Sisterhood Blog

Idea #4: Orthodox Feminist Day Schools

By Elana Sztokman

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Feminism has no doubt transformed Orthodoxy over the past three decades. Women have gone from begging to hold a Torah on Simchat Torah to holding their own services, to creating partnership synagogues in which women take active roles alongside men in running the service. It’s not only about women learning Talmud, but also about being acknowledged with proper titles for the roles — from religious leaders who argue cases in the rabbinical courts to the most recent breakthrough of calling women (almost) rabbis. Gender roles in Orthodoxy are rapidly being redefined in homes, communities and synagogues, where men and women share the tasks of preparing for Shabbat and educating children, leading prayer and giving a D’var Torah. The list of changes goes on, and it’s all quite exciting.

Yet, remarkably, these changes have failed to find parallel expression in the Orthodox school system. Notwithstanding tremendous efforts by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and other groups to address these issues, the fact remains that from preschool on, schools continue to send the message that women are predominantly charged with the home, and men are in charge of prayer and ritual. School books show men as active and women as passive — a message compounded by school decors that have walls plastered with pictures of men/rabbis and women’s pictures few and far between, if at all. The issues surrounding how teachers relate to gender in the classroom, how girls are treated in math and sciences and how boys are treated in art and literature — issues that blasted open in America with the 1992 AAUW report “How Schools Shortchange Girls” and have since contributed to a complete evolution of gender in education in America — have barely been noted in the Orthodox day school system.

The same goes for issues of girls and body. Although some schools are finally addressing issues of eating disorders in some form (although many still treat it with a “hush-hush” fear of exposure), the deeper issues around girls’ bodies that come from obsessive rules about girls’ body cover from the earliest of ages are too rarely discussed. Day schools are in dire need of feminist discussions of the impact of long skirts from the age of five on girls’ sense of self.

Perhaps most radically, the entire movement of changes in the status of women in the synagogue has found minimal expression in schools. True, many schools will have women’s megillah readings on Purim, and a few scattered schools will have a women’s tefillah group on Rosh Hodesh. But many schools completely ignore the partnership minyan model that has been spreading like wildfire throughout the Jewish world. There is often a tremendous resistance to girls’ active roles in the service. I experienced this very painfully as a parent in my children’s community school in Israel.

What this means is that Orthodox schools — both in Israel and in America — remain out of touch with what’s going on in the Orthodox community in terms of gender. This is creating a terrible disconnect between what some families are experiencing in their home and synagogue communities and the messages that they get at school. The only possible exception is Pelech Girls’ High School in Jerusalem, but as a girls’ high school, it leaves out boys and elementary school.

I’m proposing a new school model that reflects the values that imbue partnership synagogues around the world: K-12 coeducational Orthodox feminist day schools that are fully committed to Orthodox life and fully committed to feminism and social justice.

An Orthodox feminist day school would:

• Use curricular materials that reflect gender equity and balance, in both General and Jewish Studies.

• Train teachers to be aware of the gender dynamics and learning style differences within a classroom.

• Maintain a school décor that equally respects men and women leaders.

• Ensure that the gender composition of the staff reflects the values of balance on all pay grades and levels.

• Promote gender equity in all aspects of Jewish ritual, from blowing the shofar to leading tefilla.

• Ensure that boys and girls learn identical Jewish texts.

• Challenge the knee-jerk assumptions that to be religious means that girls must wear only skirts.

• Openly and actively address issues of body, from eating disorders to sexuality to clothing.

• Conduct regular dialogue between and among boys and girls, men and women, deconstructing societal and religious messages about gender roles, halacha and society.

• Incorporate values of social justice and compassion as central to the transmission of Jewish life.

It is vital that critical trends in Jewish life, especially the efforts to blend halachic and feminist values, find expression in Jewish education. We need to be clear with ourselves what messages we want to send to our children, and then we need to ensure that these are the messages that are indeed transmitted.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman holds a doctorate in education from Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She lectures in education and gender at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, is a Contributing Editor to the journal Jewish Educational Leadership, and is a contributing writer for The Sisterhood.

This post is part of the series “28 Days, 28 Ideas.” Be sure to check out yesterday’s idea, “The next big new idea is neither big nor new. Discuss” on eJewish Philanthropy and tomorrow’s on FederationConnection, the new blog of the Jewish Federations of North America. You can also visit for the full list of ideas as they progress.

