Jewfem Blog

Standing by our Jewish Values

JPOST -- Since Trump took office, it has been difficult for me to be an American-Israeli. Watching fellow Israelis and American-Israelis cheer for a man who has no moral compass or capacity for empathy has been chilling. Moreover, the realization that so many members of my tribe care more about soulless buildings – like, say, an embassy – than...

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Why Does Michael Oren Think American Jewish Democrats Need 'Conversion Therapy'? @Haaretz with Heather Stone

by Heather Stone  and Elana Sztokman  Michael Oren is an observant guy. The former Israeli Ambassador to the United States and current deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office recently noticed that many progressive American Jews are unhappy with Israel. That's the good news – and does not in itself constitute evidence that he has gone off the rails, as Haaretz's Allison Kaplan Sommer hinted. Unfortunately, rather than engaging with the sentiment of American-Jewish disappointment in Israel, he has taken the patronizing approach of asserting that progressives need to be "reformed". This is not only a bad sign for Oren. It is also a bad omen for the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community. In a recent interview with The Times of Israel, Oren cited a recent Pew study that found that a nearly equal number of American Jews sympathized with Israel as sympathized with the Palestinians. Taking a Rocky Balboa approach to that statistic, as if political views are a winner-takes-all fight-to-the-death prize to be won, he proposed using some Israeli mega-budgets to target Jewish progressives in order to convince them (us) that we are wrong. His idea reads like a strange cross between kiruv and conversion therapy. As if to say that American Jews who hold progressive views must have something wrong with their brains or their chemistry. Cue eye-roll.  His idea reads like a strange cross between kiruv and conversion therapy. As if to say that American Jews who hold progressive views must have something wrong with their brains or their chemistry. Cue eye-roll.   As those who would be the likely target of such a campaign – we are the Chair and Vice-Chair of Democrats Abroad, Israel – we would like to clarify that his proposed strategy is not only obnoxious but also doomed to failure. There are a few things wrong with his whole idea. First of all, sympathy is not a zero-sum -game. Just because a person sympathizes with Palestinians does not mean that they do not sympathize with Israel or vice versa.This is such a crucial piece of understanding that some of our leaders in Israel and America would do well to note. Jews have some good points, and Palestinians have some good points. It is not one or the other. The future cannot be viewed as us-or-them. Maybe if we stopped this square thinking that "sympathy" is weakness and instead experimented with complex understandings that appreciate all people as real humans, we would be able to find a way out of this ugly quagmire called The Conflict. Second of all, despite Oren’s assertion, the Democratic Party is not anti-Israel or even pro-BDS. The Democratic Party platform promotes a two-state solution and rejects BDS. Some people are so accustomed to demonizing Democratic leaders with hyperbole, lies, and fear-mongering that they lose sight of basic facts. Progressives are not radical extremists. Actually, we believe that we are kind of, you know, normal. Furthermore, progressives are currently bearing the entire burden of moral leadership in America....

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Mike Pence’s Israel Trip Was An Affront To Women: @TheForward

Women were segregated at the Western Wall this week. During Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to the Kotel, female journalists were relegated to the back. The segregation came not during a religious event but rather during a diplomatic visit. And the women who were sent to the back of the pack were not praying women but rather professional journalists and photographers. They had to stand behind the men and behind a fence and could not see what was happening. They didn’t take it lying down. As journalist Noga Tarnopolsky who was there, wrote on Twitter, “This was an aberrant first.”  And yet, the episode was not abnormal in a country like Israel, where the exclusion of women has become increasingly normalized, not only at the Kotel but also on planes, in trains, and at cemeteries. But this was still a new low for women. It was not abnormal for Israel — nor for their guest, Mike Pence. Pence is infamous for his retrograde views of women, brought his views on women with him on his trip to Israel. This is a man who believes that working women stunt their children’s growth. As governor of Indiana, Pence signed a record number of anti-abortion bills, including the infamous HEA 1337 that bans abortion even in cases of unviable fetuses, and demands the burial of all potential fetus remains — including menstrual blood.  As if that weren’t enough, Pence tried to redefine “rape” in a bill in order to limit access to abortion, even for women who would die without care. He also cosponsored the appalling “personhood” legislation that could ban birth control. Politico dubbed Pence a “one man crusade” against women’s reproductive health when he led the campaign to completely defund Planned Parenthood. From the evil to absurd, Pence once used Mulan as proof that women should not serve in the military. Less funny is the fact that he famously refuses to sit alone with a woman who is not his wife, which would prevent women from working, say, as a chief of staff or as vice president. His refusal to be alone with women also maintains the annoying presumption that women are always a sexual temptation to men, no matter what the circumstances.   Rather than taking a stand against Pence’s misogyny, Israel was quick to accommodate it with their own. In the space of an hour at the Kotel, Pence’s visit became the occasion for sending women back even further than usual by preventing professional women from working side by side with their male counterparts. When both radical religious Judaism and radical religious Christianity intersect on the oppression of women, we are all in trouble. Read more:

