Monday, December 30, 2013

Blogging the JOFA Conference: The Bulletproof Stockings Documentary

This post is part of a series discussing the 2013 Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) 8th International Conference of Feminism and Orthodoxy. You can read my notes on this session here.

When I first heard about the band Bulletproof Stockings a couple years ago, I thought the name – a colloquial, sometimes derogatory, term for the thick and opaque stockings that Hasidic women wear – was hilarious. The existence of a Hasidic alt rock girl band that performs music in English with covert religious themes amused and intrigued me. However, I didn’t actually listen to their music until I saw that the Bulletproof Stockings documentary would be screened at the JOFA conference, with a talkback from band members Perl Wolfe and Dalia Schusterman moderated by Miriam Brousseau.

I did not expect to see many right-wing types, let alone Lubavitch Hasidic women, at the conference. As someone who falls more towards the right side of the religious spectrum, it bothers me that my peers don’t value feminism or think it’s necessary. Consequently, I was really happy that Bulletproof Stockings was at the conference. I’m totally ignorant of their beliefs towards feminism and how it intersects with Judaism, so I don’t know if they agreed with anything that was said at the conference, but the fact that they were there at all was really awesome.

I enjoyed watching the documentary, but the best part of the session was the talkback with Wolfe and Schusterman. It was inspiring to hear Schusterman chronicle her journey from playing drums in hard rock bands in New Orleans to becoming Lubavitch and forming Bulletproof Stockings. “Hashem [God] wanted me to be in a band,” Schusterman shrugged. “Hashem just kept putting me in the path of drums.” Both women are truly dedicated to their craft, using their talents for musical expression. “We want to create music we’ll enjoy listening to, not just to fill the void of Jewish music,” Wolfe said.

I really respect the two for sticking to their morals and only performing for all-female audiences in order to avoid kol isha (the prohibition of women singing in front of men). “We’re not doing it [performing exclusively for women] because we decided that it would be a great way to make money,” Wolfe said. “We’re doing it because we believe that this is our mission as women and this is what we were meant to do.” Bulletproof Stockings puts their money where their mouth is, and I appreciate that.

Although it may present a challenge to only perform for women only, Bulletproof Stockings’ audience definitely appreciates the single-sex space. I have always fervently championed women-only spaces in both the religious and secular worlds (link here), so I found Wolfe and Schusterman’s discussion of this issue fascinating. When someone from the audience asked whether there’s a Bulletproof Stockings for men, Schusterman replied that men don’t need it; “they have Minha [afternoon prayers] and Ma’ariv [evening prayers],” services that traditionally only men attend. This parallel between modern music and ancient prayers struck me. I think it just comes to show that when women yearn to have increased access to Jewish spirituality, they will find methods of religious self-expression.

Wolfe pointed out that Bulletproof Stockings creates a women-only space in the secular world, which is rarely done. She said that when she tells secular women that men aren’t allowed into their concerts, their response is invariably “I’m not gonna be bothered by guys at a club? That’s fantastic, I’ll see you there! With five of my girlfriends!” I’m happily surprised that they’ve found the secular response to be overwhelming positive.

Secular women don’t just come to concerts because of the “no boys allowed” rule; Bulletproof Stockings’ music certainly has crossover appeal in itself. I think that it’s a real kiddush Hashem (positive example) that women from all backgrounds can rock out together. “We have Jews, non-Jews, hipsters, African-Americans, all sorts from Crown Heights that walk into private shows, we never know who’s going to come. Our vision to have a sisterhood party happening around the world is totally happening, that’s really what we’re about,” Schusterman said.

Although it may be trite, I strongly believe that sisterhood is powerful, and the idea of a global sisterhood party really appeals to me. I do think that music can be experienced differently in women-only spaces, and that it’s important to foster that, at least while the patriarchy is still in power. And I mean, how can you not like a band with enough chutzpah to call themselves Bulletproof Stockings?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Blogging the JOFA Conference: Opening Plenary

This post is part of a series discussing the 2013 Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) 8th International Conference of Feminism and Orthodoxy. You can read my notes on this session here.