Jeff Thu. Feb 4, 2010

Fantastic idea. As an Orthodox man I am very sensitive to the horrible messages our school system gives to boys and girls. This is worth a try!

Idana Goldberg Thu. Feb 4, 2010

Elana, Thank you for seriously addressing this issue and encouraging us to dream. If we could get day schools to implement even a handful of your suggestions, they would be better learning experiences for both the girls AND the boys. Unfortunately, day schools often have knee-jerk reactions to anything that even looks like feminism. One example: JOFA has created an incredible gender inclusive, differentiated learning curriculum for Bereishit and Shmot and struggles to get it used in more than a handful of schools because principals and teachers don't like that the word Feminist is in the title of the sponsoring organization. Some of the reaction is fear of the "community" response, so leadership never even takes the chance to see what that might be. Those of us who support the kinds of Orthodox feminist changes you suggest need to start "responding" as loudly as day school leadership fears the conservative community reaction might be and see what happens then. Kol Hakavod to you for this and all your other posts that keep gender and Judaism on the radar of the community.

Elana Thu. Feb 4, 2010

And Kol Hakavod to you, too, Idana. I have a copy of the JOFA curriculum, by the way, and the authors are my friends and did a fantastic job, and your description of responses pains me. Nevertheless, I agree that even if we don't build a new school right now (in this climate? who are we kidding), but somehow manage to make a real impact on existing schools, that's already something. Courage, we need leaders with courage. That's the key....

Meanwhile, Keep up the great work B'vracha, Elana

Chaya Gorsetman Thu. Feb 4, 2010

As the director and co-author of JOFA’s Bereishit curriculum, I recently had the opportunity to present a section of the curriculum at an educational conference. . The schools represented were from Charedi, Modern Orthodox, Centrist all the way to Reform and Community schools. I introduced the session by reminding the varied participants and paraphrasing Ethics of Our Fathers; do not judge a book by its cover and who is wise, he who learns from all people. Although the session was about stressing the centrality of Sara as a great leader of the Jewish people, (bringing proof from Midrashim) most of the participants had difficulty hearing the material. They argued with me about how I was using Midrash, I should be teaching Peshat, how I connected two pesukim from a previous narrative, which then became the discussion rather than the what we can learn from the matriarch; Sara as a strong women in her own right. The arguments were heated and at some point I felt that I had to defend the Midrashim. In later conversations I learned that people were offended by the source sheet because it had JOFA on it which declared it as an agenda and therefore dismissed. (In fact before the conference one of the organizers of the conference asked me to delete the JOFA emblem from the source sheet not to offend people. I informed her that JOFA published the curriculum and using their source sheet meant that I had to acknowledge the origin).

In further conversations I pointed out that people bring agendas to all learning and teaching. The example I gave was how we teach about Esav and how we use Midrash to show him in a negative light even though the text does not portray him in that manner. They agreed but couldn’t get past “the JOFA agenda.”

On the other hand, I presented the same session to lay people in an Orthodox synagogue who were extremely supportive and excited about the prospect of changing the lens of how we approach the learning of the matriarchs. Perhaps we should start with adult education or speaking in shuls and allow the community to grow organically. Maybe just maybe we could get people to begin to demand the same for their children in the schools that attend. Elana, keep doing what you do best. Write and challenge the rest of us to think, reflect and respond.

Elana Thu. Feb 4, 2010

Chaya --

Wow..... How interesting the two different reactions. So depressing about reactions to JOFA. Glad you didn't delete the JOFA logo (the things women's groups have to put up with!) But this anti-feminism is part of a larger phenomenon, fear of the "F" word (feminism, that is ).

(I wrote about this last year )

Maybe starting with Orthodox lay leadership is a good idea. Where there's life there's hope...

b'vracha, elana

Pam Blais Thu. Feb 4, 2010

WoW!!! What a great article. I agree with the writer 100%. Elana, it's these very things which keep so many Jewish women, including myself, from embracing halacha. As a mother of two girls, I want them to love their Jewish heritage-but it is very hard to ask them to love something which does not make them as important as boys and makes their love for tefillah secondary to other things such as motherhood and home.

Elana Thu. Feb 4, 2010


I have a suspicion that you're not alone.... The Jewish community needs to find solutions for women. It's just time...


