I gave my 10-year-old son, Zev, the Pew survey on American Jews. The entire thing. One Sunday afternoon at our kitchen table.
It all started the night before, when an undergraduate student at Hillel at Ohio University, where I am a rabbi, told my son during our Sabbath dinner that he recently found out he is Jewish. My son (pictured below) asked this student for clarification. He wanted to know more about this just-discovered identity; it was as if the student had found Judaism underneath the bed in his dorm room, or at the bookstore while buying books for class. The student replied: “My mom informed me that her parents were Jewish. So it turns out that I’m Jewish!”
Later that evening, back at the house, my son wanted to talk. Or rather, he wanted to monologue.
“Judaism,” he began, “is not just inside you like a dormant virus.” I turned to my husband with a look of desperation on my face. My son continued: “I don’t think it’s waiting there for you to realize it exists, or for you to coax it out, or for it to be teased out by some long-lost relative. In fact,” he asserted, “Judaism does not exist if you’re not practicing it.” He went on to claim, basically, that there is no such thing as an inherited Judaism. To the horror of grandparents everywhere, my son actually proclaimed that a person “isn’t just Jewish because their parents or grandparents are Jewish.” I took a gulp of my Shabbat wine and grabbed my computer. The Pew survey and my son had collided. My 10-year-old was talking about many of the same things we’d all been debating since the Pew survey had come out. I had the hysterical urge, on the Sabbath no less, to find out how he would respond to the Pew questions. I Googled around, and eventually found it: the 40-page survey of U.S. Jews.
“Ima, why are you asking me all these questions?” he wanted to know the following afternoon. I fed him ice cream to keep him seated. It was a long survey. By page 12, even I wanted out. I wondered how the hell anybody stayed on the phone for such an exhaustive list of questions, many of which, had I been asked, I would have said, “Well, if you asked me yesterday, I would have said one thing, but since you’re asking me today, I’m going to say something totally different.” Because even I, a rabbi, don’t feel Jewish in exactly the same way each day.
On November 4, I celebrated the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall with over 600 women at the Kotel — a joyous event that went off with little of the usual chair-throwing, whistle-blowing and megaphone-enhanced cursing that the group normally endures during its monthly prayer protests. Two days later, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman donned a tallit and celebrated his acquittal on corruption charges at the Kotel.
I was struck by the juxtaposition. For 25 years this group of pious, multi-denominational, serious women have tried to gain the right to pray at the Kotel with tallit, tefillin and Torah, and have only recently won the tenuous right to the first two but not the third. Lieberman can swagger right up to the front with his kippot-clad guards and be sure he will be welcome.
I wish I could feel that the stones themselves are imbued with holiness. But the mechitza (the partition between men and women) has slowly moved to the right — both physically and metaphorically — from half the Western Wall being open to women to only 12 meters compared to the 48 for men. Presidents and popes place their little notes in the crevices without being briefed about or taking note of what happens on the other side. Scores of evangelical tourists squeeze their way through to the front trying to soak in the Jewish vibe while praying for their own messiah to come back and redeem them and the place. Shas leaders preen for the press and pray there for success in their next campaign. There are separate entrances, and now a “men’s only” upper plaza where women cannot even tread. And day after day both male and female Haredim pray there for the restoration of the priesthood, the Temple and the sacrifices, taking up the spaces closest to the stones. Those prayers and subsequently the stones which absorb them do not speak to me, or for me. Instead they have become a symbol of an encroaching public misogyny, an ultra-Orthodox legal hegemony and a manufactured emotional tourist-industry “high-point-of-your-trip” site that is part primitive and part Disney.
I can think of a hundred other places in Israel where I feel more spiritual. Give me instead a trip to the Ramon Crater, a hike to the top of Masada, a sunset in the Galilee, an afternoon at Yad Lakashish watching 90-year-olds in Jerusalem create Judaic art, a Friday night singing “Lecha Dodi” at the port in Tel Aviv. Give me instead the countless Jerusalem synagogues where on any Shabbat the harmonies of men and women move me to tears.