"God Bless Trump" signs litter Jerusalem: At the Scribe

“God Bless Trump!” read the placards and signs all over Jerusalem. A three-story poster in this exuberant praise of the current American president hangs a few meters from my son’s dorm room in the center of town. He can barely sleep because of the flashiness of it. I can barely sleep because of the implications of it. A year in to this reality, I still cannot believe that this man is the president. He is not only a compulsive liar, narcissist, and bully, he is also an admitted sexual assailant. Knowing that sixty million Americans so easily dismissed his behavior towards women in favor of whatever it is that they saw in him has made me extremely distrustful of my compatriots. When I meet people that voted for him or support him – and that incredibly includes people whom I consider friends – I am always uneasy and actually hurt that the sexual assault of women means so little to them, that so many other things were more important than women’s trauma. This remains very hard.   This new development, however, in which many coreligionists think he is the Messiah because he declared Jerusalem the capital, has added a new layer to my psychic angst. They actually think he is a gift from God. The pussy-grabber-in-chief has now been elevated in status among certain Jews because he has taken a unilateral decision about Jerusalem that sets him squarely on the side of the most right-wing members of the tribe, no matter what the implications of this decision may be. We know that for many Jews, a politician’s worth is based entirely on his or her allegiance to right-wing ideas about Israel, which is why Trump received such a strong vote among Orthodox Jewish Americans. Only Israel matters. Still, when I witness the “Only Israel matters” approach to politics in the Trump context, I am reminded once again of how little women are valued in the Jewish community. So many of my coreligionists continue to throw women under the bus. Our needs as a woman are unimportant compared to the perceived needs of Israel. Read more:

Supermarket bill marks another victory of radical orthodoxy on Israeli culture

Politics in Israel reached a new low this week when ultra-Orthodox lawmakers were so desperate to pass a bill that they tried to drag grieving Knesset member Yehuda Glick from alongside his wife’s fresh grave in order to vote in the Knesset. The bill in question would ban supermarkets from remaining open on Shabbat. I suppose even though Jewish law says that Shabbat does not trump saving a life, according to these MKs, Shabbat trumps shiva. Or maybe, in the eyes of some misguided leaders, controlling religion in Israel trumps all. The Supermarket bill says that municipalities will not be allowed to keep stores open on Shabbat unless they have express approval from the Interior Minister – who is currently ultra-Orthodox Shas and former inmate MK Aryeh Deri. Although there was some debate about gas stations and convenience stores, the bill passed its first reading this week as is. It is well-known that the ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel controls quite a bit of life for the rest of Israel. All matters of marriage, divorce and conversion require the approval of the rabbinic courts, which are controlled by ultra-Orthodox parties. Although some independent moderate-Orthodox groups have certain approval for conversions, they must be approved by the same Shas-controlled Interior Ministry. In other words, when it comes to Jewish identity and personal status, ultra-Orthodox politicians already have the final say. What is perhaps less well-known, however, is how religious rules control Sabbath observance. Due to pressure from religious parties, there is no public transport in most cities in Israel, making it impossible for many people to get around on their only real day off. This means that non-car-owners who work hard all week, or kids who come home from the army or from university, for example, and want to get together with their friends or go to the beach have no real way to do this.  And non-Jews in Israel – whether citizens, visiting tourists, or long-term volunteers – are completely stuck on Shabbat. For many of them, Shabbat in Israel is a form of lock-down. This supermarket bill makes Shabbat even worse. It constitutes one more nail in the coffin of what we might call a normal weekend.  Tellingly, Meir Yitzhak Halevi, the mayor of Eilat – a town whose economy is based 90% on weekend tourism – said that his city will be “completely doomed” if this bill passes. “The coalition, led by Deri, is making a mockery of us – the free public in Israel.” wrote MK Michal Rosin on her Facebook page.  “Nobody is asking to open up stores in [the ultra-Orthodox towns of] Bnei Brak or Meah Shearim. We will not impose our lifestyle on anyone. By contrast, the haredi parties and Jewish Home, with the embarrassing support of Likud and Kulanu, are ready to throw the free majority in Israel under the bus time and again.” Yisrael Beytenu, the Russian party led by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman that has a very secular base even though it sits...

