Much of this is taken from an email to a good friend.
- Tel Aviv Rally. July 2014. By A. Daniel Roth
I am glad that you got this conversation started. I need to be thinking this way about making a positive impact on the world as humans and as Jews. I have been working hard lately, getting the next round of “Achvat Amim” participants ready, and covering the situation from the border areas with Gaza, Ashkelon, and Tel Aviv. I’m sorry it took me this long to write back. I’ve been learning an enormous amount about me and about the media. Writing and sitting in the studio gives you a chance to go through an analytical process, not a complete one – TV may not be built for thorough analysis at all – but something. Being in the field involves a lot more communication about what you see around you, what others say around you, and how it feels. It’s a strange and interesting world. The other day, I was walking to work and cool breeze, unusual for July, was blowing in from the West. It reminded me that I needed to write you back and it reminded me of all the pain and progress over where you are and the overbearing feeling of chaos over here.
“See that lady over there? That’s the rebbetzin.”
“Ohhh.” I leaned forward to get a better glimpse at the woman with silver hair sitting in the front row of shul. “What’s a rebbetzin?”
I was about eleven years old, and we had just started going to a Conservative shul. My mother pointed out the rebbetzin at our new shul the way one might point out a movie star or head of state or renowned scholar, but I had never heard of one before.
“A rebbetzin is the rabbi’s wife. She’s a very important person.”
“Well…” my feminist mother, with her short cropped hair and her kippah, struggled to find words to explain. “A long time ago women couldn’t be rabbis, so instead there were rebbetzins. They were very knowledgeable and respected, and people went to them with their problems, and they would advise people in the community. Sometimes people went to rebbetzins with problems they didn’t want to talk to the rabbi about.”
At the time, my mom’s answer was good enough for me. I sat through the service and then ran off with my friends. I didn’t stop to wonder why my mother’s definition revolved around what a rebbetzin used to be, in some vague and distant past (which I now know to be about 1971). I didn’t stop to question what kind of politics were involved around my mother’s hesitation, why this was the only time my mother had defined a woman by her husband’s occupation. I didn’t question what kind of lingering shtetl memories passed down through the generations had fostered my mother’s residual respect for an anachronistic (and possibly sexist) role. I didn’t stop to think about why a rebbetzin is important now.
Then I married a rabbinical student.
Suddenly I find myself much more interested in these questions regarding the modern rebbetzin role.
My own experience of the role involves getting invited to Shabbat dinners and finding myself amidst a social minefield. Small transgressions like mentioning a moment when I texted my sister on the second day of Passover are met with raised eyebrows, and I often wonder whether I’ve inadvertently jeopardized my spouse’s future career. For the past three years, every time I’ve gone to shul I’ve wondered exactly how much my hemline matters and how many congregants would judge me for wearing the wrong thing. (You wouldn’t. I know. But maybe your aunt would.) I clearly have no idea what I’m doing as a rebbetzin—but I feel like I ought to.
I try to research what to do as a rebbetzin, but everything I read about them references the past, either with reverence or righteous indignation, and nothing is fully in present tense.
Yes, there is something archaic and sexist about the role of the rebbetzin. The idea that someone’s identity, their title in the world, can be defined by his or her partner’s occupation in this day and age is absurd. It’s outrageous. One would think that in our progressive circles we would be finished with such an idea.
However, the rebbetzin still exists.
The rebbetzin role exists when we force it to, by insisting that families of rabbinical students spend a year in Israel/Palestine (as if all spousal careers are nothing important or could magically occur on whatever continent is needed at the time).
The rebbetzin role also exists in our subconscious, when we feel disappointed if a rebbetzin isn’t friendly enough with congregants.
The rebbetzin role exists when shul board members would prefer to hire a rabbi who is already married, when rabbinical students feel more comfortable if they’re partnered, because somehow the partner of the rabbi means something special and important, but we’re not exactly sure what.
If the rebbetzin role still exists, then we need to pay attention to it. Just because something is ignored does not mean it goes away. If we don’t pay attention to roles we rely upon—yet feel vaguely guilty about—we end up doing tweaky things like disrupting careers with Israel/Palestine sabbaticals.
I want to know why we still need rebbetzins. I want to figure out what kind of psychological and economic and gender relationship stuff is going on such that there is still a role out there which is defined by partnership. I want a better answer for my eleven year old self who asked “why” so many years ago—I want an answer that doesn’t start with “a long time ago”; I want an answer that starts with here and now.
