“Wear red lipstick when you meet with him,” warned a grad student. I only vaguely understood what she meant. The man in question was a revered academic scholar. His taking time to meet with a lowly undergraduate was an honor. His advanced years and disheveled fashion clouded my naïve ability to see him as a sexual predator. But after he began calling me sweetheart, asking me to sit up in the front row during class, and putting his hands on my thighs under the table, the meaning of her warning became crystal clear. I always wore lipstick and stopped going to closed door meetings.
The arrest and charging of Rabbi Barry Freundel was a terrible shock to most. But in reading some of the first-person accounts of encounters with Freundel, a pattern has emerged of a man whose abuse of power was not entirely unknown but never publicly challenged. From Toronto, in the county in which I grew up and love, similarly the story of Jian Ghomeshi, a former rock star turned popular radio host, has uncovered tales of years of abuse and exploitation spoken about quietly and never explicitly published or charged.
Reading these now public accounts has opened up floodgates of personal memory and laid open the implicit challenge that comes when men in power abuse or harass women, in particular young or vulnerable ones. And having grown up in and become a professional in the inner circles of the Jewish community, the memories and stories come from inside our “kodosh kodoshim,” our holiest of places and institutions.
When I was 19, I was invited to a high-level meeting of my student group being held in the Old City in Jerusalem. As Shabbat descended, I found myself in a small private bedroom where the only other female leader was sleeping soundly. I was flattered that our executive director had sought me out to discuss some of the upcoming business; I was political, ambitious and believed in the causes we were activists for. But at some point he began undoing the zipper on my dress and pushing me down on the bed. I told him to cut it out but that was only mildly effective. I remember my confusion. Young and sexually inexperienced, I was not attracted to this man. He was someone I respected. I did not want to wake my roommate. He told me not to fuss. The Shabbat siren wailed; my roommate woke and we went to pray. Over the mechitzah, he continued to leer at me and my confusion turned to anger.
At dinner, I made sure not to be seated with him, but at some point when he made a comment about changing that, I stood up and said before all assembled that I had not come to be physically or religiously pressured. All conversation stopped. I looked a fool, I am sure, but the harassment stopped there.
I was proud of myself. I felt empowered. But it was no easy feat. No one, not even the other female on the board, ever asked about my outburst. This was not surprising. At other retreats I had seen board members stick their penises in the faces of sleeping friends, and others prey on underage girls. Sexualization and harassment were part of the culture, and if I wanted to play in the big leagues I had to be strong enough to deal with it. So as hard as it was, I internally spun the story as one of pride for my ability to talk up, playing down the utter humiliation and isolation.
My brashness came in no small part from an understanding of my self worth (thanks to my ima for that) and the Jewish values that were part of the same education package the men I knew had grown up with. But there was also a piece that I would come to understand only with time. The stakes were low and the violation, while upsetting, relatively minor. I had little to lose by speaking up. The harassment, while troubling, had not crossed in my mind that imaginary line that often makes the shame too hard to overcome for the sake of reporting. This man, while in a position of power, was of increasingly little consequence in my life and I did not worry about direct retribution. And finally, I was young and still not fully aware that holding men accountable for abuse of power could and often does have repercussions that can add layers of trauma.
I wish I could say that that is the end of this story. Through the years I’ve supported women who have had to sit and watch their rapists lead tefillot, or suffer as their abusers are celebrated as among the great Jewish leaders. I personally have had to face inappropriate behavior from men in the Jewish community. Sometimes I’ve spoken out, and sometimes not. I’ve avoided some very bad situations because even when women don’t speak up publicly they share information quietly. With the help of this informal network, I’ve avoided getting into elevators alone with particular men. I’ve chosen not to engage in conversations with certain men or pursue specific opportunities.
The good men of the Jewish world far outweigh those who abuse their power. But abuses, small and large, exist and come at a cost. Women rarely have the opportunity to speak up and push back, for when we do, we risk at best being told that we are too sensitive (what I was once told by a colleague when I objected to being told to “stop acting like a wife”) or at worst that we brought it on ourselves (what I was told when I recounted the Old City story to a loved one). We risk being labeled as difficult, getting a reputation as too outspoken or jeopardizing employment if we challenge the wrong people. Sometimes we walk away from the Jewish world, because it is just too hard to live in close quarters with those who betray our trust or because the values that are supposed to come from the holiest place are the same ones that are used to overlook deplorable behavior.
