Brave Chabad Woman Speaks Out Against Childhood Abuser

On March 23, Sima Yarmush, the daughter of Chabad Shlichim, emissaries, in Santa Monica, California, shared her story of childhood abuse. Ten years after she reported her experiences to four prominent rabbis, who falsely promised to help her navigate this trauma, she stood up to share her dark story with the public. She withheld most of the details about the abuse, but shared some of the grooming techniques her predator employed. For years she had been scared to tell anyone about her abuser, even her parents.

I can’t imagine the pain inflicted on Sima and her family. What I found both compelling and devastating was the community’s reaction once the abuser had finally been exposed. How callously her neighbors and other Chabad rabbis reacted, and the attacks that her parents endured for doing what they believed was in the interest of protecting children.

The responsibility of exposing abusers and keeping children safe is ours – all of ours. We can realize this responsibility by creating an environment that would have allowed Sima to speak up when the abuse first occurred, and for swift and effective action to be taken. We need to have clear and blunt conversations with children of all ages about the dangers in the world and who to contact if your space or body is violated. When Sima did have the courage to share her story with those rabbis empowered with protecting her, they did next to nothing.

It is our responsibility to share her story, educate our children, and not to tolerate abuse in the community. It exists in every community, regardless of religion or denomination, and it is our job to protect children and expose the abusers. Listen to Sima’s story and share it – send a message loud and clear that this will not be tolerated.

Posted on March 27, 2015

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Can Modesty Be A Feminist Choice?

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By the time I finally bought my first bikini, I was sixteen years old. As a chubby kid who had grown into a young adult with a curvy figure, I had never felt that my body deserved to be seen. I grew into a tendency to hide myself underneath baggy jeans and shapeless one-piece bathing suits, until my body grew into something that I thought that society would approve of. Once it did, I felt proud to parade it around in all of its glory. After all, I had made it. I was part of the club.

A year ago, when I began to live my life in a manner which more closely followed Jewish religious observance, I immediately tweaked my dress to appear more modest. I began to scan the aisles for knee-length black skirts and long shirts with a high neckline instead of short-shorts and miniskirts. Immediately, it became apparent that my feelings about my new self-imposed dress code were mixed. On one hand, I personally loved the way my body felt in the modest clothing, the way in which the clothes that I chose covered me while simultaneously flattering my figure. I also appreciated the manner in which the dress code acted as a social signifier, sending a message about my religious affiliation to other religious Jews and to society at large.

However, there was one challenge which nagged at me whenever I stepped out in my new manner of dress. I wish I could say that this issue was based on some lofty feminist goal which sought to challenge the innate patriarchal system inherent in Jewish standards of modesty. I wish that it bothered me more that women are perceived to have a responsibility to cover themselves up for the sake of preventing men from exciting their yetzer hara, sexual inclination. I wish I felt more guilty that I was implicit in the victim-blaming which is rampant in religious circles, by implying that I was somehow more ‘holy’ or ‘worthy’ than girls who choose to wear less.

No. I am embarrassed to say it, but my biggest issue was that I missed the gaze of men. I don’t claim to speak for anyone else, but personally, I have found that however much you might feel good about yourself in a knee-length skirt, no matter how much it may enrich your neshama, soul, you attract significantly fewer car horns and up-and-down stares on the street. In these first few months of dressing modestly, I felt my self-esteem plummet. In the absence of the same degree of external validation and day-to-day objectification which I had enjoyed since I began to show myself off, I was at a loss of how to love myself. I was convinced that my days of being desirable were over, and I began to make half-sincere jokes about being ”past my prime.”

My confusion climaxed one day when I burst into tears and confided in a colleague with training in mental health. He suggested that I write a letter to myself detailing the issues I was undergoing. I sat down, dried my tears, and entitled the letter: “Dear Thirteen Year-Old Me…” I wrote about how since I was that age, I hadn’t felt so uncomfortable in my own body, and how I wished to regain the sense of self which I seemed to have lost.

