Jewfem Blog

7 tips for making the most out of your "Dynamics" webinar

Here are 7 tips for how to make the most of your Dynamics of Jewish Feminism telecourse: Watch with friends!  Invite your friends over -- you know, the ones who you are ALWAYS talking to about these things -- plug into a nice big screen, find comfy seats and make a fresh batch of coffee. And the added bonus: you get to split the registration fee! A win-win.Shut everything else off. Take a little break from your cellphone, your email, and shuttling your kids around. Turn this into "me-time", a little present for yourselfAsk questions. This is your chance to engage directly with some of your favorite Jewish feminist writers, leaders and activists. Make the most of it by sending in your own questions before the webinar. Send in questions to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. the recording. If you can't watch live, you can make a time to watch any time. Join the conversation. Sign in to the group conversation and find out what other people are thinking, too. Collect the reading list. You will be receiving lots of book and article recommendations. It's a treasure chest for Jewish feminist readers!Tell others about it. Tell other people about it -- colleagues, co-workers, community members, neighbors -- and find out who shares your interest in Jewish feminism.  To register, click here   For more information, contact Elana at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Have you signed up for the Jewish Feminist telecourse yet? What are you waiting for?!

Have you signed up yet for the “Dynamics of Jewish Feminism” telecourse? Still deliberating? Well, here are SEVEN great reasons to join that will help you make up your mind: Engage with the best and the brightest. Hear Prof Judith Plaskow (author of “Standing again at Sinai”) talking with Prof Rachel Adler, (author of “The Jew who wasn’t there”) discuss and debate what Jewish feminism means.Take on the hard issues. Send in your own questions to Lilith founder Susan Weidman Schneider and feminist artist Jacqueline Nicholls as they debate “s*lut-shaming” in Jewish lifeBreak open taboos. Be part of the conversation on sexuality in Jewish life, with experts Talli Yehuda Rosenbaum, Rabbi Haviva Ner David (founder of the Reut mikveh), and Carrie Bornstein (Mayyim Hayyim)Help make change. Find out how women like Debbie Gross, Lori Weinstein (Director of Jewish Women International), Debbie Gross (founder of the Crisis Center for Religious Women) and Yudit Sidikman (founder of El-Halev) address sexual abuse and violence against women.Demand action. Learn what veteran agunah activists Dr Susan Weiss and Dr Susan Aronoff are working on to fix this problem.Envision the future. Be part of the conversation where Rabbi Naamah Kelman(HUC) , Nancy Kaufman (NCJW) and author Letty Cottin Pogrebin discuss and debate women’s leadershipConnect with others just like you. Be part of an online community like no other, a group of like-minded Jewish feminists from around the world So what are you waiting for? Sign up today!

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Baking challah with Haviva

The first thing I did when I finished reading Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner David’s new book, “Chana’s Voice” is to set out to learn how to bake challah. Haviva’s writing is like that; she inspires you to open your heart and approach yourself to new possibilities. For Haviva, baking challah is one of three stations on her journey through Judaism and gender, the other two being sex and Shabbat. In order to begin my quest I called my friends Dr. Ariella Zeller and Chaim Kram who, like Haviva, bake challah every Shabbat in an entirely egalitarian way (Ariella’s job is the white bread, Chaim’s job is whole wheat; In Haviva’s house her husband Jacob has taken over the challah-baking entirely). As my friends taught me their tricks of the yeast, we discussed feminism, food, and Haviva’s book. The experience of sitting in my friends’ kitchen preparing for Shabbat while exploring gender issues felt like the perfect reaction to Haviva’s book, and in fact to her entire life work. It was communal, conversational, relationship-centered and real. Haviva’s vision for Judaism and the world, as chronicled in this book, is a personal voyage through significant Jewish symbols and stations, one that for Haviva is swathed in courage, integrity, and an authentic search for meaningful connection to God within the fundamental parameters of human dignity and equality. “She took us on her journey,” my friend Ariella said after she read and loved the book, “and I felt like I was completely with her.” The book uses the theme of “CHaNaH”, an acronym for the three commandments supposedly “given” to women – Challah, Niddah (menstruation) and Hadlakat Nerot (Shabbat candle-lighting). From the title alone, which implies a rather retro, essentialist, difference-oriented feminist approach with echoes of anti-feminist apologetics, I would not have picked up the book. Yet, the book itself is exactly the opposite of what the name implies. Haviva’s message is about embracing the values in the so-called “women’s” mitzvoth and creating a world in which men are taught to embrace those values too – whether that means men baking and immersing, or reinventing wedding ceremonies. For Haviva, the journey is about looking for the value in what has traditionally been “women’s culture” and bringing it out into the wider world. Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/213828/baking-challah-with-haviva/?#ixzz3QPv7q9ZF

