Gender messages are all around us. From images in schoolbooks to images on bus ads, from conversations on the train to those on the big screen, from clothing conventions learned at school or on Fifth Avenue—everywhere we turn, we are subsumed in messages about what it means to be a “correct” or “normal” woman or man. Just this week there has been a heated debate on our Facebook feeds about whether there is room in our society for women to express anger without being dismissed for not being perky enough. Gender is everywhere.
In our research, we have been especially interested in how these gender messages get transmitted in Jewish educational institutions. Schools are big parts of our adult lives—as parents, community members, and former students ourselves. And certainly schools are a big part of our children’s lives. Events taking place in school today are likely to impact our culture for years to come For that reason, we have found it useful to examine the gender messages in schools, and to provide people with tools to ask the important questions about their educational settings.
Here are some useful questions for parents, teachers, students, lay leaders, and other interested members of the community to ask about the educational institutions around you:
1. Whose photos are on the walls? When you walk into a school (or synagogue, or JCC), take a look at the portraits hanging on the walls. Are there an equal number of men and women? If photos are male-dominated, find out why. For example, is it because only school presidents’ photos are displayed and the school has never had a female president? If that is the case, see Question 2. Take note also of the gender make-up of artwork displayed, or of historical figures displayed. If women and girls are underrepresented, start a conversation about it with the school staff and leadership.
2. Who are the lay leaders? Are women represented in lay leadership? Has your school ever had a female president? Are women encouraged to join the lay leadership—prepped in the “pipeline” for future roles as leaders?
3. What does the mission statement say about gender? Mission statements often give strong clues about the values and energies of the school leaders. If a mission statement dedicates a paragraph or more to its relationship with the State of Israel, for example, chances are this was the result of many hours of discussion on the topic, and an express commitment to the issue. Many schools, however, have little if anything written in their mission statements about commitment to gender equality. This may mean that it has never been discussed at length, or that it is not a high priority. Find out the history of your school and its commitment to this topic.
4. Who are the student leaders? Is there gender equality in student government? Do girls and boys have equal opportunities to become leaders? Flip through recent yearbooks and check for gender equality in leadership of clubs and councils. Where do boys stand out and where do girls stand out? For example, is there a place for girls in areas such as chess, the A-V club, or computers? Is there a place for boys in art, poetry, and dance? Find out what kinds of experiences students have had when they challenge gender expectations. For example, what happens when a girl wants to join the A-V club? Also, do girls’ sports get the same attention as boys’ sports—and the same funding? Try to find out from students what kinds of experiences they have had in this regard.
5. Who represents the school at public events and assemblies? In one coeducational day school, a parent was surprised to find out that the school’s model seder had only boys on stage. When she inquired about this with the principal, he told her that it wasn’t “intentional”—each class was told to select a representative, and every single class happened to choose a boy. Check to see if there is equal representation and equal opportunity in public activities.
6. Who leads ritual and prayer? Even in early childhood, prayer and ritual are a significant part of students’ experiences in Jewish schools. In many cases, even in kindergarten, children receive the message that the boys’ job is to lead while the girls’ job is to choose songs or distribute papers. In upper classes, gender differences in expectations around ritual are further exacerbated. In many schools, boys are expected to pray more frequently or for longer periods than girls, boys are expected to come to school earlier than girls, boys’ prayer facilities are nicer than girls’, and boys receive more attention and training in areas related to prayer. Take note of the gender messages around prayer, and find out how these messages affect students’ attitudes towards prayer – and towards gender.
7. What kinds of roles are boys and girls given around Shabbat? Another gender-laden Jewish topic is Shabbat. In many schools, the “Ima shel Shabbat” [Shabbat mother] and “Abba shel Shabbat” [Shabbat father] are fixtures from early on. In some schools, the girl is expected to bring baked goods while the boy is expected to recite the Kiddush. What are the messages around these gender-segregated demands? How do they affect families that do not fit neatly into this “standard” gender model—such as single-parent families, blended families, or single-sex families? How do girls feel knowing that they have no reason to learn to recite blessings? How do boys feel learning that the meaning of being a boy is to always lead girls?
8. What adjectives are used to describe boys and girls? Take note of how girls and boys are described in newsletters, websites, report cards, and public events. Often girls are commended for being “caring,” “kind,” or “giving,” while boys are praised for their “intelligence,” “ingenuity,” and “courage.” Take note of gendered adjectives in your school, and start a school discussion about it.
9. Whose pictures are in the newsletter and website – and what are they doing? Similarly, whose photos appear on the school’s website and other materials? And in what capacity? Are girls shown in the same kinds of active, energetic, and intelligent roles as boys? Are girls shown engaging in sports, math, science, and leadership? One camp that we worked with had almost no photos of girls on its website. But when we pointed it out to them, they took note and made changes. Today, the site shows photos of girls everywhere, including doing sports and teaching.