It was at that moment that I realized that for the last seven years, I had let the patriarchy define my very self-worth. Instead of valuing myself for my wit, my intelligence, and my charm, I had let the winks and stares of random men boost my spirits. I realized that far from being an obstacle to self-love and finding validation, modest dress posed itself as an invaluable gift. Instead of relying on the lust of strangers to define myself as a desirable person worthy of love and attention, I had the power to attract people through whatever means I chose to do so. Far from causing me to lose control of my sexual power, my choice to dress modestly gave me more autonomy than ever before.

Although Jewish norms of modest dress are indeed based on a patriarchal system, many modern fashion standards are as well, because they are designed to excite the attention of the opposite sex, and thus deem its wearers worthy of sexual attention. This is why I have decided to continue following the norms associated with modest dress – because I now know that I am worthy of that attention without the ‘help’ of eye-catching clothing and I shall receive it, with the help of God, from the right person whenever he may come into my life. I will receive this love and attention, and indeed I deserve it, because I believe that I am intelligent, funny, insightful, patient, caring, compassionate, and loving.

Oh yes, I mustn’t forget…and beautiful.

Posted on March 25, 2015

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The Maternity Leave Mitzvah

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The details may vary from patient to patient, but the scenario is usually the same. A mother and newborn baby come to my pediatric office for their first doctor’s visit when the newborn is three or four days old. As I speak to the mother, I always ask her if she has any questions or concerns. Even though her newborn is only a few days old, often the mother would like to discuss daycare options, or how she could pump and store breast milk for her anticipated return to work in a few short weeks. The first weeks and even months after a new baby is born should be spent with the mother, partner, and siblings bonding, but all too often, families use their limited time at home worrying about and preparing arrangements for when they return to work rather than relaxing with their newborn.

The United States has one of the poorest maternity leave policies in the world. In fact it is the only industrialized country with no law requiring paid parental leave. Under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), mothers are entitled to take off up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave after giving birth, as long as the company employs a minimum number of people and the mother has been employed there for at least one year. Many women use saved sick and vacation days to supplement the unpaid leave. According to the United Nations, the United States is so far behind that it is one of only two countries in the world (the other being Papua New Guinea) that does not have paid maternity leave. Many of these statistics are well known and thankfully there are many legislators and organizations working hard to rectify this situation.

Sadly, I have observed that many of the mothers and fathers in my office, and many of my friends who have unpaid, short, or no family leave work for Jewish organizations. Some of these organizations provide only four to six weeks of unpaid maternity leave, forcing many mothers to make a choice to return to work only a few short weeks after giving birth. Other organizations require new mothers to apply for short-term disability benefits, which provide only a percentage of one’s regular pay, in lieu of paying for maternity leave. Many fathers are eligible for only a few days off, if any. Even though these policies may be on par with other organizations and companies in the United States, Jewish organizations must consider whether these types of paltry parental leave policies are really in keeping with Jewish values. Aren’t we constantly praising our community’s emphasis on Jewish family life and the importance of raising and educating our own children? Yet do our own non-profits, federations, day schools, and other Jewish organizations really model these values? Do we show parents that time spent with their newborns is important and necessary? As a pediatrician, I see many mothers who have to give up breastfeeding earlier than they would like to because of an early return to work, fathers who feel stressed that they are given only a few paid days to be home with their families, and families who do not have the time needed to bond with their newborn. It is clear that Jewish organizations are not modeling the values that they preach.

To be fair, the primary reason many Jewish organizations give for offering only unpaid parental leave is that they are non-profits, so by definition have limited funds, and therefore cannot afford to pay employees during parental leave. Also, many organizations argue that they are unsure what standards should be included in an equitable parental leave policy and how to craft one. But this should not deter our community from finding a solution.