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After ten years, finding her voice

Shayna Rehberg is an unlikely superstar. A 30-year-old religious mother of four originally from Texas and now living in Safed, Shayna walked onto the stage of Israel’s popular singing competition show, Kochav Haba [Next Star], donning her headscarf and long skirt, and made it to the next round following a rendition of Alanis Morisette’s “Ironic”. She impressed the judges perhaps less with her singing — which at times was lilting and commanding and at other times withdrawn and fragile — and more with her life story. She told the judges, and thousands of viewers, that she had stopped singing for ten years because of religion. “This is like coming out of the closet,” Judge Harel Skaat sympathetically told her, adding that it was no different from his own experience of coming out as gay. “You’re coming out of a cage, even if it’s a self-imposed one.” This exchange with Harel Skaat was not only beautiful for its empathy, but also incredibly revealing and insightful about the dynamics of being an Orthodox Jewish woman. The powerful idea that emerged from this exchange is that the custom of women not singing hurts women. It’s a restriction, like Ariel’s curse in The Little Mermaid, of silencing not only voice but also passion and even personality. Singing is a vital expression of life. Music has profound spiritual and emotional meanings. A life without singing can be a deeply painful one, especially for a person who has a special voice. Orthodox Judaism would never consider imposing such a rule on men. It would never enter anyone’s mind to say that a man who loves singing should stop singing. And yet, this is what Orthodoxy does to women all the time. In her interview, Shayna said, “I decided that kol isha is not erva” — that is, that the halakhic description of women’s voices as causing sin is wrong. This was such an inspiring model of empowerment. It is a close-up view of what it means for women to talk back to their culture. I don’t know if the audience realized how hard this is. To be hearing for years — for your whole life, perhaps — about what women’s bodies and voices are or aren’t, and then to wake up and decide that your culture is wrong, well, that’s an incredible moment of awakening. There are a few more interesting points to this performance worth harping on. One is about her marriage. When one of the judges asked her what she had to overcome in order to be able to sing, her response was a shocking, “I filed for divorce.” The implication here, even though not stated explicitly, is that her husband was not letting her sing. This was not surprising for me to learn, even if the public admission had some of the audience booing. But this was also a huge admission of truth. I belong to several different online forums for religious women, and there are constant posts in the style of, “I would...

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Is Orthodox culture responsible for creating the Freundels of the world?

