Monthly Archives: April 2014

Like Mother, Like Daughter

gone viralMichal Dicker shares her compelling story of growing into her Orthodox feminist identity. She originally submitted this essay to gain admissions to Barnard College, where she is now a senior, about to submit her senior thesis on the agunah crisis.

“Like mother, like daughter.” This comment often embarrassed me, as I tried to fit in with the girls in my Jewish Orthodox community. I strove to be anything but different—a futile endeavor. Despite my gregariousness, and social graces, my trendy outfits and popular rank, I was branded with an “F”—feminist—thanks to my progressive mom. As I grew older, I thought that I could remain impervious to her convictions but, fortunately for me, I failed. The vast majority of my mom’s opinions began to seem logical. To my own surprise, I found myself advocating her beliefs—specifically in my middle school Judaic classes, where the concept of equal opportunity barely existed. The stirrings of my feminist notions were conceived in a rather convoluted and unconventional manner.

shutterstock_159079187In a class of twelve rambunctious girls who loved to get riled up, I became the resident feminist advocate. Initially, because of my expertise in the field of modern Orthodoxy, and being full of “leftist ideas,” I was the logical choice to play devil’s advocate with our ultra-Orthodox teachers who often stressed male superiority. To the astonishment of my classmates, I grew into the role; what were once strictly my mom’s thoughts and teachings, became my own. The debate with my teachers became a personal crusade to communicate the perspective of my centrist world. Most important to me was advocating the study of Talmud by girls and women, because the Talmud is the foundation for the development of Jewish law (halakha), to which both men and women are subject. I publicly confirmed my feminist beliefs when I took the plunge and read from the Torah to mark my bat mitzvah, a ritual recently revived by some Orthodox women. Although eager to advocate my beliefs, I was unprepared for the social ramifications. Much to my chagrin, I officially became known as “radical”, and I feared ostracism from my peers. I had not yet read The Scarlet Letter, and did not appreciate the concept of a modern-day “Hester.” Despite my display of independence, my good friends did not abandon me.

As I reflect upon this time, I now recognize the crucial role that it played in my personal development. I learned the importance of being psychologically independent; after voicing my “liberal” views, I could not assume that I would be supported. Like my former self, my friends aimed to blend in; many quickly deemed what they did not understand as “erroneous,” a fallacious mindset that still prevails in Jewish Orthodox communities. My indifference to peer pressure proved to be one of my most powerful tools. Both in the classroom and socially, I did not give in to my teachers and peers who did not want to understand. Those who stood by me taught me the importance of genuine friendship.

During this tumultuous time, I also discovered my passion for the pursuit of knowledge—and my adamant refusal to accept anything as fact without research. I attended feminist conferences, joined the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and became dedicated to educating myself and my peers on topics that related to women’s ritual participation and leadership opportunities in Orthodox Judaism. As I entered high school and gained equal access to Judaic texts, I was further inspired to continue on a feminist path. Armed with this power of knowledge and the support of my true friends and family, I have learned to feel comfortable with myself, and confident about my convictions. Now the phrase–“like mother, like daughter”– is the highest form of praise and a badge I wear with pride.

Michal submitted this in response to our call on Facebook for college application essays about Orthodox feminism. If you’ve got an essay sitting somewhere in your files that you’d like to share, send it on over to thetorch@jofa.org.

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Posted on April 29, 2014

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JOFA: Including Men

shocked expressionMy mother-in-law likes to use the expression “you could have knocked me down with a feather.” I can’t quite imagine that happening, but if it’s supposed to mean “shocked beyond words,” then that would have been an apt description of me five years ago, had I known there would soon be a move to nominate men to JOFA‘s Board of Directors. During the first ten years of JOFA’s existence, I don’t think any of us thought twice about the value of an all-female Board. In those days, we felt that the Orthodox establishment was generally so negative towards women, that we needed our own organization to call home. Yes, we had husbands, male friends and a few male supporters who were feminists but this was our space to be the main actors; they were the helpmates.

