than the other, but more dangerously it belies the very real and powerful impact of this category of so-called “non-violent” sexual assault. This is a type of assault that we need to understand better, because in this digital age, it is likely to increase. What is the damage that is caused to a victim of voyeurism? That is the question that prosecutors in this case were trying to quantify. The prosecutor’s brief, followed by victim testimony in court, painted a portrait of sexual and spiritual trauma. It included victims who are afraid to get undressed, who are having difficulty resuming their intimate relationships, who have trouble trusting rabbis, who cannot walk into synagogue, who cannot walk into a mikveh, who are questioning their entire Jewish identity and religious practice. Therapists have known for some time that emotional abuse can be just as hard to heal from – if not harder in some cases – than physical abuse. As a friend of mine, who had been in an emotionally abusive relationship for 12 years before her husband hit her, told me: “When you see a black eye, there is no denying that you have a problem that you need to fix. But when it’s emotional abuse, it’s harder to know and identify. And it’s hard to trust yourself.” The victim of so-called non-violent abuse is trapped in a web of mind games: What did I to deserve this? Why am I feeling so bad? Everything is fine, isn’t it? It’s my fault that I’m feeling this way. Recovering from non-violent abuse does not involve surgeons or bandages or rehabilitation. It requires taking ownership again of your own mind and your own truth. It requires learning to trust yourself and trust the world around you, even when the world proved itself to be unsafe. This is the kind of challenge that, for some victims, can take a lifetime. Read more:

  2232 Hits

The new feminist underwear?

Does anyone else sense a kind of mind-twisting irony in girls photographing their underwear-clad behinds as a statement of feminism? I mean, i fully agree that the women's underwear industry is mostly oppressive and based on unrealistic patterns of sexually objectifying women, not just thongs.....So part of me loves this image and this movement of young women really talking back to their culture and saying NO to victoria's secret and anorexic barbie-doll models. I love that. But i also think that there is something problematic about the photographic pose for the article, which still feeds into society's need to visually gorge on women in states of undress. Especially behinds. I mean, we all heard that the butt is the in thing this year, right? So this picture could be taken as part of this. It's tricky. Like, do we HAVE to have our half-naked pictures taken and spread on the internet in order to feel feministly empowered? Somewhere in me, that just feels wrong. This is why i have mixed feelings about the latest feminist trend, of body-exposure-as-empowerment, the idea that the more free I am to expose my body as much as I want, under my terms, the more empowered i am.... You can see it with all the ads of "real" women in their underwear (and often lots of make-up and hair-styling). You can also see it in the "free the nipple" movement, which forces society to look at women's breasts in completely unsexual ways. This feels like the latest message for women -- that to be fully empowered, you have to be willing to be as undressed as possible in the most public way possible. And while there is certainly something empowering about owning your own body and sexuality, i don't know that maximum-exposure is the only way to go. I mean, in some ways this is where feminism started: by trying to protect women from having our bodies and our sexuality owned by the public. So who is more empowered and more feminist -- the one who voluntarily strips and gets paid lots of money, or the one who is free not to have to strip and be gazed upon by anyone? I feel this dilemma in some of the discussions about so-called "modest" dress codes in school. For the record, I'm totally against dress codes, and think kids should be able to wear whatever they want. And I'm mostly against adults policing girls' bodies and measuring their skin and sexualizing them with commentary about knees or shoulders or prom dresses. I think adult commentary on kids' bodies -- especially girls' bodies -- is one of the most damaging things we can do to a person's sense of wholeness with her self and her body. Adults should not comment on girls bodies, period -- we shouldn't tell them that they are lucky to be tall or have nice "curves" or flat stomachs, and certainly not that they should try to change their bodies, like get thinner or...

