Sisterhood Blog

In Israel, Jewish and Feminist Selves Do Battle

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

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This is the ninth entry in an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

The first time I entered an Orthodox synagogue and saw a mehitza, or divider separating men and women in prayer, I was a little girl visiting my grandparents in Queens. Their home wasn’t religiously observant in the slightest, but my grandfather had grown up in an Orthodox family, and so the synagogue he attended — when he attended — was Orthodox.

I was only eight or nine years old when I first saw the mechitza but I clearly remembered being shocked at the sight of women relegated to the back of a house of worship, behind a partition. It was utterly alien to everything I knew a synagogue to be.

In the small WASP-y New England suburb where I lived until I left for college, the small Reform synagogue, known as “The Temple” with about 100 families, was the only game in town. Men and women sat together, some men with kippot, others without, as our young rabbi picked up his guitar before services and sang the tunes. Women were not only equal, they dominated synagogue life, some serving as president of the synagogues, making sure the Hebrew school and youth groups functioned smoothly.

For me, growing up, feminist Judaism was the norm. It was Judaism.

It was only as a college student on my junior year in Israel and later in graduate school in New York City that I was truly exposed to Orthodoxy. I learned much more in my first job as a Jewish journalist, covering the workings of the Jewish world for the JTA, and still more after I married a man from an Orthodox family in Jerusalem.

My feminism and my Judaism were never at conflict, but all around me, I see them do battle. Since moving to Israel nearly 20 years ago, I’ve collected countless Orthodox female friends and acquaintances along the way; I have watched many friends struggle to reconcile the warm and familiar Orthodox world they call home with the principles of women’s equality.

I applaud their victories. I cheer on the creation of egalitarian Orthodox synagogues and partnership minyans, I watched with pride as my Orthodox niece read from the Torah at her Orthodox egalitarian bat mitzvah and as my sister-in-law weep as she was called to the Torah for the first time. Sometimes, I quietly think to myself that they are tilting at windmills, and don’t understand why it is so important to stay in the Orthodox ‘camp’ instead of entering the open arms of other streams of Judaism. But I respect their choice.

Living in Israel pulls one towards the extremes. I’ve been challenged by the troubling developments in Israel regarding the exclusion of women — events that I’ve written about in The Sisterhood: the trend toward gender segregation on buses and public spaces in Haredi neighborhoods, the controversy over women’s singing, and the harassment of schoolgirls in Beit Shemesh, the obsession with excessive modesty rules.

The more these extreme circles subjugate women, the greater the temptation to join many of my secular Israeli friends in seeing all religion as the feminist’s enemy.

These women rolled their eyes skywards when I insisted that my daughter read from the Torah at her bat mitzvah — to them, religion means Orthodoxy, the Orthodox subjugate women, and so women’s struggle for inclusion in Jewish ritual life is pointless. They’ve ceded that ground entirely: which is why causes like the Women of the Wall have failed to catch fire among Israeli women.

For me, it is hard work to hang on to the purity of my identity in New England as I was growing up, when full participation in Judaism and being female presented no contradiction or conflict. But I am determined to stay in touch with that particular inner child. If I can do this for myself, hopefully I can inspire my daughters, and other women, in spite of all the challenges they face in Israel, to do the same.


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