We hope you can join us tomorrow night (Tuesday, July 15) at 7:30pm for a special break-the-fast communal gathering in Harlem at the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque (Malcolm X’s mosque, located near the corner of W 116th St and Lenox Ave.). Especially in light of the tragic violence besetting the Middle East, we want to come together as a community in the spirit of peace and unity.
This event is part of the broader בוחרים בחיים – اختيار الحياة – Choose Life Ramadan-17 b’Tammuz fast to support a message of peace and coexistence.
Everyone is welcome to join in for prayer, food, and reflection. We hope you can join us for what we know will be a meaningful conversation.
If you can make it, please BYOS (bring your own siddur) and bring some nosh along to share.
Tzom Qal and let us pray for peace.
It has been a very dark time for Jewish news over the past few weeks. War and war crimes, chants calling for our death, us calling for others’ deaths, and overall nastiness. Often times, even on the storied pages of Jewschool, we simply ignore the rest of the Jewish world during the perennial security operations taking place in the name of the Jewish people.
Yet there are other things happening in the Jewish world and some of them are good. In fact some are even fun. While this post deviates from some of the hard hitting topics we often discuss in this forum, it is an important one for more than the obvious reasons. More »
Jews Standing With the South
Honoring the 50th Anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer
“Step-by-step, day-by-day, and community-by-community we are working to build a new economy that will transform Jackson and the South. This transformation will be rooted in creating an economy based on worker ownership, worker self-management, and worker democracy in the form of cooperative enterprise. Together these are the foundations for creating economic democracy, which is the next step in the long march to create a just society based on human rights, human dignity, social equality, and economic equity. We encourage everyone who believes in these social aims to stand with us in creating a national network to support Cooperation Jackson, the Southern Grassroots Economies Project and the movement for economic democracy.” — Cooperation Jackson
In Jackson, the rest of Mississippi, and throughout the South, those most marginalized in our present economy are at the forefront of a grassroots movement to build the next economy. This is part of a larger global vision to create financial mechanisms that do not profit off of inflicting harm upon oppressed communities, but instead explicitly serve their interests.
Cooperation Jackson and the Southern Grassroots Economies Project are two organizations modeling this vision. Their efforts are grounded in a tradition of Black collective action built on aspirations to challenge racism and build community power. This practice spans from mutual aid societies to the Underground Railroad, from desegregation efforts to rural agricultural cooperatives, from legal challenges to nonviolent direct action. More »
Just about a year ago, the first class of Maharats graduated. For those of you who haven’t been following the various stories over the last year or so, the term Maharat is a Hebrew acronym for Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit, translated as one who is teacher of Jewish law and spirituality. In other words, an Orthodox Jewish female rabbi. But, you know, without the title of rabbi. I was fortunate enough to be a part of a webinar hosted by JOFA entitled “The Maharats’ First Year: A Retrospective,” where three Maharats and one soon-be-ordained Maharat spoke about their experiences thus far. Part of me was hoping for anger: these women are basically rabbis, don’t they deserve the respect of earning the same title for the same job that men do? Even though I was hoping for angry women ready to lead the way for change in their fields, I’m also relieved that this was not the case. Instead, Maharats Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Abby Brown Scheir, Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Rori Picker Neiss were enthusiastic, calm, and not bitter in the slightest.
Each woman spoke of the supportive nature her respective congregation and fellow clergy people. While there were minor displays of negativity, for the most part each Maharat was warmly welcomed into her community. Communities that for so long have denied women the opportunities to become leaders in their shuls. Now, these communities can see the full potential the women members of their synagogue have to offer. Maharat Abby spoke of how excited her community was to have her, and how interest in bat mitzvahs have increased since she began her position. More »
A group of young, Jewish, Toronto-based leaders who are active in building dynamic Jewish programming for young adults expected to get support from Moishe House for the work they do, but were surprised instead when they were turned down to be Toronto’s first Moishe House.
The Toronto folks are looking to inspire more people to speak out and convince Moishe House to help them organize for the Toronto community, which was home to nearly 200,000 Jews as of 2011.
Here’s their letter:
The Toronto Folks on Howland
There is a clear case made for reparations for American Slavery laid out in the recent Atlantic feature authored by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is a powerful story, a dangerous history, and a gateway to talk about the most complicated issues facing the United States. Once you read this very long piece (very long but read it) and nod to the facts and shake your head at the horrific racism at all levels most likely, most probably, you will think:
- But my family didn’t live in the U.S. when it engaged in slavery.
