Jewfem Blog

Do women support women as leaders?

"It’s no secret that women have a hard time supporting one another. Sure, we’ll bring each other lasagnas and casseroles when we’re sick, and we’ll give each other warm hugs as we listen to one another kvetch. But real support, the kind where we stand behind one another and say, “This woman is my leader; I trust in her vision, and I am willing to follow her,” well, not so much. As Facebook Chief Operating Officer and “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg has pointed out, when women are successful, we all tend to attribute their success to luck or to pluck rather than to intelligence and worthiness. The more women have ambition and vision, the less they are considered likable, by women and men alike. When a woman does well, she tends to hear things like, “You must be lucky,” or, “You’re obviously persistent,” as opposed to, say, “You’re a skilled, intelligent visionary.” We tend to be more comfortable with women as soft, submissive and servile than we are with women of power. Jewish women — and yes, even Jewish feminists, even Orthodox feminists — need some rethinking and retraining in how we support one another. We need to take a page from Sandberg’s playbook. Orthodox women face most of the same issues that she has been talking about, plus more. I would argue that the very qualities that make Orthodox women so remarkable — the ability to manage regular weekly four-course gourmet meals for 20 while working full time and helping a bunch of kids with homework and soccer — also keep us from raising our chins. We’re so busy managing the pitchifkes, or day to day items, of our lives that we forget to see ourselves and other women as great leaders. It’s time for Orthodox women to unlearn this. We need to create social and communal structures that teach us how to empower one another, how to back one another, and how to form communal-feminist scaffolding for one another’s success and advancement. We need to unlearn an entire lifetime of conditioning that has made us doubt other women’s worthiness. We need to practice letting go of our dismissive, small-minded micro-managing and start embracing words and practices that strengthen and bolster one another’s work and vision. This does not happen automatically or naturally; these are behaviors that need to be taught and learned. It’s about undoing decades of internalized sexism. That takes work." Read more:  

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How Ruth Calderon Inspired me

Dr. Ruth Calderon is starting a revolution in Israel. The new Knesset member on Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party is a Talmudic scholar who built two secular batei midrash (houses of learning), Elul and Alma, both of which are among the most significant educational institutions at the center of the Jewish secular renewal in Israel. And this week, in her introductory speech at the Knesset, she did something astonishing: She taught a passage of Talmud. This was remarkable for several reasons. First, Israeli society has been trained to associate traditional Jewish sources with the ultra-Orthodox community, whose entire belief that only elite orthodox men can truly understand Talmud is at the heart of some of the most heated debates about social and economic issues in Israel. Suddenly, we had a secular feminist breaking all of the molds and expectations by owning the text. Moreover, she taught the text — a passage from Ketubat 62b about Rabbi Rechumei, who forgot to come home to his wife on Yom Kippur. And she taught it with the tenderness and care of someone who deeply loves the text. The ultra-Orthodox community is already terrified at this reality. “She is challenging our entire way of life,” the Kikar Shabbat website wrote this morning, as if to say that a secular woman to be embracing Talmud this way goes against many of their sacred assumptions. What’s more, Dr. Calderon brilliantly wove the text into a message about these very secular-religious rifts in society. Using the finesse of a movie director, she likened Rabbi Rechumei and his wife to secular Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Israelis, each one living a different life and not understanding the other. It was an interpretation that used the Talmud as a source of wisdom and insight for contemporary issues. The very presence of an incredibly brilliant female Talmudic scholar teaching a (still) predominantly-male group, with her grace, virtuosity and erudition, was an arresting sight. But it’s not just what she taught but also how she taught. Her reading of the text was enlightened, inspired and real. She brought the story to life, connecting it to the human condition, making it relatable and present. Her reading of the words was literal, which clearly troubled the Shas Speaker of the Knesset, who rudely interrupted her and offered a much more midrashic, “traditional” and, in my opinion, stretched, reading. In one of the greatest moments of the talk, while Knesset members loudly chastised the Speaker for interrupting, Dr. Calderon gracefully turned to him and said, “That’s okay. I’m always happy to share words of Torah.” That kind of gentility is not something that is often seen in the Knesset. It was at that moment when I realized the enormity of the change she is ushering in. This is not just about teaching Talmud but about challenging the entire social discourse in Israel. Dr. Calderon is a great rebbe, now Knesset member. The possibilities are captivating. Read more:

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From the JOFA blog: Dr. Tamar Frankiel, First Orthodox Woman to head rabbinical School

