By Education Fellow Amanda Winer
I first heard about Women of the Wall as a counselor in training at Eisner Camp in Massachusetts, when the chairperson of the group’s executive board, Anat Hoffman, came to speak to us about her experience in Israel. Women of the Wall, formed in 1988, organizes Torah services on the women’s side of the gender-segregated Western Wall. Their attempts to worship as they see fit, which includes women wearing tallit, at Judaism’s most sacred site have made them the target of lawsuits, arrest, and even verbal and physical harassment. To me, it sounded like a worthy idea, but neither women’s issues nor Israel was my “cause of the moment.” Hoffman also serves as Executive Director of the Israeli Religious Action Center, and that aspect of her presentation was more inspiring to me at the time.
Last Rosh Chodesh (first day of the month), my feelings changed. I was scrolling through Twitter, when a name jumped out at me. Rabbi Elyse Frishman, someone I know, someone whose daughter I shared a bunk with at camp, was among four women detained Friday, December 14th, for wearing a tallis at the Western Wall. Rabbi Frishman, in my experience, is a wonderful rabbi, mother and woman who, in addition to her personal accolades, also edited the Reform prayer book, Mishkan T’filah.
The events surrounding these latest arrests, and the arrest of Anat Hoffman two months ago, brought about an outcry from groups in Israel and the diaspora that promote religious pluralism in Israel. Pluralism, according to Quaker philosopher Parker Palmer, is a three pronged process. First, we must admit that we, both as a people and as individuals, have wants and needs. Then, we must acknowledge that the wants and needs of others may be different, but they are also valid. Lastly, we must decide that there is inherent value in the discussion of the wants and needs of all parties involved. This process makes the seemingly daunting task a bit easier, a bit more real.
After reading that familiar name, Women of the Wall had my attention. I thought about the evolving role of women in Judaism. In the Conservative and Reform movements, and elsewhere, women read Torah, become rabbis and spiritual leaders, and run some of the most philanthropic Jewish organizations worldwide. This is fairly recent. My grandmother, Baba, would never have considered such things at my age; she grew up sitting with her mother on the women’s side of a mechitza. Later, though, she reached a position of leadership within her home synagogue, and on a regional and national level.
I couldn’t shake this. My next thought was about “Southern Belles.” Before I moved to Mississippi, I had in my mind an archetype of what Southern women were like. I pictured The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan—women who were beautiful, kind with a soft demeanor and a dress straight out of Gone with the Wind. I remember thinking, “I read The Help, I’ve got this.”
Based on my experiences in the past six months, I can say that I was not entirely wrong. Many of the women I have met, both professionally and personally, are beautiful, kind and sweet. There is another amazing aspect to them, though. Southern women are passionate people, with varied interests moving forward in the modern world. They are devoted and steadfast, whether to the Crimson Tide or their local Hadassah chapter. I see this especially in the commitment of Jewish women in the South to their religious communities. In fact, the point person for each of the religious schools that I work with is a woman. Witnessing this level of engagement leads me to think about and participate in gender equality activism in a way that I never have before.
The role of women is constantly evolving, and these women are changing with the times, taking active roles in making their realities the best they can and teaching their daughters and granddaughters about all of the possibilities being a woman can bring. These issues are important, and can and should not be taken lightly.
The biggest question to me is: Is religious pluralism possible? In Israel, the Women of the Wall struggle for a more pluralistic vision of Judaism. In the South, the ISJL’s success in working with communities regardless of denominational affiliation suggests to me that there is hope. Progress will take dialogue, and we see from Women of the Wall and others that a few strong, confident women can make it happen. Learning about the journeys and struggles of women like my Baba and Rabbi Frishman inspires me to love and support all the women in my life. And just like that, I guess I’m becoming a Southern belle!
There it was, in the news, soon after the results of the November 6 election were announced: bigotry in the spotlight, here in Mississippi, again. Headlines declaring a “riot” on the campus of the University of Mississippi (more often referred to as Ole Miss), with white Southern students shouting racial slurs and burning an Obama/Biden campaign poster. Black vs. white. Racial tension in the Bible Belt.
How do we encounter that experience?
There’s a long and complex history of civil rights in the South, and Jewish involvement in civil rights. Luckily, at the ISJL, in addition to studying and sharing the histories, we consider it an honor to have seen and participated in the great work of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation (WWIRR) in action. The WWIRR is located on the campus of Ole Miss, right in the center of the recent controversy.
This whole incident is in “our neighborhood,” but all the more so in the WWIRR’s neighborhood. And community reaction and engagement around this is in my wheelhouse, and something I – and hopefully, the readers of this blog – care about. So I reached out to Dr. Susan Glisson, Executive Director of the WWIRR, to ask her about the situation that has caught national attention, the realities, and responses.
Here’s what she had to say.
Malkie: The WWIRR’s Position on Racial Reconciliation includes an emphasis on the importance of language and “how it is often unintentionally used to blur, divide, and polarize what are essentially similar efforts”. As I was thinking about the ways in which to describe what happened on the evening of November 6th, I considered my choice of words. (Do I call it an occurrence? No, that sounds unintentional. I guess I should call it a riot, but was it a riot? Does the word “protest” capture what took place?) Each word seems blurry in its own way. How might you describe what took place on the Ole Miss campus?
Dr. Glisson: I can only say now that one of the participants described his participation in the event as “defending his beliefs” in “the Republican side of campus, the Confederate side of campus.” So, I think it is clear that racial fears underlie what happened Tuesday night.
Malkie: You informed us that a walk took place on campus called We Are One Mississippi Candlelight Walk. Were you able to attend? What was the tone and message of this walk?
Dr. Glisson: I was there. It was serious and reflective, resolved and hopeful. The message is that love is greater than hate and that we refuse to go back to any old regime of bigotry.
Malkie: For some, these events will serve as an indicator that racism in Mississippi is pervasive. How would you respond to an individual who draws this conclusion?
Dr. Glisson: The results of the election clearly show that we are the most racially polarized we have ever been. Racism is pervasive throughout the country and I think the only question may be about degrees. We ALL have much work to do.
Malkie: Our blog is called “Southern and Jewish.” What would you like Jews in the South to know about the work of the Winter Institute?
Dr. Glisson: The Winter Institute works in communities and classrooms, in Mississippi and beyond, to support a movement of racial equity and wholeness as a pathway to ending and transcending all division and discrimination based on difference.
Malkie: Can you share ways in which you think Jews in the South can play a role in advancing racial reconciliation?
Dr. Glisson: There is a rich history of collaboration between Jews and civil rights activists; I hope we can rekindle that connection through dialogue and community building to repair the wounds of the past.
What are your thoughts on this incident? What do you think is the most constructive way for communities to come together to “repair the wounds of the past”?