Continue reading
  5970 Hits

Barry Freundel's crimes

Convicted of recording 52 women naked in the mikveh, with another 100 women who are past the statute of limitations.... Untold emotional, psychological and spiritual damage to the women..... victims who can no longer step foot in synagogue, who can no longer trust rabbis, who no longer want to be Jewish, who are reliving nightmares of abuse, who do not want to go the mikveh, whose marriages are strained, whose identities are in question...... Below is a detailed description of the crimes of Barry Freundel. Read it and tremble.   SUPERIOR COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CRIMINAL DIVISION - MISDEMEANOR BRANCHUNITED STATES OF AMERICACase No. 2014-CMD-18262 Hon. Geoffrey AlprinSentencing Date: May 15, 2015V.BERNARD FREUNDELUNITED STATES' MEMORANDUM IN AID OF SENTENCING The United States of America, by and through its attorney, the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, respectfully submits this memorandum in aid of sentencing. The defendant, Bernard Freundel, is before the Court for sentencing after pleading guilty to 52 counts of Voyeurism, in violation of 22 D.C. Code §§ 3531(6) and (c), involving surreptitiously videotaping 52 separate women. In light of the extraordinary scope of the defendant's crimes, the premeditation and planning involved, the substantial abuse of the defendant's position of exceptional trust, and the severe impact on the victims, the United States submits that a sentence of 208 months of incarceration would serve the interests of justice in this case. In support of its recommendation, the government relies on the following information. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORYBetween approximately 1989 and October 2014, the defendant, Bernard Freundel, was the sole rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation, located at 2801 N Street, NW, Washington, D.C. The defendant also taught courses on ethics at Towson University for approximately five years, and seminars on Jewish law at Georgetown Law Center since the early 1990s. The defendant's influence was felt not only within Washington D.C., but around the world. For years, the defendant was a leader in an effort to establish uniform standards for conversions to Orthodox Judaism in the United States, and to ensure that many American conversions would be accepted by Israel. At one time, his reputation was that only his conversions would be guaranteed to be deemed valid by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. As a result, people came from all over the region and the globe to study with the defendant and convert with him as their sponsor. In 2005, a Jewish ritual bath (known as a "mikvah") opened at 1308 28th Street, NW, Washington, D.C. Known as the National Capital Mikvah, the building is located across a courtyard from Kesher Israel.' A mikvah is used primarily by Orthodox Jewish women for monthly spiritual purification and by individuals as the final step in the Orthodox Jewish conversion process. The use of the mikvah and many of its attendant rituals and blessings are prescribed by Jewish text and tradition. As an initial matter, immersion in a mikvah is regarded as an intensely private and spiritual experience. As noted in a community...

Continue reading
  7736 Hits

It's time to tell the truth about Kallah Teachers

Whenever I hear the term "kallah teacher", I cringe. Maybe it's the result of my own experience meeting with the kallah teacher of my community before I got married 22 years ago. The sexless, humorlous rebbetzin taught us all the religious laws involved in going to the mikveh before having sex. There was nothing in the entire experience that actually suggested that sex was going to be a wonderful, enjoyable experience for women. It was more like, this is what halakha tells you to do to get clean (excuse me, "pure", as rabbis like to insist, as if there is actually a difference). There was nothing in the classes that taught us about intimacy, sexuality or our own sensuality.  Maybe it's the way in which kallah teachers tend to morph halakha and OCD. Preparing a woman for marital intimacy by teacher her to obsessively count, internally check and scrub, pluck and rub your skin until its raw before dunking naked in front of the strange woman who declared your body "kasher". (Very romantic.) Maybe it's the whole notion that all you have to do in order to be happy in marriage and life is to follow the rules. Don't think, don't feel, don't experience. Just go through the handbook and everything will fall into place. Maybe that's the big lie here, passed down from generation to generation of women, like a recipe for gefilte fish. Just do what you're supposed to do, like everyone else, and everyone will be happy. That's how it works, right? Maybe it's the fact that we're still doing "kallah" teachers rather than courses for men and women together. I mean, sure, my now-husband had a class for grooms in the living room with the rabbi while the brides sat in the kitchen with the rebbetzin (symbolic?). But then men are pretty much learning a watered down, kind of passive version of what the women are learning. It's kind of like, "Hey guys, your wife is going to be doing all this internal-cleaning-purity stuff that you don't really want to know the details about. Just humor her and buy her flowers and everything will be fine. She'll let you know if she needs you to show her undies to the rabbi." It's preparing women for a gendered life starting in the bedroom and continuing everywhere else. It's possible that kallah classes have gotten better since I got married-- after all, there are all sorts of programs out there that supposedly train women to be a different kind of kallah teacher. And then there are women who are "trained" to look at the stained undies instead of men. Whoo-hoo.....Can't wait to ask a WOMAN these questions instead of a man.....Um, no. Pardon me if I'm skeptical about all of this. First of all, just because a kallah teacher is sweeter, younger, nicer or more "trained" than my stubby rebbetzin was, the fundamentals of what she is teaching have not changed. It's all still a very bad version of...