I had the privilege to attend the 2013 JOFA Conference. I really enjoyed the experience, and learned a lot about diverse topics. I will be posting my impressions of every session I attended. Here’s the first one!

The first session I attended was the Opening Plenary. JOFA President Judy Heicklen and VP Bat Sheva Marcus opened the conference. They were followed by Ronnie Becher, founding JOFA member; Rabbi Asher Lopatin, President of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School; Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold, an inaugural graduate of Yeshivat Maharat and Director of Education and Spiritual Enrichment at Congregation Sha'ar Hashomayim; and Leah Sarna, a philosophy major at Yale. Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon also joined the plenary.

Although Calderon was sort of an add-on, I didn’t mind her inclusion at all. It was an honor to hear such a distinguished politician who is so dedicated to the betterment of Israeli society and women’s status. Although she could have been serious and solemn, she spoke in a relatable manner, peppering humor and personal anecdotes throughout her speech. Calderon’s presence was important, because it showed that Orthodox feminism does not just improve the status of Orthodox women; it helps members of every Jewish denomination.

The Jewish feminist blogosphere has been squeeing over Leah Sarna’s speech, which can be watched here. I hadn’t known that she would be speaking beforehand, so I was happily surprised to see a fellow undergrad at the podium. It was good to see that JOFA is making space for younger women and men to enter the conversation and bring their thoughts and ideas to the organization.

I found Sarna’s speech interesting, although I doubt that her call for equal religious expectations for girls and boys will be followed through on in the near future. The only way the community will start to expect girls to show up at Shahrit (morning prayers) – and the only way girls will actually drag themselves out of bed before 7 AM – is if they have a halakhic obligation to do so. As the mainstream Orthodox interpretation of halakha does not include women’s participation in minyan (prayer quorum) as a religious obligation, very few would demand girls’ attendance at Shahrit. Consequently, Sarna was basically asking for a complete overhaul of the halakhic system. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing; however, I don’t know if this was what she was trying to say, or if the implication was accidental. Either way, although I don’t think it’ll happen on a systemic level anytime soon, I do agree that we should start from the bottom up and encourage increased participation in Jewish ritual for our daughters (as well as our sons).

However, this encouragement should not stem from a desire for equality, but rather a desire for a better connection to God and Judaism. I really appreciated Rabbi Lopatin’s emphasis on the fact that when we advocate for women’s leadership and feminist goals within the religious sphere, we’re not doing it solely for the sake of equality; we’re doing it in order to “transform…the shul [synagogue] into a mikdash me’at [small Temple].” This hearkens to my oft-repeated line, one that I said in this video (link here), that we have to fit feminism into halakha (Jewish law) and not the other way around.

Rabbi Lopatin wasn’t the only speaker at the plenary who made it clear how dedicated JOFA and its adherents are to keeping and maintaining the integrity of halakha (Jewish law). Each speaker underscored the import of upholding halakhic imperatives. “We are about that chain of tradition,” Ronnie Becher said.

I found that the most powerful moment was when Maharat Finegold shared a story linking the past to the present. She said that when she spoke at a senior community center about being a maharat, a woman told her that she had lived next door to Sarah Schenirer, the creator of the Bais Yaakov movement, in 1920s Krakow. “Now that I meet you, I say sheh’hehiyanu,” the woman said. As a graduate of a Bais Yaakov-type school who also supports Yeshivat Maharat, I have to admit that it never occurred to me to connect the two movements. Although I don’t know if Sarah Schenirer would have approved of the idea of women entering the clergy, Maharat Finegold was right when she said that “Yeshivat Maharat is the evolution of women’s learning.”

The plenary intended to showcase speakers from each generation of the Orthodox feminist fight. It was really interesting to hear such distinct voices in sequence like that. It's also a sign of the times: ageism is part of the past. Women and men from every generation have to metaphorically hold hands and work together, drawing from our varied experiences. If we don't, we are lost.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

In Defense of the Orthodox Student Dinner (and Other "Exclusionary" Spaces)

On a typical Shabbat at my campus Hillel, although people from every religious denomination pray separately, everybody eats the Friday night meal together. Every year, the Orthodox Student Minyan (OSM) holds an annual Friday night dinner, held in a different venue, for Orthodox undergrads. The vast majority of OSM members had no qualms about attending the dinner a few weeks ago. However, some Orthodox kids expressed their dislike of the concept, calling it exclusionary and claiming that it alienates Orthodox kids from the rest of the Hillel community.