Dr. Tamar Frankiel, an accomplished and impressive Jewish scholar, was recently appointed President of the Academy for Jewish Religion in California (AJRCA), making her the first Orthodox woman to head a rabbinical college. The author of seven books on Jewish mysticism and religion, including one on women in Judaism titled, The Voice of Sarah: Feminine Spirituality and Traditional Judaism, Dr. Frankiel has an illustrious record of teaching and scholarship and is considered a leading expert on Jewish mysticism. In honor of her new appointment, Dr. Frankiel shared some of her experiences and insights with JOFA Executive Director Elana Sztokman:  How long have you been involved with AJRCA? Eleven years, first as faculty, then as Dean of Students in 2003, and Dean of Academic Affairs in 2008. Tell me a little bit about your background (professionally and religiously). I have been in academia for over thirty years, mostly in part-time positions because I was also raising a family of five and wanted to be doing research and writing as well. We also needed to be in a place with good Jewish education, which limited our choices. Until I came to AJRCA, I worked in public universities teaching world religions, American religions, and some Jewish studies, and also had been teaching in the Jewish community in adult education venues. I have been observant for almost the same length of time, after coming to Judaism as an adult and growing into it with my husband.  First, in northern California, we were with affiliated with a Renewal group, then with Chabad.  In Los Angeles, we have had many Jewish choices and have been regularly affiliated with two small congregations.   How does it feel to be in your new position? I am very excited and eager to do this work. I worked very closely with Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, the previous president of AJRCA (also orthodox), and led the school through the process of academic accreditation, so I have been involved with all levels of the school. In that sense, it is a natural step for me.  But at the same time, representing AJRCA to the community is another dimension. What does it mean to be the "first orthodox woman heading a rabbinical school"? Let's be clear that this is a trans-denominational school, independent, not affiliated with any movement. It is not just a rabbinical school though; we educate rabbis, cantors, and chaplains to serve a wide spectrum of Jewish communities, but we do not expect our clergy graduates to be accepted by Orthodox congregations because of different norms and standards -- including that AJRCA ordains women. Still, even among liberal rabbinical schools, it is a rare position for a woman. According to our research, there has been only one other female president, in the 1990s at the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York (we are not affiliated schools, though we were briefly affiliated in the past, hence the similar names). Surely, with more women on rabbinical and cantorial faculties, there will be a female president...

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Will these election herald in the "year of the woman"? My op-ed in Ha'aretz

The proud feminism of an unprecedented number of women political leaders is new to the Israeli political scene. But after the elections, there will be a lot of work to do to translate this into real leverage and real change for women in Israel. Tzipi Livni and Shelly Yacimovich. Photo by Nir Kafri Israel’s Election Day is upon us, but the women’s vote is still up for grabs. Parties from right to left, religious and secular, are engaging in an overt battle to appeal not only to women, but to feminist-minded folks in general. This is an unprecedented trend in Israeli politics, and if Israel follows the recent American elections, women may constitute a still-underestimated demographic in the Israeli election. From the beginning of this election season, there have been several key moments marked by historic gender events. Not only are there currently six parties headed by women, including two major parties – Shelly Yacimovich of Labor and Tzipi Livni of Hatnuah – but all of these women are also actively advocating for a broad feminist agenda of gender equity. In fact, women representatives of all major parties gathered last week in a remarkable show of cross-party collaboration to jointly advocate for women’s leadership. This is the first election where these powerful calls are being heard in such a multi-partisan way. Moreover, the proud feminism is new. Golda Meir, the only woman prime minister in Israel’s history, may have broken the Knesset ceiling that one time in 1969, but she was also avowedly anti-feminist. Yacimovich, by contrast, was elected as her party leader after having spent an entire career as a feminist activist. Livni, who was known to distance herself Golda-like from the pro-feminist agenda during her stint as justice minister, has done a complete about-face over the past few years, openly seeking out feminist allies and making frequent and unequivocal statements about the collective challenges that women face. “I used to think that the obstacles I faced in politics were my own,” Livni famously said at a feminist conference at Ben Gurion University two years ago, “but I finally realized that women everywhere face the same obstacles. That was a turning point for me.”

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Women in Israel Fight for Their Voice

When asked at a JOFA panel about the status of women in Israel and what can be done to protect women’s basic rights, I replied that I would first make it illegal for a political party that has no women on its list to run for the Knesset. Thankfully, I’m not alone in this sentiment. In fact, a new movement is beginning to form of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox women fighting against the exclusion of women from religious political parties. Esti Shoshan, a haredi journalist, recently started a Facebook page called Lo nivharot, lo boharot, which means “If we can’t be elected, we are not voting.” As of this writing, the group has over 800 likes — perhaps not the stuff of a Steve Jobs fan page, but signs of movement nonetheless. And it comes at a particularly significant time in the development of religious politics. The legality of religious parties of Shas and United Torah Judaism is currently being debated by the Elections Council, under the leadership of Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein, based on a petition filed by a coalition of seven organizations led by Jerusalem city council member Laura Wharton contesting the systemic exclusion of women from party lists. “The sad situation of women’s under-representation in the Knesset, is imminent,” the petition states, adding that, “an absurd situation has been created in which the country subsidizes bodies that discriminate against women.” Women have a “different role” than men, Shas and United Torah Judaism wrote in their response. “The parties function, as demanded by the halakha (Jewish law), with clear segregation between men and women for reasons of modesty. Men have one role and women have another. This segregation does not exclude women, discriminate against them nor deem them less worthy than men.” Read more:

