As an Orthodox Jew, feminist activist, and first-year college student, I’ve got a pretty full schedule to balance. I’ve previously written about how being a feminist has influenced my perspective on being an undergrad, but I have yet to explore how being Orthodox impacts both my feminism and collegiate career.
Being a feminist in a patriarchal society is no simple mater. However, so far, I’ve found college to be a pretty conducive place for feminism and other social equality movements. There’s a sizable feminist community at Harvard, every member of which is absolutely fabulous and truly dedicated to making the world a better place for women and men alike. Numerous gender-related events occur every week, from screenings of documentaries like 12th and Delaware to speeches by New York Times columnist Gail Collins. All of the upperclass feminists I’ve met have strongly encouraged me and other first-years to get involved in activist work; my first semester of college hasn’t even ended, and I’m already on the board of an on-campus feminist organization and write for the college’s feminist magazine. Even in groups that are not specifically gendered or activist-oriented, I have found and fostered several feminist-friendly spaces.
Not everybody I meet on campus is as involved in gender issues as I am. Although I have encountered some insensitivity or misunderstanding when I’ve espoused feminist ideals or used the word feminist, the typical reaction is a few respectful questions about what exactly feminism is. Consequently, I’ve had some really interesting, eye-opening conversations with a varied group of people about gender issues.
Just like my feminism has been flourishing, my Judaism has also been thriving. The Hillel at my school is home to a vibrant and active Jewish community filled with truly inspiring individuals. The Orthodox community at my college is strong and tight-knit; I know that I will always have a core group of frum kids and rabbinical staff to rely on. I’ve yet to experience any anti-Semitism or discrimination based on my halakhic observance. Non-observant Jewish students and students from different faiths have all been extremely tolerant and respectful of my beliefs and practices, and so has the school administration and faculty. I haven’t found it difficult to be frum in the slightest.
In the same way that I feel comfortable expressing my feminism and my Judaism on campus, I have also found spaces for Jewish feminism. No matter my location, merging my Judaism and my feminism is an integral part of my life. The fact that I’m on a secular college campus makes no difference. I will always observe halakha, and I will always stand up for the rights of women.
Never for a moment have I felt that I have to choose between the two and only have one or the other. I have certainly never felt this way in college. The Hillel, which is the hub of Jewish life on campus, is extremely sensitive to gender and sexuality issues. All of the rabbis on staff are feminists who are involved in social justice in some way or another. This year was the first Simchat Torah where I was closer to the Torah than the ceiling, and I had the chance to participate in a partnership minyan one Friday night. Women’s learning is fostered in the beit midrash, and Hillel often hosts speakers who are women.
As a frum feminist undergrad, I’m planning on going to the JOFA Conference in New York from December 7-8. Although I will be a speaker at the conference, I would attend regardless. I went to my first JOFA conference when I was in ninth grade, and I greatly enjoyed my experience; writing about my impressions of that conference was one of the first articles I ever published. Looking through the schedule, I genuinely have no idea how I’m going to choose which panels and speakers to go to, since they all look so interesting and eye-opening. For the future of Jewish feminist activism, it’s imperative for other college students and recent grads to come to this conference. We are the next generation, and we must learn from the women who are currently battling in the field.
Overall, I have found several forums to express the Jewish, feminist, and Jewish feminist facets to my identity on campus. If I have had all of these opportunities in my first semester alone, I can only imagine what the next three and a half years will be like. I know that attending the JOFA conference will help enhance my sense of identity and develop all of its facets.
Talia Weisberg will be speaking at the JOFA conference long with other young Orthodox feminists about how she uses blogging to advance social change. Register today!