As I watch a new generation of young women begin to take their places in the Jewish world, I wish for them more safety and less exploitation. But barring that, I pray that they have the strength to find the support that they need when they need it, so that they remain safe and holy in body and spirit. In lieu of protection I cannot guarantee, I offer this advice: take the rumors to heart. No level of observance, power, or privilege is immune to men who exploit their manhood. And if bad things happen, do not blame yourselves. It is not your fault. You did not bring it on yourselves. You are holy, created in the image of God. No one has the right to treat you otherwise.
Living in a house full of readers, I often find my book—the book that I reserved from the library to read on Shabbat afternoon—sitting on someone else’s nightstand with someone else’s favorite bookmark peeking out from the pages, a clear signal that someone else has staked a claim to my book. I am annoyed, though only until I remember the many times my spouse has warned me away from a book that he knows I won’t enjoy.
There is only one genre about which we tend to disagree: biography/memoir. He’s a scientist who prefers non-fiction and literary fiction, while I’m an artist who is hungry for personal narratives that demonstrate the writer’s source of inspiration. That’s why I was surprised when he devoured Bringing Bubbe Home: A Memoir of Letting Go through Love and Death, by Debra Gordon Zaslow. He finished it in a single afternoon and insisted I read it next. “You’ll love it,” he assured me.
Bringing Bubbe Home is so personal that I immediately feel as if I’ve known Debra my whole life. She is a gifted storyteller and writer, and she shares her story of the decision to bring her 103 year old grandmother home from an assisted living facility—to care for her until her death—with unwavering compassion and honesty.
The book stayed with me long after I’d finished reading the epilogue; hours after the havdalah candle was extinguished and the peace of Shabbat had departed from our home, I was still thinking about Debra’s family. I wanted to recommend the book to my spouse, but realized that he’d already read it. I considered giving it to my friend, with whom I swap books regularly, but she is still in the first year of mourning her mother and Debra’s detailed account of Bubbe’s death might be too painful for her to read right now.
So I recommend it to you. If you read only one book during Jewish Book Month, please let it be this one.
Much has been written about the impact of Rabbi Barry Freundel on the Orthodox world. In a community that sees the mikveh as essential to their practice of Judaism, this is a fundamental tear in the fabric that weaves together ideals of halakhic observance with the messy realities of daily life. But much less commented upon are the ways in which this tragedy has implications beyond the Orthodox world.
Jewish feminists of all stripes, and mikveh activists like Mayyim Hayyim in Boston have been working to help reimagine mikveh. In my own life and rabbinate, I’ve been to the mikveh with women after abortions and miscarriages. I’ve seen its healing powers provide a balm to those struggling with illness or dramatic life changes. I’ve had the privilege of celebrating brides, b’not mitzvah and mothers of b’nai mitzvah with a spiritual dip. For many, the power of this ritual exceeds rational expectations and is profoundly meaningful.
Unfortunately, this scandal has reinforced preexisting negative assumptions about mikveh which abound in the liberal Jewish communities I inhabit. Part of this emerges from a feminist critique of the laws which link women’s menstruation with the need for purification. There are concerns about privacy, cleanliness, and irrational outmoded rituals. The extent to which Freundel’s alleged corruption focused around mikveh has put the healing and spiritual potential of this ritual even further from the reach of liberal Jews. Since news broke, I have been part of many conversations, on line and in person, where people are seeing Freundel’s actions as vindication for having avoided the ritual in their lives to date. Others, looking for life cycle rituals, have voiced trepidation about going to the mikveh in the future. The loss of trust and the positive potential of this ritual has been compromised beyond the narrow confines of the Washington, Orthodox community.
Additionally, while the majority of non-Orthodox commentators have been thoughtful in their reactions, I have been troubled by the tendency of some to wonder why any Jewish women stay in the male-dominated Orthodox world. Some cite the exclusively male rabbinate as reason enough for women to leave. Others suggest that given the more egalitarian options in the Jewish religious landscape, women should be moving out of Orthodoxy.