These complaints reminded me of a previous conversation I had in regard to so-called “exclusionary” spaces after my college’s activities fair in September. “Why was there a whole section of the fair dedicated to clubs about gender and sexuality?” one person asked. “Why is a women’s-only club okay, but not a men’s-only club?” I tried to explain that there is legitimacy to a men’s-only club in certain contexts, but in general, women’s-only groups are necessary because the world is still dominated by men. Consequently, women sometimes need spaces where they can control and shape their experience without being subjected to patriarchal interference and the male gaze.

So too, I tried to explain to the anti-OSM dinner camp that sometimes, Orthodox kids just need a chance to share a meal with a group of people like themselves, who come from similar backgrounds and understand halakhic observance. Perhaps my desire for such a space stems from my more homogeneous background, but I really don’t think it’s personal. Every human being wants and needs to be with others like them for at least some of the time. It’s not like the planners of the OSM dinner are actively trying to exclude non-Orthodox students; on the contrary, they are just trying to foster a space for Orthodox students to thrive.

I don’t advocate that Friday night dinners should always be segregated by denomination. That would be extremely detrimental to ahdut (togetherness) and undermine the purpose of Hillel in the first place. However, I have no problem with an annual or even biannual OSM dinner. In fact, I would make the argument that it’s beneficial for the Orthodox community and Hillel at large to have small breakaway meals once a semester, because it fosters a better sense of intra-denominational ahdut.

I make this claim in the light of the fact that the OSM dinner ended before regular Hillel dinner even began, and that several of us went from the OSM dinner to Hillel dinner, thereby having the best of both worlds. To me, it is about having it all: being able to chill in a space where everybody understands why I only wear skirts, and then chilling in a space where it doesn’t matter what I’m wearing.

So I support and will always attend the OSM dinner, as well as other “exclusionary” spaces.  

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

First Impressions of the JOFA Conference

I was even interviewed for a video for The Forward 
at the conference! You can watch the full video here.
On Sunday, December 8, I was privileged to attend and speak at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) conference. I’ve been looking forward to this conference for several months, and I am happy to report that it was worth the wait.

The day started off with a plenary session featuring speakers from each generation of the Orthodox feminist fight. It was really interesting to hear such distinct voices in sequence like that. I particularly enjoyed listening to Ronnie Becher’s discussion of JOFA’s genesis and evolution. I was also really happy to see a fellow undergrad at the podium, since it shows that JOFA is truly dedicated to making space for the younger generation. At the plenary, Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon also spoke. It was an honor to simply be in the presence of such a groundbreaking feminist who I’ve read so much about. Unsurprisingly, Calderon is an excellent speaker who had a lot of interesting things to say about Orthodox feminism.

After Calderon spoke, concurrent sessions about different topics began. I chose to attend the screening of the documentary The Bulletproof Stockings, about the Hasidic all-girl alt rock band of the same name. As a music junkie, avid concertgoer, and Orthodox Jew, I love the fact that this band exists. I was happily surprised that they were at the conference, since I expected to be one of the only more right-wing types in attendance. The documentary itself was very well-made and interesting to watch, but I most enjoyed the talkback with both members of the band. They spoke candidly about how the Bulletproof Stockings came to be, their life experiences, Jewish journeys, musical influences, and more. Honestly, it was just awesome to see two women wearing skirts and shaitels (wigs worn for religious purposes) who know how to rock out at a feminist conference.

The next session I attended was titled Mirror Image: Eating Disorders in the Orthodox Community. Although I have never suffered from an eating disorder, some of my closest friends have, so this is an issue close to my heart. As I have previously researched and written about this issue for my blog and other publications, I was eager to continue learning about this topic. Speaker Dr. Esther Altmann pointed out how women’s everyday speech patterns - “ohmygosh, you’ve lost so much weight, you look great!” - can be so toxic, and encouraged attendees to model self-love for the women around them to emulate. Her presentation was particularly powerful; during the Q&A session at the end, several people asked questions in tears, showing how deep of a chord the session struck.