That does not mean I do not fully support Women of the Wall. I understand those for whom the Western stones are the only stones which have historical memory and the weight of tradition. In my dreams, like them, I want a Western Wall where every Jew feels welcome, nurtured and valued. I want an apolitical wall not used to garner religious votes. I want a spiritual wall where harmonies are welcome and I can pray a silent Amidah with my tallit over my head. But that Kotel does not exist. The stones have been sullied and I think we need new “old” ones.
Women of the Wall is at a critical crossroads. Some members believe that the Western Wall can still have power for women, and that, if they fight hard enough, women’s prayer will one day be welcome there. And some of them know this is not possible, will never be possible, and in the meantime the right to don tallit and tefillin is hanging by a thin thread. This second group feels we have been given a historic opportunity to create and renew, and represented by the board of Women of the Wall, has agreed to move its monthly service over to the southern part of the Western Wall. There you can stand above fallen Herodian stones that are as old as the stones of the Western Wall. But this site doesn’t have the optics of the main part of the wall, the backdrop of the iconic paratrooper liberation photo of 1967.
The World Economic Forum recently published their annual Global Gender Gap report causing many of us to wonder, once again, why the heck we don’t move to Northern Europe or Scandanavia where the maternity leave flows like water and affordable childcare is as easy to find as a Starbucks.
For this report, researchers look at how women are doing in four key areas: health and survival, education, politics and economic equality in 136 countries. The top ten countries for women, in order of smallest gender gap to largest, are: Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Latvia and the Netherlands. This year the US ranked 23 and Israel came in at 53.
In the health and survival category, Israel ranked 93 and the US ranked 33. (Remember, the lower the number the better of women are doing.) In educational attainment, Israel ranked 83 and the US ranked 1. In the economic participation and opportunity category, Israel came in at 56 and the US came in at 6, and in the political empowerment category Israel came in at 57 and the US came in at 60.
A subset of Women of the Wall leaders and supporters, who disagree with a plan to compromise on where the group can pray at the Kotel, has doubled in size from 10 to 21. Women of the Wall is a feminist group pushing to be able to sing, pray aloud and wear ritual garments typically worn by men at the women’s section of the Kotel.
The subset group announced last week that it rejected a plan put forth by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and conditionally accepted by Women of the Wall that would expand Robinson’s Arch, an area of egalitarian prayer.
The group released an open letter on Tuesday clarifying its dissent of the Sharansky plan and declaring that, “We are committed to our dream and to the work needed to fully realize and sustain it.”
Signatories include Rabbi Susan Silverman and Dr. Phyllis Chesler.
The dissenters wrote:
“The government proposes making structural changes at Robinson’s Arch to create a site to which all whose prayer practice is not tolerated by those who now control the Kotel will be relegated, leaving the Kotel permanently and officially in the hands of a segment of Jewry that suffers the presence of other Jews only on its terms. Regrettably, the Israeli government is yielding to intimidation, threats, and violence as the basis for policy making, rather than upholding the equality of rights of all citizens in public space that is enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.”
Rabbi David Saperstein, Director and Counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and longtime supporter of Women of the Wall, told the Forward that the Reform movement officially supports the Sharansky plan, and that dissent like this was not uncommon in Judaism. “It’s not that we don’t think there’s a legitimate argument on the other side,” he said. “It’s a respectful difference.”
“Good moral caring people can differ on strategies and tactics, and how to achieve common goals, in this case, equal treatment of women at the wall,” Saperstein said. “Each of the locations has different strengths, and each of the locations has drawbacks. It seems that significant majority are willing to embrace the Sharansky approach.
“We’re sympathetic and appreciative of the majority of Women of the Wall who think that opening a larger area of the wall to be accessible to all people, all Jews, is most effective way of addressing need of having egalitarian, pluralistic, access to the Wall,” he said.
In an email to the Forward, Chesler wrote: “It occurs to me that we are not the dissidents. We are sticking to our fundamental and foundational principles. We are, oddly, the traditionalists and the current WOW Board have departed from our tradition. We hope we can get them to change their mind and come back to basics.”
Stay tuned for more updates on this developing story.
Two new feminist t-shirts entered the world this past month and I am not sure which will incite more scandal, considering the context.