Through their “Better Work, Better Life campaign,” Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community (AWP) provides comprehensive recommendations, guidelines, and standards to help organizations develop equitable parental leave policies for their workplaces. Nearly one hundred organizations have joined the campaign and established family leave policies using AWP’s standards. Unfortunately, there are few Orthodox organizations represented on this list and it is time that the Orthodox community begins to examine their own attitudes and standards towards family leave. Women and men in the Orthodox community can begin by asking to meet with their synagogue, school, and communal leaders to ask if their organizations have an equitable family leave policy and if not, offer to help implement one. Additionally, organizations need to think creatively and consider increased work and job flexibility for returning parents.

It certainly may take some creative efforts to allow for better paid parental leave and more flexibility but as Jews, we should hold ourselves to our own standards that reflect our own values and beliefs and not simply provide our families and communities with the bare minimum that has become accepted as the norm in this country. Supporting Jewish families through strong parental leave policies provides an opportunity to model Jewish values and more importantly, directly impact the health and well-being of our individual members.

For more on this topic, you can watch a recording of a recent JOFA webinar titled “Work-Life Balance, Equal Pay, and Staying on the Promotion Track: Advocating for Yourself in the Workplace” or follow part II of the conversation that can be found at jofa.org/blogcast

Posted on March 23, 2015

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My #OrthodoxFeministMoment

Shaw Frank family“Ima, can you help me with my chapter of megillah?” My thirteen-year old son Davi, who recently became a Bar Mitzvah, has volunteered to leyn a chapter of megillah at his school’s megillah reading on Purim morning. “My teacher gave us recordings,” he tells me, “but I want to learn it the REAL way—with the trop.” I smile. He reminds me of myself as a young teenager: eager, passionate about his Judaism, yearning for authenticity.

So, we sit together and begin to learn. We discuss the places where the trop turns to Eicha trop and why that is. We discuss where to pause for the congregation to recite a verse out loud. His prepubescent soprano voice rings out clear and sweet as a bell. We laugh together when a trop comes out sounding funny. We sit together at the dining room table, cozy and happy, learning together and enjoying each other’s company.

The only remarkable thing about this scene is that it is utterly unremarkable in our home. My son did not think twice before heading straight to me when he needed help with leyning. He didn’t even consider going to my husband. Trust me, he goes to my husband for help with lots of other things, including leading prayer services, gemara homework, and lots more. But, in our home, Ima is the leyning expert, the one who teaches the kids their parasha for their Bat and Bar Mitzvahs and who leyns the megillahs on Purim, Tisha B’Av, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Davi doesn’t know any different. In his experience, moms are the ones who leyn.

Our lived experience is immeasurably important to how we see the world. Perhaps nothing brought that home to me as vividly as the day, years ago, when Davi came home from preschool before Presidents’ Day and exclaimed, “IMA! GUESS WHAT?! Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer! I thought only girls could be lawyers!” The only lawyer Davi knew at age four was his mother. Why should he possibly think that the law could be a career for men too?

So, part of my goal as an Orthodox feminist is to transform our community’s lived experience, and, in so doing, reform our unconscious expectations and preconceived notions about gender in Judaism. Each time my children see a Rabba or a Maharat in front of their synagogue, their automatic association between rabbi and male is challenged. Each time my children sit in a gemara class taught by a woman, their brains are being patterned to see women as Talmud scholars. As we all know, once those connections are made and once old patterns of thinking are broken, change comes more quickly and more easily. It’s a lot easier to make the case for hiring a Maharat in a synagogue whose congregants have long had experience with female religious leadership!

All of this was swirling around in my head as I sat at my dining room table learning megillah with Davi. I felt my heart swell with contentment and hope for the future. I yearned to share my moment with my community of friends, so I decided to share it on Facebook. “Teaching my son to read megillah,” I wrote—and then, in an attempt to explain why this act felt so much bigger to me than it might have appeared on its face, I hashtagged my post: #OrthodoxFeministMoment. It was my Orthodox feminist moment—a moment of poignancy and meaning in which my dreams for the future of Orthodox Judaism seemed possible and attainable.

Imagine if we all posted, tweeted and proclaimed our #OrthodoxFeministMoments. Maybe our collective voices swirling through cyberspace would help shape a new reality for the future.

