Hasidic Women in the United States

How they are educated and their role in the community.

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Outside their own communities, Hasidic women are not as identifiable as their male counterparts. Their dress is modest, one truly distinguishing feature being the sheytl (wig) or tikhel (scarf) worn by all married women. Indeed, in styled wigs some Hasidic women look far more glamorous than their assimilated Jewish counterparts. (Consequently, while all ultra-Orthodox women cover their hair, unique to Hasidim is the practice among some women to wear a small scarf on top of the wig, to prevent the wig from itself becoming a possible breach of modesty.)

The laws of tz'ni'ut (modesty) are strictly observed, including monthly visits to the mikveh (the ritual immersion bath required after menstruation). Hasidic customs of modesty also prohibit mixed social events, mixed swimming at summer vacation retreats, coeducation or women performing in front of men. A strong women's culture results from such constant segregation by gender, and in the Lubavitcher movement, women have published articulate explanations of their roles in the separate women's sphere.

Influence of Women in the Lubavitcher Movement

Most Hasidic communities are in fact closed to outsiders--meaning that even other Jews cannot join the specific sect if they were not born into its lineage. This clannishness has been a public relations nightmare for some groups. In the mid-1990s, several outstanding court challenges by the Satmar Hasidic communities of Monsey and Kiryas Joel in upstate New York called for greater religious autonomy and separation from outside control. One Hasidic sect, however--the Lubavitcher movement, also known as Chabad--has gained enormous power and visibility by deliberately recruiting assimilated, nonobservant Jews to its ranks. Here, Hasidic women have been highly influential as educated, multilingual outreach activists, speakers, and writers.

Based in Crown Heights, supported by the late Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson (1902?1994), pictured, Lubavitcher women in America have enjoyed fantastic gains in educational and work opportunities. As activists, they represent the face of Hasidic women to other Jews, undertaking campaigns to popularize laws incumbent upon observant Jewish women (such as Sabbath candle-lighting and laws surrounding menstruation).

From the moment he assumed leadership in 1950, the Lubavitcher Rebbe brought radical change to a movement that had always been symbolized by male activists. Within one eight-year period--1951 to 1959--the rebbe and his assistants approved the founding of a girls' school system, an organization for all Lubavitcher women (Neshei Ubnos Chabad), two community publications by and for women (Di yiddishe heym and the Neshei Chabad Newsletter), and annual conventions for Lubavitcher women activists from all over North America. These institutions grew to provide a vast range of roles for women hungry for intellectual and religious challenge.

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Bonnie Morris

Bonnie J. Morris earned her Ph.D. in women?s history from the State University of New York at Binghamton. Morris published her doctoral dissertation on Lubavitcher Women in America at Harvard Divinity School. She has taught women?s studies at both George Washington University and Georgetown since 1994.