One is a tight, black, short-sleeved v-neck tee that has “’Daughters of Israel, Do Not Dress Provocatively” printed across it in Hebrew. This is the same language women find on signs posted around religious neighborhoods of Jerusalem warning them to not show too much skin.
This shirt was the brainchild of Jerusalem-based Joanne Ginsberg, who came up with the idea after being harassed for her “provocative” dress a few summers ago. She was wearing long sleeves, a long skirt sandals and a head scarf.
Until recently, I was a poster-child for the kind of attrition from Jewish life that the recent Pew Study, subject of so much angst in the media, describes. I eschewed nearly all organized Jewish activities in the decade after my first Hillel dinner at college, which I fled screaming.
Okay, I wasn’t quite screaming, but I certainly didn’t go back to more Hillel dinners.
An early stint at Jewish day school — supposedly a guarantee of future involvement in religion — hardly indoctrinated me. Instead, it put me in an odd position: It gave me affection for many of the customs and ideas that are associated with Judaism, but it also turned me off of hyper-organized religion forever.
There was a level of competition and sanctimoniousness involved in the religious part of the synagogue and day school experience that I never wanted to replicate. I loved being a Jew, but not listening to people brag about having the Rabbi over for shabbat, about being Jewisher than thou.
It’s true that, over time, I also became an atheist. But I would argue that my non-belief alone wouldn’t have kept me from practicing religion — I enjoy prayer and ritual and find them meaningful. Rather, what I disliked was the condescension that the allegedly more pious offered towards the less.
In their ongoing quest to obliterate all signs of women from public life, religious Jews in Israel have now decided that the female reproductive system is obscene and have removed it from their science textbooks.
As Haaretz reports, “the Education Ministry has asked textbook publishers to eliminate chapters on human reproduction, pregnancy prevention and sexually transmitted diseases from science textbooks used in state religious junior high schools as well as from their teacher manuals.”
Apparently several publishers have already made the changes, and the revised textbooks are on their way to the Ministry for approval. If these new versions are approved, it will be the first time religious students, of which there are 200,000, will use a different set of science books than students in secular schools. Without those chapters on reproduction, religious students will miss out on the chance to learn about the birds and bees from a scientific standpoint, unless they elect to take biology in high school.
The article doesn’t provide any direct quotes or explanations from those who requested these revisions, but it is safe to assume that it is all about that rather slippery notion of female modesty that has become a point of obsession for the ultra-Orthodox.
People like to frame Women of the Wall’s struggle in terms of Jewish religious pluralism. That approach is mistaken, and a confluence of events this week reminds us of that fact. WoW’s fight is for women’s rights, civil rights and equal rights.
It occurred to me how important it is to regard WoW’s struggle in this light as I watched its chairwoman Anat Hoffman in her latest videotaped plea to supporters. She stood yesterday in front of the Kotel announcing a WoW sit-in in response to Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett’s announcement of the completed construction of a large platform for non-Orthodox prayer at the southernmost portion of the Western Wall (in the Robinson’s Arch compound). Calling the platform a “sunbathing deck,” WoW denounced the plan to move all non-Orthodox prayer away from the main Kotel plaza.
WoW is fighting for women to pray any way they choose (including in egalitarian fashion, wearing kippot, tallitot and tefillin, and praying and reading Torah out loud) at the main Kotel area — which is where Orthodox Jews pray without being subject to violent taunts, egg and chair throwing, and arrest.
Alice Walker and the University of Michigan Center for Education for Women — which disinvited her from a speaking engagement at its 50th anniversary celebration, as the Sisterhood’s Erika Dreifus recently wrote about, then later re-invited her to speak at a public forum on campus — are both misguided. It was foolish of Alice Walker to boycott an Israeli publisher because of her anger at Israel’s occupation. But it was wrong, also, for the Center to rescind their invitation because of Walker’s support of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.
How can I stand against them both? Easy. Because I believe academic, cultural and intellectual boycotts in almost all circumstances (with some obvious exceptions) are lazy. They embody people’s fear of having their own opinions challenged by the deep nuances and multi-faceted nature of reality, of art, of the world of ideas. Art is a vehicle for revealing the grey areas of human existence. We should share it as widely as we can, and welcome the way it interrogates us and our dogmas.