Continue reading
  64160 Hits

An open letter to young religious women on the topic of Positive Sexual Thinking

Or: How to feel good about ourselves and about our bodies: Things they didn’t teach us at the Ulpana By Tiferet Shacham Translated from Hebrew by Elana Maryles Sztokman I decided to address this letter to girls, since I myself am a girl who learned in Ulpana (religious girls’ high school in Israel –EMS), along with other girls. However, I believe that boys who are graduates of the yeshiva high schools might also find this interesting. I’ll preface this by saying that I have no intention of minimizing the importance of keeping the commandment of negiya (“touch” – the practice of not touching members of the opposite sex at all – EMS) and the commandment of modesty. I myself kept the commandment of negiya while I was at the Ulpana and I decided to continue that practice. However, from my experience, prohibitions and religious laws have already been discussed with you ad nauseum, along with a zillion reasons to keep negiya. Therefore, I will discuss things that they don’t teach you in homeroom class or in the course on “Family”. One last point of introduction: There is a problem generally with the topic of positive sexuality. There are problems in our society and our culture in every social sector. These problems will obviously surface in the religious sector as well. It’s reasonable to think that in certain sectors, certain phenomena will be influenced by that sector’s particular value system, and it is reasonable to have this kind of discussion using the language and jargon of the sector. I certainly do not mean to imply that these problems belong only to the religious sector, or even that they are more common in the religious sector. Also, Jewish religion and law are not the source of these problems. Please do not read this as an attack on a particular sector or on halakha itself. Moreover, even if you are not an Ulpana graduate yourself, there might be some helpful insights here for you as well. Don’t worry: You’re completely normal Sexuality is an important and healthy part of human life. You don’t have to be sexually active in order to feel comfortable with your sexuality. As in every area of life, everyone is different when it comes to their sexuality. There are those who don’t feel any kind of sexual attraction; there are those who think about it all day; there are those in between; there are those for whom it comes in time, later in life, or in cycles. It doesn’t matter what your sexuality is like. Know that it’s normal. There is nothing wrong with what you feel or don’t feel sexually. Moreover, most of adolescence is marked by sexual confusion, and what you felt yesterday will likely be different from what you feel today. That’s okay too. Do not rush to label yourself. Be curious. Again, in order to be curious and to know yourself and your sexuality, there is no need to be sexually active. It’s important first to...

Continue reading
  8730 Hits

Leave Sara Netanyahu Alone

  Getty Images The induction of the new Knesset this week raised some crucial issues for women in Israeli society, but you’d never know it from following the news. The blogosphere was abuzz this week, but not with stories about the significant strides made by women — for example, the record number of women Knesset members and party leaders; the fact that the religious Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party, the only religious party with women on its list and gender issues in its platform, now holds a key position in coalition negotiations; or the fact that negotiations hinge in large part on demands for mandatory conscription of haredi men, a plan with serious implications for women in the status of women IDF. All of these issues may potentially affect women’s lives and status in Israel, but apparently they’re all, well, boring. The real news, apparently (even here at the Sisterhood) was what Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s wife wore to the inauguration. There are many good reasons why Sara Netanyahu’s dress should not be news. For one thing, she is not a lawmaker and therefore should not be the focus of the story. The news of the day should have been about 120 incoming legislators, 48 of whom are completely new to the institution and 27 of whom are women. It should have been about issues on the national agenda and the civic mission of the new Knesset, not on spouses’ clothing. Second of all, if Sara Netanyahu had any relevance on the events of the day, it is related to her ideas and influence on the most powerful man in the country. It took Netanyahu several days after the elections to contact Naftali Bennet, the head of Habayit Hayehudi, reportedly because Sara doesn’t like him. If we want to discuss Sara’s role in the Israel, we should be talking about why she doesn’t want Bennet in the coalition, and how her taste in politicians — not her taste in clothing — will impact Israel’s government. Finally, and most importantly, the discussion of Sara’s attire reduces our public discourse, especially about women, and drags us all into the gutter. This whole story is more of a reflection about us as a society than it is about Sara’s taste. What does it say about our values when, on the day when we are forming a new government that will impact every aspect of our civic lives, all we are interested in is the so-called fashion police? Consider how shallow it is to care more about style than substance as we empty our minds and completely undermine our lawmakers. After all, if we are asking them to represent us and then demonstrate an undying commitment to rubbish, how will our lawmakers interpret “the needs and interests of the people” when it comes to creating legislation on our behalf? One can only wonder. How can we ask them to take us seriously when we don’t take ourselves seriously? Significantly, several lawmakers from different sides of the...

Continue reading
  8141 Hits

Who Cares What Hillary Clinton Wears?