This line of thinking is highly problematic. Whatever denomination or affiliation a particular Jew holds, it is important to recognize that other streams of Jewish life have their own value. If we are intellectually honest, most of us can recognize that there is no perfect religious community. But more troubling than the dismissal of Orthodoxy as a valid approach to Jewish living is the victim-blaming implied by such critiques. Let us be clear: None of the victims of Rabbi Freundel’s alleged misdeeds bears any fault or blame for what has happened. We should not underestimate the intelligence, passion or thoughtfulness of the women in Rabbi Freundel’s community. That these women might have chosen less male-dominated forms of Jewish living does not by any means lessen Rabbi Freundel’s responsibility or the obligation of the RCA to live up to its own standards and those of secular law. They bear the entire responsibility. No one should expect or put up with abuse of power or sexual abuse.
Finally, the focus on Rabbi Freundel and the RCA should not obscure that the abuse of women or rabbinic power is not unique to the Orthodox. Seeing abuse as primarily an Orthodox problem minimizes the pain and suffering of those who have been sexually harassed or abused by non-Orthodox rabbis and Jewish leaders in non-Orthodox settings. The limited circles of Jewish power and community often have a chilling effect on women’s ability to stand up to abuse, no matter the denomination. Furthermore, I have worked with converts from all denominations who have had rabbis charge exorbitant fees for conversions or required favors be performed, exploiting their spiritual vulnerability. Across the board, Jews have to condemn sexual and religious exploitation within our communities.
As it should, Rabbi Freundel’s arrest has rocked the Kesher Israel community and the Orthodox circles that held this man in great esteem. Yet the implications are much broader. We should take the opportunity to open conversations about what are often taboo subjects. Rabbi Freundel’s alleged actions have shined a light on mikveh, abuse of power in the Jewish community, and the challenges of conversion. None of these issues is unique to the Orthodox world.
Often reality is stranger than fiction; The vote for one of the first major strike in American history was taken in Yiddish and involved an ancient Jewish oath.
Most of us take for granted the bathroom breaks and workplace safety that are, not always but generally, the standard in the United States. As Labor Day approaches, it is worth taking a moment away from the barbecues and the back to school prep to remember that some of these basic workplace amenities came to be through the hard fought battles of early labor organizers many of whom were Yiddish speaking women.
In the early years of the twentieth century the influx of immigrants combined with industrial mechanization gave rise to sweatshops and factories with grim conditions, low wages, and long hours. Workers were rarely in a position to negotiate time off, overtime, or even bathroom breaks. Workers were crammed together with little fresh air and breathing in the byproducts of their manufacturing process. Machine safety was an afterthought. Threats of strikes and unionization were undercut by threat of unemployment for the same workers who could ill afford it and the easy supply of replacement labor.
Still there were those who understood that the power for change would only come through unionization and strikes. Unless business owners faced real loss they would have no incentive to change. In 1909 there were a series of small strikes. These were grassroots affairs that engage a largely female Jewish immigrant population involved in the needle trades. But the bosses beat picketers, had them arrested and the strike fund dwindled. Time was running out.
Nonetheless the members of Local 25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union called a meeting inviting all the workers in the shirtwaist industry. Thousands came and listened to a roster of important union bosses, most of whom were men, speak in broad terms about the importance of strikes and the challenges to the efforts. The momentum might have been lost had not Clara Lemlich stepped to the podium for an impromptu speech.
Lemlich was a Russian immigrant and a self taught socialist who had become a union organizer in the United States. She had been arrested and beaten but felt compelled to act. She was frustrated by lack of action and new that something needed to be done. Speaking in Yiddish she admonished the union leaders and roused the crowd. “I am a working girl, one of those on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here to decide is whether we will or will not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared–now.” Following her lead, the assembled masses raised their right arms and swore loyalty to the union using the words “If I forget thee o’ union may my right arm forget its cunning.” Playing off the ancient oath not to forget Jerusalem. The vote to strike carried. The numbers swelled to 20,000 and it became impossible to ignore the workers needs. Though only some of the needed changes were made, a 52 hour week and 4 vacation days, it was the start of a new era.
Since those days Yiddish has largely become the language of Jewish jokes not of American politics or social reform. Yet in recalling the passion and purpose of Clara Lemlich and the other brave women she rallied that night, we remember that the story of those still struggling for safe working conditions and reasonable pay is our own story. We cannot distance ourselves from the farm, box store or fast workers who despite actively contributing to the economy cannot necessarily afford the basics of food, shelter, and healthcare or be assured safe working conditions.
