Jewfem Blog

WOW!! My book, "The Men's Section" WON the National Jewish Book Award!

Still in shock by this news... that my book won the National Jewish Book Award, the Barbara Dobkin award in the category of Women's Studies. Full of gratitude to all those who helped me get here.... inspired by all the good will.... mostly just over the moon....Read more here .

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"Men being nice": Jewschool reviews "The Men's Section"

“Men come to the partnership synagogue for a whole host of reasons, the overwhelming majority of which have nothing to do with feminism.” -The Men’s Section The Men’s Section is about the men’s side of partnership minyanim in Israel–their reasons for joining and their difficulties after joining. The author was clearly distressed by her own findings, which even I admit were surprising. Partnership minyanim are generally seen as being the “next step” to equality and gender balance. Admittedly, her research is Israel-centric, but one thing was clear: men weren’t joining out of a sense of feminism. In fact, what we know as the ideal of feminism was actually one of the difficulties men had with the minyanim! Many of the men interviewed reported that they didn’t feel a sense of community in their old shuls, or they felt an emotional disconnect, or that they felt constant pressure to be perfect (the “man-on-man gaze”), or that they were dissatisfied with the hierarchies. Note that none of this has anything to do with women. In fact, many of the problems reported by men were with the women–that they had their own incorrect “women’s trope,” or that they didn’t come on time. The fact that women were never taught the trope as meticulously as men were wasn’t discussed, and as Sztokman observed, women were expected to prepare meals for shabbos, and take care of the children, and still show up on time and stay throughout the service. She found that these men will let women into “their space” via the partnership minyanim only if they are willing to abide by the same rules by which the men were socialized. The irony is that these are the very rules and patterns that the men hoped to escape by joining these minyanim. Sztokman shows they are replete with the same social hierarchies that one might find in any mainstream Orthodox shul. Feminist deconstruction of gender and manhood was not a concern, and it seemed as if the women were there as sort of an afterthought. In fact, when one of the members had a non-egalitarian member of his family come in for his son’s bar mitzvah, many of the members argued that they should rescind women’s leadership positions. As one woman said, “we all fix things up in our home before the mother-in-law visits. How is this any different?” It was obvious that, as strange as it seems, egalitarianism wasn’t a very pressing item.   Read more here:

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Notes from the book tour: When Orthodox Men Get Personal

The strangest part of Monday night’s panel discussion of my new book, “The Men’s Section,” about partnership synagogues, wasn’t that the four-person panel was made up of all men. All-male panels are so common — to wit, I passed by a poster at Harvard this week announcing an economic conference with no female speakers at all — that Joanna Samuels of Advancing Women Professionals has been asking Jewish men to take a pledge not to sit on all-male panels. (Several of the men on my book panel said that they had taken the pledge and actually felt odd sitting on this all-male dais at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.) The really unusual part for me was that, although all the speakers are accomplished men with very impressive resumes and professional and communal achievements, their speeches had nothing to do with their expertise. Rather, they each talked about their feelings about partnership synagogues and the discussion centered on their own journeys in Jewish communal and religious life. In fact, Marc Baker, of Minyan Kol Rinah in Brookline, Mass. opened by saying, “I’m not used to talking about myself in this kind of forum.” The men were used to talking about ideas; they were not used to talking about themselves. This is what I want to happen from the publication of my book. I want men to start exploring their journeys and experiences, and to start examining Jewish life — not from the perspective of halachic and cold, cerebral, detached analysis of rules and facts. I want to give men the language and framework to ask themselves what they feel, what they see, what they really want. Read more:

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The book tour as a life journey: Stops along the way

There have been some moments on my book tour when I felt like I’m on a journey revisiting my own life. Part observer, part social commentator, and part Jewish traveler, I seem to be making stops that connect in significant ways to voyages past. The first striking moment was the discovery that Prof. Jon Levisohn of Brandeis University would moderate at my official book launch. Jon and I were very close friends when we were 14, and the truth is that even though we have only seen each other a few times over the past 20 years, he has a very special place in my heart. During that awkward period of adolescence when it’s easy to think that nobody sees you or understands you, Jon was a patient and kind listener, and a thoughtful, intelligent conversationalist. Actually, it seems to me that he still is all those things. His friendship was healing then, and his presence at my first ever book launch was incredibly comforting. It made me feel whole. As if to say, I have been on this journey for thirty years, taking me to this place, and I stll am this same person. And by the way, the fact that we both ended up with doctorates in education makes me wonder what we were talking about during those late night conversations all those years ago. My tour has also taken me back to the Barnard/Columbia Hillel, some 21 years after I graduated from Barnard. I spent a lot of time at the Hillel back then, when it was in what now seems like a small office in Earl Hall. I was particularly active in Columbia Students for Israel, with my friend Josh Leibowitz, z”l, and I remember many hours spent preparing all kinds of flyers and events. We used to sometimes take over the desk of then program coordinator Helise Leiberman who was nice enough to pretend not to mind. (Helise now works with Jewish students in Poland, and we recently reconnected, and are now Facebook friends of course.) We were really happy then, I think – although seeing what HIllel has become, a multi-story building of its own, the Kraft Center for Jewish Life, with an Indian-themed kosher cafeteria, alarge synagogue that does not alternate as a mosque, and lots of spacious rooms and offices for every possible occasion including four different types of prayer services, just blows my mind. The building today is used by a thousand students on campus. That’s just amazing. Still, I should say that the moment that really blew me away was when I mentioned during my session that partnership synagogues have “only” been around for ten years, realizing that for some of the students in the room, that was more than half their lives! Their reality forced me to adjust my thinking and reconsider my narrative of social change. At one of these events, I had a very special audience member: Susan "Sooz" Goodman, my first cousin once removed, whom I had...

