Why is “Sisterhood” Still Relevant on Today’s College Campuses?

This past weekend, I was involved in an incredibly exhilarating and spiritually uplifting event: Nashir, the intercollegiate Jewish women’s arts festival. Each year, Nashir consists of a Shabbat experience, followed by a visual arts gallery and performance on Saturday night; this year Nashir took place at the University of Pennsylvania.  

When my friends first discovered that I was involved in Nashir, I fielded a lot of questions (from both men and women) about two themes in particular: Why are women-only spaces important? And, in an age of burgeoning egalitarianism, is the idea of sisterhood still relevant?

From a halakhic (Jewish legal) standpoint, there are many Jewish women who will not perform publicly in mixed company because of kol isha (the prohibition of a woman singing in front of men). I loved the idea of offering these women a space to celebrate their talents, a space where they could gain recognition for their achievements, and a space where my peers and I could access and appreciate their art. Our 18 performances attended by over 50 women this year attest to the fact that there is a need for a women-only college venue to showcase the artistic abilities of female students.

But Nashir is not just about creating a halakhically appropriate space; it is also about creating an environment where coming together as a community of women is the quintessential idea. This year, Nashir kicked off with a beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday evening service). Among its many prayer options, Penn Hillel has a traditional Orthodox service and partnership minyan on Shabbat evening, but it does not have a women’s-only prayer service. I believe that women from the Penn community chose to join with Nashir for this women’s prayer service because they were inspired by the power of our strong, resounding voices joining together with melody and harmony in alto and soprano registers.

On a personal level, I feel more connected to Jewish celebration when I’m participating with other women. While at Penn, I regularly attend our partnership minyan and join in mixed tischs (singing around the table) on Friday night; but for me, the feeling isn’t the same as in a co-ed group, although I do understand and value how it satisfies the needs of other men and women. Some of my favorite prayer, festive dancing, and tisch memories have been women-only experiences. In mixed settings, the women around me seem inhibited and don’t sing quite as loudly or appear as connected.  I often wonder if tzniut (modesty) and kol isha are so ingrained that women remain silent even on the other side of the mechitza (partition). One Nashir participant remarked that this was the most beautiful prayer experience in which she had ever participated! I believe this is because women became active participants in the prayer service rather than passive observers, and they did so because they felt it was their space, a space dedicated to their community, a space infused with a sense of belonging and a space for sisterhood.

After dinner on Friday night, during a text study related to Judaism, women, and the arts, participants brought up important questions such as:

  • How do you feel when you read the creative work of a Jewish woman? Do you read it differently than you would read the work of a Jewish man?  
  • Do you think Modern Orthodox Jews are encouraged to engage with secular art in the same way that they are encouraged to pursue history or science?

These questions are the ones that may generate future conversations at Nashir, as they are certainly meaningful to us as Jewish women engaged in the arts.

After lunch on Shabbat day, participants engaged in different workshops. In a “writing” workshop, participants constructed sentences with words cut up from Argentina’s Last Jewish Cowboys by Diane Pham and Success by Emma Lazarus. My favorite sentences of the bunch were: “I, of the Jews, proud strong culture,” and “Rejoice! I triumphant over man’s traditions centuries-old.”

The motzei Shabbat (Saturday night) performance and gallery was full of magical moments. It’s difficult for me to describe the overwhelming amount of talent contained in the room — talent which may not have been expressed without Nashir. One of the memorable performances was a spin on the Vagina Monologues, in which a participant delivered a monologue about the need for greater and more open discussion of women’s bodies and women’s sexuality in the Orthodox community. The performer had been inhibited to speak about this topic publicly but felt that it was necessary to make this social commentary in this safe space. To me, this is indicative of the importance of Nashir and the reason that young women seek to join us.

“Nashir” is Hebrew for “we sing,” but this verb is inadequate to describe the power of the Nashir experience. At Nashir, we sing, we shout, we laugh, we praise, we pray, we question, and we grow together as a community of women and as a sisterhood.

Nashir was co-sponsored by JOFA, the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, the “Jewish Innovation Grant” of the Commission on Campus Projects of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, and the Orthodox Community at Penn.

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