Sisterhood Blog

Why Is a Swimsuit Model Headlining a JTS Event?

By Joanna Samuels

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Headlining a recent community email from the Jewish Theological Seminary was a phrase that was conspicuously out of place: swimsuit model. The email touted the participation of the Conservative movement’s flagship seminary in an event hosted by “Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Esti Ginzburg,” and sponsored by Birthright NEXT and the Council of Young Jewish Presidents. Described as “an evening of fashion and passion” the event was billed as “a major opportunity for guests to get a sense of the incredible variety of Jewish engagement opportunities in New York — and to party with hundreds of other professional, active, vibrant, young Jews.”

I am not a development professional, but I will go out on a limb here and say that an institution that trains clergy should probably stay away from events fronted by swimsuit models. People who learn, teach, and advocate for the highest values of our tradition are not going to increase Judaism’s appeal — or their own — through forcing an association with low-brow celebrity culture. The religious leaders who chase after celebrities in the name of kiruv — lo and behold! — often turn out to be using their Torah-for-the-masses public face as a screen for their own narcissism or social climbing. We can all name our favorite examples.

The actual event is unlikely to raise any feminist red flags. The swimsuit model will not be wearing a swimsuit, and the fashion show will showcase three Israeli designers whose clothing will be worn by an equal number of male and female models. (At last, a public event in the Jewish community with gender parity!) At the end of the runway show, attendees will be invited to learn about the work that the various invited organizations do in the community. The organizational representatives will, in turn, hope against hope that some of these fashion-savvy Gen Y-ers will become future affiliates and donors. In this light, the event actually sounds like it could appeal to the three or four 20-somethings whose interests encompass both Israeli fashionand Wissenschaft des Judentums — the scientific study of Judaism and one of the principles on which JTS was founded.

So why sell the event by headlining it with a swimsuit model whose picture in the event’s promotional poster is sexually suggestive? Right! to bring in the Unaffiliated Young People, a group so important that any Jewish value can be transgressed to attract their attention for even a moment! Because what we all wish was better represented in our communities is the type of individual who needs to be enticed with a swimsuit model in order to affiliate.

If this event is indeed successful — if it reaches out to a new group of Jews who are seduced by nothing other than the come-hither pose of Esti Ginzburg, if what it really truly takes to get this prized young demographic of Gen Y males (and the women who love them) in the door is to staff that door with a model — then I think our problems are a lot worse than we thought.

Rabbi Joanna Samuels, a Conservative rabbi, is Director of Strategic Initiatives at Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community.

Chaya Wed. Nov 4, 2009

I don't think it is so bad that she is headlining the event. She may model swimsuits but first and foremost she is a Jew, a Jewish woman who happens to model swimsuits for a living. Just because she does this doesn't mean she is any less Jewish or that she doesn't do other things. You are completely defining her by her job. If she wants to get involved in Jewish life and use her celebrity power to attract other Jews to Jewish events than I think that is great. If someone needs a little celebrity or swimsuit model push to get more involved in Jewish life, than fine. Let it be. This seems like a fun, fresh and interesting event! I am glad JTS is having it.

Chaim Wed. Nov 4, 2009

I would tend to agree with the comment by Chaya and further disagree with the writers opinion. SI's Swimsuit Editions are one of the biggest and longest lasting success stories of the media world and many men and women do not hold the same opinion as you, so lets be cautious in calling it "low brow celebrity". If it were only the alumni of JTS being hosted by this event, then I could see some point in your argument. Seeing as this was a “a major opportunity for guests to get a sense of the incredible variety of Jewish engagement opportunities in New York — and to party with hundreds of other professional, active, vibrant, young Jews,” you are way out of line.

With the rate of Jews identifying themselves as Jewish dropping right along with involvement and the converse rise in intermarriage, ANY Jewish involvement and sense of belonging that might be generated is a benefit. By creating an argument around both an 'ideal' Jew and a proper 'role-model' your article ostracizes those people who might have been drawn in by these marketing tactics and further delineates what is acceptable and unacceptable in defining ones self or an organization as Jewish or Conservative Judaism, and you have no right.