After lunch, which I ate with other feminist undergrads, I went to ‘Slut!’ The Shame Effect. It was probably the best session I went to all day. I was drawn to the session because of speaker Leora Tanenbaum, the author of Slut!: Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation, who I hadn’t even known was religiously affiliated. Tanenbaum presented her research on how negatively the label slut can impact a girl or young woman, and urged attendees to boycott this word. I have always gone out of my way to avoid it, but her impassioned plea certainly strengthened my resolute. I also really liked Tanenbaum’s co-presenter Rachel Hercman, who discussed slut-shaming within the Orthodox community, and how it usually manifests itself around tzniut (ritual modesty) and shomer negiah (the prohibition of touching member of the opposite sex). Overall, this session made me think harder about slut-shaming and how it impacts my life as a teenage girl, college student, feminist, and Orthodox Jew.

Next, I attended a session titled The WOW Factor: Women of the Wall. Although I entered with mixed feelings towards WOW’s monthly prayer groups at the Kotel, I exited as a complete supporter. The three WOW-affiliated presenters gave a comprehensive rundown of the situation on the ground and chronicled their day-to-day WOW advocacy. I had previously thought that WOW was more concerned with making noise than championing change. Having heard these women speak, I now understand that it’s about being able to pray in a way that’s meaningful at the Kotel, not about politics.

After the WOW session, I spoke on a panel called Blogging for Change. I thought I was going to be nervous about speaking, but the anxiety never came. To be honest, I really enjoyed the panel. It was a lot of fun being able to share my thoughts on and experiences with feminism, activism, and blogging alongside three other fabulous feminist writers. There were 25-30 people in attendance, and they were all really engaged and interested to hear what we had to say. Based on the amount of hands raised during the Q&A session, we could have sat and answered questions for another half hour. I know that I was a little sad when we had to wrap up.

I had a really amazing time at the conference. The only bad part of the JOFA conference is that I’ll have to wait another three or four years for the next one.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Infographic: Women in the US and the World

This infographic caught my eye because it contains some really scary numbers. The percentage of men who prefer male children to female children is saddening, but considering the amount of female infanticide in the world, not shocking. Even though those statistics are from US men, where killing girl infants because of their sex is not common, it's still not terribly surprising; sexism is pervasive in America, and preference for boys over girls is almost expected. Globally, there aren't nearly enough women in political leadership roles, but it's positive to think that some countries, like Sweden, are getting there. So there is some good news in this infographic, happily.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Domestic Violence, Harvard, and TED

My college’s office of sexual assault prevention recently hosted a talk by Leslie Morgan Steiner. Steiner, a Harvard graduate, TED talk speaker, and author of Crazy Love, spoke about her experiences as a survivor of domestic violence and advocate for women and men in situations of abuse. You can find my notes on her speech here.

As a feminist and as a woman, I feel that one of the most important goals is to eradicate violence against women. Thank God, I have never experienced violence of any form firsthand, but this issue resonates with me nonetheless. I don’t know why ending violence against women is such a priority for me. I guess it just offends my sense of fairness and justice. I believe that violence against women should be one of the feminist movement’s highest priorities, because it is impossible for women to even dream of full equality if they are being physically, emotionally, mentally, or in any other way abused.

It was so inspiring to hear how Steiner was able to leave her negative experiences behind and build a new life for herself. Even though she went through hell, she was still able to move forward and not let what happened to her define the rest of her life.

Steiner stressed that part of the healing process for her was breaking the silence and telling people about how she had been subjected to domestic violence by her husband. Every survivor of violence has a different reaction to their experiences, and they are all completely legitimate; nobody should be stigmatized for speaking out or remaining silent. However, I do believe that it’s important for those survivors of domestic violence who feel comfortable discussing what happened to them to do so. Steiner said that she also believes it’s important to talk about it because “it normalizes it for me and makes me not embarrassed of it.”