Did you have an #OrthodoxFeministMoment today?

Posted on March 18, 2015

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Challenging our Assumptions about Women’s Inclusion

shutterstock_18132598“You should volunteer to lead the Orthodox minyan, prayer services, you have the opportunity to make a Kiddush HaShem, sanctification of God’s name,” my friend told me before the Limmud NY 2015 conference. What he meant was that having someone sensitive to gender issues leading the Orthodox minyan would be an opportunity to promote the value of inclusion within the Orthodox community.

The first thing that struck me about Limmud was its impressive schedule, diverse both in the content and styles of the presentations. Most interesting was the choice of prayer options. On Friday night and Shabbat day we could choose from the following options: Orthodox (with a mechitza, a divider separating men and women and male leaders), partnership (with a mechitza and both male and female leaders), Renewal (a Jewish spiritual movement that uses musical instruments on Shabbat), and egalitarian (with no mechitza). As an Orthodox person who believes in expanded roles for women in the synagogue, I chose to attend the partnership option.

One thing I like about partnership minyans is that, in addition to women and men sharing the prayer leading, almost all the other aspects of the minyan are also equal (or close to). Partnership minyans usually have mechitzas that participants can see over or through, and that divide the room in half length-wise, so that neither side is obviously primary. For whatever reason, the non-partnership Orthodox minyan at Limmud had a large mechitza, with the ark and bima, podium, placed squarely on the men’s side, which I found odd. Considering the progressive ideological makeup of the conference, I had expected a less stringent set up.

For afternoon services on Shabbat, however, there were only two prayer options scheduled — Orthodox and egalitarian. I chose the former. As the time for services arrived I volunteered to lead the community. When it came time for the Torah reading, I was instructed by the gabbai to simply remove the Torah from the ark and to place it on the bima, without taking it around to be kissed, due to time constraints. Following the Torah reading, the gabbai instructed me to take the Torah around to allow people to kiss it, before returning the Torah to the ark. I whispered to the gabbai “women?” inquiring as to whether I should take the Torah to the women’s side. He shrugged his shoulders (the gabbai was a student volunteer, so I do not think he felt comfortable making this decision). So I did what my conscious told me to do and paraded the Torah around both the men’s and women’s sections. I would have preferred to hand the Torah off to a woman, but as we had not coordinated this in advance, I thought it would be best to just go into the women’s section myself.

As I entered the women’s section I wondered if everyone on the men’s side, and even on the women’s side, approved of what I was doing. I thought it best to keep my gaze forward and deal with any consequences afterwards. I received no complaints, and even received compliments from a couple of women, including Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, JOFA’s Executive Director, so I guess everything worked out well in the end.

I would never advocate for anyone unilaterally deciding to go against the established custom of a prayer community. However, in the absence of an established custom, such as at a temporary minyan (like at LimmudNY or another conference), a minyan at a house where there is no formal leadership, or when we simply do not know the established custom, what should we assume? Should we assume that women should have the opportunity to kiss the Torah — a position that has ample halakhic support — or should we assume that women have no active role in the service and are simply observers unless told otherwise? Is the default that women cannot participate, until male rabbis formally decide they can, or that they can participate, unless there are sufficient halakhic or sociological reasons why they cannot? The answer to that question is fundamental in understanding gender issues in the Orthodox world.

Personally, I believe in the latter option. I will not assume that women are excluded from anything and everything unless told otherwise. Inclusion should be the default.

In some ways I feel like I was—perhaps subconsciously—trying to bring the ethos of the partnership minyan—that men and women are working together in praying to God—into the traditional Orthodox minyan. I understand why there are people who aren’t comfortable with women’s leadership and active participation. However, there are still plenty of opportunities for men and women to be in partnership during the prayer services, leadership notwithstanding, and one method of attaining this unity is by challenging the default assumptions about inclusion.

My friend was correct. Simply bringing this ethos of inclusion into traditional Orthodoxy, even without creating radical change, is truly an opportunity for Kiddush HaShem.