- But we never lived in the Jim Crow South.
- But I don’t engage in predatory lending schemes.
- But no one I know sold on contract in Chicago.
But that doesn’t matter. Anyone living in the United States benefits from the economic realities built on slavery. Every white person has been enriched by the segregation of neighborhoods, schools, and Federally insured lending practices. This goes well beyond being afraid anytime the police stop you or having people cross to the other side of the street when you pass at night.
There is no way money is the remedy for the past but it is time to talk about this issue seriously. So now after you actually read the piece and not my quick intro you should consider addressing those “buts” again. Now ask, how do you feel about your families and friends receiving reparations from Germany?
Personally, I feel pretty damn good about it.
This is a guest post by Sarah Imhoff, Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.
In a whirlwind day of traveling this week, I’ve been in the United States, Turkey, and Israel. On the train in New Jersey, I noticed one house where American flags sprouted on the porch like rows of overgrown plants fighting for the sun. In Turkey, I got stuck walking on the sidewalk behind this vendor:
Turkish flag vendor
And because of the snail’s pace line for passport control at Ben Gurion airport, I stared at up an enormous wall painting of an Israeli flag for two hours. While there is plenty to say about the comparative politics of patriotism, I thought about social interactions of church and state. As a scholar of religion, I seem to see it everywhere.
These three nations—the US, Turkey, and Israel—have three very different articulations of the relationship between “church” and state. The United States has constitutional commitment to freedom of religious expression, and simultaneously refusal of federal establishment of religion. Turkey has a different sort of separation: its laicite, a style of secularism most frequently associated with France, excludes religious practice and discourse from the space of government. And Israel is a Jewish state. And each of these arrangements turns out to be far more complicated and contested than a single sentence about it can suggest.
As this month’s SCOTUS ruling on Town of Greece v. Galloway. reminded us, there is a long tradition of legislative prayer practice in the United States. Were the people of the town of Greece, NY allowed to start their meetings with a prayer, as long as they didn’t intentionally exclude any religions? The court ruled 5-4 that the town wasn’t violating the constitution with its prayer, but the justices on both sides of the issue offered locally based reasoning in their decisions. The most affecting moment of Elana Kagan’s dissent was her hypothetical story about a Muslim woman coming to the town council to ask for a building permit. Wouldn’t she feel coerced into municipally-sanctioned Christianity when the chaplain opened the meeting and said “Let us pray”? In his opinion holding for Greece, Clarence Thomas explained that he thinks the establishment clause pertains only to the federal government, and so wouldn’t necessarily or automatically apply to states, or a town such as Greece. Both justices, despite their vastly different takes, appealed to local context to explain their legal reasoning about religion.
In Turkey, unlike the United States or the town of Greece, religious expression in government spaces is disallowed. For instance, police, judges, and members of the armed forces aren’t allowed to wear headscarves, even though the country is nearly 99% Muslim. Laicite means individual religious practice and signs are excluded from government representation. Last October in Turkey, four women Members of Parliament began to wear headscarves in Parliament for the first time in nearly 15 years—and even in 1999, Merve Kavakci, the MP who wore the headscarf, was booed out of the chamber. The political changes that allowed the headscarves last year turned heads of those committed to the story of a secular Turkey. Supporters of Turkey’s laicite would have balked at seeing the Town of Greece ruling. They would have seen it as entirely too permissive of the mixing of religious practice and government. But in the central spot of Istanbul tourism, I stood between two historic and iconic religious buildings Blue Mosque (the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) and the cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum Hagia Sofia, where I listened to the Friday afternoon call to prayer as it alternated between two loudspeakers.
In Israel, I heard very little. This, too, was a religiously inflected noise: it was Shabbat. Though I was in Tel Aviv, a city not known for its religious piety, most of the neighborhood shops were quiet. Here you might notice that it was a state with many Jews, but you might not know it is a Jewish state. Prayers intermingle with speeches in the Knesset, most recently and powerfully exemplified in MK Ruth Calderon’s first Knesset speech last year—and she is a member of a very progressive political party. The Knesset has 120 members because Jewish tradition holds that the “men of the great assembly” numbered 120. The Knesset routinely legislates about matters of religious practice, contains men and women who dress and behave according to religious norms, and hears religiously based arguments.