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That time the rabbi nearly made the study hall collapse -- or Talmudic lessons in compassion

I gave my first session in Talmud this week at HUC, in my Introduction to Talmud class with Rabbi Alona Lisitsa. Even though I have learned this passage many times over the years, I read it with new eyes. Would love to hear your thoughts.   Rabbi Eliezer was a difficult guy. He lived albeit 1800 years ago, but the Talmud recalls his personality with such vividness that we can easily recognize the type –  you know, the one who does not let up no matter what, the one who is constantly screaming about the same issue and you all just want him to go away. We can feel in the text how much his colleagues and peers found him to be an annoying stickler. So much so that they excommunicated him. They ousted him, and they ruined his life, taking away everything that was dear to him – even as they knew that he was right about, well, everything. Can you imagine? He may have been right, but he was very much alone. His wife was so worried about his depressed state following all this that she would not let him recite the prayer of supplication (tachanun) that requires bending over. He was so down that she was afraid he would never get up. That is how affected he was by the fact that his colleagues refused to see things his way. The story goes like this. According to the text in tractate Baba Metzia (59a), there was a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and, well, everyone else, about the purity of a certain oven. According to the majority of the rabbis, this oven – called tanur shel achnai, or “The serpent’s oven” – lost its purity when it broke. Rabbi Eliezer says that even though it is broken, it was put back together with sand and should be treated as pure as every other oven. That entire debate takes exactly one line of the Talmud. But then something happens. Something strange, mysterious, wild and crazy-making. Rabbi Eliezer does not take no for an answer. He continues to argue. He brings up every proof he knows. The other rabbis refuse to concede. He looks around. “If I am right,” he says. “This carob tree will prove it!” The carob tree jumps 100 meters (amot, actually). Some say 400 meters. The rabbis didn’t flinch. “We don’t bring proofs from carob,” they said. “If I am right, let this aqueduct prove it,” he said. The aqueduct quickly complied, and began flowing backwards. The rabbis were like, meh. “We don’t bring proofs from aqueducts,” they sneered. Rabbi Eliezer was getting frustrated with his impenetrable peers. “If I am right, let the walls of this study hall prove it,” he said. The walls started coming down, and only the intervention of Rabbi Joshua stopped them from landing on the entire study population. Legend has it that the walls stayed half-up, like the leaning tower of Pisa, till this day. And yet, despite all these supernatural...