Posted on March 16, 2015

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Listen to Your Head and Your Heart When You Make the Next Change in your Professional Career

shutterstock_183125153Two years ago, I ignored every rational and logical thought in my head.

I was completing the twentieth year of a wonderful career in academic leadership at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.  I had recently been appointed the Executive Vice Provost (one of the top leadership positions in the University) and was in charge of strategic planning and growth of online education and a variety of entrepreneurial educational opportunities being pursued by Hopkins. I was in a great place.

A close friend called me one day to say, “I know you are never going to leave Hopkins, but I know of a great opportunity and you are the perfect candidate.”  I innocently asked for more information and soon learned that ShalomLearning, a small start-up offering an online and blended learning option to pre-B’nai Mitzvah kids, was looking for a CEO to take the organization to the next level.  What a great opportunity to combine my knowledge and skills in education and technology with my lifetime passion for Judaism and Jewish education.  My brain was saying, “Stop and think this through,” but my heart was saying, “Go for it and worry about the details later.”

I leapt with my heart and left my professional comfort zone (built up over twenty years) for an entirely new world of work. I jumped into the proverbial deep end of the pool. Why did I shake up this world of comfort – and would I recommend anyone else do the same?

Let’s assume you have a good job and are perfectly satisfied with your current position. The work-life balance is good, your boss is supportive, and your colleagues are enjoyable. But let’s also assume that the challenge of the job has disappeared. You can do your work with one hand tied behind your back.

Nothing is wrong, but nothing is really right.

shutterstock_176716529It might be time to Assess, Review, and Match (ARM).  Either with the help of a mentor or coach, or just by yourself, examine your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.  The best time to focus on yourself is when there is no pressure to do so.  Your job is not in jeopardy and time is on your side.

Assess.  Take stock of your passions and your goals.

Review.  Do an accounting of any issues that may be holding you back.

Match.  Pair-up your skills and knowledge with potential opportunities for advancement.

Get started by putting four tasks on your to-do list:

  1. Schedule regular updates of your resume and your LinkedIn profile. It takes just a few minutes to jot down an accomplishment from last week. But it takes several hours to reconstruct a project that you finished last year.
  2. Seek advice from trusted friends and mentors in your professional world.  Chances are the perfect mentor is nearby and interested in sharing their experiences and knowledge. You can have one mentor or you can have many mentors. There are no rules. The most important criterion is that you share a mutual respect for one another.
  3. Network and stay current. Read a book on a subject that you’re not familiar with, attend a lecture, listen to a podcast that is related to your field of work, or just pick up a copy of the Harvard Business Review (one of my personal favorites).
  4. Join the JOFA Webinar on Tuesday, March 17 as I moderate a discussion with two outstanding Jewish women professionals Shifra Bronznick and Ariela Migdal on the topic of “Work-Life Balance, Equal Pay, and Staying on the Promotion Track: Advocating for Yourself in the Workplace.”

These kinds of activities will ensure that you are ready for your next move – even if a job search is not on the horizon just yet. When you are ARMed – you are ready.

Posted on March 12, 2015

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Torah Costume, One Size Fits All

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Liat dressed as TorahAs a high school student, finding the right Purim costume can be rather stressful. There are so many factors to consider: Should I dress up thematically with my family or a group of friends?  Does my costume conform to my yeshiva day school’s dress code? Can I repeat a costume from one year to the next?

One night before Purim, I spent a couple of hours scouring the internet for a new dress-up idea. Then, in perusing one of the sites geared towards Jewish consumers, I found this: “Boy’s Torah Costume, size 12-14.” I Googled the more general “Torah Costume” and was dismayed to find out that the item was called “Boy’s Torah Costume” on every website I visited. Despite the fact that it was not intended for me, I knew that I had found the costume that truly spoke to me. I love studying Torah. I love reading from the Torah in Women’s Tefillah services. I love incorporating the Torah into my ritual life.