10. Are there men on the educational staff, and in what positions? Teaching is a female-dominated profession, which has repercussions for status and salary. What makes it worse is the inverted pyramid—that often the few men on staff are quickly advanced and promoted. It is not uncommon to see a staff meeting that is almost exclusively female, with the only man in the room constituting the boss. Do dynamics like this exist in your school setting? How do women feel about the gender make-up of the staff?
We hope these questions are helpful. For more information and insights, you can read our book, or feel free to contact us for consultation or to find out how we can help you along in this important process.
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The school was on a residential street in North West London. From the outside it was unremarkable, but the atmosphere as I crossed the threshold for the first time for an interview to become an English teacher, was astonishing. The Catholic convent school I’d just left was a seething cauldron of energy and chaos. The noise of ringing school bells and yelling teenagers formed the backdrop to a relentless melodrama of flunked exams and teenage pregnancies. After twelve years teaching in the comprehensive system, I was burnt out.
The advert in the TLS described the school as a girls’ grammar, but I guessed from the Jewish name that it would be quite religious, so I was dressed appropriately – long skirt, long sleeves and a neckline high enough to cover my collarbone. I’m a secular Jew, but I had no inkling what I was letting myself in for. The school wasn’t just a bit religious; it was a Charedi school, the most theologically conservative stream of Orthodox Judaism. In the UK, they are known for their black sable ‘shtreimel’ hats and curled side-locks, and little else, since they are notoriously insular. According to Jewish Policy Research, there are currently 53,400 Charedi Jews in Britain, a group that is growing fast. Membership of Charedi synagogues has doubled since 1990, and they now account for three out of every four British Jewish births. Continue reading
Yehuda Kurtzer’s first book, Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, is now available
Do the Jewish People need more books? And are books the key to Jewish innovation? In the 1920s Franz Rosenzweig wrote that “It could hardly be asserted that the great urgency of the present moment is to organize the science of Judaism or to prompt both Jews and non-Jews to the endless writings of books on Jewish subjects. Books are not now the prime need of the day. But what we need more than ever, or at least as much as ever, are human beings—Jewish human beings, to use a catchword that should be cleansed of the partisan associations still clinging to it.”
Rosenzweig then, and we in the business of Jewish education now, sense that the conditions in which modern Judaism is struggling for a continuous foothold require something more than the perpetuation of Jewish knowledge for knowledge’s sake; that our seeking, studying, teaching and learning needs to focus on human outcomes. Accordingly, the trend in the so-called innovation sector focuses heavily on just the “Jewish human beings” that Rosenzweig calls for: on innovators themselves, on people with ideas who fall between the margins of the institutions.
And yet it has always seemed ironic to me that with all the advances in our knowledge of Jewish history, and the successes of Jewish Studies in the academy, that we know now more about the Jewish past than we have ever known before; but as a community, we tend to care about the past less than ever. To paraphrase Leon Wieseltier, our collective ignorance of the classical Jewish past may be the scandal of contemporaryAmerican Jewry. I am concerned that the fixation on new programs – even in the embodiment of new individuals to lead the Jewish community – is alone insufficient to make a credible claim for the legacy of what this generation of Jewish life is going to leave behind, that we are substituting program leadership for the thought-leadership that ultimately has kept intellectual history in productive parallel with actual Jewish history.
I see the classical rabbis as the paradigmatic bridge-builders between the perpetuation of ideas and the programmatic work of innovation: they were architects not only of an extraordinary literature – one that they tied to the authenticity of the Bible through an ideology of calling it a second Torah, the oral Torah – but also of systems for Jewish life to enable Judaism to change productively through a period of existential challenge.
So I am not sure that a book – even if it is not the book that Rosenzweig derides – turns the tide for the innovation sector (which is not to say I was not grateful for the philanthropic experimentation that brought it about!). But it does make me hopeful that we are remembering the legacy of the transmission of ideas that has helped define Jewish life in the past as we do the work of redefining Jewish life in the present.
When my son Noah was about 3 or 4, he came home from school one day and asked me, “Abba, who are the Jewish people?” Thrilled by this opportunity to really begin in earnest my son’s Jewish education, and by the depth of this question coming at such a young age, I replied, “Why, Noah – we are the Jewish people!” Whereupon he burst into tears, inconsolable. When I finally calmed him down, I asked him why he was so upset. “Because I don’t want Pharaoh to hurt me!”
I was conflicted about how to answer him. My parenting instincts inclined me to disabuse him of the myth altogether: to tell him that it was just a story from a long time ago, that he was safe, that maybe the story wasn’t even true. Goodness knows a toddler does not need to be terrified by Judaism in general, much less as a catalyst for his sense of belonging to a story he is just learning about for the first time.
