To My Bais Yaakov Education,
I thought I knew what I was getting into when I made the jump from a coed, Modern Orthodox elementary school to a Bais Yaakov-type high school. In truth, I had no concept. However, I do not regret attending such a right-wing high school for a moment, and am proud to affiliate myself with you.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: there were points where, as a feminist, I really wasn’t sure if I could make it through. There were many lessons, speeches, and offhand comments about women in Judaism where I had to roll my eyes and remind myself not to take things so seriously. The hashkafa (philosophy) rabbi whose biggest blessing was “shemoneh esrei l’chuppah, but the gematria of tov is seventeen—the Sages say eighteen is an auspicious age to wed, but the numerical value of good is seventeen;” the (female) Nashim B’Tanach (Women in the Bible) teacher who taught us that women are the moon and men are the sun, so we are only reflections of the men in our lives; the halakha (Jewish law) rabbi who gave an impromptu lesson on why women shouldn’t enter the clergy…I could go on and on. It made my blood boil.
The undue emphasis on tzniut (modesty) was also difficult for me to swallow. I follow the rules of tzniut as you taught me—covering knees, elbows, collarbone—because that’s how I feel comfortable. But considering the amount of mitzvot (commandments) that you did not care to emphasize, it bothered me that you put so much effort into exhorting us (a largely modestly-dressed bunch to begin with) to cover up.
So no, you were not without your negatives. But with the space of a year sans pleated skirts and collared shirts to reflect, I realize that I gained much more from you than I ever thought I would. I don’t think that I am a feminist despite my Bais Yaakov education, but because of it.
Although some might find it ironic, you provided me with many more learned female role models than my elementary school did. I certainly had my share of women teachers when I was younger, but they were not as respected as the rabbis, particularly those rabbis who taught the boys’ classes. During my four years in Bais Yaakov, the only male Judaic studies teachers I had taught halakha and hashkafa, so text-based classes were always woman-led. Consequently, there was never any doubt in my (or any other student’s) mind that women are capable of learning and mastering religious texts and any accompanying commentary.
Beyond the classroom, you definitely tried to promote the model of an educated, frum (observant) woman who can lead others and hold her own in a religious or secular arena. Principals were always female and Orthodox, as were guidance counselors and administrators. We were frequently addressed by women speakers, whether they were delivering words of Torah or lectures on genetic testing. For the biannual school production, we performed a musical about the life and legacy of Sarah Schenirer, the creator of Bais Yaakov and innovator of Jewish women’s education. Students were encouraged to take on leadership roles, from debate team captain to choir head to hesed (community service) committee coordinator.
So I don’t think that it would be fair to characterize you by “shemoneh esrei l’chuppah” and speeches on modesty. Yes, those were big parts of my high school career, and I don’t wish to ignore them, especially because I know that they dominated many other Bais Yaakov girls’ high school careers. But they do not define my experience in Bais Yaakov. No, I feel that my time in high school is better characterized by the all-girls environment, in which my friends and I were able to laugh with each other unselfconsciously. By the strong friendships I made, and keep to this day. By the high level of Judaic and secular learning I didn’t even realize I received until I got to college. By the strong women I learned from, both inside and outside the classroom.
So thank you, Bais Yaakov. For showing me that a woman can learn just as well as any man can, and that a frum woman can do whatever she sets her mind to. You never called yourself feminist, and I certainly did not think to apply the label to you while I was in high school. But now, in retrospect, I do believe that it would be the proper adjective to describe the education you gave me.
A feminist Bais Yaakov graduate
Feminism has become a dirty word.
In discussions with students, this is what I hear: “Sure, I think women should get paid the same as men, but it’s not like I’m a feminist.” “Feminists want to make everyone the same, but everyone knows men can’t breastfeed.” “Feminists think women are better than men— that’s the problem.” These summations are offered with a blend of confidence, scorn, and ignorance, while the word at their center, “feminist,” is spoken with that special brand of dismissiveness that comes so naturally to adolescents.