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Seriously, 92Y - You Might Be Ready For Ari Shavit’s Come Back, But We Aren’t (or, why Jewish orgs are still hiring admitted sexual predators)

 As the world continues to shake with revelations of sexual abuse in the most high-profile corridors of power and the #MeToo realization that it is nearly impossible to find a woman who has not been affected by sexual harassment, some members of Jewish communal leadership seem to be living in a cave. I knew this was true. Still, it’s shocking to meet this reality head on. When I learned this week that the 92nd Street Y is advertising admitted sexual predator Ari Shavit as their keynote speaker to mark Israel’s 70th anniversary, it became unambiguously clear that the insulated, powerful, and tone-deaf Jewish boys’ club is still running the show, to the detriment of women and all victims of sexual assault.On the most basic level, this decision ignores women as consumers. The idea that women and sexual assault victims would be horrified by this choice apparently did not occur to the organizers. That we would never come to an event like this doesn’t seem to matter. Whoever the victims of sexual abuse are – women and men alike – we are irrelevant. We are not even considered as potential attendees. It is a stunning dismissal of victims from the community. It reminds me of how every time I click on a link on a browser that pops open a window for call girls, I face the reality not only of the commodification of women’s bodies but also of the default assumption that all consumers are at least perceived to be men. In fact, the dominant assumption in so many areas of business and communal life is not only that a typical consumer is male, but that he is a heterosexual male who has no problem with the sexual objectification of women. It seems that these same dark forces controlling my internet browser are also making decisions at the 92Y. All they see is men, particularly ones who have no problem with sexual abuse. Read more:

The pretty face of the Jewish boys' club

  I was ambushed yesterday. And it left me shuddering. And it gave me a deeply distressing glimpse into the workings of the Jewish boys’ club. The ambush had a very pretty mask. And it is terrifying. A guy asked me for a meeting for networking. He had all the trappings of being a Nice Guy – he had an easy smile, gentle voice, clean cut appearance, beard and knitted kippah, and a generous use of flattery. I should have recognized this. He did all the classic, effective getting-to-know-you stuff: He said he knows my work, he has read my research, he is a Reform rabbi and studied at HUC and is interested in my current experiences there, he knows my husband, his wife knows my husband, and wouldn’t it be great to connect. It all sounded so normal. I said I don’t have a lot of time these days, so he suggested coming to my school and meeting me during my tight one-hour lunch break. I said okay. After ten minutes of smiling and chatting, he uttered a sentence that began, “The real reason I wanted to meet you with such urgency.....” That should have been a red flag. If I have an agenda for a meeting, I put that agenda up front. If someone asks to meet for one reason but actually has a totally different reason, that could be a sign of manipulation. It isn’t always. After all, if someone wants to ask me for  something easy and innocuous like a recommendation or an introduction, then it is fine to bring that up at the meeting and not in advance. But if you want something big from another person and want to take their much-needed one free hour for that request, you had better be honest about that. So what was the urgency? “I got a call from a colleague I know,” he began, “a man who is concerned because his name appears on a list of men in the Jewish community who are accused of sexual abuse.” The backstory is this: In one of the groups online dealing with sexual abuse since the #MeToo movement, some people decided to create an anonymous sheet for collecting women’s experiences with sexual abuse in the Jewish community. This initiative came out of the realization that the only reason why the Harvey Weinstein story came out at all was because of a sheet like this in which women were able to post anonymously about their experiences of sexual abuse. Within a matter of days, certain names came up frequently, and then some reporters decided to dig further into those names, which eventually led to the New York Times story. The reason why this was so crucial in that movement is victims are very reluctant to come forward. Their lives were ruined once by their abusers, and coming forward means that they may have their lives ruined once again. Think Anita Hill.  This is not speculation or an exceptional incident. This is...