[Published on JTA] MODIIN, Israel (JTA) — With the news that Rabbi Barry Freundel, a prominent Orthodox rabbi, has been arrested for peeping at the naked bodies of his female congregants through a secret camera in the mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, many disturbing questions are being raised about the implications of his suspected transgressions: Does it matter that Freundel is an Orthodox rabbi? Is he just a regular (alleged) creepy pervert? Or did his position of power — and the culture surrounding it — contribute to the acts of which he stands accused? Did Rabbi Barry Freundel’s position of power — and the culture surrounding it — contribute to the acts of which he stands accused? On the one hand, there are some really lovely and good-hearted Orthodox rabbis who have nothing to do with Freundel and abhor the entire story; they do not deserve to be demonized by association. One bad apple — or rabbi, as it may be –  shouldn’t spoil the whole basket. Furthermore, there are sex offenders in pretty much every culture, religion, ethnic group and social class. Violence against women is ubiquitous, unfortunately, so perhaps the particulars of the offender’s social context are not relevant. On the other hand, one cannot help but notice the multiple layers of power, authority and gender hierarchy involved in this story. After all, the scene of the alleged crimes was a mikvah, where women are naked, exposed and reliant on a system of intricate rules about their bodies that have been determined by men. Jewish women traditionally use the mikvah to immerse — fully nude — following menstruation or during conversion, and in some cases to mark significant life events. The practice of ritual immersion is usually overseen by female attendants, except in the case of Orthodox conversion, when three male rabbis also must be present to give approval. If the allegations against Freundel are true, they confirm the worst suspicions about the status of women in Orthodoxy: that the all-male rabbinical clubs support their own members in their efforts to control women’s bodies all the time. Freundel, after all, is suspected of using his authority to grab what he wanted from unsuspecting women. Moreover, Freundel may have targeted female converts — the subset of mikvah-goers who are most at risk of abuse. These very women often do not have enough security in their social position or Jewish knowledge to question the strange demands made by rabbis in the shower room. Thus the scandal raises disturbing questions about the social structures that give men like Freundel unfettered power over Orthodox conversion. (Freudel himself has been extremely active on the conversion issue in recent years, maintaining control of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Conversion Committee and speaking widely as an expert on conversion.) Read more: http://www.jta.org/2014/10/21/default/op-ed-what-the-freundel-scandal-says-about-orthodoxy-1#ixzz3GoGXgpwA

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What the Freundel story says about Orthodox conversion

Last year, I participated in the AJC Conversion Colloquium, a meeting of some 75 Jewish leaders on the Israel conversion crisis (that is, stories of conversions being reversed and not accepted, etc), in which Freundel was one of the "star" speakers, given a large cushy time slot to share his approach to conversion. He promoted himself as the key person to resolve the whole crisis btwn Israel and the US, made himself out to be the one "rescuing" converts by brokering secret deals with the Israeli rabbinate. (Seth Farber was infuriated at the whole thing, as his entire life work was trampled on, and he and Freundel had a very memorable shouting match, but Farber did not formally get the floor, so he lost. Anyway, that's a whole other thing.) So Freundel, who headed the RCA's conversion committee, said something that still sticks with me -- about how "There are people walking around the streets of Israel who think that they're Jewish and probably aren't". And to me - i was like, why should you care that way? What does that even mean that we are thinking about a Jew walking on the streets of Israel who you have determined may not be Jewish? I couldn't get past this imagery. It all smacked of a kind of megalomania, a need to stand at the gates and determine who goes in and who does not. I remember listening to that and thinking, this entire conversion thing is all wrong. Too much obsessive rabbinic control over the people -- especially women, who constitute 80% of converts. But at the time, that's not what I said. When it was my turn on the panel (I was one of three women speakers in the whole day), I pointed out that gender was the "elephant in the room" at the heart of the entire discussion. How the overwhelming majority of speakers were men, how decisions were made exclusively by men, how the ones disproportionately affected by these decisions were powerless women, and how disturbing it was that a roomful of men could sit in this sterile place making determinations about women's lives without having women in positions of power. My comments went nowhere (except to Gary Rosenblatt's story about the event), and the day continued as it was, ignoring gender and allowing men with power to engage with one another and forget about their gender privilege and those whose lives they were controlling. I keep thinking about this, about the layers and layers of rabbinic male control over women, over our bodies and our status and our "permissibility" and our inclusion and our identity. And i'm thinking, really enough. The whole system is wrong. It's all wrong. We are allowing men to be gatekeepers over women's lives and identities and enough is enough. Enough is enough. This story validates our worst fears coming true. The entire conversion system is quite possibly one big male sexual fantasy. It's time to uproot the whole system from its core....

