The experience of being a self-identifying Orthodox Feminist Jewish woman on a college campus can be simultaneously empowering and alienating. On one hand, the college experience tends to be conducive to self-expression and experimentation, and challenging existing norms—a common conversation in Orthodox Feminist circles–seems like a perfect activity for college campuses. On the other hand, there are still many roadblocks which can prevent these initiatives within the college setting. For example, other Orthodox individuals might question your validity within the movement, while secular social action advocates might exclude you due to your religious affiliation. Meanwhile, Orthodox Jewish groups on campus might not be willing to undergo the process of engaging with the halakha (Jewish law) in order to find ways to empower women on campus within the confines of halakha. At times, feminist work within the Orthodox setting can prove a lonely and tiring experience.
This past weekend’s Campus Leaders Shabbaton provided an invaluable opportunity for individuals across college campuses who face these successes and struggles on a regular basis to come together in order to learn, discuss challenges, and brainstorm solutions to these issues. College students from over seventeen campuses, including Barnard College, NYU, Brandeis University, Stony Brook University, University of Pennsylvania, McGill University, the University of Bristol, Temple University, and Yeshiva University all came together, united by our identities as Orthodox Feminists and our determination to grow throughout the weekend through listening, talking and learning. The event was graciously hosted by the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a Modern Orthodox synagogue colloquially known as ‘The Bayit’ which has been at the forefront of halakhically empowering women for many years, ultimately leading to the ordination of Rabba Sara Hurwitz as a female Modern Orthodox halakhic leader in 2009. The shabbaton programming included a panel on navigating synagogue politics, which was open to the synagogue community at large, followed by a closed discussion for college participants; a session discussing the halakhic implications of partnership minyans; discussions with prominent Orthodox feminists about how to engage others in Orthodox feminism; and open brainstorming sessions to discuss ideas and programming pertaining to the topic.
For myself and the other participants, the weekend posed an invaluable opportunity to meet, and engage meaningfully with, others who are passionate about Orthodox Feminism. In our home communities, we may not be understood and heard, but at the JOFA shabbaton we were given a chance to not only speak about the issues in a supportive environment, but to also brainstorm solutions to these issues in formal and informal settings. On Sunday, we role-played discussions with individuals in our communities who were wary of feminist influence within Orthodox Judaism, and also discussed which tactics were either successful or unsuccessful in instituting positive change to empower women. Over and above the issues, however, was the sense of camaraderie which prevailed throughout the weekend. A group of individuals, both men and women, had been brought together by JOFA in order to empower a group which consists of half the Jewish people, and it truly created a kehilla kedosha—a holy community—when brought together as a whole.
Rushing into a conference midway through a speech, I scanned the room for a seat then stopped, startled. Had I entered the Gentlemen’s Gallery of an Orthodox synagogue? But this wasn’t a synagogue – it was a colloquium on derivatives at an Ivy League university! Why was I the lone woman?
I sat down. My mind wandered from derivatives back to another era. It was my first year at Sydney University in Australia and upon entering my maiden Economics tutorial I was confronted with a boys’ football huddle in formation. Prying apart the interlaced arms to make a place for myself, I asked the female tutor, “Where are our money-minded sisters?”
“You’ll get used to it,” the tutor comforted me. But she was wrong. I entered university as women were flooding the disciplines and quickly taking up half the medical and law schools and I usually had plenty of female company in class. Those football physiques provided no advantage in competing for academic awards, which in my year were swept up by women.
Today, responsibility for the tax policy of the United States of America rests with my team. It is the highest honor to be invited to join and log the grueling hours expected of us. Work has a sacred quality: the more you do, the holier you are. Leaving before 7pm is like sneaking out of synagogue midway through the sermon. Extracurriculars such as family or aiding the poor are commendable in small doses; but the core of an American’s identity and the bulk of her or his time must be devoted to paid labor.
Kim and I are the only women on the team with young children. Whenever we catch a moment to chat, Kim dwells on how deficient she feels. “I only come in three days a week, and I just can’t give it my all,” she moans. “If I’m battling the mess at home, I’m thinking about the pile on my desk; and when I sit behind the pile, I’m imagining the volcano smoldering at home.” She laments that she cannot throw herself into the job with enough gusto to command respect from our colleagues.
Kim is wrong. She is a Harvard Law graduate with elite law firm experience and we all vie for the excellent judgment she rations out to our office. But because suffering servitude is the sanctified life, an employee who gives obeisance to a god other than work feels dismissed to the B League.
At a recent staff meeting, our boss announced that superstar Eva will not be returning to work after maternity leave. “Poor thing, she couldn’t bear to leave her baby,” the boss said. Kim and I made eyes. Neither she nor I could bear to leave our babies either, but it happens I am a single mom and she is married to a man who toils for the poor and underrepresented. This means that we must work for the rich and overrepresented. Eva’s husband is so fabulously busy at his place of business that he didn’t make it quite in time for the birth of his first child.