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When the abuser is a woman

I’ve been hearing and talking a lot about sexual abuse, like so many other people. And not only from the news, and not only from sharing stories of our lives, but also from reading Genesis. (Yes, I sound like a rabbinical student, don’t I?). What can I say, the Torah portion readings from the past two months have been swamped with stories of sexual impropriety – the pimping of Sara, the incest of Lot’s daughters, the rape of Dina, the using of Tamar by her father-in-law – just as in parallel, hundreds of stories of sexual abuse are being revealed in #MeToo stories. It’s coming at us from all sides. What happened thousands of years ago doesn’t seem that different from what is happening today. But today, I’m reading a different kind of story. Preparing for the Torah portion that I’m reading tomorrow, I am learning about Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. (Or, as Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote in his musical, Joseph , “It’s all there in chapter 39 of Genesis.”) The millionaire’s wife, according to both the Bible and Weber, relentlessly hit on the head servant, Joseph. When he resisted and ran out into the street undressed, she quickly changed the story, framing him for assaulting her. Everyone believed her. Nobody believed him. Her story was understandable, as she is a woman. His was not, because he was a lowly servant.  He went to prison. She went on. It is the first recorded case of woman-instigated sexual harassment in the workplace, from over 3000 years ago, and the narrator is sympathetic to the male victim. How progressive. The issue of women-instigated sexual abuse remains one of the last taboos in this ugly topic of sexual abuse. I understand why. I am also guilty of putting this topic on the back burner. I’ve done this because so much of sexual abuse has to do with the sexual objectification of women by men. It is part of a larger system in which men have disproportionate power to do this – men hold more positions of power, they often have better jobs and lots more money on the whole than women, as well as intricate formal and informal networks with which to sustain each other, as Harvey Weinstein was so well-kept by men in power all around the world. Injecting the reality that women do this, too, can be too distracting from that narrative. I don’t want to talk about it so much – even though I, too, have also been sexually harassed by a woman; even though so many women I know have been verbally-sexually harassed by women but may not even know it; even though I know all this to be true. Despite all this, I have refrained from writing about women who abuse because I wanted to give the topic of men abusing women its crucial moment. It’s having its moment. And so now I think it is time to talk about the women who abuse. As painful as that subject...

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Dr Judith Rosenbaum brings excitement about Jewish women’s historical achievements to HUC

  “This is the first time I have ever received a fellowship named for a woman,” Dr. Judith Rosenbaum reflected as she opened her first talk as the Sally Priesand Fellow at Hebrew Union College this week. Dr. Rosenbaum, who is the Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive as well as a decorated and accomplished Jewish feminist historian, came to HUC to teach about Jewish women, feminism, and her mother. Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of the death of her mother, Professor Paula Hyman, a pioneering Jewish feminist who broke many glass ceilings. Dr. Rosenbaum will be speaking on Shabbat about feminism, Judaism, and her mother’s legacy at the HUC synagogue in Jerusalem. And she brought along her 10-year-old daughter, Ma’ayan with her, making the celebration of Jewish girls and women a truly intergenerational project. “It is incredible to stand under Rabbi Sally Priesand’s banner,” Dr Rosenbaum told the HUC rabbinical students. “It means that Jewish feminism has really come into its next cycle, the next generation.” Rabbi Priesand was the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi in America – in 1972, as part of the Reform movement. For many years everyone thought that she was the first woman ever to be ordained. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, when records and archives opened up, the world learned about Rabbi Regina Jonas, a Jewish woman who was ordained in 1935 Germany. She served rabbinical duties even in Theresienstadt, and she was tragically murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz in 1944. “The people who knew Regina Jonas’ story did not share it with the world,” Dr. Rosenbaum remarked. “We don’t know why. Her story was almost lost to us.” Scholars discovered a small box that Rabbi Jonas has kept safe, which included many of her writings and sermons, Dr Rosenbaum explained. It was a treasure, without which we may have never truly known about her remarkable achievements.   HUC Dean Rabbi Naamah Kelman, who broke a lot of glass ceilings herself –  including becoming the first woman to be ordained as rabbi in Israel – provided more vibrant context about Dr. Rosenbaum’s visit. “Your mother was my mentor,” Rabbi Kelman said about Professor Hyman, who was the first woman dean of the Seminary College of Jewish Studies, first to chair a Judaic Studies department at a major university, possibly the first woman to hold a chair in Judaic Studies, and one of the founders of Ezrat Nashim, one of the first Jewish feminist organizations, in 1971. Then 1973 marked the first ever gathering of some 500 women sponsored by Network, a Jewish Students organization. It was called The Jewish Women’s Conference. "I like to describe it as the Big Bang of Jewish feminism," Rabbi Kelman said. “I was the youngest one there, all of 18 years old. That is where I met some of the most amazing women who become my friends and mentors over the years, like your mother,” she said to Dr. Rosenbaum.   Dr. Rosenbaum’s...

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