Jewfem Blog

Disabilities as a Jewish feminist issue: Introducing our new online course

I’m thrilled to announce the launch of a brand new online course called “Embodied” on the topic of disabilities from a Jewish feminist perspective. The course is the brainchild of the brilliant feminist thinker, rabbinical student and disabilities advocate Ruti Regan, who not only proposed this course to me but also opened up a world of enlightening insights, and a visionary perspective on what it means to be a Jewish feminist. The topic of disabilities is not one that we hear frequently discussed in Jewish feminist conversations and settings. And as Ruti taught me, that is unfortunate. If we are going to take seriously the feminist agenda, there are several compelling reasons why the issue of disabilities should be on our radar: Feminism is about inclusion. It is about reaching out to the margins of society, to those rendered invisible or incorrect, and creating spaces to ensure their visibility. This idea, often described in language of “intersectionality” – that is, our multiple identities that render us marginalized – is one of the primary lessons from being a woman in society. It is about realizing that despite mainstream society’s  frustrating insistence that only certain types of people count, that the world is much more diverse. Our experiences of trying to empower women as seen and counted should give us the wisdom to ask who else needs reaching out to.Feminism is about bodies. There is an interesting and important overlap between social constructs of body in the feminist community and in the disabilities community. So much of our work as feminist – especially Jewish feminists – is about challenging notions of whose body is considered “normal” or “correct” or “normative”. Women’s bodies – in Judaism and beyond – are marked, measured, gazed upon, judged, controlled and corrected. We are constantly reminded that our bodies are threatening, and need to be covered and concealed. Much of the language about disabilities overlaps with these ideas – whose bodies need to be corrected, concealed and controlled. These issues find expression in some really tragic ways in areas such as sexuality and fertility. They also find expression in the language of life – whose life is worthy, whose life is worth saving, who deserves to live.Feminism is about deconstructing power hierarchies. On the most fundamental level, feminism is about challenging the social structures that create a class of people in power and another class of people who are acted upon. Unpacking these hierarchies is a basic feminist goal. As such, feminism should take a keen interest in allying with the disabilities community, in challenging notions of who has agency and who doesn’t, who has power or voice and who is objectified and spoken on behalf of. I am so grateful to Ruti for opening my eyes to these ideas and more, and for entrusting the Center for Jewish Feminism to facilitate this course. This six week course is structured around panel discussions with leading experts in the field of disabilities studies and Jewish life, including Ora Kalifa,...

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On Marc Gafni, the New York Times, and how sexual-predator rabbis get communal support

I had a rather surreal experience last week, the kind where you wonder if the universe is playing with you or just using you as a toy in some bigger agenda that you’re only vaguely in the loop about. The New York Times ran a profile, almost a tribute, to serial sexual abuser Marc Gafni a day before I gave a talk at Limmud UK titled “Rabbis who abuse”. Gafni, formerly Mordechai Winiarz, who was described by the shameless writer as having gained “stature” despite a “troubled past” and having “sexual encounters” with a 13-year-old (No, Mr. Oppenheimer, there is no such thing as a “sexual encounter” between an adult and a 13-year-old; there is only rape), has never been tried or jailed despite four decades of accusations of sexual abuse. And as we know, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Thanks to The Times, the world now knows that Gafni is having a phenomenal rebirth, again, as some kind of scholar somewhere, supported by powerful business and New Age leaders around the world. Like so many other abusive rabbis, he has managed to shake it all off and pretend that sexual abuse is just some dust on his elegant jacket, to be flicked off with a charming nod and a wink to his friends, while he finds a new adoring audience to maintain his self-established pedestal. I have been researching this phenomenon of abusive leaders for some time. I had prepared my Limmud talk way before the Gafni story emerged (again), and planned just a passing mention of his story, among the dozen or so other anecdotes that I referred to in order to illustrate how rabbis get away with so much abuse. But Gafni’s reemergence in the Times as a man of “stature” colored my entire talk, and was a source of buzz during the whole week of Limmud. One could argue that Oppenheimer’s articles have had some positive effects of prompting some former Gafni supporters to publicly distance themselves from him (apparently 25 New Age leaders like Deepak Choprahave publicly distanced themselves from Gafni ). Still, one has to wonder why so many “leaders” have been pow-wowing with Gafni despite all the evidence that he is a sexual predator. Meanwhile, all the smiling Gafni headshots and Oppenheimer’s insistence on giving Gafni supporters many inches of column space have been more illustrative of how abusers gain influence rather than how abusers get prosecuted. This issue, of how and why high-profile leaders support high-profile abusers, is not really understood in the Jewish community, or arguably in the wider world. (How many women had to come forward before anyone took testimony against Bill Cosby seriously?) This dynamic is clearly not understood by many journalists, some of whom are so eager for a NYT byline that they are willing to throw victims of child sexual abuse under the bus by referring to rape as “sexual encounters”. But Oppenheimer is not alone in offering precious column space to the veneration of abusive leaders while giving half-hearted mention to...