As a high school teacher, I have the opportunity to discuss all sorts of “ism’s.” Ample opportunities arise for discussions that are ideological, political, cultural, theological, socio-political, socio-theologico-political—it all finds a moment in our discourse. And in my fifteen years of facilitating such discussions, my students have proven to possess a remarkable degree of tolerance to dissenting positions, and admirable openness to having their own points of view examined by their peers. By and large, the students I have taught are well able to leave their cynicism at the door of the classroom, and engage in healthy, self-reflective, and honest discussions. Their sensitivity time after time exceeds my own.
With one exception: feminism. Often, their negativity is shaped by the very legitimate and positive changes that have occurred in the last few decades. They chide me: “Mr. Fleischer, feminism was once really important, but there’s nothing left to fight for.” So we do the work. We take the time to list feminist concerns in detail, examining the world stage, the domestic sphere, even our own religious community. In checklist fashion, we get down to brass tacks: do women make the same as men for doing the same job? Are women treated with justice or even sensitivity in the legal and political arenas? Have our assumptions about family life shifted in response to contemporary notions of equality? And even as it becomes clear that at least some of them share many of the ideological concerns of the feminist movement, still they balk: “But that doesn’t make me a feminist.”
The issues are fine. But the word? That’s another matter.
Faced with this cognitive dissonance, I lose my teacherly perspective. Out the window go any ambitions of withholding my point of view. I find myself insisting, “Of course you’re a feminist!” while my students respond, “No, I’m not!” Part of me believes that as long as they’re thinking about the issues, the rhetoric is moot. Let them call themselves whatever they want. They still live lives of feminist empowerment, lives rich with the possibilities provided for them by the feminist movement. I chide myself: so what if they’re stuck on the word?
But there are, I think, serious values at stake in the language of feminism, values of particular concern to educators, values that turn on the very question of what we choose to call ourselves.
First of all, as a Modern Orthodox Jewish educator, I believe in the importance of hakarat hatov, of recognizing the sacrifices others have made on our behalf. Certainly, hakarat hatov is a key aspect of the relationship we build with God, as well as with our own history. Acknowledging past debts, like those we owe to generations of feminists, both women and men, has a religious component to it. The discomfort with the language of feminism that too often emerges in my community is not only historically myopic and shallow, but also insensitive. While many of us have tried to balance the changes generated by the feminist movement against the counterweight of our tradition, the lives we lead and the communities in which we pursue God’s will have yet been deeply informed by them. Allowing others to blithely dismiss the word “feminist” is an ethical and religious failure. The word matters because in using the word we engage in hakarat hatov. Simply put, it’s a mitzvah.
Secondly, like all movements, feminism is concerned with the limitations of the status quo and the need for change. The lifeblood of movements concerned with change is the language with which they describe themselves. More importantly, proponents of change are driven by passionate self-awareness; they declare themselves into being. They identify themselves and in doing so promote the change they are looking to effect. That is, in using the language of feminism we promote the cause.
As a teacher, I have a fine line to walk. On the one hand, I teach not only facts and figures but values. Ours is a mission driven profession, a tikkun olam profession. To leave my values at the door of my classroom is to betray its purpose. On the other hand, my students bring their own identifications, world views, and sensitivities to our class. Our classroom needs to be a place in which they can examine who they are and consider who they want to become. To offer my own point of view in too heavy-handed a fashion is also to betray the purpose of the classroom.
When it comes to my own feminism, it has been hard for me to find this balance. I want to push my students to examine their discomfort with feminism, but in order to do so they need to feel comfortable expressing their discomfort and confident that they will be allowed to find their own point of view. I want to direct their attention to the cognitive dissonance they experience in response to the word “feminist;” I want them to acknowledge their debt and to work toward change. But I also want them to feel safe enough to disagree with me, in part because I need to teach them what respectful disagreement looks like.
So sometimes I bite my tongue, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I argue: “Look at the issues! Of course you’re a feminist!” And sometimes I leave the word unexamined. Like all dirty words, it has power even when misused. Like all dirty words, sometimes the more you draw attention to it, the dirtier it gets.