Alice Walker, the BDS advocate who last summer refused to authorize a Hebrew translation of her Pulitzer-winning novel “The Color Purple,” and who more recently sought to persuade singer Alicia Keys to cancel a performance in Israel, is quick to try to silence others. But now, Walker is declaring herself a victim of censorship.
According to a report in Inside Higher Ed that quickly went viral Friday morning, the University of Michigan has withdrawn an invitation that was extended to Walker “to speak at an event marking the 50th anniversary of the university’s Center for the Education of Women.” The article cites a posted statement from the center’s director, Gloria D. Thomas, which reads in part: “I decided to withdraw our invitation because I did not think Ms. Walker would be the optimum choice for the celebratory nature of our 50th anniversary event.”
From my vantage point, Ms. Thomas’s decision is valid and important. If I were a student, instructor or staff member at the University of Michigan, I sure wouldn’t be comfortable “celebrating” alongside Walker. Unfortunately, the matter doesn’t end there.
Predictably, and fueled by Walker herself, cries of censorship have ensued — as have unsubstantiated claims that the invitation was rescinded at the behest of unnamed “donors” who control the “purse strings.” (I haven’t yet seen anyone go so far as to insert the adjective “Jewish” before “donors,” but it’s early yet. I should also disclose that I am related to a Michigan alumnus who is a generous donor to his alma mater, but to my knowledge has no connection with this center.)
Somehow, I did not put two and two together.
I read Hadassa Margolese’s post (in Hebrew) on the Maariv website back in May about her negative — even traumatizing — experience at her local mikveh (ritual bath) in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Then, recently, I read several Facebook posts she wrote about her family’s move to a new home. However, I didn’t realize until Tuesday that these two things were related. I finally made the connection when I read this JTA article about how Margolese, a reluctant activist, was driven out of Beit Shemesh not by the Haredim she had previously stood up to (when they harassed and intimidated her young daughter over her dress), but rather by her fellow Modern Orthodox neighbors.
Coincidentally, I also read on Tuesday a new e-book by Allison Yarrow, titled, “The Devil of Williamsburg,” about the notorious Nechemya Weberman sex abuse case. It’s all about how Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidic community covers up everything from minor misdoings to major crimes, routinely shunning community members who dare shine a light on them.
One can’t exactly compare the reporting of crimes like rape and child abuse to the writing of a column about nasty mikveh ladies who over-scrutinize you and don’t give you enough privacy. But, from what I understand, there seems to be a trickle-down effect happening. It’s no longer just Haredi Jews who are hounding and ostracizing those who air dirty laundry in public.
The cover story, titled “The Feminists of Zion,” in the new issue of The New Republic is required reading for anyone looking for a comprehensive introduction to the war against women playing out in Israel wherever extremist Haredi Jews hold sway against the images or presence of women — or even little girls — in public.
The article is written by former Sisterhood contributor (and current Haaretz columnist) Allison Kaplan Sommer and Slate senior columnist Dahlia Lithwick. It uses the story of one national religious (modern Orthodox) resident of Beit Shemesh, Nili Phillip, who in 2011 was stoned by Haredim while riding her bike, as the frame for a discussion of both the larger issues and many of the specific ways in which Haredi pressure has been brought to bear on women’s visibility and safety.
The well-written, exhaustively reported piece looks specifically at the unlikely alliance between Phillip and other modern Orthodox women — most of them reluctant to embrace the feminist label — and the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. IRAC began to work with Orthodox women’s groups in 2008, filing lawsuits that challenged rules requiring female mourners to stand separately from their male relatives in government cemeteries, and in some places barring women from eulogizing. As TNR’s article states, IRAC filed suits against Haredi radio stations, operating with government licenses, that barred women’s voices on the basis of modesty, and has subsequently gone on to file small claims court cases against bus companies and drivers for failing to uphold Israeli laws requiring gender segregation to be voluntary. Three of the six women on whose behalf IRAC sued were Orthodox.
When Jane Katz said she was swimming for the gold at the 19th Maccabiah Games, she wasn’t kidding. The 70-year-old Masters champion, who has participated in every Maccabiah Games since 1957, came home to New York laden with 13 medals.