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When modest is hottest

Image: istock The obsession with covering girls’ knees is no longer the territory of religious schools alone. Earlier this month, according to a report in Ha’aretz, a group of 12th-grade girls at the Israeli state Ben Zvi High School in Kiryat Ono were asked to cover their knees for yearbook photos, or stand behind a bench to hide their legs. Their exposed knees, they were told, were not “respectful” of the school.” No boys were asked to cover their knees. The truth is that the spread of the “modesty” obsession from religious school settings to public school settings has been going on for some time, in both Israel and the United States. In Israel, already in 2012, parents at the secular junior high school Gevanim in Kadima complained that the principal was sending girls home for wearing pants that were deemed too short, and for holding “pants checks” for girls at the entrance to the school. In Ben Zvi, girls were also reportedly not allowed to wear sleeveless t-shirts for school photos, and those who did found their arms covered via Photoshop. But it’s not just Israel. In the United States, “modesty” (a tragic misnomer for an idea that has nothing to do with humility) has become a catchphrase for body-policing as well. Schools around the country have been imposing dress codes on girls against pants that are “too tight,”strapless dresses for an eighth grade dance, tops that are considered too low-cut, and even a kindergarten girl whose skirt was considered too short. In many cases, public shaming is considered acceptable practice in the name of imposing so-called “modesty.” Principals and teachers have no compunction against humiliating students, with such practices as rounding up the girls for a spot-check of their knees; making girls wear a “shame suit”; refusing entry to girls at their high school dance after being made to flap their arms up and down and turn in circles in front of male administrators whose stated goal was to make sure that girls had “no curvature of their breasts showing”; or simply yelling at female students, as the Ben Zvi teachers did, in front of the whole school. Much of this public shaming for the sake of “modesty” is of course familiar to me, as it probably is to any other female graduate of an Orthodox day school, where teachers and rabbis would routinely stand by the front door checking our knees. “Skirting” in Orthodox schools, accompanied by this kind of public shaming, has become so routine that even when it is protested – as it was by an outraged student of the Yeshivah of Flatbush last year — educators are mostly unwilling to show remorse or reflection on these common practices. Still, despite their familiarity, it is worthwhile to look at the kinds of ideas that are used to justify the shaming-for-modesty educational practices. The rationales are different but similar in religious and secular settings. Religious educators often cite a kind of esoteric piety, like the need for girls to be “pure,” or the unsubstantiated idea that covering one’s body is the...

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  Guest post By Shimona Hirchberg, originally posted at The Center for Jewish Feminism I’m continuously surprised by the interconnections of life. I had shared my post-Shabbat book recommendations and one provoked a discussion on sexual education in Jewish private schools. Taught in Toronto schools in grade 6, the book in question included a sexual assault (Julie of the Wolves). For myself and the commentator, none of our teachers adequately (hindsight is 20/20) addressed the sexual assault that took place in the book’s pages in preventing negative internalizations and trauma. While not included in last week’s telecourse, Gender issues in Jewish Education  topics per se, Marcia Beck, Sally Berkovic, and Elana Sztokman talked about the role of educators in how we internalize messages about modesty, bodies, and sexuality. We like to think we’re in control of our bodies and world, but we’re not. This week’s two panelists Marcia Beck and Sally Berkovic discussed the impacts of female bodies being policed, controlled, and manipulated via modesty by schools (dress codes) and other people. It’s very damaging for girls and women to have their bodies viewed as powerful & corrupting, internalized from comments by educators, peers, community members, and self-disciplined (‘your skirt/sleeves show too much skin’). Reactions to being told to cover up can be internalized as viewing your/our bodies as sexualized/ugly/fat, all negative messages. “Of course we’re not okay… we’re punished no matter what we choose [hair, clothes, makeup]; it’s impossible to escape judgment”  Marcia Beck’s comment on eating disorders as a functional coping mechanism of these internalized messages was most startling to hear. Bodies, beauty (the thin-kind is the underlying assumption of what beauty looks like), and sexuality are mainly judged in relation to marriage and social status, which carry a lot of weight in the Jewish world (contextualized within the US, Canada, and Israel by the panelists and facilitator). Read the rest at The Center for Jewish Feminism