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Saying goodbye to Joanna Samuels

The event was a tremendous gathering of Jewish feminists. The fifty people in the room — almost all women — came from organizations representing many aspects of Jewish life: Reform rabbis, a dean at the Jewish Theological Seminar, Orthodox clergy and senior professionals from a range of Jewish women’s organizations. We were all there because Joanna and AWP had touched us in some way. Remember her commitment to pledging men as allies in promoting women’s leadership? Her guidance in teaching women how to “ask”? Her efforts at promoting women’s advancement in Jewish organizations? A tribute to Joanna as well as the diverse and wide reach of AWP, the good-bye party became a celebration of the minds and spirits of Jewish women, especially those who spend their lives making a difference in the Jewish community through not-for-profit work. Read more:

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Kadima without Livni

Tzipi Livni, the incumbent Kadima chair who lost Tuesday’s party primary to former Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, is not your typical Israeli politician. She’s just not slimy enough. When she speaks, she seems to be telling you what she actually believes. In a profile of her in Yediot Aharonot last year, the worst thing people said about her was that she wasn’t friendly enough and sometimes closed her door so as not to be interrupted. So either she is too aloof or too protective of her privacy. Either way, she didn’t play the game right. Actually, that’s probably why she lost. She does not have the callousness required to win in Israeli politics. Shaul Mofaz, on the other hand, we have a glut of guys like him in Israeli politics — men who think that they have everything coming to them because they know how to lead troops to war. What this has to do with actually running an actual country eludes me, unless you count the demands for an inflated ego and a big car, which seem to be common to both jobs. The overabundance of generals leading our fragile nation explains a lot about the situation we are in vis à vis our neighbors as well as vis à vis ourselves: Everything is viewed as a war. Whether talking about security, environmental issues or social justice, the general — or former general — always sees the other person as an adversary to be out-maneuvered, out-manipulated and ultimately beaten. It explains why despite months of intense and broadly supported social justice protests, little has changed. In fact, electricity prices went up 26% in the past 12 months. Read more:

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What Hillary Got Right About Israel


Hillary Clinton/ Getty Images  Hillary Clinton has made some important people in Israel angry. But she has made a whole bunch of other people, especially women, really happy. I, for one, am grateful to Clinton.

I’m referring, of course, to her now viral comments that she is “worried” about Israel democracy, and about the status of women. Both issues should give all of us pause, and she gets a special kudos for linking the two issues, something no public figure had effectively done until now.

Clinton’s democracy concern stems from a series of troubling legislation that has recently been discussed and in some cases passed in the Knesset, led by several key Likud and Yisrael Beitenu parliamentarians. The bills that have been tabled over the past few months include: the Defamation Bill that, as the Forward explains here, would make life difficult for journalists reporting on activities of Knesset members; the Supreme Court Justice Appointment Bill, which gives Knesset Members increased powers in the process of appointing Supreme Court justices; the NGO Bill, which prohibits “foreign governmental bodies” from donating to “political” NGOs in Israel — followed by the tax bill that also proposes enormous taxes on foreign donations, and the Basic Law — The Judiciary, which aims to restrain NGOs from bringing lawsuits to the High Court of Justice.

All of these bills have one thing in common: shifting Israel’s already dubious system of checks and balances. Every single one of these laws is intended to restrain power wielded against the government, especially power that comes from the judicial system, by strengthening the executive and legislative branches of government, which are effectively one and the same.

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Women in Leadership in Modi'in

The City of Modi'in, Israel, may yet see 50% female representation on its City Council in the next election. Mayor Haim Bibas, speaking at an evening dedicated to women in leadership last week, said that he personally hopes to see women as fully equals in the local party lists in 2013.

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Thoughts on leadership

Recent events in the Likud party exposing layers of corruption and criminal activity have brought up a nagging question for me: Can a person be both a great leader and a great human being?

I used to think of this as the quintessential "Bill Clinton" question - named for the man who managed to do some marvelous things for his country while privately behaving like a pig – although clearly the issue predates Bill. A quick sampling of twentieth century leaders includes: John F. Kennedy the forgiven adulterer; Theodore Herzl, the STD-infected, womanizing alcoholic; Sigmund Freud, the delusional, controlling, sex-obsessed misogynist. It’s a typecast, the powerful guy who makes headlines but you wouldn't want to marry or work for him.

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