Anything fun, fresh and interesting - or rather in my opinion, relevant, distinctive, rewarding and welcoming - should be engaged to bring in that niche of Jew and provide them with an avenue to further explore their connection with Judaism. This seems to be the mission behind Birthright and in many ways it is working. It can't just be about Shabbat, the holocaust and the high holidays anymore, the faith needs to give back in other ways beyond spirituality to continue to grow.

Joseph Wed. Nov 4, 2009

I'm not Conservative, so I don't take this personally. As long as she is dressed modestly and not in a swimsuit I don't see any problem -- unless she starts singig !

Gabe Wed. Nov 4, 2009

Perhaps my male perspective clouds my understanding, what is so abhorrent about an event featuring Israeli fashion designers being hosted by…an Israeli model? Not that I wouldn’t love to see Chancellor Eisen sporting some snappy duds and emceeing the evening, but doesn’t an internationally successful member of the field seem like the most appropriate choice? Of course I would not expect the Chancellor or any other of JTS’s distinguished academics to be presenters (or probably even present) at the event, since JTS is only one of over a dozen groups participating in this event (a fact that is not only downplayed in your article, but one that could be missed entirely since the title implies that it is a JTS-sponsored event). I don’t know what religious leaders are planning on using this event for narcissism or social climbing (particularly since if I am to take your snarky view of the event, it won’t be attended by more than a handful of people), but I believe that at a time when the Conservative movement is losing numbers on the left and the right to say nothing of the financial problems the institute faces, I am glad to see JTS doing more than just Torah Fund dinners to get the institution out there, even if you prefer to glibly dismiss the problem. Now I am all for tznius, but I am curious about which “sexually suggestive” picture you are referring to? Because the JTS email had no pictures for the event, and the picture on the event’s website ( only shows Ginzberg’s face; it barely even shows her shoulders (though the bit that is shown is clearly covered with some sort of clothing). You yourself point out (in a snide parenthesis) that the event offers parity of the sexes, and that Ginzberg will be clothed for the event. The closing paragraph of your article is particularly condescending. First of all, using treats to entice people to Torah has been practiced by Jewish educators dating back to medieval times (honey on a page of Torah; an “angel” dropping a coin in cheder; I myself offer my students chocolates for leading prayers in Junior Congregation every Shabbat). I am not comparing women to “treats,” I am referring to the entire event as a way to hopefully get more people intrigued and involved. Your article, though, seems to ignore the event as a whole in favor of focusing on one aspect that you don’t like, while simultaneously belittling people who, for any number of reasons, have not yet found their way to connect with our beautiful heritage. Every person has unknown potential; after all, some of our greatest thinkers and leaders, Rabbi Akiba and Theodore Herzel to name but two, rose to their levels of prominence only with a gentle nudge from an unexpected place. Now I am not saying that this event will draw to it the next great Jewish leader…but I’m not precluding the possibility. So while I appreciate and share your concern for maintaining the integrity of this great institution (and not for nothing, but JTS does much more than just train clergy), it is precisely the guilt-heavy, holier-than-thou attitude with which your article is rife that might just be turning people off from Judaism, and forcing JTS to participate in such apikores-run events.

Jonathan Wed. Nov 4, 2009

Thank you to Rabbi Samuels for shedding light on this topic. Both from a feminist and Jewish values standpoint, I think the question to be asking is not "What is wrong here?" but, "What is right here?"

In times of limited resources and huge cutbacks, does it make sense for a Jewish organization to put countless hours of staff time (and significant philanthropic dollars) into putting on a fashion show?

Have we honestly convinced ourselves that young Jews will connect meaningfully with Jewish life as a result of a showcasing of low-rise, skinny jeans? It is exactly this kind of pandering that reinforces the idea in young Jews that the Jewish community is not spiritually, socially, or intellectually relevant.

