Hasidic Women in the United States

How they are educated and their role in the community.

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By the early 1970s, when feminist criticism of ultra-Orthodox Judaism's role for women placed the Lubavitcher movement on the defensive, a spectrum of skilled women writers were ready to answer in kind. A variety of books on the Hasidic woman's role and belief system appeared to confront feminist calls for change. These texts included The Modern Jewish Woman and AURA: A Reader on Jewish Womanhood, both prepared by the Lubavitch Women's Organization.

As outreach missionaries, or shluhos, Lubavitcher women as well as men now travel to remote locations or to turbulent college campuses--wherever Jews live--providing, through what is known as the "Chabad House," a lively forum for dialogue and Jewish learning. This aggressive interaction has attracted many young and adult Jews to become Lubavitcher followers.

The close-knit Lubavitcher community holds considerable appeal for displaced women in postmodern society, and several books in the 1980s and 1990s explored this appeal. Lis Harris's Holy Days, Deborah Kaufman's Rachel's Daughters, and Lynn Davidman's Tradition in a Rootless World are examples of feminist investigators' growing interest in Ba'alot Teshuvah (Jewish women who have embraced ultra-Orthodoxy). Because Harris, Kaufman, and Davidman let Hasidic women speak for themselves, the reading public has now met many a strong-minded Lubavitcher activist, and misconceptions about Hasidic practices are lessening.

However, for real insight into Lubavitcher women's concerns, there is no substitute for the quarterly Yiddish/English journal Di Yiddishe Heim, a Lubavitch publication which offers a mixture of Jewish history and legal interpretations, humorous anecdotes about Hasidic family life, and articles on developments in the Lubavitcher girls' school system (Bais Rivkah). Moreover, most cities in the United States now feature a Chabad House where interested Jews may attend introductory talks or workshops on women's role in Hasidic Judaism. While other Hasidic sects scorn the Lubavitchers as opportunistic or too willing to compromise on issues of modernity, the Lubavitch movement has enabled Hasidic women to study, advocate, and publish--in short, to gain an American voice.

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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.