Well, speed up ten years and a lot has changed. Women are no longer the token members of synagogue and school boards that we once were. Women are officers and even presidents, though there are still too few women leading “name brand” Orthodox organizations. The main reasons JOFA had kept men off the Board of Directors are simply no longer relevant now that there are so many men who are engaged and effective feminists and community activists. What we have learned in the past ten years is that building communities with deep-seated modern Orthodox feminist values requires both women and men who have shared visions of equality, spiritual openness, and intellectual curiosity. Whether a leader lives those values and inspires others to do the same is much more important than that leader’s gender.

So how are we doing it?

First, we’ve decided, at least at this stage, that all members of the Executive Committee and the
majority of the Board will remain women. It is not easy to break down cultural barriers and we want to do it in an organized, intentional manner. We want this to work!

Second, this year, we don’t want to nominate only one man to our Board of Directors, we want at least two, and possibly several men. We do not deal in tokenism and we want that to be clear both from the inside and the outside. Will the conversations remain as spirited, the disagreements as collegial, and the compromises as satisfying? I sure hope so. It’ll depend on whether feminist men have a sense of humor too.

So, if this were even five years ago, you could have knocked me down with a feather, but today, we are an organization that talks the talk and walks the walk. I don’t know if it will guarantee our future but I do know that JOFA now speaks with one voice about our vision of the future. Wouldn’t it be great if other Orthodox organizations did the same and included women as full members of their leadership teams?

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Posted on April 25, 2014

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Leading Seder for the First Time

This was my first Pesach away from home. I am a first-year college student and although I love my college and my vibrant Hillel community there, I was looking forward to spending the seders with my own family. And yet, as much as I wanted an idyllic Pesach at home, I knew that it would be impractical, given the amount of class I would miss while traveling. Logistically, it just didn’t make sense, so I stayed on campus. It was clear to me that there was a reason I was supposed to be at college instead of at home. And so, rather than accepting an invitation to someone else’s first night seder, I decided to host and lead my own.

sederMy mother has led the family seder every year I can remember, so a woman at the head of the table is definitely not foreign to me. However, the idea of leading it myself was intimidating. I have never been confident asserting my voice in Jewish ritual (for example, saying Kaddish for my dad always made me nervous). I decided not to let this fear stop me and I reached out to other first-year students who might be uncomfortable going to a large communal seder, not have a smaller seder to go, or just not seek one out in the first place.

I expected about fifteen students, but even more showed up. The diversity of the group was wonderful, ranging from hopeful converts to unaffiliated Jews who had never before experienced a seder to Orthodox students who had never missed one in their lives. Consequently, the discussions during Maggid were rich with viewpoints informed by various religious ideologies and academic backgrounds.

In planning the seder, one of my priorities was to make a safe space where all of the attendees could feel comfortable. Before beginning, I made it clear that everyone was welcome at this seder, and explained the orange on the seder plate to illustrate my point. To make the seder interactive and inclusive, we took turns reading paragraphs from the Haggadah during Maggid. Only a few people were familiar with Hebrew or Aramaic so we conducted most of the seder in English. We sang rousing renditions of Chad Gadya, Echad Mi Yodeia, and Adir Hu.

Since I’m known for my feminist tendencies, nobody was surprised that I included Miriam’s Cup and discussed the strong women who are the backbone of the Exodus story. People also appreciated that I used (and encouraged others to use) gender-neutral language. We had a lot of really good conversations about the Four Sons: do we gain anything from them being male, or do they actually reflect children of any gender? How do we rationalize pushing away the Wicked Child from the Jewish community? What are the feminist implications of the Haggadah’s use for the feminine you in “you should say [to the Simple Child]?”

Although I definitely missed my mother’s charoset and all the customs we have at home, I really enjoyed leading this seder. I am so happy I was able to provide and facilitate a Pesach experience for all those people. As much preparation and stress as it took to plan, I’m looking forward to doing it again next year.

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Posted on April 23, 2014

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Pesah— Hag HaHinukh: The Holiday of Education

Jewish tradition has four names for the Passover Holiday—Hag HaAviv (the Spring Festival), Hag HaMatsot (the Holiday of Unleavened Bread), Hag HaPesah (the Holiday of Passing Over), and Hag HaHerut (the Festival of Freedom). Each of these names represents a different aspect of the holiday.

shutterstock_181164680However, there seems to be an additional name that would be fitting for Passover — Hag HaHinukh — the Holiday of Education. Indeed, no other ceremony in Jewish life is as dedicated to educating the next generation of Jews as that of the Seder. The educational mission of Seder night begins in the Torah itself, in three different verses, which instruct us to educate our children about the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

The key verse in this educational paradigm can be found in Exodus 13:8:

וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְהוָה לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם:

And you shall explain to your child on that day, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.”