At the same time, I was proud to see that he had unwittingly internalized the mandate of the Passover Haggadah: that in every generation a person is obligated to see themselves as though they left Egypt. Pharaoh was alive for him, a source of genuine terror. The non-parental, Jewish educator side of me wanted to shrug my shoulders and tell him, “Shver tsu zayn a yid.”
This is a defining question in Jewish education, as it goes to the heart of what it means to create, cultivate and transmit memory. Not facts, not history, and not just values and ideas that are critically important as part of the texture of an intellectually credible Jewish education, but memory – that sense of belonging to a narrative that precedes you and will outlast you, and a set of stories and visceral experiences in which you may not have physically participated but are part of defining the identity to which you belong. But is there a workable way to transmit the power of traumatic memory, without creating post-traumatic stress?
One of the greatest dilemmas I faced while writing The Benderly Boys & American Jewish Education was how to refer to the group of Jewish educators who were mentored by New York Bureau of Jewish Education director Samson Benderly. At first glance the answer seemed deceptively simple. Benderly referred to his protégés as my “boys,” and the moniker “Benderly boys” was widely used both by members of the group and their colleagues in the field.
And yet, the appellation is problematic. For one thing, in today’s world the term “boy” or “girl” when used in reference to a grownup has taken on a pejorative, or at the very least, a paternalistic connotation. This usage has largely become anachronistic, a relic of the “Mad Men” and “Driving Miss Daisy” era.
More fundamentally, the term “Benderly boys” is misleading. Although the majority of Benderly’s disciples were men, the group also included a number of women. A few attained leadership positions in schools, community centers, camps and other organizations. And while most voluntarily “retired” after marriage or the birth of their children, a few became career women long before the feminist revolution. Libbie Suchoff Berkson, for example, directed Camp Modin, in Canaan, Maine, while Elsie Simonofsky Chomsky served for many years as the principal of Gratz College‘s well regarded Hebrew teacher’s program, the School of Observation and Practice. Still other women gave up leadership positions but continued to wield influence in the field. Rebecca Aaronson Brickner, who served as Benderly’s veritable right hand during his early years at the New York Bureau, officially left education in 1919 when she married Rabbi Barnett Brickner. But her influence continued to be felt in the religious school of Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue Temple (later called the Fairmount Temple), where her husband spent much of his rabbinical career. Likewise, Mamie Goldsmith Gamoran and Elma Ehrlich Levinger published dozens of religious school textbooks, storybooks and other educational materials years after they supposedly embraced domestic life.
Benderly, apparently, did not hesitate to apply the ‘Benderly boy’ appellation to his female disciples. In my book, I discuss the implications of this curious usage. Benderly reflexively used gender as a marker for his closest disciples. If you fulfilled his criteria, which included studying at Columbia Teachers College, assuming administrative responsibilities at the Bureau or one of its affiliated schools, and attending his daily, early morning schmooze sessions, you were considered one of the boys, regardless of your anatomical make-up. Contemporary scholars, however, have been less sanguine about using the term “Benderly boys,” with some preferring gender neutral terms like “group” or “bunch.”
The term “Bureau bunch” was adopted in the 1910s by the larger team of workers at the New York Bureau, while the inner circle of disciples referred to themselves as Chayil , an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “education is our national foundation,” and a word meaning valor or virtue. While I intersperse the term “Benderly group” throughout the book for the sake of variety, I will admit to finding neither “Bureau bunch” nor Chayil compelling. The latter seemed obscure and, in any event, was confined in the day to an exclusive group of insiders. I wished to cast a wider net. The latter, meanwhile, was irredeemably hokey-sounding, particularly in the ear of one who was raised on a seemingly continuous loop of Brady Bunch reruns.
In the end, I decided to stick with “Benderly boys,” despite its drawbacks, and not merely due to its alliterative appeal. For me, the use of the appellation by Samson Benderly and its embrace by his disciples was decisive. By retaining the term “Benderly boys” I felt that I was at once remaining true to history while also honoring the memories of these men and women. But I did not entirely give up on the desire to problematize the designation. That is why I was thrilled to come across a crisp photograph of Benderly walking arm in arm with three of his closest disciples, including Libbie Berkson, while working at theAmerican Jewish Archives. I knew immediately that it needed to adorn the book’s cover. This photo of Libbie, surrounded by men, but clearly accepted as a full member of the Benderly team, juxtaposed with the book’s title, is purposely discordant and meant to induce perplexity. Here was a case where a picture could truly speak louder than words.
Here is hoping that the publication of The Benderly Boys (along with Carol Ingall’s 2010 volume, The Women Who Reconstructed American Jewish Education) helps to encourage a rediscovery of Benderly’s “girls.”