In a few weeks it will be 5775 on the Jewish calendar, a Jubilee year when we are supposed to set our slaves free. Take a page from Clara Lemlich and begin this year with a call to justice. Write to your representatives and to the stores in which you shop, post to your communities on social media and remind them that we all need to work together to have a society in which work and human dignity and survival go hand in hand.
1. Do you have strong ideas and opinions?a. Yes
2. Do you share these ideas with others?
3. Do you expect other people to live up to your high expectations of them?
4. Do you command attention when you enter a room?
If you are male and answered “a” to all of the questions above, then you have executive potential. If you are female and answered “a” to the above questions, then you are bossy and pushy. If you manage to reach the top of your field in spite of these character flaws, then expect to be reviled.
Because she was “the first woman” she is de facto a leader. Her curiosity and thorough investigation of the world she lived in served her well to be a leader of early humankind. But it was these very same traits that caused her downfall. She was too curious; she bit the fruit from the tree of knowledge, and convinced her husband, Adam to do the same. Since then people have been suspect of women’s leadership. Eve led humanity in to a world filled with suffering, pain and disease.Women in leadership positions have always had to walk a fine line. They need to be smart enough, and confident enough to assume a leadership position, but not appear to pushy, bossy, or aggressive. Gender bias is alive and well in 2014, and we have Eve to thank for this. Yes, Eve, the first woman mentioned in the Bible.
How do we undo the damage taught by this story for thousands of generations?
It deeply pains me to love Judaism so much, to love the stories in the Bible, and the artful way rabbis debate laws in the Talmud when this amazing tradition is inherently misogynistic. We have come a long way in both the larger Western culture and the liberal Jewish world to recognize that women can be leaders in a variety of secular and religious positions. Yet, female leaders are still seen as somewhat suspect.
I think this will always be the case until we stop teaching the story of Eve the way we do. Instead of casting Eve as the one who leads humanity in to suffering, why not teach the beauty of curiosity – how sometimes it leads to good things and sometimes to bad? Why not stress that God wanted Eve to eat of the apple. For God put the tree there in the first place and imbued humans with curiosity. By eating the fruit, Eve was living up to her highest potential; in the end she opened the door to all of human ingenuity and progress. Isn’t that a good leader’s job, to help propel things forward?
I love the characters of the Bible because they are all flawed human beings, just like us. However, when a story portrays a gender stereotype that has been passed down for generations and has been woven in to the very fabric of culture after culture, it is time to tell a different story.
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Yet another holiday about which I am ambivalent, Mother’s Day seems this year to have engendered rather more commentary than I can remember in past years. I have read several moving essays from women whose infertility has made Mother’s Day painful, as they are forced to watch the omnipresent cute pictures of babies and advertisements directed at heteronormative families seemingly composed of clumps of gooey gazes of young, pretty, thin (and mostly white) women at their offspring, neatly clad, and freshly scrubbed.
Aside from the commercialism of it all, aside from the very real pain of women who want children and have not been able to bear them, I wonder if this is the best we can do for women. While honoring one’s parents is a Jewish value, I’m not sure that Mother’s Day offers any real honor.
Of course I wouldn’t dare not show up at my own mother’s house, but as for me, I’d rather see our society make genuine changes to the way we treat women. I would consider it a far greater honor to make sure that no girl need fear rape in her high school or college than to get some paid-for gift every year. It would be a lot more clear to me that our society cares about mothers and motherhood if it made more effort to feed the children of all the mothers in it, and pay women the worth of our work—equal to what a man would make.
Of course, that’s sort of the point. It takes a lot less work to show pretty once a year, and make a few grand pronouncements about how motherhood is the most important job than it does to actually honor women. That would require some big changes in the way we do business, in how we live our lives, and would require more than one day’s consideration.
And I will say this, too. You can’t truly honor mothers if you don’t have genuine respect for all women: before, during, and after the years of her fertility, whether or not she chooses to bear children, whether or not she is able.
So if you really want to honor your mother this weekend, get off your duff and go make the world better for every girl, for every old woman, for any child born of woman, boy or girl. Go on: then you can be the hero your mother always told you you were. And that would be the best Mother’s Day present you could give her.