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The RCA knew about Rabbi Freundel's abuse of women converts

I just chatted with an RCA rabbi who has been personally pleading with the RCA for the past TWO YEARS to take Freundel off of the conversion committee because there are apparently MANY testimonies to the fact that he manipulated and abused female conversion candidates. "I knew he was abusive to converts and I had been trying to pressure the RCA to deal with it for 2 years...... His abuse included intimidation, manipulation, forcing them to work as free assistants in his office to 'expedite' their process......He doted way too much on certain girls he picked as favorite.....If i had a nickel for every young female conversion candidate who came to my doorstep because she was afraid of him, felt manipulated by him or whatever, i'd be a rich man...Too many of them were afraid to come forward for fear of having conversions stopped or revoked... oh, and the best part...he would go to them and ask them for money to the tune of thousands of dollars so he could make sure their conversions 'continued to be recognized'." The RCA, rather than deal with Freundel, ostracized the complaining rabbi, dubbing him "not orthodox" and dubbing the women "crazy". The rabbi is now talking anonymously to reporters. This story is indeed confirming the worst suspicions of the Orthodox leadership and the systematic abuse of women.

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Interview with Elanit Rothschild Jakabovics

I've spent the past few days on Facebook (yeah, that's pretty much it), writing and chatting about the Freundel scandal. Feel free to friend me there and engage with me. I will upload some of my posts here as well. In the meantime, I am sharing an interview I did with Elanit Jakabovics, the Kesher Israel president and hero of this whole episode. I interviewed her in 2012 shortly after she became the first female president of the shul. Here is the interview, which was originally posted on the JOFA blog:   Interview with Elanit Z Rothschild Jakabovics Elanit Z Rothschild Jakabovics was recently elected as the first woman president of Kesher Israel Synagogue in Washington, DC. Elanit, a 33-year old management consultant with Grant Thornton and a mother of two originally from Staten Island, is not only the first woman but also the youngest president in the shul, whose rabbi is Rabbi Barry Freundel. JOFA Executive Director Elana Sztokman sat down with Elanit to hear about her new position, and to hear about ways that other women can be inspired to follow suit in their own shuls: WHEN AND HOW DID YOU BECOME SHUL PRESIDENT? The technical answer to this question is that a slate was proposed to the shulmembership in early June 2012 and was voted on at the annual membership meeting at the end of June. My term began on July 1, 2012. Coincidentally enough, I was placed on modified bed rest the last week in June and didn’t make it back to shul for Shabbat until my son’s brit on August 11. I was able to attend some meetings between July 1 and August 4 (when my son was born) during the week, since I drove and stayed off my feet for the most part, but I didn’t really go out on Shabbat, nervous my water would break during my walk. to/from. I think the answer you’re looking for, however, is that I was on the Kesher Board since 2004 and shul president was never a role that many ran towards. So, just based on experience at the shul and a few other variables, it sort of fell in my lap. In 2011, the Board revised its by-laws to explicitly allow for female presidents. See here for a copy of the by-laws and the psak halakha by Rabbi Freundel about it: http://kesher.org/governance/documents/CongregationKesherIsraelBy-Laws-FinalAmendedJune2011.pdf  WAS THIS SOMETHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO DO? Yes and no. I was intrigued by the possibilities but was nervous about the implications and responsibilities that it entailed. Remember, Kesher Israel is a small synagogue, with only two paid employees, so almost everything that is done is by volunteer. The role of president at Kesher isn’t just a role where you get to sit and think about the long term vision of the shul. There are a lot of day-to-day operational/programmatic issues to take care of. Not one day goes by where I’m not taking care of something else that is shul-related. HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR JOB? It’s better than anticipated. I enjoy the relationships and connections I am making with people I did...