Katz won each of the 11 individual Masters level swimming events she entered, and also earned a gold medal as a member of the US team in the women’s freestyle relay, and a silver medal in the medley relay.
The lifelong athlete and promoter of aquatic fitness held a banner and marched directly behind Team USA flag bearer, Olympic gold medal swimmer Garrett Weber-Gale, in the Maccabiah’s opening ceremony at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium. She also participated in the inauguration ceremony for the new state-of-the-art pool at the Wingate Institute in Netanya, where the games’ swimming competitions were held. As part of those festivities, Katz, wearing a swim costume with both American and Israeli national symbols, performed a synchronized swimming routine choreographed to Hatikvah.
Back in New York and still on a high from her wins, Katz spoke with the Forward’s Renee Ghert-Zand about her 14th consecutive Maccabiah experience — her most successful one yet.
There are over 900 American athletes competing at the 19th Maccabiah Games currently taking place in Israel. Among them is swimmer Dr. Jane Katz, who broke a record before even getting in to the pool. Katz, 70, is competing in an amazing 14th consecutive Maccabiah Games. While many Jewish athletes have been coming to the “Jewish Olympics” for many years, only Katz can date her first appearance back to 1957.
Katz, who grew up on the Lower East Side and still lives in New York, was just 14 years old at her first Maccabiah Games. At that time, she could never have imagined that she’d still be at it 56 years later. She swam in the open competition as long as she could, and then she served as a coach or manager for four games. When Masters level competition (age 35 and up) was introduced in 1985, she got back in the water — where she has been ever since. At these games, she plans on swimming an ambitious 13 events over three days in the women’s 70-74 age group.
Katz has made a splash far beyond the Maccabiah movement. She has been teaching water fitness at City University of New York since 1964 and is a professor at John Jay College in the Department of Physical Education and Athletics. She is an American and world champion Masters swimmer and synchronized swimmer, and has received many awards and recognitions, including her induction to the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.
She spoke with the Forward’s Renee Ghert-Zand, sharing her memories from her first Maccabiah Games and thoughts on how being part of the Maccabiah movement has influenced her life.
When I woke up last Monday morning, I ditched my cozy blankets and jumped out of bed before sunrise to join my fellow Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion students as we set out on a holy mission. Heading over to the Kotel for Rosh Hodesh with Women of the Wall, we knew we were striving for social justice — that we would chant our prayers and pray with all of our heart. That day, we would work toward liberating the Kotel once and for all.
This Rosh Hodesh Av, we joined women and men praying with tallitot, kippot and tefillin as we celebrated the beginning of a new month. I felt like I was floating on a hammock of happiness while being surrounded by my HUC classmates who share the same dream of becoming Reform rabbis, cantors and educators and improving the world through Judaism. As we begin our new journey toward becoming Jewish leaders, we think about the long journey Women of the Wall has taken, and how far we have come toward freedom of prayer.
As I proudly wrapped myself inside my white and blue tallit, without panicking over the possibility of being arrested, I remembered to appreciate the feeling of freedom and security that used to be missing in action from the Kotel. Passionate and persistent women like Anat Hoffman and Lesley Sachs suffered as they got detained, arrested and harassed repeatedly. Because of their dedication and perseverance, it is now possible for my classmates and me to lock away our fears and proudly wear tallitot.
In a story from the operating theater of the absurd, Israel’s Channel 2 news reported on July 8 that a woman was denied a scheduled D&C for a missed abortion because of an arcane aspect of halacha. The report is in Hebrew, but there is a related English language blog post in 972 Magazine.
According to the report, a woman in her second month of pregnancy was wheeled into an operating room at Assuta Hospital in north Tel Aviv for a procedure to remove the fetus which had died inside her, but which the woman had not naturally miscarried. Just as the procedure was about to begin, the OR director rushed in and announced that it could not proceed. The reason was that this particular operating room did not have an adjoining small room designed to prevent Cohanim (descendants of ancient Israelite priests) from becoming ritually impure through contact with the dead. Apparently, abortions and D&C procedures must be performed only in operating rooms with an adjoining room that supposedly captures the soul of the dead fetus and prevents it from exiting to the hospital corridor and possibly contaminating a Cohen.