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Some questions I've been getting

Now that I’m on the last leg of my three-week book tour, the dozens of comments and questions that I’ve heard in different communities are starting to play over in my mind, some issues repeating themselves and others new and stimulating each time. Here are some of the issues that have dominated discussions, along with my responses: Is there a difference between younger and older men? A common assumption is that younger men are more “flexible” in their thinking than older men, and that the gender problem in Orthodox Judaism can be attributed to generational differences in attitudes. Actually, my research did not validate that finding. Anecdotally, some of the most open-minded men I interviewed were retirees and those with some of the most ossified ideas about women were in their thirties. Although I assumed this to be merely a counter-intuitive finding, it was actually explained to me by a discussant in Boston – my uncle, Hy Kempler, a 78-year old psychologist who, in his retirement, is researching identity shifts in later life. His research, which he published with the Harvard Adult Learning Institute, found that many people in later life experience significant shifts in identity and ideology, and find themselves opening up to ideas and lifestyles that they would not have in earlier years. Whether this is because burdens of childrearing and providing can be overwhelming, or whether we start out life with rigid expectations of perfections only to discover as we live life that such ideals are elusive and perhaps unhelpful – it is not entirely clear. But what is clear is that the idea of generational differences that view “young” people as more open and flexible than “older” people is an assumption that is not necessarily valid. Maybe this is more about Israelis than Americans Several people told me that some of the descriptions of the “Be an Orthodox Man Box” reflect more Israeli norms than American norms. This may be true to a certain extent. For instance, expectations of a prayer service that does not exceed 90 minutes is clearly an Israeli thing. Also, descriptions of army service as part of the construction of a masculine identity are also clearly Israel. That said, I think that despite these slight differences, I think that there is far more overlap than difference overall. For instance, even though the word “hafifnik”, referring to a kind of “slacker” who comes late to services and does not care about precise performance, is a Hebrew slang word, the attitude of annoyance with the hafifnik-type has crossed through pretty much every synagogue I encountered. The communal narrative around those who come late, who don’t layn well, who don’t bother with mincha, or who just aren’t attentive enough to detail, took place in shuls in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Melbourne, Jerusalem, and Modi’in. Moreover, I think that as people are traveling more and communicating more, cultural differences are starting to blur. I interviewed men who started a shul in Chicago but moved to...

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The Men's Section on the Jewish Channel

"My story on The Men’s Section and Drisha panel is now up on The Jewish Channel and, in abbreviated form, online. You can see the abridged web version on YouTube using this link: The complete broadcast version can only be seen on The Jewish Channel, which is available on cable – channel 528 on Time Warner, channel 291 on Cablevision iO Optimum, channel 268 on RCN, channel 900 on Verizon FiOS and Frontier, channel 1 on Cox, channel 330 on Brighthouse, and on Comcast in the On-Demand menu under “Premium Channels”The program is listed in the TJC Original Series category as “Weekly News 04-27” Feel free to spread around the web video, record it off The Jewish Channel for your own use, or you can purchase a DVD of the episode from TJC for $50. All the best and Shabbat shalom,Rebecca" ---Rebecca Honig FriedmanManager, Original Programming & New MediaThe Jewish Channel / Compass ProductionsT. 212-643-9500 x106E. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it." target="_blank">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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From Boston to Houston in three weeks: Five states, thousands of miles traveled, hundreds of engaged participants, and one exhausted author