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GUEST POST: Yael Unterman

THE FOLLOWING IS A GUEST POST BY NOTED AUTHOR AND EDUCATOR YAEL UNTERMAN I heard Yael Unterman speak about her book a few months ago and found her narratives to be captivating, intelligent and insightful. Yael Unterman is a lecturer, author and creative Torah teacher. Her first book, Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar was a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards.  Her second book, The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing, was published in 2014.  Her website is www.yaelunterman.com Enjoy! In my book "The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love and Longing”, I spin tales of Jewish women and men who are lacking and searching (as do most of us who have any kind of pulse). These seekers of mine are Orthodox. One might suppose that Orthodoxy pushes in the opposite direction, requiring conformity and simple faith, but for me it is here that some of the most interesting and fruitful tensions arise between the old world and the new, forcing me willy-nilly to encounter the clash of values and make personal existential decisions born out of that encounter. The second story in my book, “Species”, tells of Hannah, a 30-year-old single teetering on the brink of changes in her life. Tired of being boxed in by matchmakers and society, of feeling weak, she is crossing various red lines and feeling increasingly attracted to feminism. When she goes to stay on a modern Orthodox kibbutz for Succot, she takes her set of arba minim (the four species waved at Succot) to shul, loving the mitzvah, the smell and the feel of the plants. Standing in the women’s section, she notices she is the only one with a set, and is saddened by the fact that she does not have women’s companionship in this mitzvah. As she shakes the set with gusto and sings the Hallel, she wonders if she stands out, and whether it is arrogant to be the only woman there with a set. At that moment, something rather dramatic occurs. An etrog is hurled over the partition at her, followed by another and another, and then the men start yelling and cursing and lobbing more and more diverse items at her, joined by the women. In the midst of this mayhem, the rabbi seems most concerned to get back to the orderly prayer service. Finally, Hannah, battered and bruised, picks up her lulav and begins swinging back, inspired by the feminist cause, and shouting that she is not doing anything wrong, on the contrary this is a mitzvah. At the same time, she calls out to her attackers to stop, to see her, to accept her and give her support. She does not want to be the outsider – single, feminist, other – she craves the love and acceptance of the community. I leave the story’s end to readers to discover. But I will share that when I read this story out at a book launch in a private house in London,...

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A fantastic HBI breakfast

Susan Weiss and Ronit Irshai, with Haim Sperber

HBI and Dr. Laura S. Schor, board member and former chair, hosted a reception in Israel on June 9 that brought together scholars, artists, authors and activists, all who have been connected to HBI over the years. Elana Sztokman, HBI author and former scholar-in-residence, wrote about her reflections after attending. HBI changed my life. That’s not drama; it’s fact. I thought about it last week when Prof. Shulamit Reinharz, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI) co-director, asked the guests at the 3rd Israeli Gathering of Friends of the HBI to share one thing to which they are thankful to HBI. As I thought about it, I realized – and then shared publicly – that the list of things I have to thank HBI for grows each year.  In fact, I said, HBI support completely altered the trajectory of my life. Susan Weiss and Ronit Irshai, with Haim Sperber As I waited to share my story, I soon learned that many people in that room had similar and inspiring stories. Each of the presenters offered a creative and vital contribution to our understanding of women’s lives and histories, and each one had benefited from HBI support with research, dissertation support, scholar-in-residence opportunities, artist-in-residence opportunities, translation funding, and of course the publication of books. My relationship with HBI began in 2006 when I received the Junior Research Award for a study of the identities of Orthodox men. This work grew into my first book, which HBI generously published under the title, The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World, a title that I love, that Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman, HBI co-director, helped me formulate. HBI launched the book in 2011 and sent me on a whirlwind book tour in early 2012, thanks to the incredible generosity of former HBI board chair Dr. Laura Schor. This book won the 2012 National Jewish Book Council award in the category, Women’s Studies. Then, HBI published my second book, co-written with my colleague Dr. Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman, titled, Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools, which went on to win the 2013 JBC award in the category, Education and Identity. This has all been an incredible experience, propelling me into a whole new level of academic and communal engagement via research and writing. I am enormously grateful to HBI and indebted to the organization for sending me on this incredible journey, and for turning me into a writer.   CONTINUE READING HERE

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