As a petite woman, I knew that the costume would fit and I ordered it immediately. But I had to make one addition so that the costume would truly be appropriate. Many Orthodox rabbis suggest that a woman cannot touch a Torah scroll because she might be “temeah,” that is, in a ritually impure state, and she might transfer that status to the sacred Torah. Despite the many sources that clearly allow a woman to hold a Sefer Torah, this precludes women from participating in many synagogue activities, including dancing with a Torah on Simchat Torah. In order to take ownership of this costume, I added a quotation from the Talmud in tractate Brachot to the back. In English, the quotation means, “The words of Torah cannot take on impurity.”

On Purim day and on Shushan Purim at my school’s celebration, I wore my costume with pride. Admittedly, I wanted to get people talking. I am sure that some individuals saw my costume as extremely subversive or, perhaps, laughed it off as just another Nahafoch hu–a traditional Purim gag that upsets the natural order of things. But though I enjoyed participating in the lighthearted fun of the holiday, I was very serious about my costume’s message and its intent. I believe that I more truly engage with the stories, commandments and teachings of the Torah because I view the Torah as approachable, because I can open the scroll for myself, kiss the parchment and read the elegant words in their regal columns. I hope that more rabbis will join the ranks of those who already support women’s access to the Torah scroll.

I’m sure you’ll agree that my “Boy’s Torah Costume, size 12-14” looks pretty good as the more generic “Torah Costume, one size fits all.” Generally, I don’t wear a costume more than once, but I think I’ll make an exception next year. I want to keep spreading the message that women and men, girls and boys may approach and embrace the Torah.

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Posted on March 10, 2015

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For Just Such a Crisis

shutterstock_165527828Purim is behind us. The kitchen counter is littered with nosh from lavish Purim baskets. There’s a lingering ringing in your ear from the boo’s shouted at Haman, and a faint whisper of inspiration lingering in your heart from the heroic acts of Esther and Mordechai.

Perhaps the most pivotal moment in the Megillah story is when Esther is hesitant to approach King Ahasuerus on behalf of the Jewish people because she might be killed for entering the Royal Court uninvited. She is so scared for her own safety that Mordechai must rouse her to action by suggesting that perhaps her whole life was building up to this very moment. Esther is convinced by his argument and three days later she enters the Court to confront the King.

Is she beheaded? No. Burned alive? No. Thrown into a pit of lions, or snakes, or lions that shoot snakes out of their mouths? Nope. She’s warmly greeted by the King. Before she can say a thing he asks, “What troubles you, Queen Esther? And what is your request? Even to half the kingdom it shall be granted you.” He’s magnanimous!

She had vastly underestimated her power and influence with the King. She entered unsure whether he would even spare her life, and discovered that he was prepared to give her half his kingdom! She had been blessed with a life of riches and royal influence that she didn’t fully appreciate, and had to be reminded that “perhaps you have attained this royal position for just such a crisis.”

American Jews today suffer from a similar lack of self-awareness. We too have achieved lofty stations for a purpose, and too frequently we forget how even our smallest actions can have great consequences. The American Jewish community has wealth and political influence that is significantly disproportionate to our population. We have the opportunity to engage in activism and philanthropy that can have a real impact on the world we live in and people who we may not always realize are our global neighbors.

Just such an opportunity is at hand. Today, International Women’s Day, marks the reintroduction to Congress of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA). While protection of women and girls from gender-based violence is currently a part of US foreign policy by executive order, IVAWA would cement it into law.

There is a narrow window of opportunity for passing this legislation before the next election cycle begins. You can learn more about getting IVAWA passed on the website for the AJWS We Believe campaign. Please take a minute to call your congressional representatives and ask them to support the International Violence Against Women Act.

An estimated one out of every three women worldwide will be physically, sexually or otherwise abused during her lifetime. In some countries, the numbers are even more devastating, with seven in 10 women experiencing significant forms of violence.This legislation would ensure that the US government remains focused on this important issue.

Who knows? Perhaps for just such a crisis you have been elevated  to this position.