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Earlier this week, my excellent colleague, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz asked the important question of whether, “there can be a new type of “masculinism” that is not about stereotypical manliness, but about confidently embracing what it means to be a man today while also honoring the narrative, journeys, and rights associated with feminism?”
Rabbi Yanklowitz didn’t initially frame the question in terms of Jewish practice, although he did post it on ejewishphilanthropy, and very properly pointed out his perspective as an Orthodox rabbi certainly must color his views in terms of the spiritual meaning of gender.
In those terms, it is interesting that many traditional Jewish cultures valued masculinity in quite different ways than modern western culture does (Daniel Boyarin writes extensively about this in many of his books, most notably, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, and of course, others have as well).
In the rabbinic imagination, as well as some Ashkenazic cultures that sprang from them, the feminine is judgement to the masculine mercy (for example in kabalistic imagery); women are suited to labor, while men study; and women are physically tough while men are valued for their delicacy and yeshiva pallor. Of course, we all know that the expression of these values most likely differed more by individual case than by actual gender – as is true regardless of what society one lives in- but the fact that these ideas about how gender is performed varies so dramatically from that of our current western society, demonstrates how entirely socially constructed those values are, and how little they have to do with the people inhabiting them. In fact, these values were so different from the cultures surrounding them, that the non-Jews made note of them, often stereotyping Jews negatively based on them, viewing male Jews as effeminate and weak and female Jews as lusty and strong – stereotypes that we have sadly spent a great deal of effort on disproving by assimilating the contrary gender attitudes of the culture around us.
The irony doesn’t quite end there: even though Rabbi Yanklowitz has essentially brought us full circle, by wondering how we could re-imagine gender roles (to which one might at first consider answering by saying, “bring back the traditional values!”), to solve the problem, it is the question itself which must be examined. As long as society defines each gender in opposition to the other, the problems of sexism cannot be avoided. As soon as you ask, “how can I be not like a woman,” the implication must be that being like a woman is bad (“you throw like a girl,” or the like) and in a society where women are still significantly less powerful than men, it is impossible to avoid this.
Is there a genuinely good reason to differentiate genders in this way, by defining some behaviors as female-appropriate, and some as male- appropriate? My mother-in-law, bless her, likes to say that there are only two jobs that require a person to be sexed a particular way: sperm donor and surrogate mother.
There is no way to equitably explore separate gender roles until equality has been fully achieved. Even then. On the other hand, there is no downside to trying to achieve full gender equality. It will not in any way rob either men or women of being male and female (anything which is biologically determined won’t change, presumably, so what are you afraid of? And if it isn’t biologically determined, then reinforcing it benefits whom, may I ask?) – but it will benefit people by encouraging them to pursue spirituality that fits them, rather than insisting that they should fit themselves to someone else’s notion of what their spirituality ought to be.
Of course, Judaism does require us to undertake obligations, sometimes even responsibilities that we have no desire for, but nevertheless, we are called upon to fulfill them. But is performing gender roles, and separating what women and men do religiously, part of this set of obligations? Or would it be more appropriate to be strict, and say that all are obligated, unless their specific case renders that obligation impossible, or temporarily difficult. For example, perhaps the exemption from positive time-bound mitzvot should be based on who is taking care of the children, rather than assuming that it is the female person that is doing so. Sometimes it will be, but sometimes it won’t – requiring the exemption along gender lines prevents people from choosing which role suits them – and of course some people might never have children- why should they be exempt?
It’s not the way our sages would have thought about it. Perhaps, though, we can draw wisdom from how we today think about the four sons of the haggadah. Most of us are disinclined to assume that our children are permanently the wicked child, or the simple one (and certainly those of us with children know that they aren’t always the wise child): rather, we understand that all four of those children is within each of us, and at different times, we will ask (or not ask) those questions based on where we are then, at that moment.
And finally, we should remember that while the four children are examples of different kinds of people looking for answers, and provides a script for each of those defined roles, the haggadah also requires us to each ask our own question: that is why one can fulfill the obligation of the four questions by asking any question at all.
Perhaps that is a better example for us today: instead of insisting that we must stick to a preordained script, let us encourage everyone to remember that we are not the same people at all times, and that we will play different roles throughout our lives – thus, we must ask different questions for each of them. Instead of asking, how can men can express their supposed differences from women, maybe the right question is, “How can each person be themself?”
