Jewfem Blog

JWA launches a new website

I'm a huge fan of the Jewish Women's Archive, especially their new Executive Director, Dr. Judith Rosenbaum. Today, JWA announced the launch of their new website, which is really exciting because this site is one of the most important resources out there for Jewish feminism. I especially love their Jewish Women's Encyclopedia, which was the brainchild of the late Moshe Shalvi z"l and Professor Alice Shalvi.  Here is the official JWA announcement:   The Jewish Women's Archives announces and welcomes you to the new jwa.org The Jewish Women's Archive invites you to discover the all-new jwa.org, just relaunched with a bold look and new navigation for easier browsing—and full of extraordinary stories. JWA provides the most extensive collection of materials about and stories of Jewish women, both celebrated and unheralded. You can read about the stories and struggles of the Jewish women who have shaped the American story, honor and learn from their lives, and ignite your own capacity to change the world. JWA offers knowledge, inspiration, role models, connection, community, and a treasure trove of resources, including classroom tools for educators, trustworthy information for researchers, and extensive collections and profiles for all. The website and its lively blog, Jewesses with Attitude, already serve 1.2 million visitors each year. “Eighteen years ago, the Jewish Women's Archive launched with a radical idea: to give Jewish women their rightful place in history and make their stories and achievements accessible to anyone,” said Founding Director Gail Reimer. “Now, the new jwa.org enables you to access that material on any desktop or mobile device and navigate through it more smoothly than ever. I encourage you to visit and to share jwa.org with your daughters, mothers, friends, students and colleagues. Please join JWA as we continue to share stories and inspire change.”

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Orthodox feminism: Where to from here

 The following is a synopsis of the talk I gave yesterday at Limmud Modi’in titled, “Orthodox Feminist Narratives": Orthodox women have complicated lives – beautiful and enriching, certainly, but also very complicated. To be sure, there is a lot of beauty in being an Orthodox woman. You are encouraged to have a rich family and community life, to create relationships that are busy and sincere. You are often part of a larger synagogue or communal system that provides meaningful routine and structure. Indeed, your life is a constant search for meaning and genuine religious expression. Your week is punctuated by Shabbat, which ideally involves festive ritual gatherings, singing, prayer, joyful relaxation, and elaborate meals with friends and strangers. Your lifecycle events are swathed in ceremony that links you to ancient heritage and hopefully to God. When you give birth, you get lots of food. When you sit shiva, you get lots of food. You never have to be alone if you try hard enough, and at key moments, you are unlikely to ever be hungry. You are busy and loved and adored, as people sing your praises every Friday night and at every bar mitzvah. You are thanked excessively for keeping the home. You are adored for your inner beauty – sheker ha-chen v’hevel hayofi (loveliness is a lie and beauty is hollow) – revered for your kindness and supported in your efforts to be good to all. This beauty, however, has a flipside. In exchange for all that internal beauty, women are indeed expected to keep that beauty to themselves. Covering up is key – covering your body, covering your hair, covering your voice, covering your passions, covering your difficult feelings, covering your aspirations. You may have the desire to lead – to lead services, to lead synagogue, to lead the seder – but you have few if any approved outlets for that desire. You may desire to express yourself in singing, dancing, or writing a commentary on the Talmud, but you have to be careful and search hard to find outlets for those desires, if they exist at all. You may want to be a professional swimmer, gymnast or figure-skater, but those are not options for religious women. You may deeply desire to be a communal and spiritual leader, the rabbi of your shul, but that is a really challenging career path for orthodox women. At home, life is likely even more complicated. Sure, you had a Jewish education and know lots of great things, but when you sit down at the Shabbat table, your husband takes over. He runs the family ritual, he owns all the knowledge, and he is in charge of everything from buying the lulav to blessing the children. Sure, many Orthodox men help today – though it’s still called “helping” – but we know that the onus for cooking, cleaning, and making Shabbat is primarily on you, you may consider it a measure of your worth as a Jewish women, and while you slave...