  Clothes may not make the man, but apparently they do make the woman. In America, it seems that no matter how successful, intelligent or high-ranking a woman is, she will ultimately be measured by her looks. At least that’s the message gleaned from a recent interview Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: Interviewer: Okay. Which designers do you prefer? Clinton: What designers of clothes? Interviewer: Yes. Clinton: Would you ever ask a man that question? Interviewer: Probably not. Probably not. Depressingly, this is not the first time that Clinton — whose resume boasts titles such as Secretary of State, former New York Senator and former 2008 Democratic presidential candidate — has faced sexist commentary objectifying her body rather than respecting her work. As the Guardian asked, “She’s hoping to become the most powerful woman in the world — so why does Hillary Clinton wear such uninspiring clothes?” Fox News talked about her “nagging voice,” and when the Huffington Post ran a caption competition for a photo of Clinton with her mouth open, the obnoxious entries started rolling in. News cycles have devoted extensive coverage to her pants, her ankles, her skin and, perhaps most notoriously, her cleavage. During the 2008 elections, the Women’s Media Center compiled a compelling video montage of the pervasive sexism that women like Clinton have had to endure. Of course, Clinton is not the only woman facing this overbearing obsession with her appearance. Recent examples of this kind of sexism have included media commentary on Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s “fashion sense”, Democratic Party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s hair, and New York State Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s make-up. I submit that professional women in a variety of fields deal with opinions of their work based on unspoken judgments about their appearance all the time. Society’s obsession with women’s appearance causes definite damage to women in many aspects of our lives. A research report by the Name it. Change it. campaign of the Women’s Media Center shows that sexism in any form hurts female candidates, and makes nearly every potential voter, from the undecided to initial supporters, less likely to cast a ballot for them. “Nearly seven in ten voters report being less likely to vote for Jane Smith after they hear her being called an ice queen and a mean girl; as well as more strongly sexist language,” the report concluded. “Sexism costs a woman an average of 10 points in favorability.” In the sports arena, female athletes, even those with gold medals, are also judged on their looks. Gabby Douglas’ hair to wit. Read more:

  7329 Hits

On "Resh" and predicaments of sexual harassment

This op-ed appeared in the Times of Israel on 31 Jan 2012 A woman who we know only by the Hebrew initial of her name, “Resh,” is under some intense pressure, and I do not envy her predicament. According to a reports by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, Resh was the victim of sexual harassment by one of the leading aides to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Natan Eshel. The accusations are pretty serious: Eshel is said to have been obsessed with Resh, who was working directly for him, not only to the extend that he stalked her and spied on her, but even by strategically placing cameras to photograph her under her skirt. Three members of the PM’s senior staff filed complaints with Lindenstrauss – apparently unbeknownst to one another – and another four staffers have already given testimony on these events. But thus far, Resh has insisted that she does not want to testify. Her position is understandable. The women who filed police complaints of rape against then-president Moshe Katsav – who was convicted in a ruling that has since been upheld by the Supreme Court – had their lives ruined in the process. One of the complainants, who is officially known as “Aleph” but whose identity is known to everyone in the media , had to move out of Israel because she had lost all semblance of privacy. She also continued to be harassed by Katsav’s people throughout the four-year ordeal, according to the judges in the case. And on top of everything else, she could not get another job in Israel. This is a tragic reality for high-profile rape victims. Before the story broke, Aleph’s career was in great shape, as she was managing one of the highest offices in the country, and today she has lost it all – all because she came forth to tell the world she had been raped. So when Resh says she fears that she will become like Aleph, her fears are justified. If her identity is revealed, it will likely end her career. One day you’re working in the Prime Minister’s office, and the next you’re out of a job, perhaps permanently. There’s more. The Aleph who moved out of the country was one of the complainants whose charges were eventually dropped from the case (the “second” Aleph, a different victim, remained on the indictment). So this poor woman went through an excruciating ordeal: After allegedly enduring rape and sexual harassment, which is traumatic in and of itself, she went through the pain of revealing her story, losing her home and career in the process. And ultimately it was for naught; she gained nothing. I will never forget what she said at her famous press conference after she learned that her case was removed from the indictment: “Women’s groups are not going to like this, but my advice to rape victims is, don’t go to the police. Get help, get therapy, do what you have to do for yourself. But don’t file a complaint....

Continue reading
  4960 Hits

Dignified in Pants

Just because I wear pants, it doesn’t mean I lack dignity. Or self-respect. Or even modesty. Which is why I find pieces, like this one, suggesting that dignity for a woman means excessive body-cover, so offensive. When rabbis or anyone else claim that women need to cover their skin, their elbows, ankles and necks for the sake of “dignity” or “self-respect” or “protecting sexuality,” what that means is that people who dress like me are not dignified. We are overly sexualized. We might as well be walking naked on the subway platform. But It is just not true. My body is mine alone, and I project that in my clothes. Not floor-sweeping skirts, not scarves to my forehead or necklines that choke. No, I wear pants, sometimes jeans, sometimes shorts and, yes, sometimes even sleeveless tops. I wear clothes that are comfortable, that feel good, that let me move and sit on the floor or in a chair, that enable me to ride a bike or climb a tree if I so choose, that let me wear my hair in a ponytail or in a scrunchie or even just down. Ultimately my hair is mine alone, as are my elbows, my neck, my ankles and skin. Before I look in a mirror, I look inward and ask myself how I feel about my body at this moment, and I let my inner voice of self-respect guide me. In addition Gavriella Lerner’s assertion of choice followed by an admission that she does what she believes is expected of her according to halacha is a classic Orthodox non-sequitur. As in, I choose to do what I’m told. Read more:

  5290 Hits