B.J. Yudelson Thu. Feb 4, 2010

Amen to all that Elana wrote! I would love to see my granddaughters in such a school. Perhaps co-ed, feminist schools would cut down on the extent of domestic violence (i.e. wife abuse) that exists in the Orthodox community. I believe that young men would be more likely to see their wives as partners rather than objects to control if they had been involved in friendships with girls throughout their lives.

Rabbi Chaim Casper Thu. Feb 4, 2010

It seems to me that there are two points which must be included if we are to change the status quo:

1) Many if not most of the instructors and administrators of Orthodox day schools (including the Modern and Centrist schools) are haredi. They are willing to sacrifice a financial future for a profession that lets them live the life style they want (e.g. no Shabbat or Yom Tov/work conflicts). On the other hand, many of the the Modernists and Centrists are unwilling to work for poverty wages; they would rather be doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. Given this reality, the major influences during the child's formative years in school are going to stress the woman=home and man=ritual equations regardless of who pays the bills at the local day school. Unless and until first grade rebbes get paid (close to) a six figure salary, I do not see the Modernists and Centrists teaching and influencing the students in the day schools in the way your article would prefer.

2) There are a number of halakhot that can apply to women that many women do not currently do. Emanuel Feldman notes that he mentioned to one seminary student that women are allowed to bentsch with a women's mezumenet. The student said no. Later, both R' Feldman and the student addressed the issue to R' S Z Auerbach, zt"l. When R' Auerbach said that that is the halakhah, the woman said "NO IT ISN'T--WOMEN ARE ALLOWED TO DO SUCH THINGS IN HALAKHAH!" to which R' Auerbach shrugged his shoulders and said you're right. Until women do mizvot and halakhot they are allowed to do without hiding behind a false mehiza that has NO written all over it, nothing will change.

However, I do believe we have made some progress in the Orthodox community. In 1984, I mentioned to Blu Greenberg that in 20 years there would be women rabbis in the YU community and in 50 years in Lakewood. Ms Greenberg responded that it would take 50 years for the YU community and 200 years if ever in Lakewood. Well, today, 25 years later, we have yoazot and rabot. (They may not have the English title of "rabbi," but if looks like a duck and sounds like a duck...) So change is occuring incrementally, but it is occuring.

Elana Thu. Feb 4, 2010

(1) Domestic violence: There is a clear, proven relationship between gender dynamics in schools and later in life falling victim to abuse. It's about a phenomenon called learned helplessness, in which girls become un-empowered and unable to think of themselves as capable enough or deserving enough to escape. One statistic: In the non-Jewish world, abused women stay in abusive marriages on average of 2-4 years (for all sorts of emotional, financial, and other reasons.) In the Jewish world, they stay 8-12 years. Three times as long!! Why? Because they are socialized to think that this is normal/important/what they deserve, etc.

(2) Haredi teachers: Rabbi Casper, I couldn't agree with you more. I would just add that FEMALE teachers also deserve six figure salaries...whether or not they are called "rabbi".

(3) Women internalizing their own oppression: Huge problem,agreed. Lots to say on the matter. Hope to write a blog about it one of these days.

(3) Slow progress versus no progress: We can reflect on this in another hundred years.:-) In the meantime, we have to keep pushing the envelope. Thanks for the support

Thanks for all the comments, B'vracha, Elana

NRT Fri. Feb 5, 2010

I'm just curious. Why not simply support and strengthen Schechter schools instead?

Outside the Bubble Fri. Feb 5, 2010

The suggestions certainly make the proposal feminist. What makes it Orthodox?

Midwesterner Fri. Feb 5, 2010

I want to know where there is proof that "deeper issues around girls’ bodies that come from obsessive rules about girls’ body cover from the earliest of ages". This seems a far too simplistic and anecdotal analysis of the topic. Is it possible that the reverse is true? That Jewish girls are affected by the media and the pressure to dress in as little clothes as possible - thinking that that will enhance their body image. Frankly, I think the pressure to wear less causes body issues, not the pressure to cover more.

And you speak so much of equity and equality. Why does equal always mean exactly the same? Can we not value women and men as they serve distinctively different roles? The premise makes a broad and dangerous assumption that to be equally valued, men and women have to do the exact same thing. And if women do relinquish the home for the synagogue and ritual, then who takes care of the home?? That point is rarely addressed in these feminist manifestos.