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The "Man Seder" -- good for men, bad for women? Weigh in

A new Facebook group that I started last month for Orthodox feminists exploded this week over, of all things, the issue of men’s empowerment. A young Orthodox woman and columnist from Atlanta named Eden Farber posted a very upset update about a recent event in her parents' modern Orthodox synagogue -- a “Man Seder”, an all-men’s event boasting beer and steak to help prepare men for the task of leading the seder. The Facebook group, which is called, “I’m also fed up with the way women are treated in Orthodoxy” (currently nicknamed “FedUp”), is exactly the right place for such discussions about events and practices that harbor an overly gendered Judaism. The group is for people like Eden who are grappling with women’s exclusion and silencing, people who are trying to figure out how to promote social change in their homes and communities. Many of the 800+ members responded to Eden’s post similarly with a lot of anger and feelings of betrayal – “It is a men's club for ages”, wrote one woman; “What the hell is the point of turning religion into the he-man woman haters club? Is this Judaism or the Little Rascals?” wrote one man. Others attempted to understand. One woman wrote from Atlanta, “It just so happens there are far more opportunities for women than there ever were before, and it's only progressing. Just because a shul is supportive of women's initiatives, though, doesn't mean men can't have a social gathering to promote camaraderie. If they want to get together to eat steak and drink beer that shouldn't be threatening to any of us as Modern Orthodox females.” Apparently this entire conversation got back to Atlanta. After all, it’s an open group – a setting that continues to be debated in the group as we decide if we are a kind of support group or more of a public forum for advancing social change. Some people of Atlanta have been very upset by this conversation, which I understand. Rabbi Adam Starr, the young rabbi who ran the event, is a lovely, open-minded, pro-women rabbi who has brought life to the community and advanced new initiatives for women, including a monthly women’s prayer group that, by the way, was instigated through tremendous efforts of Eden Farber. Some people are upset that the rabbi is under public attack for doing what is deemed a wonderful service for the community. I totally get that, and I feel his pain for sure. Still, I think that this debate raised a really important issue of men’s empowerment and men’s privilege. The underlying power dynamics were highlighted on the blog of a man defending the men’s seder, under the name of “Chopping wood” – perhaps a hint that this is a space for idealizing retrograde images of male muscling. The blogger not only mocked the whole notion that Orthodox women may be legitimately upset about gender issues in Orthodoxy, but defended the men’s seder for precisely the reason why so many people found...

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Adina Bar Shalom: Haredi feminism is already here

Adina Bar Shalom, the oldest daughter of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, founder of the Haredi College in Jerusalem that has 1000 students – mostly women – gaining professional skills to enter the Israeli workforce, writes in today’s Yediot about the quiet feminist revolution taking place in the haredi community. Here is my English translation of her column: Every woman has a natural, quiet strength. So, too with haredi women, who have to be very strong in order to deal with life’s challenges. As such, she is able to grapple with the roughest problems and come out empowered. Anyone who is capable of living in “normal” society, going out to work, while maintaining the strict as well as the lenient [of Judaism] is a hero. The haredi feminist is different from the secular feminism. Even though she doesn’t use the term “feminist”, she definitely wants equal rights, but as long as it does not contradict the Torah. A haredi woman is not interested in competing with her husband about anything, just to prove that they are equal. There are things that he is better at, and there are things that she is better at. Just like an expert in biology would not argue with an expert in chemistry, and vice versa. Haredi society is in a very good place today, and progress has reached us as well, and helps us. The gates are already opened, and progress cannot be halted – for better and for worse. Our challenge is to maintain boundaries with open gates. Today, whoever wants to can learn anything. In the past, there were no frameworks or appropriate tools for haredi students – so we didn’t go [to college, presumably -- EMS]. Today, there are haredi frameworks everywhere. True, we are still at the beginning of the road and there are still uncertainties and we don’t always know what’s for us and how to choose. But this train has already left the station. Personally, I am very happy when people who go out to get a secular education choose the academic route rather than professional training, since the academic route brings greater success as well as intellectual development. I certainly want to see haredi intellectuals. Why not? Why shouldn’t haredim lead in academia? I anticipate that in ten years’ time, the lecturers in the haredi (and even non-haredi) institutions will be haredi scientists, researchers and deans -- haredi men and women. Some of us have to sit in the world of Torah, to look for new interpretations and to write and to lead the people. But even those who are unable to do that in the world of Torah – I would like to see them do that in the life of this world [as opposed to the life of the World to Come -- EMS]. Collaboration between these two worlds will bring partnership in all areas. When we will have haredi scientists, haredi business owners, and haredi hi-tech endeavors, this collaboration will be a victory in all...

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Why don't Orthodox feminists simply join the Conservative movement?