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On sexual abuse by rabbis

By Amanda Borschel-Dan in Times of Israel: Author Elana Sztokman, the former head of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, published op-eds railing against widespread belittling of Freundel’s abuse as “just voyeurism” during his sentencing. ‘The rabbi is saying, “I own you, I am consuming you with my eyes”‘ “When we think about clergy acting out sexual abuse, we’re looking at a pattern of men… who need to assert their power over others, be more powerful, use their subjects, our kids, as objects in their sort of need to assert power,” she said in a conversation from her Israel home this week. “Voyeurism is a huge emotional violation, but sometimes we don’t have the language to talk about it. There is no violence, no touch, but really the essence of sexual abuse is the ultimate manipulation of power and control. The rabbi is saying, ‘I own you, I am consuming you with my eyes,'” said Sztokman.   Read the rest here:

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More Revealtions Regarding Israeli Rabbis Accused of Sexual Abuse

Image: Youtube Screen Capture (Read the rest at The Forward)Over the past week, two men heading religious institutions in Israel have been added to the notorious roster of suspected sex predators in the religious Jewish world. Rabbi Ezra Scheinberg was caught by police two weeks ago at Ben Gurion airport trying to avoid arrest on charges of rape, sexual harassment and indecent assault. Ten women have come forward so far and the police expect more complaints now that the court lifted the ban on releasing his name. According to the complaints, Scheinberg would rape women who came to him for spiritual counseling, and told the women it was part of their healing treatment. The police conducted a search of his house and removed computers, cell phones and other equipment.   Scheinberg, the 47-year-old founding head of Orot Ha’ari yeshiva in Safed, is considered a leading religious Zionist kabbalist and was known for his mystical “blessings” and abilities to “see” into people’s souls. He was considered a protégé of the late chief rabbi Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, father of Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the current chief rabbi of Safed. Eliyahu has since disassociated himself from Scheinberg, and ordered him to leave Safed and resign from his yeshivah post. Judge Uri Shoham allowed the publication of the rabbi’s name in order to “encourage other complainants, who have requested not to expose themselves until now, to testify about what the suspect did to theme. There is also room to warn the public against him.”   According to police reports, Scheinberg, who is married and has eight children, had a confrontation with one of his accusers earlier this week, in which he said the sex was consensual. The woman in turn called him “impure.” The woman wrote in a letter to Scheinberg , “Thank God I am free of you…Thanks to your arrest, we can lift our heads again…We know you’re the evil one and we are fine, that you are twisted and we are straight, you are impure and abominable and we are the victims…After all these years of your intimidations, we are no longer scared. Your scare-tactics no longer work on us….If you had one drop of integrity of justice, of truth you would ask for our forgiveness. But your heart was always made of stone” Although Orot Ha’Ari students originally responded with shock, they no longer seem to be backing their former rabbi. His books have been thrown in a big trash can, and staff are calling him “an abomination”. . One of his former students wrote a scathing testimony accusing Scheinberg of being “an actor who fooled us all,” a rabbi who was never around the study halls of the yeshivah, and about whom “nobody could tell you what he did with his free time–and he had a lot of free time.” The student added that nevertheless, “he knew how to present the image of the highest tzaddik [righteous man].”   The most significant backtrack is of Safed Chief Rabbi Eliyahu, who went from being Scheinberg’s top ally to his greatest detractor. “The rabbi...