Let's take a good look at this event and compare it to the work of organizations doing a tremendous job of engaging young Jewish adults from all backgrounds in meaningful Jewish experiences (Hazon, Limmud, AJWS, and Six Points, to name a few). Does the knee-high boot really measure up? Is this the best use of our community's energy and money?

Jake Thu. Nov 5, 2009

During my first two years of graduate school at the Davidson School of Jewish Education at JTS (which I loved), I grew increasingly frustrated by the realization that, so often, Jewish education is a fundamentally desperate affair. For so many, the true raison d’etre of Jewish education (and involvement) is to ensure Jewish continuity. Our biggest fear is that, in one or two generations, Judaism will die in America, and we must do anything and everything we can do to get more Jews to be more Jewish - preferably within the institutions that we professional Jews dedicate so much of our lives. We seem to care more that people ARE Jewish, as opposed to exploring WHY being Jewish is meaningful and relevant.

This fear-based viewpoint is apparent in many of the comments above. To offer just one example (the one that I think is the most articulate): "With the rate of Jews identifying themselves as Jewish dropping right along with involvement and the converse rise in intermarriage, ANY Jewish involvement and sense of belonging that might be generated is a benefit." I appreciate the commitment and heart of the person who wrote this, but I disagree - and I believe this is the main point that Rabbi Samuels is making.

In my reading of her blog, Rabbi Samuel's attack is not at all on Esti Ginzberg, but rather on the hypocrisy that our movements and flagship institutions are willing to practice to get more numbers and more money - albeit for earnest and altruistic reasons. The ends (more Jewish affiliation/continuity) do not justify the means (using sexually suggestive marketing and icons to get people in the door, while simultaneously preaching tznius and respect for the body).

There is a major difference between enticing learners by dripping honey on a page of Torah to make the words sweet, and completely disregarding a core value (in this case, tznius) to make an event more attractive and hip. The distinction is that institutions such as JTS try to enforce tznius on every level.

Think about it: would Camp Ramah (the camping wing of the Conservative Movement) invite a swimsuit model to come to the camp to serve as an educational role model for its campers? No! Bikini's are explicitly forbidden at camp! Would JTS approve of one of its rabbinical students entering a public swim suit competition, to show that rabbis can be hip and sexy, too? I doubt it. So how can the institution itself invite a person who is famous solely for being a swimsuit model to headline a public event? In my eyes, this is hypocrisy. And that's how I read Rabbi Samuel's blog.

Shira Thu. Nov 5, 2009

Thank you, Joanna, for your thoughtful article. Many current students and alumni of JTS share your opinion, and are outraged that JTS has co-sponsored this event. Sure, the organizers have every right to design an event of their choosing. However, in this time of limited resources, I was shocked to see just how many organizations have made the decision to back this specific event. Do we lack such imagination as a community that we cannot develop an event that might have more substance and that might demonstrate the best that these sponsoring organizations have to offer? Let us instead imagine an evening that offers the possibility of creating an inclusive environment that will appeal to and welcome young Jews who are gay and straight, of all different body types, and who seek an evening of networking that engages their intellect alongside their desire to make social connections.

Leonardo Mon. Nov 9, 2009

9/11/09 West Bank rabbi: Jews can kill Gentiles who threaten Israel

Just weeks after the arrest of alleged Jewish terrorist, Yaakov Teitel, a West Bank rabbi on Monday released a book giving Jews permission to kill Gentiles who threaten Israel.

Rabbi Yitzhak Shapiro, who heads the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva in the Yitzhar settlement, wrote in his book "The King's Torah" that even babies and children can be killed if they pose a threat to the nation.

Shapiro based the majority of his teachings on passages quoted from the Bible, to which he adds his opinions and beliefs. "It is permissable to kill the Righteous among Nations even if they are not responsible for the threatening situation," he wrote, adding: "If we kill a Gentile who has sinned or has violated one of the seven commandments - because we care about the commandments - there is nothing wrong with the murder."

Several prominent rabbis, including Rabbi Yithak Ginzburg and Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, have recommended the book to their students and followers.

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