So Eva defects to the other side and Kim and I walk into rooms full of men like Eva’s husband.
But why did I feel so awkward at the conference on derivatives? How exalted was my position there, a peer amongst the most august thinkers in my field! Because I’m a lawmaker, all were deferential to me and there was only one dirty joke the whole day! Altogether, I was welcomed into the boys’ club.
On Shabbat morning, I skipped the conference and attended Orthodox services with my brother, where an opaque curtain separates men and women. Surrounded by flowing skirts, I was anonymous, blessedly shut out from the men. This community of women is my community; here I am invisible. And when I go out to play in the working world, the world of men, I must leave behind the fields of flowing skirts and the dividing screen. Even in games I practice every day, the rules remain unnatural, unfamiliar. Even when invited to join the A League, I remain an outlier.
As Shabbat was ending, my brother and I joined the campus gathering of “Take Back the Night,” an international movement to end violence against women. As the speeches began, my brother pointed out the simultaneous translation into American Sign Language. For him, a hearing-impaired social worker battling for those discarded into the Z League, this was a profound symbol of inclusion.
As we walked through the darkening streets and the ASL signs were lost, I mused, “How many and varied are the hierarchies of man and how glorious must be the view from the top.”
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.
My 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.
I could never have anticipated the impact that reading Perek Daled (chapter four) of Megillat Esther would have on my life. In 2008, I was a student at Cambridge University, and what had started as a shyly mooted idea to organise a women’s megillah reading had been taken up enthusiastically. After some reluctance, our student chaplain acquiesced, and even beneath the boys’ standard jokes was an undeniable note of respect.
With last-minute timing typical of students, we split up the ten chapters, found recordings to learn from, and learnt our parts. I don’t think I realised at the time that learning leyn Megillat Esther would transform my understanding of the book, and deepen my relationship with Judaism.
Applying notes to the text has been a key part of this experience – the leyning trop (cantillation) really does mirror the mood and pace of the story. I had always loved the bits of Megillat Esther which were sung to the Eicha (Lamentations) tune: remembering the exile of Mordechai’s family from Jerusalem, and as Esther prepares to approach the King uninvited, and face the same fate as Vashti. Until I learnt to read them myself, I hadn’t appreciated the depths of the words beneath them.
Each time I’ve leyned the megillah since then, and there have been five occasions (and counting!), I have felt my bond grow with these ancient, beloved words. Esther’s story has come alive in new and astounding – and sometimes disturbing – ways. I’ve discovered new characters I never realised were there (they never mentioned Hatach or Hegai in cheder [Jewish elementary school]) and I’ve noticed nuances in the narrative. The words and phrases and their tunes have stayed with me, popping up at surprising times. They inform my study of other parts of the Tanakh, enabling
new cross-readings and echoes between stories. (And I felt rather smug on one occasion when a rabbi quoted a phrase from “my perek,” and I noticed that he missed out a word!)
Reading Megillat Esther has been an enriching experience in so many other ways. In the community where I live now, it has brought together a wonderful group of like-minded friends with a variety of ages and backgrounds – some of whom I may never have spoken to otherwise. While some are deeply involved in our community, others feel alienated by Judaism, and yet reading the megillah has been a source of connection and meaning for them. To anybody who says that women’s megillah readings are a “slippery slope” away from “authentic Judaism,” I would encourage them to consider the women whom it has inspired to greater levels of Jewish knowledge, spirituality, and engagement. In addition to my feelings of connection with the text, my Hebrew skills have improved significantly, and I am finally mastering the difference between pronouncing a heh and a chet, something, embarrassingly, that I never properly achieved in cheder or even in seminary.
The readings themselves have always been memorable, both for their good decorum and clarity of reading – and simply for being fun occasions. It is incredibly refreshing to be a part of a reading where you can hear every word, when each leyner brings a unique voice to her section, and when you can feel the hours of work, effort, and worry that has gone into preparing each chapter. And we have fun! Each year, our group has picked a dressing up theme, from wigs and wings to silly hats. We also give tzedakah as a group each year, picking both a local cause and one further away.
Reading megillah has changed and enriched my Jewish life. I hope that both women who choose to leyn and those who don’t have only respect for one another. Ultimately, I see participation in reading the megillah as taking one of the many opportunities that life throws at us to bless God – to do something positive, active and public that connects us with our spiritual heritage. It makes me proud to know that I have been part of the growing movement of women’s megillah readings, and that the young girls – and boys – in our community will grow up seeing it as a normal and beautiful part of the Jewish year.
Are you organizing a megillah reading this year? Add it to JOFA’s international directory.
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. Continue reading