National church-state arrangements and the sorts of religion expressed and allowed in legislative bodies clearly structure religious lives in the nation. But the two nations with ostensibly secular governments–the US and Turkey–have much higher percentages of religious believers than Israel, a country with an official religion. So knowing what these political arrangements of religion are at the national level isn’t nearly enough for us to predict what expressions of religion look like in the streets. Today, I wonder, if all politics is local, maybe all religion is too.
Nearly all of the issues I raised in my 2011 post, “The Price of Jew$chool,” which lamented the state of Jewish Day School tuition and the weaknesses of its alternatives in formal Jewish education, unfortunately remain quite relevant today. Then again, statements such as the 25-year-old Greek Chief-Rabbi elect‘s recent reflection that the internet was his Jewish education, stand as sobering reminders that beyond the U.S. and Israel, Jewish education, even in its most modest forms, is a scare resource. According the 2013 Pew Report Forum findings on Jewish life in America, 23% of Jews report having attended Jewish Day School or yeshiva in their youth, and nearly 60% have attended some other form of (non-Day School) formal Jewish education. What does the future hold? How can we respond to this continuing crisis?
The Price of Jew$school
Before you panic, rest assured: we’re not about to start charging you when you read more than 20 posts per month. No, we’re talking about the ever-skyrocketing expense of sending children to Jewish day school in the U.S.
With $7,000 you might be able to fly back and forth to Israel six times, but for the same price you could stay put in Overland Park KS and learn at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy for one year. One thousand dollars more will buy you—show them what they’ve won—one year of 1-8th grade education at the Cincinnati Hebrew Day School. If you want to send your child to the Solomon Schechter of Atlanta, be prepared to shell out upwards of $17,000 per year starting with first grade. $26,650 might be a fine price for a Toyota RAV4 Sport, but did you know that for the same price, you can ‘kaneh likha rav’—or maybe even four—and enroll for one year of high school at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, PA? $29, 955 would be a steal for a small, foreclosed apartment in a depressed real estate market, but it could also buy you one year’s education at Milken community high school in LA. These numbers don’t even include the usual “give and get” $1,000+ minimums typically imposed upon day school families on a yearly basis. More »
Washington, D.C. – May 11th, 2014 – Following pressure from the Open Hillel campaign, Hillel International President and CEO Eric Fingerhut announced that Hillel will create an “Israel Strategy Committee” as well as a Student Cabinet. The Israel Strategy Committee will convene students and Hillel professionals to make recommendations on improving programing on Israel-Palestine, while the Student Cabinet will represent general student concerns in Hillel International. The Open Hillel campaign responded to these announcements with two statements commending Hillel International for these changes and urging Hillel to ensure that these bodies are more than just token gestures to students. More »
Check out the latest from Open Hillel- this video reminding us there is indeed more than one way to be Jewish, and more than one way to talk about Israel/Palestine.
In keeping with #ThrowbackThursday, we’re stepping into the Jewschool time machine to six years ago. Given that this year, Pesach coincided with the First Anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombing, I thought it appropriate to take a peak at BZ’s 2008 post about Matzah and Marathons, specifically preparations for the Boston Marathon. He was also interested about its relationship to 1 vs. 2 day yom tov observance. A fun re-read, and a bit more uplifting than the more recent Boston Marathon coverage…
The story is told of a very prominent rabbi in Europe before World War II who was approached by a freshly minted colleague who had just been hired to supervise the baking of matzohs for Passover. The younger rabbi asked: “There are many, many laws governing the baking of matzah for Passover. Is there any one which I should be especially strict about?” The elder rabbi looked at him intently and said: “Make sure the women who roll the dough get paid a decent wage. This is probably a good deal of their income and they have many mouths to feed. If the matzah bakers are not paid well, the matzah cannot be kosher.”
It should not be surprising that there is such concern placed on the dignity and well-being of workers in the run-up to the holiday which celebrates freedom from slavery. The Babylonian Talmud itself quotes the fourth century Sage Raba as grounding a worker’s freedom to break a work contract in the idea of the Exodus from Egypt, the freedom from slavery.
