Monday, December 24, 2012

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

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On November 28, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) held a panel titled Separate but Equal?: The Status of Women in Israel and 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 Israel and 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 of 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 of attending, since I was afraid the discussion would devolve into an Israel-bashing rant. Happily, the opposite was true. The whole discussion was guided 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 Afghanistan get killed - Israel is 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 Israel and 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 Israel should 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.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What a Fickle World

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I find the stark contrast between yesteryear's societal beauty standards to those of today absolutely fascinating. When I first saw the above picture, I had to stare at it for a few seconds before I realized what it meant. What a fickle world we live in, where what equals beautiful changes so quickly.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Stand Up to Street Harassment

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I actually responded to the survey this infographic is based on, so I feel all cool and special.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Young Activists Against Eating Disorders

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me that she had an eating disorder for several years. When she told me, I was really floored. I had known her for most of the time she was anorexic, but I had never picked up even the tiniest hint. None of our friends had a clue, either. I felt so bad that I wasn’t able to be there for her during a time when she really needed someone to lean on, and that she had to go through all that pain in the first place.

Eating disorders are very much a women’s issue, considering 10 million females suffer from them in the United States alone. Since I’m a person who believes in action and getting things accomplished to end injustice and unfairness, I’m happy to say that there are a number of young women who have spearheaded eating disorder awareness projects and are fighting to end the prevalence of anorexia and bulimia among women.

One of these amazing young activists is Nicole Javorsky. A student at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in New York who suffered from an eating disorder, she created the Mirror Mission at her school to spread positive body image and awareness for eating disorders in the community. She also created Cubs for Coping, which gives handmade teddy bears to medical centers and eating disorder programs to help patients recover. Cubs for Coping’s motto, “tiny teddy bear + lots of love = hope for eating disorder patients” is really spot-on. The bears are really adorable and well-made, a true comfort to anyone who receives them. Medical centers can request to receive bears by emailing, and you can purchase one at Cubs for Coping’s Etsy shop. To show solidarity with Javorsky’s mission, you can like Cubs for Coping on Facebook and follow it on Twitter. I strongly recommend that anyone who needs or wants to give to tzedaka (charity) donate to Cubs for Coping here.

Lizzie Elsberg, a student at the University of Virginia and an anorexia and bulimia survivor, created the Purple Project. Named after the color of eating disorder awareness, its goal is to encourage individuals to share their stories about eating disorders and help those struggling with them. To participate in the Purple Project, finish the sentence “I wear purple because…”, write your statement down, take a picture of yourself with it while you’re wearing purple, and email your picture to by December 15. Elsberg will compile the pictures into a video about eating disorder awareness. “I want to use this to help those who suffer and let them know that they are not alone and that people want to support them,” she says. I plan on sending in a picture of myself with a message, and strongly suggest that everyone who cares about eating disorders and their devastating impact do soo, too!

Young women like Javorsky and Elsberg really inspire me to do good in this world. They have taken their pain and suffering and channeled it into positive outlets, where they can help others overcome what they have gone through. My blessing to everyone in the world is to be as strong and successful as they are.

Don't forget to submit an entry to the Second Annual Star of Davida Essay Contest!