The article was accompanied by a photo of the sign affixed to the doors of all the operating rooms “kosher” for such procedures. It says, “In this place, the doors are equipped with a system to prevent ritual impurity of Cohanim. When the light above the door is on, do not open the door. Please wait patiently until the light has been turned off.”
The woman was told she would have to come back the next day for a rescheduled procedure in one of the sanctioned operating rooms.
Criminals. Troublemakers. Attention seekers. These are just a few of the names that Women of the Wall have been called. I’ve met these women. I’ve prayed with these women. And you know what? I call these women discrimination-fighting superheroes with the guts to stand up for the human right to pray.
As an OTZMA participant and a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I am blessed to have the opportunity to intern with this social advocacy group and experience the magic. Women of the Wall seeks to achieve the rights of women to conduct prayer services, read Torah while wearing tallitot or tefillin, and sing out loud at the Western Wall. Their quest is to change the current status quo that prevents women from doing so — and to educate Jewish women and the public as well as empower Jewish women to take control of their religious and prayer lives.
At Rosh Hodesh Iyar, the first of the month, I prayed in the women’s section of the Kotel. Surrounded by a couple hundred women pushing up against me with their prayer books, I didn’t feel claustrophobic at all. I enjoyed feeling close to them. I like feeling part of a team — one united army of women from all different branches of Judaism with the common goal of freedom in prayer.
Yet the Kotel was swamped with photographers, reporters and police officers watching us as if we were plotting evil. Orthodox men stood on chairs in the men’s section screaming at us to pipe down and to stop the racket. They stared us down as if we were parasites.
As Women of the Wall members and supporters prepare to welcome the Hebrew month of Sivan on Friday morning, with Rosh Chodesh services in Jerusalem, its U.S. allies are getting ready to again demonstrate their support by doing the same. Solidarity services are scheduled for New York, Washington D.C. and Chicago.
In Jerusalem, meanwhile, opposing group Women for the Wall is gathering approbations from strictly Orthodox rabbis and hoping to rally women to also turn out in numbers for Rosh Chodesh services at the Kotel.
On Friday, just a few days before the holiday of Shavuout, which celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people, Women of the Wall will not read from a sefer Torah, as they had planned. It is a concession made to Israel’s attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, during a meeting on Tuesday at which he agreed not to appeal an April 24th district court ruling that women praying in tallit and tefillin “does not disturb the public order.”
The views of Weinstein and others appeared to shift rapidly this week.
I will never forget the day I joined the Israel Defense Forces. It was five years ago, and I remember 18-year-old me, kissing you and Dad goodbye and boarding the bus that would take me to a month-long boot camp. You hugged me close and shed a tear, and I remember thinking you were weird. I could not understand why you were getting all emotional when you’d probably see me that very same weekend, or in the worst case, the weekend after that. I had no idea why you made such a big deal out of me starting my mandatory IDF service, all the more due to the nature of my service, which had me sleeping at home almost every day.
Now, Mother, I understand.
My little brother is now an IDF warrior, and I finally see what hid behind that tear. I saw it the day he went on that bus to boot camp to start his mandatory service — the helplessness that you and all the other mothers who kissed their children goodbye felt. Not because you won’t see your baby boy for two weeks, but because that day you were forced to let go of your natural grip of your child.
Women of the Wall has in recent months attracted lots of press and public support, from Members of Knesset to rabbis and laypeople, particularly since police stepped up arresting women leading Rosh Chodesh services at the Kotel. Women of the Wall then ramped up its own efforts to illustrate that current policy there — which prohibits women from praying wearing tallit or tefillin or with a Torah scroll — is discriminatory. Now there is an additional party to the conflict: a new group called Women for the Wall.
Women for the Wall — abbreviated as W4W — was co-founded by Ronit Peskin, a 25-year-old mother of three, who opposes Women of the Wall’s goals and approach. On its website, Women for the Wall describes Women of the Wall’s efforts as “political battles” turning the Kotel into “a media circus”: They “do not belong at a place such as the Kotel. Their monthly activism threatens to turn this holy place into a site for a media circus rather than prayer, and is disruptive for all that come there to pray peacefully and connect to G-d.”