What this verse seems to be stating is that while you are eating matsah, you should explain to your child all that happened to you while you were leaving Egypt.

The same educational call is found in the Mishna, Tractate Pesahim 10:4:

מזגו לו כוס שני וכאן הבן שואל אביו ואם אין דעת בבן אביו מלמדו…. ולפי דעתו של בן אביו מלמדו.

A second cup of wine is poured out; and the son should then inquire of his father. If the son doesn’t have da’at (understanding) to do this, aviv melamdo—his father teaches him…. And according to the da’at of the child should the father teach him.

This Mishna describes the moment at the Seder when the child’s curiosity should be piqued. After all, why are we suddenly having a second cup of wine when we normally have only one? Here, the expected response of the child is depicted. However, in the event that the child does not ask, the parent is obligated to teach. The Mishna delineates an additional requirement: that the parent teach the child according to the child’s da’at — the child’s understanding, or intellectual capabilities. It is a remarkably modern approach, that of individualized education. The Mishna here is communicating that the one-size-fits-all educational model doesn’t work; education must be child-specific.
Continue reading Yaffa Epstein’s words of Torah in this spring’s Shema Bekolah.

Looking for help engaging the wide range of people at your seder? Check out the Many Ways To Tell Our Story, JOFA’s handbook of activities for people of all ages and styles.

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Posted on April 13, 2014

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The Widening Scope of Gender Expression and Traditional Judaism

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Orthodox feminism’s struggle for women’s leadership and ritual inclusion set a strong precedent for the recent consideration of the issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. As JOFA supporter Dinah Mendes asserts in Moment Magazine, “LGBT traditional Jews share some similarities with traditional Jewish feminists; like them, they press against established gender boundaries and norms in their quest for more equal representation and involvement.”

She writes:

“There is no new thing under the sun,” declared King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, the literary, somewhat world-weary distillate of his lifetime experience. But if the wise old king were catapulted into our new gender relaxed world, would he still opine thus? Would he stick to his guns if the Sunday Times landed on his breakfast table, the “Vows” section filled with the nuptial announcements of gay couples? Or if he were to glance at the cover article of a recent Atlantic Monthly entitled “What Straights Can Learn From Same-Sex Couples,” positing the higher level of fulfillment enjoyed in many homosexual unions?

Although legally sanctioned anti-Semitism ensured Jewish cultural separatism and prevented full participation in the larger world for much of Jewish history, Jews living today are, for the most part, free to design the parameters of their dual citizenship. This is not much of an issue for ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are largely self-insulating, or for relatively assimilated Jews at the other end of the spectrum, who are unburdened by the yoke of religious Jewish authority. Ultimately, only traditional and Modern Orthodox Jews, who aspire to inhabit and integrate two worlds, confront serious challenges at points where the values of the two cultures clash with each other.

Continue reading “Is There a New Judaism for Gender Identity?” at Moment Magazine.

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Posted on April 10, 2014

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Three Ways to Engage Children and Adults at Your Seder

Our Family HaggadahThe Haggadah

When my family sits down to the seder table on April 14, we won’t be passing around the Maxwell House Hagaddahs. We don’t use the Sacks one, anything by Artscroll, or even something from JPS. We will be using “Our Family Haggadah.”

The brainchild of my mother and Savta in the mid-90’s, this DIY publication has been a work in progress that is currently in its fifth edition. While the first versions most likely contained dozens of copyright infringements, the current version is getting closer to an original family document.

We realized that the people around the table wanted something traditionally authentic, intellectually challenging, and unique to our family. As you can see, we have cut many portions of the traditional hagaddah, but have done our best to maintain the essential pieces while creating more opportunities for discussion and questions. Without the pressure to get through so much text, we have the comfort and opportunity to truly be open to any questions that might arise.

If you don’t want to use our haggadah, and don’t have the time to make your own, consider cutting out a few sections and replacing them with open discussion or guided Q&A. You will be surprised to see people refreshed by the change and the chance to make the seder experience more personal.