Steiner pointed out that the US has a lot of great resources for survivors of abuse to get out of situations of violence and deal with the aftermath, but there is still “only a surface awareness of domestic violence.” She mentioned how even after what happened to Yeardley Love, a lacrosse player at the University of Virginia who was killed by her abusive ex-boyfriend, became common knowledge among undergrads, people continued to stand by as they witnessed abusive relationships.

This is an excellent point. From a personal perspective, my only exposure to domestic violence is through my feminist advocacy work and blogging. If I weren’t so into women’s rights-related topics, I would be woefully ignorant about violence against women. To me, this is a call for action. The feminist community, along with other communities that understand how problematic violence against women is, must educate society at large about the complexity of this issue. Although domestic violence may not be as pervasive in the US as it was 40 years ago, so much as one woman suffering from an abusive partner is one too many.

Overall, Steiner’s speech really resonated with me and gave me hope that violence against women will, someday, end. I certainly hope I can help facilitate that change in the world and make the US and every country a more hospitable place for women.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Why I’m Going to the JOFA Conference (And Why You Should, Too!)

Every few years, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) convenes a conference where feminists get together and discuss gender issues within the Jewish community. The next conference will take place on December 7-8 at John Jay College in New York. I’ll be there, and so should you!

I’ll be going because I will be a speaker at the conference, and I mean, it would be difficult to give my presentation without actually attending the thing. Shameless self-promotion: you should come to the JOFA conference to hear me speak on a panel about blogging for change along with Sarah Seltzer and Sonia Isard, moderated by Gabi Birkner!

Even if I hadn’t been invited to speak at the conference, I would definitely be attending. I went to the conference in 2010 and had a really amazing, eye-opening experience. I was only in ninth grade at the time, but I learned so much about what Jewish feminism and activism means. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I started blogging about Orthodox feminism less than six months later. Going to the 2010 conference gave me the tools to understand Jewish feminism and begin a journey to learn what it means to me personally. Knowing my previous experience with the JOFA conference, I can only imagine how much this upcoming conference will impact my sense of self and activism.

Part of why I’m extremely excited to attend the conference is because I really want to hear so many of the people who will be speaking. Everyone slated to speak is an expert in his or his field, and all of them are serious Jewish feminist rock stars. It’s an honor to be in the same room as these people, let alone to be a fellow speaker. Although I have no idea which sessions I’ll be attending yet – they’re all so good! – I’m particularly interested in a few, like Mirror Image: Eating Disorders in the Orthodox Community and Kaddish, Women’s Voices: Emotional and Personal Perspectives.

Unlike most conferences I attend, I’m not going to bring down the average age of attendance by 30 years. There will be other college students speaking at the JOFA conference, like my fellow 36 Under 36er Amram Altzman, as well as feminists still in high school. I really look forward to hearing what other feminists of my peer group have to say. I’m also glad that older feminists will get the opportunity to hear the voices of my generation, since it’s a perspective that is usually missed out on.

Another reason why I really can’t wait to go to the JOFA conference is because I can’t wait to meet more Orthodox feminists. I come from such a right-wing background, so it’s still a novelty for me to meet other people who think the same way as I do. Although I currently live in an environment where Orthodox feminism is accepted as legitimate, it’ll never get old to meet other people who are really active in feminist thought and activism. Ignoring the networking opportunities, it’ll just be so great to be among my kind.

Even if you don’t currently identify as a Jewish or Orthodox feminist, or are dismissive of feminism, the JOFA conference is still worth attending. You will learn so much about what feminism is and what its intersection with Orthodoxy means. I know that I have.

For breaking news and conference updates, as well as all-around Jewish feminist inspiration and information, follow JOFA on Twitter or like JOFA on Facebook

You can register for the conference here.

Worried about travel and registration cost? An under-30 discount and limited scholarships are available, or attend the entire 1.5 day conference for FREE by volunteering for one shift. Additionally, travel stipends are available for those traveling from outside of the Tri-State Area, and groups of 5 or more are eligible for a 15% discount on registration. For more information on any of these options, email