There is a rumor going around that Orthodox feminists are just Conservative Jews in disguise, or perhaps in denial.I’ve heard this idea in many settings. I was at a dinner last year honoring Jewish feminists when a woman at my table — a Conservative rabbi and prolific writer whom I greatly admire — reproached me. “Why do all you Orthodox feminists think that what you’re doing is so amazing?” she demanded. “The women in the Conservative movement have been fighting these battles for 40 years. You are just barely catching up.” Last month, my dear friend Hillary Gordon echoed similar sentiments in a blog post she wrote about my recent book event in Jerusalem. “Why can’t the Orthodox recognize that other women have come before them and fought the same fight?” she asks. “Why is it that because it was done by Conservative or Reform Jewish women it is not legitimate according to the Orthodox?” Almost the exact same line appeared a couple of weeks ago in the comment section of Frimet Goldberger’s blog post about Orthodox feminists. Frimet dared to write that Conservative Judaism is not an option for her, to which a commenter replied, “Do I detect some judgementalism in those words?? ….Is there a suggestion here that the Conservative observance of Shabbat is less ‘full’ or somewhat deficient from the more authentic Orthodox one??”Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/#story-1#ixzz2tkoqSCyl

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A vision of Orthodox feminism

The Jewish Women's Archives published a three-part series in which Susan Reimer-Torn interviews Elana Sztokman about her vision for religious feminism. Here are a few excerpts: Much of the halakha regarding women legitimizes exclusion. So if a form of exclusion is halakhic, is it ipso facto legitimate? Elana Sztokman: There is a lot more room for women’s inclusion within halakhah than is currently practiced in many places. For example, issues such as women serving on synagogue boards, women teaching the congregation, women giving sermons, even women making announcements—these are practices that really have few if any halakhic obstacles and yet are not practiced widely enough in Orthodox life. We have a long way to go in order to maximize women’s inclusion in areas where there is no real halakhic issue before even getting to that question of areas where there may be more debate. Some of JOFA’s early financing came from progressive Jewish groups and some non-Orthodox women. Why do you think they were persuaded to contribute? How important is this alliance? Elana Sztokman: The alliance between Jewish feminists from different denominations is so important. It’s vital for us all to recognize that we’re on the same journey of working to build a Jewish life that is both loyal to our traditions and committed to values of inclusion, compassion, justice and equality. We may end up in different places and with different solutions—one prays with a partition and one doesn’t; one has women rabbis and one has women as Maharats—but those differences are much less significant than our shared values. We need to support one another in our struggles, because our real strength comes from this kind of collegiality and collaboration. SRT: Do you believe in hard-wired gender differences? ES: The discourse of gender differences is very problematic, and that’s why we have to be really careful when we talk about a woman’s “way.” The second we start talking about a “women’s way,” we run a risk of falling into old patterns and traps of seeing women as “less,” as “softer,” as less capable of dealing with pressure, as less assertive, as less logical, or whatever. When we start to couch this in language of brain differences, we are basically turning sexist attitudes into some kind of pseudo-scientific data. I highly recommend Cordelia Fine’s book, Delusions of Gender. She is a neuroscientist and psychologist and does an expert job of debunking the pseudo-science of gendered brain differences. So again, I want to reiterate that when we talk about women’s contributions to transforming society, it’s based on culture, not biology. If men are typically acculturated into a kind of sterile individualism, women are acculturated into relationships, caring, and other-centeredness. Both of these personas are part of the human spirit, and all human beings need access to both characteristics, that is, individualism and connectivity. So the point is that bringing a “women’s culture” into Jewish life is not about “femininity” as an essence but rather about restoring cultural balance to a world that...

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Orthodox Women reach a Milestone

Zelda R Stern and Elana Sztokman's oped from The Jewish Week about the significance of the Maharat graduation: "Orthodox women are making history in front of our eyes. On June 16, three women will be ordained to serve, in effect, as Orthodox rabbis, given the title of Maharat (an acronym for the Hebrew words meaning leader in legal, spiritual and Torah matters). They will graduate from Yeshivat Maharat in New York City, the first and thus far only women to receive institutional ordination as religious and spiritual leaders in the Orthodox world. To a certain degree, this is not really news. Women have been working in Orthodox clergy position for years. And a handful of women have been privately ordained by Orthodox rabbis over the years. But next month’s graduation will mark the first time Orthodox women will be formally and publicly ordained with institutional recognition for the profound role women rabbis can play in Orthodox communities. Maharat women will perform virtually all the same pastoral and spiritual functions as men, plus a few. Orthodox women are often more comfortable approaching women about personal, intimate issues than they are approaching men. Maharat women will deal with those issues and have the potential to re-engage women in communal life — women who until now have felt that they have no leaders. As one young Orthodox woman recently told us, “When my husband doesn’t come to synagogue, the rabbi asks about it. But when I don’t come, he doesn’t even notice. I need a woman rabbi who I can connect to, who can take an interest in my spiritual life.”   Read the rest at The Jewish Week