A friend of mine recently posted a link to this blog post about a screening of an Israeli film titled Six Acts. I found the post profoundly disturbing, not only because the facilitator of the discussion whose point was to reduce rape, apparently had very little awareness of the facts of sexual violence, or even because of the comments made by organizers and audience members. I felt disturbed as well because we see such a great deal of sexual violence in our society and we are inclined to write it off in various ways.
As a human being, and as a citizen, it should be enough to disturb me. But as a Jew, I feel that there is a great deal more to be said, and I fear that we are not having these conversations in our community at least in part because in the Jewish community, we struggle with modernity in more than one way:
First, because many liberal Jews wear our “Jewish lenses”—our framing of the world in Jewish terms- too lightly, and we don’t take seriously the idea of sex as a form of intimacy and holiness, whose performance echoes the divine unification of God. And we do not teach sexuality as a sacred act, which is private and precious, rather than an act which is “for fun.”
And second, we also struggle with the reality that in Jewish culture itself, there is a deep inequality between men and women built into our halachic (legal) system. Even though we in the liberal Jewish communities give lip service to egalitarianism, in reality we have not achieved it, neither in our institutions, nor in our personal lives. A cursory examination of the leadership of our institutions (overwhelmingly male at the top) inequality of pay among not only clergy but also the extreme levels of low pay for traditionally female jobs (including regular airing of news stories in various iterations of Jewish press showing preschool teachers and social workers on welfare).
While these items don’t even begin to match the horror of the situation described in the blog post, they are reflections both of our schizophrenic attitudes towards women, and of the unresolved tensions in our two cultures in dealing with women.
Certainly, the secular culture, too, is deeply invested in not examining its attitudes towards sex and sexuality and women. However, as a Jew and a rabbi, I believe that we are failing our communities in not speaking—yes, explicitly speaking—about sex, violence, and sexism, and about how Jewish tradition talks about all of these matter—both for good and in ways that we should find disturbing- and in what ways Jewish tradition can offer a better way.
**In the DC area, the excellent organization JCADA offers resources for victims of domestic violence. Jewish family services also often offer counseling services. The (secular) organization RAINN can help the victims of sexual violence find a variety of support services, and all RAINN affiliates offer 24 hour crisis hotlines. If you or someone you love has been a victim of sexual or domestic violence, please contact someone who can help you.
I recently met a woman who I really liked. We have a lot in common, being professionally accomplished Jewish women of roughly the same age, with grown kids in their twenties, and an intense interest in progressive politics and making our contributions to repairing the world. She’s raised a Jewish family infused with traditions and conversations about Jewish values. She has a strong Jewish educational background, and speaks Hebrew, as does her husband.
And we are both marginally affiliated Jews. I hold memberships in two communities in Israel; one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv, but not one near my home in New Jersey. She belongs to a Conservative synagogue in her neighborhood that she doesn’t attend, but continues to support out of a sense of history and loyalty. We talked about where we would attend High Holiday services and she said, “anywhere but in the sanctuary of my shul,” (shuttering, as if that would be an ordeal.) I told her that my husband and I would be attending an experimental holiday “prayer event” with “Lab/Shul,” in New York City. We were looking forward to a spiritually rich, musical and interactive experience. She told me about a California rabbi who she finds very inspiring, whose services are live-streamed on the internet. After Rosh Hashanah we shared our thrill for having had wonderful holiday experiences.
That week I met another very interesting women, also close to my age, professionally accomplished, with young adult kids. She, like me, is studying at a graduate school of Jewish studies, to see where it leads. We talked about our holidays, and she told me that she was still seeking, having left the Reconstructionist synagogue in her New Jersey neighborhood (where she had once been very involved), not because she didn’t like it, but because the expense of dues didn’t make sense to her family after the kids left the nest. Like us, she and her husband planned to spend the holidays in New York City (away from home in New Jersey), to access “hip” alternatives. We talked about where to find the best Israeli food in Manhattan, because she, like me, spends a lot of time visiting Israel.
Then I met another woman in my age cohort at a business meeting in Manhattan, another professionally accomplished woman from the NY Metropolitan area, and her story was much the same. She was anxious to tell me that she had been very involved at her neighborhood synagogue for a long time, serving on the board and actively contributing. But she left there after a political shake up between the board and the clergy, which she found very distasteful. So she and her family found a really “cool” rabbi who was doing High Holiday services in a rented storefront. She talked about how it was informal, engaging, and deeply spiritual. She is also seeking a meaningful Jewish path, feeling alienated from her Reform community, which she feels is too much about politics and not about spirituality. She went on to tell me about the non-profit organization that she and some friends founded in Israel and the amazing work that it is doing.