I am still on a high from the responses I’ve received from participants in my book tour events. Jewish communities around America are wide-eyed in their search for meaningful frameworks to help them understand and unravel their Jewish and gender experiences. Many of the conversations revolved around community dynamics and tensions, while others went beyond Jewish life and started to unpack men’s and women’s experiences of grappling with societal expectations generally. In some cases, I found myself doing what the HBI people called “Sociology 101”, talking about how identity is formed through navigations vis a vis forces of surrounding cultural constructions. It seems to me that the Jewish community overall can use some Sociology 101 to help us separate our spiritual and/or halakhic needs from our fears of societal disapproval. Here are some of my more memorable exchanges that have stuck with me: “I thought my mother was going to hell because of me”– A man at Netivot Shalom in Baltimore told the crowd that for many years he thought that he had caused his mother an eternity of damnation because at his bar mitzvah, he was so nervous reading Torah that he lost his place and ended up reciting from memory rather than read from the scroll. Apparently some teacher along the way had planted in his mind that this was the worst thing a Jewish boy could do, worse than, say, murder. He carried that feeling around for so long, and it was very painful. He also talked about how much watching and measuring goes on in the boys’ yeshivah, so that he became accustomed to rabbis touching his tefillin while he was praying to “fix” it, and the general gaze of rabbis whose job it was to fix every miniscule act of observance. Ultimately the experience was too difficult to bear, and he eventually left his ultra-Orthodox community and now belongs to a more open, liberal Orthodox community.   “He told me, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself’.”– A man from the Five Towns in Long Island who attended the Drisha/Darkhei Noam/Yavneh event in Manhattan said that he posed a question on the list-serve in his community about whether there was any interest in starting a partnership minyan. One man responded, ‘What is a partnership minyan?’ and he explained to him about the principle of maximizing women’s participation within the framework of halakha. The response was quick and simple: “You should be ashamed of yourself”.   “We all just want to be accepted for who we are.”At the Tehilla Minyan In Cambridge, Mass, a man took issue with my assertion that all we really want from society is to be labeled as “normal”. He said that it’s not exactly precise – that what we really want is not to change but rather to be accepted by society for who we are. I think we were kind of saying the same thing. He told me an inspiring story about a rebbe who encountered a man who sat under the...

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"Brother Suffragettes": Amanda Borschel-Dan reviews "The Men's Section" at The Times of Israel

It’s a story about tension, identity and dialogue. About living on the borders of a culture, yet still navigating within them. About negotiating, pushing back, and yes, acceptance. Its tale is particular, yet so universal that scholars and laymen all over the world are picking up Elana Sztokman’s new work, “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World.” Read more

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Rabbi Jack Riemer: "The Men's Section" represents "A fresh and much to be admired trend within Orthodoxy"

The following is a review of The Men's Section that appeared in the Florida Jewish Journal on Feb 14, 2012 I have not yet met either of these two writers but I am a big fan of them both and I read them whenever I can find them, for they each represent a fresh and a much to be admired trend within Orthodoxy. Elana Sztokman is both a scholar of gender studies and an activist in feminist causes within Orthodoxy. This book is meant as scholarship but it raises a troubling question that I, for one, had never thought of before. The question is: How do Orthodox men deal with feminism? There are now nearly two dozen "partnership minyanim" in Israel, America and elsewhere. In these minyanim women teach and read Torah even though they still sit behind a mechitsa. In some of them, they require both ten men and ten women for a quorum. It is obvious why women would want to join such a minyan. It is a way for them to achieve some measure of equality within the framework of halachah. The question that she studies in this book is: Why do men join such a minyan? To her and to my surprise, she found that the men who joined these minyanim were not necessarily feminists. They joined for a host of different reasons, some of which had nothing at all to do with feminism. And she learned that at the core of these minyanim, as at the core of all social interactions and institutions, the issue of power is still central. The men who attend these partnership minyanim may be nice, they may be accommodating, they may be generous, but at the end of the day, the power to permit and the power to allow is still in their hands. And at the core of their consciousness is their image of who is a real Jew. In their culture a real Jew is still the one who studies full time in the yeshiva, while the outside community — be it his wife, or his parents or the society — takes care of him. Until that ideal is reexamined, partnership minyan will not achieve much. The men in the partnership communities have to deal with the reality of a new kind of woman now, a woman who is accomplished and powerful in the secular world, a woman who wants to bring a feminist perspective to the understanding of the Torah and the commandments and a woman who does not aspire to imitate what men do. She concludes, reluctantly, that until the men in these minyanim come to terms with this new reality, partnership minyanim will not really be equal partnerships. Despite her pessimism, I can only hope that when we have more women like Dr. Sztokman, who are learned, articulate and committed to both equality and halachah, that things will eventually change. Read More:,0,4590763.story

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On Rav Bina, and What Passes for 'Love'

The most surprising part of the story about Rav Aharon Bina’s alleged emotional abuse of his students at Netiv Aryeh comes from the reactions: It is astounding to see how many people apparently knew this has been going on but continue to sing his praises. This entire episode raises some difficult questions about what is really going on in the yeshiva world. The Jewish Week article, written by Jewish media veteran Gary Rosenblatt in collaboration with courageous young Yeshiva University journalist Yedidya Gorsetman, catalogues a series of abusive behaviors that Bina allegedly carried out for decades against his students at Netiv Aryeh and before that at Yeshivat Hakotel. (Bina left Hakotel when he was fired by his successor — none other than Rabbi Motti Elon, who was recently indicted for indecent acts against his male students). Bina reportedly yelled, mocked and systematically disparaged students — some students more than others — as part of his approach of psychological manipulation to gain obedience. Parents, students, and former students describe traumas incurred, and even violence at his hands, which in some cases turned the boys away from Judaism altogether. Reading the comments on the story and blog posts about it this week, I have found that Bina’s defenders fall into one of two categories: those who deny that this happened, and those who knew but claim that it is part of Bina’s special “methodology” that is based on his love. Read more:

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