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On Orthodox feminism, between Israel and America

Some Hebrew-language musings on the connections between Kolech and JOFA, or on the need for cross-oceanic collaborations in religious feminism.     כתבתי מאמר בעברית באתר קולך בנושא כנס JOFA.... על שיתוף פעולה ועל הכוח שבא מחשיבה ופעילות משותפת. אשמח לשמוע תגובות http://kolech.org.il/show.asp?id=63941   ברור לי שיש כאן צורך גדול להדק את הקשרים בינינו וליצור דרך לשיתוף פעולה. פשוט חייבות. אין דרך אחרת. אנחנו זקוקות אחת לשנייה עבור ההצלחה של כולנו    השנה היתה שנה מאוד מרגשת עבור הפמיניסטיות הדתיות: שלושה כנסים בנושא דת ומגדר התקיימו תוך מספר חודשים ברחבי העולם. הכנס הראשון של JOFA-UK החדש, התקיים בחודש יוני בלונדון; כנס השני, של ארגון 'קולך', התקיים בספטמבר והכנס השלישי, כנס JOFA, התקיים בניו יורק בתחילת חודש דצמבר השנה (2013) הרצף הזה של כנסים המיועדים לדון בנושאי דת ומגדר בזה אחר זה בפינות שונות בעולם הביא איתו הזדמנות מיוחדת לבחון את הקשרים בין תנועות האחות הללו. התוצאות בינתיים הן מרתקות, ואולי אפילו מרגשות. אין ספק ש JOFA ו'קולך' הינן ארגוני אחות במלוא מובן המילה. כמו שתי ישויות שנובעות מאותו מקור, כאשר כל אחת עם אישיות הייחודית לה. ההקשר דומה אך קצת שונה, והרצון משותף לבנות בית חדש וחזק על בסיס ערכים משותפים. במשך השנה שחלפה היו לנו מספר אירועים שפעלו לחזק את הקשרים בינינו ואת החזון המשותף. נציגות  JOFA ו'קולך' נפגשו מספר פעמים במפגשי היכרות, לשמוע אחת מהשנייה ולדון בסוגיות משותפות, כגון מנהיגות נשים, נושא העגונות ומסורבות הגט ועוד. בירושלים, חנה קהת אירחה את נשות JOFA, ואח"כ סוזי הוכשטיין אירחה את הקבוצה. כשחנה קהת היתה בניו יורק בנובמבר שעבר 2012, הרמנו ערב של וועידת פאנל בנושא מעמד הנשים בארץ, יחד עם בלו גרינברג, ג'יין אייזנר, סוזן ווייס וננסי קאופמן, כולן נשים יהודיות פמיניסטיות מובילות (ואיזה כייף היה להפיק אירוע שבו כל הדוברות היו נשים! קיבלנו על זה ביקורת – למה לא שמרנו מקום לגבר – אבל בשבילי זאת היתה אפליה מתקנת, והיה פשוט נפלא לראות פאנל מלא בכח נשים! אני יכולה להבטיח שקהל של כ-75 איש לא היו משועמם!). לסיכום, שני הארגונים נמצאים כבר יותר משנה בתהליך משמעותי וענייני לגבי חשיבה, לקראת חזון משותף ואולי גם פעילות משותפת. וכל זה קורה בשנת הכנסים, כך שפעילות זאת צברה תאוצה וקיבלה אנרגיות חדשות. שמחתי מאוד לראות שמספר נשות וועדת ההנהלה של JOFA הגיעו לכנס 'קולך' בספטמבר, ושבלו גרינברג נשאה דברים בנושא נשים מסורבות גט. לי היתה הזכות, יחד עם חנה קהת, להוביל שיחה בלתי-פורמאלית בנושא שיתוף פעולה בין-ארגוני. שמענו מנשים וגברים על הצורך לבנות את הקשרים הללו, ללמוד מניסיונות של אחרים מרחבי העולם, וליצור מנגנונים לתמיכה הדדית בקרב אוכלוסיות המובילות שינוי מגדרי בעולם הדתי. בכנס JOFA בשבוע שעבר, היו נציגות/ים רבות/ים מהארץ, ביניהן/ם פרופ' תמר רוס, הרב דניאל שפרבר, דבורה עברון, ד"ר רוני עיר-שי, נורית יעקובס-יינון, רחלי ווסרמן, סוזן ווייס, נשים מנשות הכותל ועוד. היו גם דוברות מ'קולך': ריקי שפירא-רוזנברג וביטי רואי, וריקי סקרה את הפעילות החשובה של 'קולך' במיוחד בנושא נשים במרחב הציבורי. מאוד שמחתי שריקי באה לדווח על הנושא הזה, נושא שהוא לא מובן מאליו שהוא נמצא בתודעה של נשים אמריקאיות. גייסנו כסף במיוחד עבור הדיון הזה, ויותר מזה, הצלחנו לוודא שהנושא הזה יהיה חלק מהאג'נדה של כנס JOFA. אני רואה בזה...