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Why great sex is a feminist issue

A few months ago, I was at a conference on Jewish feminism at Bnai Jeshurun in Manhattan, speaking on a panel about visions for the future. We talked about a lot of typical feminist issues – gender wage gaps, women’s leadership, sexist cultures – and it was all interesting and important. But right before the panel was about to end, the panelist to my left, an impressive woman named Rachel Tiven, asked for the microphone one last time. “I promised my friend I wouldn’t lose my nerve to say this,” she said. “So here goes: If you want to do something really feminist, go home and have sex. Have lots of great sex with the person or people of your choosing. That is what feminist liberation is about.” This comment took everyone by surprise. But the sort-of nervous laughter was an indication not only of shocked awkwardness but also of the strange place that sex has in our society, all around us in commercialized forms but nowhere comfortable for real, serious engagement. The more her words echoed inside of me, the more I realized how right she is. We don’t really talk about what good sex is, what healthy sexuality is, about our deepest desires. And for many people, especially women, that often translates into a kind of trap, of feeling caged in to a life in which our desires and our sensualities never really see the light of day. We never really free our sexuality. A lot of this has to do with sexism, and with lingering messages about what makes correct womanhood. So much of sexism and patriarchy in Judaism is about how society owns women’s sexuality. The ubiquitous discussions about modesty, for example, which have morphed into a society-wide obsession with women’s clothing choices and an astonishing spread of slut-shaming practices even in secular schools, is a reminder that women’s sexuality is still considered communal property. The idea that anyone with authority can take it upon himself or herself to police women’s and girls’ bodies, at proms or in bus ads, remains frighteningly persistent. Practices of gender segregation, which are couched in language of “modesty”, also turn women’s bodies into objects of sexual gaze rather than women’s own personal flesh, the tool with which we live our lives and breathe and love and feel.   Read the rest at Jewrotica  

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Susan Reimer-Torn writes about the new "Desire" telecourse at The Forward

"Elana Sztokman is one of the most proactive Jewish feminist thinkers on the scene today. An award-winning author of three books on gender equality in the Jewish world, a PhD in sociology and a former executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Association (JOFA), Dr. Sztokman seeks the edge. This past spring, she inaugurated a course, Dynamics of Jewish Feminism, via webinar for a worldwide reach. Judith Plaskow, Rachel Adler, Blu Greenberg and Letty Pogrebin were among the more than 30 distinguished panelists over the course of 8 weeks. Energized by the response,Szotkman has now embarked on a second course, DESIRE: Sex, Judaism and Feminism . Susan Reimer-Torn interviews her for the Sisterhood. "Susan Reimer-Torn: What made you decide to offer a webinar on Sex and Desire?Elana Sztokman: I realized that almost all our feminist conversation lead to sex. We manage to dance around the issue. We do talk about slut-shaming, for example, or excessive modesty demands. But what are those really about if not owning women’s sexuality? Girls’ and women’s sexuality are some kind of communal property that needs to be purely maintained. When we talk about inequality in marriage and divorce and the agunah issue, it all comes down to cultural practices that see a woman as the property of a man — with all that entails. Talking about our own desires explodes that basic assumption. It lets women take back ownership of our sexuality, ownership of our bodies." Read more:

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Ten exciting reasons why you should join the new “Desire” telecourse on sex, Judaism and feminism

  Your intimate partner will love you for it….You will get some great ideas about how to communicate more effectively in the bedroomYou will benefit from personal connections with some of the best sex therapistsYou’ve really wanted to talk about some of these topics for a long time and haven’t had a space to do it – this is it!You can ask all your questions in a safe, closed, private, online environment where you share only what you want to share about yourselfTaking this course can be a romantic date-night with your partner!If you’re having sexual issues or problems or pains (emotional or physical), this is your chance to learn moreBecause sexual power and health is a feminist issueYou are ready to start living more fully and open the doors that often remained closed.Because you know you want to! Sign up here Questions? FAQ here Or contact Elana directly This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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What I Posted on Facebook About the Freundel Case

From Lilith: October 15 at 8:21amIf this is true — IF, of course — the implications here are enormous. Women in Orthodoxy have been complaining about rabbis who carry all kinds of patriarchal and misogynistic ideas with them into the community and into their work. If this story is true, it confirms women’s deepest pains in dealing with certain orthodox rabbis. Layers and layers of practices that hurt women…. - See more at:   Read the rest here:

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