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I still have not gotten situated to the long Shabbats of the summer. For sixteen summers, I was immersed in the beauty that is Camp Stone. At camp I looked at my watch not in anticipation of when Shabbat would end, but rather to see how many precious minutes of this beautiful time still remained. Camp was an environment in which I felt empowered as I thrived as a person; a Jew and a woman. It was a place where, at the age of thirteen, I could be entrusted with the welfare of my plugah, my fire pit work crew, at the machaneh chutz, the two night camping trip. By fifteen, I was carrying a canoe, without assistance, for over a mile on a week-long canoe trip. It was the place where, at the age of nineteen, I cared for campers as if they were my own. Despite my numerous positive experiences, I clearly remember serving as the Sganit Rosh Moshava, second-in-command at camp if you will, and leading an educational activity.
Overall, I found my job that summer to be invigorating. I was working with staff and campers, creating programming, solving problems and building relationships. There was one moment, however, that I will never forget. That young blonde haired girl, soon to enter sixth grade, mentioned that a woman could not be a Rosh Moshava, a head of camp. Although her statement was irrelevant to the educational conversation about prayer, her words lit a fire in me. She may not have even been born during the years that Ellie Schreiber and Estee Eisenberg had enthusiastically taken on the role. Truth be told, in nearly forty years of camp, only two women, in comparison with upwards of fifteen men, held the title of “Rosh Mosh.” A couple of years later, then serving as a woman Rosh Moshava, I winked at the camper, now entering eighth grade, as her bus pulled into camp.
This camper’s words made it clear to me that I had an opportunity to show her that camp is a place without glass ceilings. That it truly was a coincidence that the role of Rosh Moshava had been held by men in in the 2000s. Since 2008, two more women have stepped up to the plate as Rosh Moshava at Camp Stone. My serving as Rosh Moshava was only a piece of the puzzle.
Those in the camping world often describe camps with utopian language. Camps are set in remote locations allowing distance from the ‘negative’ influences from general society. While camp is an opportunity to negate gender stereotypes, it is also a place where stereotypes can be strongly reinforced. For example, while a healthy body image can be difficult to maintain with television, the fashion world, magazines and other media, camps can choose to allow such magazines into camp or they can create a culture where conversation about one’s weight is taboo. Camps, and the general community, need to take this powerful responsibility in. Camps can serve as catalysts for change.
I encourage camps to push further, past the obvious goals of ridding our youth of sexism. Camps can be the place to reinforce or reinvent norms and rituals of the Orthodox Jewish community. Camp is a place where girls sweat, get covered in mud, can let their hair and guard down and be anything but ladylike. Research has demonstrated this truth since the early twentieth century. What is special about camp is that the unique setting makes a woman saying kiddush on Friday night, for example, normative or mainstream within the Orthodox camp community. Why is that the case? Because camp administrators create a culture and what they say goes. I appreciated the way that Yaakov Fleischmann, former Rosh Moshava, put it while addressing camp staff. He explained that it does not matter if you fit in, what you are like at home, or what is popular outside of camp. Inside of camp, he enthusiastically expressed, “You define ‘cool.’” The camp administration trains camp staff in understanding camp values in such a way that staff can transfer those values to campers. It does not matter what is ‘cool’ back home, inside of camp, it is a whole new game. What may be considered questionable or controversial at a synagogue is the standard in camp.
What makes camp critical in effecting long term change, is when campers and staff bring their camp experiences to their home communities and question the status quo. Camp is a place where gender equity, gender balance, and inclusion of women in ritual have the most potent impact. The beauty of camps, in contrast with other settings, is that school and synagogue politics do not factor into decisions. When potential areas of improvement are identified, action can be taken expeditiously. Camp decisions are based on chinuch, on the welfare of the campers, resulting in an environment that is willing to listen and adapt to best meet the needs of our daughters, our future.
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.
However, 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.