Michal 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.
In 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
This past Simchat Torah I had the fortune of dividing my time between two minyanim: the Mount Sinai Jewish Center in Washington Heights and Yavneh, the Orthodox minyan at Barnard College, Columbia University. This was one of the first times that I attended Mount Sinai and I was, therefore, apprehensive about spending Simchat Torah in a potentially non-women friendly atmosphere.
For most of my life, I have not spent Simchat Torah night in the standard Orthodox synagogue environment. During my teenage years, I was often at a Bnei AkivaShabbaton. At Barnard, I danced on Simchat Torah night alongside Jews of a variety of denominations, an experience I certainly would not have had at any typical Orthodox Jewish congregation.
As I stood in the women’s section at Mount Sinai during hakafot, it occurred to me that this was the first time that I was choosing to be in an environment that did not involve women’s equal participation to the degree that halakha permits. In my mind, attending the shul in my hometown and the Orthodox minyan at Barnard were never really choices: they were options that were either familiar or available. Yet, exactly one month before the holiday, my husband and I celebrated our joint aufruf in which we both read from the torah at a partnership minyan. On my second shabbat in Washington Heights and for the first time in my life, I was choosing to daven at a shul with values inconsistent with my own.
But when Simchat Torah came around, I was pleasantly surprised! Mount Sinai presented women with two options: we could dance without a torah but in the same room as the men, or we could participate in women-led hakafot in the shul’s basement. If you are anything like me, when you read “dance without a torah,” you probably sighed inwardly. Then, upon seeing that the more “active” women were relegated to the basement, you probably became incensed!
I am here to report that what I originally conceived of as a mere basement rapidly transformed itself into a supremely vibrant and empowering environment. Women of all ages and of varying degrees of religiosity stood with their arms wrapped around sifrei Torah and led hakafot. The excitement was palpable. I danced with my friends conscious that our collective presence constituted the women’s hakafot experience. It was reassuring to realize that women can come together and create something meaningful of their own that feels neither forced nor apologetic.
The following morning, a sweaty 68 blocks and 2 avenues later, I arrived at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel pumped to continue the Simchat Torah celebrations. As I opened my arms to accept a Torah, I glanced across the mechitza: the fact that I was holding a Torah equal to the men was not lost on me.
After hakafot, for the fourth and final year, I participated in a Women’s Tefillah Group at Barnard sponsored by Jewish Women on Campus. I was proud to read shlishi 5 times; there were that many women who were excited to receive aliyot. Women were given the option of saying birchot hatorah, lamdeini chukecha, or nothing at all. This environment, too, did not fully reflect my religious beliefs. It was thrilling, nonetheless, to be surrounded by women learning from one another and making informed religious choices that enhanced their celebration of the Torah. I loved that women who had never received aliyot would provide the gabbait with both their mother and father’s names before being called up to the torah—like it was the most normal thing in the world!
While in general I prefer to pray in a partnership minyan, my Simchat Torah experience at Mount Sinai and Columbia/Barnard reminded me of how crucial it is to support women in celebrating the torah in whichever context they choose to pray.