We are living in challenging times for synagogues in America. Most of my rabbinic colleagues are worried about declining membership, declining volunteer commitment, declining fundraising income. Some worry that the model of the American synagogue, created in the 20th century in a different reality, may be itself endangered. Others complain about losing members to “pop-up” congregations, storefront arrangements for holidays and Shabbat that offer cheap Jewish engagement, or Chabad. Pay as you go, or perhaps no commitment at all, rather than membership dues with a commitment.
I was there until recently too, scrambling to innovate in big and small ways in a small congregation. Now, from the outside looking in, I am driven to imagine in different ways. Synagogues need to ask challenging questions of themselves, reimagining their strategies for serving a more complex set of needs and demands. People will vote with their feet and their wallets for the kind of Jewish spiritual experiences they want – and are willing to pay for. My commitment for this year is to support and encourage new models, while seeking ways to add my own creative ideas and efforts. Perhaps, rather than fearing this change, we can all embrace the new world of possibilities that come with it.
The three women I profile here are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are noteworthy. A rabbi or a program or a community that can catch their attention and nourish their needs will earn their support. It is up to us to seize this time of change to build a better future for the Jewish people.
(Photo from Lab/Shul, Yom Kippur 2013, 5774)
I recently read an essay published earlier this year on xoJane that a woman wrote as a paean to her (still living) mother. The essay outlined how her mother saved women from abusive partners, helping with money, or helping them, literally, escape.
The crux of the story, though, isn’t just her mother’s heroism, but how her mother came to it. To the daughter, it was the following anecdote that was at the center:
You know, it’s funny — Cindy was the one who tried to sponsor me for that women’s sorority. I didn’t have many friends here, being from away, and I’d helped her with all these fundraising projects. I thought it would be so much fun to have women friends. And she put my name in at her sorority, but of course I’d been married before and divorced, and that was a black mark against me. Those women turned their noses up and said they didn’t want a woman like me. Cindy cried when she told me, she even resigned over it. Over me.” “So, after that I sort of kept my head down, you know? That had killed what little self-esteem I had; I didn’t have much to begin with. That’s when I decided I couldn’t win. Been born on the wrong side of the tracks and that was just that. Of course, looking back on it today, I wouldn’t have fit in with any of those women anyway. That’s when I quit trying to be social. And not long after that, I guess, women just started coming to me.”
According, at least, to this telling it is the mother’s otherness, her inability to fit into the mold of the good housewife type of the time, which freed her to do the things that other women simply wouldn’t do – like take in women being abused by their husbands to protect them.
The story reminded me a little of my own mother. I had no idea, growing up, that it was at all unusual for a family to have people who weren’t related to you living at your house, just because they needed a place to stay. When a high school friend of mine’s family decided to move back to Texas in the middle of the year and he didn’t want to go, it was our house where he lived until he graduated. When a friend of my sister’s was kicked out of her own house, she lived with my family. I don’t remember thinking anything of it, off at college. That was just what my mother did, along with making jewelry, and hopping on board with the latest appalling health food fad (please, just don’t mention wheat germ or lecithin oil).
The writer of the essay explained that, “As her daughter, it took me nearly 20 years not to pity my mother’s ‘otherness.’ She stopped pitying it herself a long time ago.”
It is a natural human tendency to try to “fit in,” and failing at it, or deliberately turning away from what is “normal,” can make one an object of pity, or disgust. Perhaps it’s for that reason that there are so few Jews. Judaism does not only set us apart, it demands our separateness, in our speech, our habits, and in our families. To sanctify is to separate. And it is hard.
But it is also a blessing. To be separate can allow us to see and to do what others are unable to see and do. One who is other can be dangerous, beyond the boundaries of “normal” behavior. On that path can be sociopathy, but it can also be heroism.
Being “outside” is painful. Humans thrive as part of a group, and we need one another. We crave acceptance. But the story from xoJane reminds us that being separate, other, outside – sometimes makes us the ones closest of all to others. When we make that choice to accept and use it.