In response to the comment that "to be religious means that girls must wear only skirts," - it's true, you can be religious you don't have to wear a skirt... You can be a religious Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist or whatever you prefer while wearing pants. But being an observant Torah Jew means wearing skirts, and furthermore it means respecting and keeping Jewish law.

And lastly - I concur with "Outside the Bubble" - this article is overwhelmingly feminist. But not one bit Orthodox.

Babushka Fri. Feb 5, 2010

One of the few areas where Haredi women hold important and critical positions is the field of chinuch, yet in this article I see the usual patronizing, denigrating and condescending attitude that prevails among the feminists: that Haredi women are just too stupid, abused and oppressed to be allowed to run their own school system.

Let the feminists create their own school system and then let's see how successful they are in instilling Jewish values and continuity compared to the Bais Yaakov and Chabad systems. The Haredi women who operate the Bais Yaakov and Chabad schools are not just going to stand aside and turn over their school systems, the fruits of generations of hard labor, to the strutting feminists.

Sara Schenirer was quite a radical in her time, but today's feminists casually dismiss all her accomplishments because she was just another Haredi. And, we are all stupid, abused and oppressed. (That was sarcasm)

claire Fri. Feb 5, 2010

In response to Midwesterner who says "And if women do relinquish the home for the synagogue and ritual, then who takes care of the home??" None is saying that women should give up completely being at home and taking care of their children so they can spend all their time at the synagogue. Many women are able to go to synagogue and pray and also help to take care of their children.

Joe Sat. Feb 6, 2010

I assume you are speaking about Orthodox mixed secondary schools, which are probably very much the minority of Orthodox secondary schools. In the separate boys and girls schools which are probably the norm there is no reason to use the same Hebrew texts for boys and girls. I have taught both and find that teenage boys and girls have quite different preferences in Hebrew texts and require quite different curricula. If both sexes study the same very small slice of Jewish texts they will know half as much as if the girls concentrate on Tanach, Siddur and history and the boys concentrate on Talmud,Halacha and Mussar. The first modern Orthodox school system was probably Samson Raphael Hirsch's schools in 19th Century Frankfurt, the model incidentally followed by Soroh Schenirer and Judith Grunfeld for the Beth Jacob schools. The Hirsch schools were mixed, but only the boys did Talmud. There has never been a time in Jewish history when girls did the same Kodesh curriculum as boys and it is probably a mistake to go against generations of Sages.

Jeff Sun. Feb 7, 2010

Joe, thanks for the history lesson but Gemorah is learnt in many girls seminaries! Why on earth would we be afraid to teach women Gemorah?

And to the Midwesterner, has it ever occurred to you that men can also look after the home? What are the special 'qualities' that women have over men when cooking cleaning and serving? Ive been to many Shabbos meals where the man sits throughout the meal while the women jumps up, serves, cleans up the whole meal. Where is the justice there? If you say looking after a home also implies chinuch of the children and making certain that there is warmth in the home then again, what about the men? Are you saying that men simply cant do what women can do?

This is EXACTLY why we need to listen to the writers idea and teach our kids that to be religious means to show that women and men are equal and that the responsibilty of fostering a Jewish home belongs to both men and women equally.

Felice Whittum Sun. Feb 14, 2010

Elana, many of us Orthodox/observant feminists wind up sending our children to Community Day Schools rather than Orthodox schools for some of these reasons. The school my children go to has a significant shomer mitzvot community while also giving our daughters (and sons!) a chance to be treated as equals. Are there issues with separate seating durign davening etc.? yes, but the school is very responsive to parents' concerns and tries hard to accommodate those who are stricter in certain observances than others. We chose this school over either the Schechter or the "modern" Orthodox school because it had both shomer shabbat families and would treat my daughter the same way as my son.

Aryeh Thu. Feb 18, 2010

While no doubt day school's need to update their antiiquated views of a woman's potential in the religious and secular world, I must take issue with the basis of your hypothesis. Partnership minyans are not conitnuing to spread like wildfire, at least not like they did just a couple of years ago. Several partnership minyans have leveled off in their attendance to a committed group of people. My sense is that if they have attracted 2% of the Orthodox world that is generous, and that they are not considered at all Orthodox by the 98% of Orthodox Jews who don't attend them, including Modern Orthodox Jews. Many of the attendess have roots at Schechter, Ramah or other Conservative groups. Updating the woman's role and portrayal in days schools is a worthy cause. Connecting it to partnership minyanim will only do harm to that cause.

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