It is distressing then, that in the weeks before Passover the Perelman Jewish Day School (PJDS) has unilaterally decided to cease recognizing the union that has represented its teachers for decades. (Stories here, here, here, and here) In a letter to parents, the board president wrote that the board had “voted to transition the management of our faculty from a union model governed by a collective bargaining agreement to an independent model guided by our school administrators under a new Faculty Handbook.” More »
This is a guest post by Miriam Cantor-Stone. Miriam serves as the Education Program Assistant at the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, MA. When she’s not working at JWA, she teaches third graders about immigration and Jewish culture at the Boston Workmen’s Circle Shule/Sunday School and sings in Voices Rising, an all-female feminist chorus.
In an age where fewer people seem to be joining, let alone attending, synagogues, the writers from the Forward call their list of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis, “an affirmation that despite the worrying mega-trends, our spiritual leaders are connecting with Jews and strengthening communities across America.”
I don’t think a list like this a bad idea. If anything, it might help connect people to their rabbis or potential future rabbis. It’s fair to say the Jewish people appreciate good press, and it’s nice to see Rabbis from all denominations represented. Frustratingly, what wasn’t very well represented was gender. The list features 28 rabbis from across North America (mostly New York, which isn’t much of a surprise) and only 9 women.
I’m sure the creators of this list will have plenty to say in their defense. But what excuse could they have? Women have quickly become an important presence in the rabbinate, even in Orthodoxy. Yes, women rabbis are still making new and crucial strides on the pulpit (see the fabulous Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl at NYC’s Central Synagogue) but women rabbis are more accepted today than in the 50 years since Rabbi Sally Priesand was ordained at Hebrew Union College.
It’s fair to say that people frustrated by this list aren’t asking for a re-do. The list features some incredible Jewish leaders who all certainly deserve to be recognize for the work they do. I just hope next time the Forward will better represent the women involved in keeping Judaism alive as best as they can, just like their male counterparts.
You may have seen the controversial photos released this past week: patrons of a German restaurant in Minnesota decked out in SS Guard uniforms; Harel High School students in Mevasseret Tzion parading in Klansmen “glorysuits” before an Ethiopian absorption center.
"Nazi Party" at Gasthof zur Gemütlichkeit (photo credit: City Pages)
Whereas the local city council did nothing official to condemn the high school students who on Purim masqueraded as members of the KKK for such an egregious display of racism, a group of local Minnesotans banded together to express their disappointment and hurt at the Minneapolis restaurant’s shocking display of insensitivity in hosting the now-notorious annual “Nazi Party.”
Wishing you and yours a most joyous Shushan Purim from New York!
The following Purim schtick video is brought to you by some of your favourite Jews from the Jewish Theological Seminary:
This is the shortened version of the written discussion in which Avigail Shaham details her community, movement, and vision. The full version is up here at allthesedays.org and the Spanish version (translated by Kevin Ary Levin) is up here.
What do you do? Why do you find yourself identifying as a “Shomeret” (member of the movement)? What is the appeal for you?
My name is Avigail, I was born and raised in Jerusalem, surrounded by good and inspiring people. Among many other activities in my childhood and adolescence, I was a member of Hashomer Hatzair youth movement – a 100 year old Socialist and Zionist movement which created some of the most inspiring foundations, structures and culture of cooperative society in Israel. When I graduated high school, I volunteered for a service year in the movement, in which my friends and I worked as educators in centers of the youth movement around the country, and created for other young people the unique experience of the movement – the experience of an autonomous, creative and liberating youth community in which one shapes their character in light of great ideas and through social discussions and mutual contemplation. As we were doing this, we realized we were Shomrim and Shomrot [truly identifying with the movement’s ideals] in character. We realized that the movement’s ideology and culture was a central compass for us in evaluating our actions and behavior and in choosing our role and path in the world. We wanted to continue being Shomrim and Shomrot, and create a path of life which expresses the essence of the movement.
Photo by A. Daniel Roth
Today, almost 12 years later, I live in a communal group [known as a "Kvutza", which means "group" in Hebrew] in Givat Haviva, with many of the people who I started this path with back then. We are educators and social activists, working in various arenas of Israeli society to encourage social justice, cooperation, peace and humanism, and to offer alternatives to the existing social structures and paradigms.
I work as a lawyer, specializing in labor law and working towards workers collective rights as well as equality for women in the workplace. I participate in different initiatives in the movement, such as political action and development of grass-roots unionizing projects, and in the internal processes of shaping the adult “Shomeric” [reflecting the values of the Hashomer Hatzair movement] society.