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JOFA Panel: Separate but Equal? The Status of Women in Israel and the American Jewish Community

Posted on the 25 December 2012 by Starofdavida
JOFA Panel: Separate but Equal? The Status of Women in Israel and the American Jewish CommunityDon't forget to submit an entry to the Second Annual Star of Davida Essay Contest!
On November 28, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) held a panel titled Separate but Equal?: The Status of Women in Israeland the American Jewish Community. Although I was not able to attend in person, I was fortunate to be able to watch a livestream of the panel, which discussed how women are being treated in Israeland the implications for American Jewry. The speakers were Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of The Jewish Daily Forward; Blu Greenberg, founder and first president of JOFA; Dr. Hannah Kehat, founding director of Kolech Religious Women’s Forum; Susan Weiss, founding director of the Center for Women’s Justice; and Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council for Jewish Women (NCJW). It was moderated by Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman, executive director of JOFA. You can read my notes on this panel here (I suggest doing so before reading the rest of this post).
All in all, I really enjoyed this panel and loved hearing such accomplished women speak about a topic so important to me. I was originally leery to attend, since I was afraid the discussion would devolve into an Israel-bashing rant. Happily, the opposite was true. The whole discussion was led by the concept that all the speakers and attendees are such staunch supporters of Israel, it pains us to see our homeland making poor decisions regarding women’s status.
One thing that really stood out to me was the difference between women’s advancement in secular and religious affairs. Ms. Weiss pointed out that women can reach high levels in the military and that Israel’s laws about rape, sexual harassment, and employment are extremely progressive. However, when it comes to women’s equality within the religious sphere, where the state has given authority to the largely ultra-Orthodox rabbinical establishment, women are consistently left behind.
Clearly, this is a problem that needs to be remedied. Dr. Kehat was optimistic that this will happen sooner rather than later, since ultra-Orthodox women have begun to ask Kolech for help in fighting sexism within their own communities. It really made my day to hear that these women are speaking up. If they don’t complain, nobody will know that they’re unhappy with how they are treated and want it to change. Once they begin to raise their voices, feminists (Orthodox and otherwise) are happy to extend a helping hand.
I found it interesting that Kehat discussed what I called the outfrummingness factor in this long-ago post. Both of us defined it as when everybody tries to prove how much more frum(religious) they are than the next guy by adhering to the strictest possible interpretation of halakha (Jewish law), especially in regard to women’s place and tzniut (modesty). I thought I was the only one who noticed this and talked about it, so it was nice to see that I was wrong. Also feeding into this was a discussion about crosspollination between Israel and America in regard to extreme attitudes towards gender segregation. Ms. Sztokman pointed out that she sees it on flights going to Israel: in previous years, it was just the ultra-Orthodox who asked to switch seats to be seated next to someone of the same sex. Now, a lot of Americans request it too.
Ms. Eisner and Ms. Kaufman pointed out that what American Orthodox feminists consider important issues for Israeli women aren’t actually terribly significant for most Israeli women, since the country is largely secular. Although this actually makes a lot of sense, I had never really thought about it before. As an Orthodox individual, I consider praying at the Kotel HaMa’aravi (Western Wall) a fundamental right of being a Jew; however, my secular Israeli sisters and brothers don’t really care about praying at the Kotel, since it’s not something they’ve ever done or plan on doing. “I told my friend in Ra’anana that I rode [segregated buses], she looked at me like I was crazy. ‘What buses? What are you talking about, there are segregated buses in Jerusalem?’” Kaufman said. “I think we do have some bridges to build between and among us,” Eisner said. I couldn’t agree more.
Ms. Greenberg shared a story about the first Women of the Wall meeting in 1988. She received the first aliyah(call to read from the Torah) and as she was chanting the brakha(blessing), men from the other side of the mehitzah (divider between the sexes) began screaming for her to stop. “I did something that’s really uncharacteristic of me which is that I screamed back, I screamed the bracha as loud as I could.” This was mentioned in the context of a discussion on civil disobedience, and I thought this was the absolutely most awesome example of civil disobedience possible. I truly hope I can do something as rebellious, as anti-establishment, as simply EPIC as Greenberg did.
I really appreciated that Ms. Kaufman’s underscored the importance of reaching out to Modern Orthodox as well as Haredi women. “They’re both allies,” she said. So often, ultra-Orthodox women are considered the ones who need to be saved, possibly against their will, by the uber-liberated Modern Orthodox women who are enlightened and empowered. I was happy to hear Kaufman shatter this mistaken idea.
Although the panelists did their share of critiquing Israel, they also defended the country. “[The media forgets] that the Anats in Sudan had their arms chopped off and the Anats in Libya and Egypt and Afghanistanget killed - Israelis the only real democracy,” Greenberg said. Sztokman, who moderated the panel, mentioned how she had once written an article about the problems in Israel, and how horrible she felt when it was disseminated on anti-Semitic websites.
Ms. Greenberg gave an excellent comparison between Israeland a family: “We’re all part of a family…we should see we’re all in this together and we should be totally identified. And right now I think Israelshould be our highest priority because part of our family is at risk. And the way I see this in terms of the critique is that it’s like a fight in the family, in that we care very much, just like family members care for each other very much if they are fighting. And so something you do when you fight in the family is you make room for the other, it’s not all about yourself, you make room for the person who’s your antagonist for that moment, in a sense, and you protect your family. I remember when our kids were teenagers and we had two of our children…one of them was picking on one of the other children, but when it came to any kind of public space he was her biggest advocate, you wouldn’t realize that this is the same brother who is making her life miserable…in a way it was a sweet thing to see. So you protect your family and part of that means that you make sure that the enemies of your family don’t win, you do what you have to do, you watch your language and you deliver your criticism in measured tones, and you also challenge the language of those who are critical of other members of your family.”

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