Seder Table Activities

The other way we’ve adapted our seder is by adding in new activities and games each year. We realized that there is often down-time during the meal (shulchan orech): as soup is being served, between courses, and during dessert. So we play games! We’ve tried a number of different activities over the years including our own versions of Cranium, Mad Gabs and most importantly Jewpardy. It’s not so simple to create your own games, so use the ones other people have already made. Pick a game, print it out, and you’re good to go!

An Activity for Every Family

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This last suggestion is more than a game – it’s an interactive reimagining of a 2,000+ year old tradition. Anyone can run this activity at their seder:

Whatever the true origin of the orange on the seder plate, the idea of placing symbolic items on the seder table feels as old as Passover itself. But in addition to the six symbols on the seder plate, the orange, and Cup of Miriam, we can add our own symbols.

Before the seder, send out a casting call to your participants asking them to bring their own Passover symbol to place on the table. They can bring anything they want, but must be ready to explain how it is symbolic of a Passover theme or concept. Before the seder begins, place each of the symbols on the table. As the seder progresses, take periodic breaks to allow the table to discuss one of the objects. Solicit suggestions from the group as to what the item might symbolize and then ask the person who brought it to explain what it means to them.

At the end of the seder, or once all of the symbols have been presented, vote on which item added the most to the seder experience. The winner gets a reserved space at the table next year!


I wish you the best of luck with a meaningful Passover seder. If you’re looking for divrei torah and other content for your seder, visit http://www.jofa.org/Education/Holidays/Holidays for some great articles and resources.

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Posted on April 7, 2014

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Preparing for Pesach My Way

book of ideasThe seder is my favorite Jewish ritual, and every year, I have the best of intentions. In line with the rabbinic notion of preparing for a holiday thirty days in advance, I begin preparing for Passover as soon as Purim is over. I buy the newest haggadot that seem like they’ll provide interesting material. I go to a class about the haggadah given by someone who I expect to say something insightful, meaningful, and thought-provoking. And then I tell myself, this year will be different. I will actually sit down with all my haggadot before the seder. I will study them and use them as a springboard to develop my thoughts about the Exodus, redemption, and its relevance to our lives.

Sometimes it really works out that way but mostly, I am still holding tightly to this goal right up until the afternoon of Erev Pesach, hours before the first seder, when I am forced to recognize that it will simply not happen. I will likely have to wing it, assuming that is, that we still want several tasty charoses variants (the family standard is to have at least two) and bug-free romaine.

It is certainly not the cleaning that keeps me from delving into the haggadah in advance. I take the rabbis very, VERY seriously when they say that this isn’t spring cleaning. We do what the halakhah requires, but the search for chametz in our house does not involve dry cleaning the drapes. So what’s my issue? What is holding me back from preparing new content for the seder? And does it matter?

bug napkin ringWe can start with the fact that I love to have a festive table — no, make that a festive room. I decorate the room with wild beasts on the chandelier, frogs on the walls, and bug rings on the napkins. Lording over everything are little naked Moshes in baby baskets (Party City in the baby shower aisle!). The baby baskets are set inside vases with water, nestled into bigger baskets of grass. How could I possibly read anything until I’ve plastered every bare space with Exodus ambience? This may be one reason my adult children and my young grandchildren love our seders. It is not only the rituals and “k’zayit“s that make this night different — it’s about the sights, the smells, the textures, even the silliness.

And although I haven’t been reading my new haggadot, I have been cogitating about the Exodus and redemption. Sometimes the discussions that come from this process are the most interesting. As beautiful, meaningful, and special as the seder is, its most important purpose may be to set a tone for the rest of the year. If we can feel our Judaism so dynamically on this one night and enjoy it so profoundly, I know we have it in us to try a little harder to engage with it throughout the year.

So will this night be different? I don’t know. Though there’s still time for book-based prep, I know that whether I download articles and divrei Torah from years past on JOFA’s online library (at 6:05pm Monday night) or have my own divrei Torah ready in advance, my bugs on the napkin rings will make me smile, at least one of the charoseses will be weird and I can hope the spirit of the seder will carry over to the rest of the year.

Chag sameach!

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Posted on April 4, 2014

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