Still not sure about why IVAWA is important? Spend 4 minutes watching Theresa’s story and realize that one crucial part of the bill will direct funding to local non-profits like the one that helped her escape an abusive husband.

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Posted on March 8, 2015

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Esther, the Megillah, and Me

unnamed-1Ever since I was young, I have always felt a strong connection to Purim. For most girls at that age, the focus was dressing up as princesses and making lots of noise at appropriate moments during the Megillah reading, but for me there was something about the courage of our heroine Esther that made her stand out as a true role model. It was always refreshing to celebrate the actions of this extremely brave young woman, who I interpreted to be rather unassuming and from a regular background just like you or me.

As an Orthodox girl who attended a non-Jewish school throughout my education, I understood to some extent how it felt to be in the minority but, unlike Esther, I was able to be outwardly proud of my Jewish identity, and never once considered hiding it. I used it as an opportunity to educate my fellow students about a religion with which most of them had no previous experience.

My teenage self found special affinity with Esther over the fact that we were both vegetarians, something which I still am to this day. According to the Talmud, Esther was a vegetarian while she lived in the palace of King Ahasuerus, Vegetarianism would have allowed Esther to have avoided violating the kosher dietary laws while keeping her Jewish identity secret. Not necessarily my reasoning for abstaining from eating meat but, in my eyes, it was another factor that contributed to my personal understanding of Esther’s character and conduct.

When I moved to my community of Borehamwood and Elstree a few years ago and discovered that there was a women’s Megillah group, I was immediately drawn to it and felt I must try to be a part of it in some way. However, as much as I was extremely keen to learn to recite a part of the Megillah, this decision came with a great deal of fear and trepidation. Would my Hebrew be good enough to allow me to learn my section accurately? Would I be able to conquer the tune, reading Hebrew without vowels, and overcome my stage fright? And, perhaps bizarrely, would the other women in the group accept me with open arms? I remember turning up to the first meeting with a huge sense of intimidation and worry—was I really capable of this or was I aiming a bit too far out of my comfort zone?

shutterstock_51133021In contrast, what I discovered was a group of like-minded, supportive and dedicated women, all with their own reasons for wanting to read the Megillah, which made me realize that I actually hoped to gain more from this experience than I initially thought. Yes, there was the obvious challenge of tackling something new and becoming more involved in my community but also, when offered the chance to be a public voice in a festival that exists as a result of one woman having the strength to stand up for what she believed in, and when halakha permits all of this, how could I take a passive seat? It made me start thinking about my two-year-old daughter, the image of women in Judaism that I wanted to project, and the opportunities that I hoped would be available to her in the future.

The women’s Megillah reading in Borehamwood is such a special event in my calendar and, as a result, Purim holds more meaning for me than it ever has before. Listening to the clear and beautiful voices of all those women who strive to recite their portions without error and knowing the hard work that has gone into it, especially when we all have our own pressures from our family and professional lives, makes me very proud to be among them. It is a very emotional experience for many of us – the sense of achievement and camaraderie is hard to put into words. It is something that I hope I will continue to share with my daughter in the years to come. While not all of us are faced with obstacles as extreme as Esther’s, Purim allows us to reflect on the fact that each of us is capable of making a difference in this world in our own unique way.

Posted on March 2, 2015

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Birth Control – Emphasis on Control

shutterstock_212848924I can clearly remember where I was sitting, in the midst of my Bible class during my final semester at Stern College for Women. We were learning about Miriam’s death in the book of Numbers and the subsequent loss of water for the Jewish people. The well dried up. Why was that? The slew of commentators makes it clear that the Jewish people did not properly mourn Miriam’s death. They did not give the proper kavod, honor, to one of the greatest leaders of our nation.

One by one, students raised their hands to defend the Jewish people’s decision. “Well…Miriam was really behind the scenes.” “Well…she did not have a role like Moses and Aaron.” I kept hearing excuse after excuse. I looked at the clock and decided that I would wait ten minutes for someone to defend Miriam’s honor. I waited those ten slow painstaking minutes, and then I raised my hand. I questioned why medieval commentaries were more progressive and supportive of the role of women than my classmates in the twenty first century.