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Tefillingate: Why women must be allowed to make our own spiritual decisions

Weighing in about the tefillin-and-girls firestorm in an op-ed at Ha'aretz: "No Jewish man has ever been subjected to this kind of examination and ownership. No man has ever been told that he is not “sincere” enough to put on tefillin – to wit, Chabad rabbis all around the world chase Jewish men begging them to wear tefillin, even if only for ten seconds, with nary a passing thought about whether they will ever do it again. Comparing the treatment of men’s “motives” and women’s “motives” around this commandment highlights an awful violation of women’s inner sanctity. It’s high time for the religious community to eliminate this language of women’s motives from its public discourse once and for all." Read the entire op-ed here

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From the JOFA blog: The first women shul presidents in Orthodox White Plains

Deborah Weinberger and Beth Hurvitz: Pioneering Women Co-Presidents of Hebrew Institute of White Plains, NY  When Beth Hurvitz, a fifty-two-year-old  Senior Vice President of Visa and single mother of a thirteen-year-old daughter, was asked to become the first woman president of her synagogue , the Hebrew Institute of White Plains, she agreed on one condition: that her friend and colleague Deborah Weinberger would share the job with her. Deborah, a mother of three who works for Camp Ramah, teaches aquatics in Briarcliff, NY, and single-handedly built the synagogue thrift shop into a bustling source of revenue for the synagogue, readily agreed. Thus Deborah and Beth became not only the first women presidents of their Modern Orthodox synagogue, but also the first co-presidents. And they couldn’t be happier. In an interview with JOFA Executive Director Elana Sztokman, these two impressive women share their love for the job, for the community, and for one another. It’s an inspiring story of Orthodox women making change through partnership and care.   Tell me a little bit about yourselves Beth:  I have been living in New Rochelle, NY, and have been a member of the Hebrew Institute of White Plains my entire life. In fact, I was even named at the synagogue!  Deborah: I grew up very differently from the lifestyle I’m living now. I grew up in New York City in a Conservative synagogue and went to Hebrew school, and I never knew this model of an inclusive, Modern Orthodox community existed. In my world, there was either Reform, Conservative or Lubavich, and nothing like this. When I first moved to White Plains with my husband and we had a baby, suddenly I was getting these meals from strangers – I had never experienced anything like that! That was amazing – many friendships started because of those meals – and it’s why I decided to get involved in the synagogue community.  I sat on a few committees, starting with the new members committee, I ran a shabbaton, and then Beth and I launched a retreat, so that’s how our relationship started. From that point, it became apparent that we had complementary skills and talents, and we also had a really good time working together. Beth: It was very clear that we could work well together. Deborah knows everyone in the synagogue. She constantly keeps us in check to make sure we’re doing the right thing. Being the president of the synagogue is different than running a business. It’s about doing the right thing, building a community and making sure everyone has what they need. Deborah: It’s more like customer service, making sure our congregants feel heard and appreciated. Beth has all kinds of business skills and she’s a natural problem-solver. She is also a single mom by choice. I couldn’t manage a goldfish alone! Beth: Deborah has three amazing children and an amazing husband. She also runs the thrift shop in the synagogue and she has totally revitalized it. Today it brings in quite a...

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