I could not help associating this experience with the recent public responses to Rabbi Moshe Kahn’s shiur, lecture, about the halakhic parameters of delaying procreation. I read Hannah Dreyfus’ take on the event published in the Jewish Week, and Blanche Haddad’s response printed in the Observer. I then listened to the shiur itself and would recommend reading his article “Halakhic Matters in Delaying Procreation” which was published in Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School’s Meorot Journal.

In first reading the back and forth, I was frustrated. I felt like little had changed since my time on campus in 2003. It seemed that a number of the students were insistent that the fact that birth control is permitted by halakha is not related to feminism. Haddad stated that she is “not arguing that halakha and feminist ideals are inherently separate and can never be reconciled; to me, this is rarely the case. However, the two are not inherently linked in our case of postponing the mitzvah de’oraita [biblical obligation] of procreation; rather, there is space within halakha for a couple to make the decision to delay procreation due to a couple’s pressing concerns, and not a ‘feminist ideal of personal choice.’” Rabbi Kahn, empowered students to make their own decisions about family planning girded with the knowledge shared in his shiur and article.

When people, especially relatively young people, try to dissociate certain liberties, including birth control, from the feminist movement, I feel that there is often a lack of hakarat hatov, proper gratitude and recognition for those rabbis, lobbyists, feminists and other supporters who went to great lengths for all of us to have more choices. It wasn’t until 1972 that access to birth control was legalized for all Americans. I questioned this mindset—the absence of hakarat hatov– when I was a senior in college, and I initially felt that way in reading these articles about the shiur.

By last night, I had considered a new lens for viewing the sentiments of these students. Perhaps access to birth control, at least in the Modern Orthodox community, is a given at this point. At what point in time do we stop declaring that this is a fight to be won? When have we reached the moment when we are so far past the line in the sand, that what was once controversial a battle to be won has not only been won, but it is now accepted, normative, and no longer questioned.

One might argue that these students have moved beyond their predecessors’ outlooks and are not looking at the world with rose colored glasses, rather they are looking at the world with their realities, their truths.

While this may be applicable for example, in regard to the Civil Rights movement, in that many battles have been won, such as integrated seating on busses, I’m not sure that the same can be applied to women in Orthodox Judaism. It is not a given that a woman can sit wherever she chooses on a bus in Brooklyn or Israel. It is not a given that a woman will feel that she can make personal, financial, or life-changing decisions without the psak, decision, of a rabbi. It is not a given that women can serve as a synagogue president.

In some ways, I am gladdened that these students view choices, such as using birth control for family planning, as their rights and as normative, but it is important to understand the halakhic premise for these rights as well as detractors’ arguments as Rabbi Kahn aptly spoke to in his shiur. Access to, and halakhic permission to use birth control, is not a given for all Orthodox women.

shutterstock_135509750I was moved by the women portrayed in the film Be Fruitful and Multiply who shared their stories of feeling overwhelmed by their perceived obligation to have well over a dozen children because they were not provided with the choice to control their reproductive system. Viewing this film and hearing first-hand accounts from women who have struggled with the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” might be a good follow up exercise to take place at Stern and in other communities. In today’s world, regardless of your own personal religious practice, your place of employment may have control over your body as well as was heatedly debated in regard to the Affordable Care Act and Hobby Lobby.

Stern College provides a place where women can engage in deep halakhic discourse, academic pursuits and flourish in a variety of resources outside of the classroom. I say this out of love and the utmost respect for my colleagues and soon to be colleagues. We are extremely privileged. Privileges can never be taken for granted. Much of what may seem permanent is not as stable as some of you may think. In order to hold our ground and continue to have personal choice as Orthodox women, we need to continue learning halakha, being aware of detractors and their rationale, and understanding and embodying gratitude. Without gratitude for those who we owe a debt for setting the stage that we can walk on today, those who currently support and empower us, I fear that there is much to be lost.

Posted on February 26, 2015

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