Thursday, January 31, 2013

Dear Girl on Facebook

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Dear girl on Facebook,

We went to elementary and middle school together, although we haven’t actually seen each other since graduation. The most we kept in touch is through a couple of sporadic text conversations throughout the past three and a half years, and when I friended you when I finally became a part of the 21st century and got onto Facebook.

And so I see your Facebook activity in my newsfeed. Most of it is uploaded iOS photos, TBHs and LMSs written by people I don’t know on your wall, and “u hve been hacked by [insert friend here]!!!11 [same friend] luvs u!!!1!!”s. Irrelevant to my life, perhaps mildly irritating, but nothing bad enough to make me block you from my newsfeed.

You can imagine my shock, horror, and disgust when I saw that you liked an anti-abortion page that put an extremely graphic picture of an aborted fetus onto my computer screen.

You have every right to be pro-life, and to express that belief by liking anti-abortion Facebook pages. We live in America, and you have the right to freedom of speech. Just like you can like anti-abortion pages, I can like pro-choice pages, feminist pages, gay rights pages, and the pages for all sorts of other controversial topics. It would be hypocritical of me to tell you not to publicize your beliefs on Facebook when it’s something that I do daily. As a result, I will defend your right to like an anti-abortion page on Facebook to the day I die, as abhorrent as I may find it.

However, what I do not support is the graphic image that accompanied the page. I feel like my brain has been violated by the image of that aborted fetus. This incident happened months ago, and I still have a clear picture of what it looked like in my head. I think part of the reason why I was so taken aback by this is because I was not expecting it. I was just routinely scrolling through my newsfeed, rolling my eyes at semi-witty status updates, scrolling past pictures of friends of friends that I do not know, commenting on wall posts. And all of a sudden, this horribly graphic image of an aborted fetus with the words “LIKE if you’re against abortion!” written across it.

I’m sorry, that is just not acceptable.

There’s a guy who stands near a construction site a few blocks off Times Square who yells about how abortion is a sin and blah blah blah into a megaphone. He also hands out anti-abortion flyers and pamphlets, and is surrounded by graphic images of aborted fetuses. At least he gives passersby warning by yelling into the megaphone, which can be heard from down the block. At this point, I know he’s gonna be there, so I just make it my business to walk on the other side of the street.

So, girl on Facebook, please don’t like that graphic image again. Feel free to like conservative pages, and anti-abortion pages, and all sorts of pages that I may or may not disagree with. But don’t put an image of an aborted fetus onto all of your friends’ news feeds. It’s just being considerate.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Why I'm Rising

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When I was at the 2012 NOW Conference in Baltimore, I had the privilege of hearing Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues and women’s rights activist, deliver the keynote address. She discussed One Billion Rising, her campaign to end violence against women on the global level. It is so named because one billion women - that’s one out of every three women in the world - will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. On February 14, 2013, Ensler wants the world to rise, end the violence, and create a better, safer, happier world.

After hearing Ensler speak, I was rallied to action. I decided on the spot to rise along with her and millions of other women across the globe. One of the many reasons I am rising is to stop street harassment. It’s such an insidious form of violence against women, since most people don’t even know that street harassment is an actual issue. Considering that almost every woman and LGBT+ individual has experienced street harassment at least once in his or her lifetime, it’s surprising that this is something that activists have to raise awareness about.

As someone who was born and raised in Manhattan, which contains 1.5 million of New York City’s total population of eight million, it’s hard not to experience street harassment. It’s gotten to the point that I’m desensitized to it, at least in its milder forms (leering, catcalls, etc.). My mother always gets really creeped out when she sees men - especially those significantly older than me - looking me up and down on the street, but I don’t even notice it anymore. Street harassment has just become part of my life, a necessary hazard of living in a city and walking on the street all the time.

That is a huge problem. It is not acceptable that street harassment has become no big deal in our society, that men and women alike trivialize it. Street harassment is a serious issue in itself, making women feel unsafe, humiliated, and threatened in their own neighborhoods. It can also be a precursor to even worse crimes, like sexual and physical assault. Those of us who understand the brevity of street harassment need to educate the world about this pressing issue. We need to raise awareness and make sure the public understands what street harassment is and how we can stop it.

“We are rising because we are over girls being trafficked and sold and reduced and objectified,” Ensler said at the NOW Conference. I can certainly empathize: I am over standing by as womankind is objectified by street harassment. And that is why I’m rising.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Black Holes of Davida: Borough of Manhattan Community College

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As a New Yorker, City University of New York (CUNY) has always been a presence in my life. I live a few blocks away from a CUNY campus, my school uses said CUNY campus’s gym, both my parents went to CUNY, loads of my friends and their family members have graduated from/currently attend/will go to CUNY…the list of my connections to CUNY and its various campuses never ends. As a result, I was extremely disturbed when fellow feminist Becka Wall, who works at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), said that the NWLC has filed a Title IX complaint against CUNY because of its discrimination against a pregnant student.

I attended an NWLC webinar about the rights of pregnant and parenting students, and the issue was discussed at the NOW Conference, so hearing CUNY’s blatant disregard towards Title IX is really bothersome. Passed in 1972, Title IX is federal legislation prohibiting sex discrimination in education. While it is often used to ensure women’s equality in school sports, it is applicable to any aspect of the educational system.

Stephanie Stewart, an honors student and recipient of a merit scholarship at CUNY’s Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), approached her professors about making up work she would miss due to pregnancy and giving birth. Most of her professors were more than happy to accommodate, as they are legally bound to do; however, one refused to allow her to make up assignments. The kicker is that not only is this professor a woman, who you would think would be able to empathize or at least sympathize with a pregnant student, but she teaches a class called Roles of Women. When Stewart appealed the professor’s decision to BMCC administrators, they refused to give her further assistance, saying that each professor has the right to have their own rules about making up work. As a result, Stewart dropped out of the course, which forced her to give up the scholarship. Despite this huge roadblock, she is determined to get her AA and transfer to a four-year college.

I find this whole situation really heartbreaking. Stewart was just trying to get an education to improve her opportunities in life, and ensure that her child has a good future. And how is this noble desire rewarded? By an obnoxious professor who won’t give her a break and a lost scholarship.

Happily, Stewart found the NWLC, which has filed the aforementioned Title IX complaint on Stewart’s behalf. “The complaint requests that the New York Office of Civil Rights take all necessary steps to remedy any unlawful conduct identified in its investigation, monitor any resulting agreements with BMCC to ensure compliance with Title IX, reinstate Stewart’s academic scholarship, and commit to address the needs of its pregnant and parenting students,” an NWLC press release states. I certainly hope the Office of Civil Rights acquiesces to all of the NWLC’s requests, since they are all so important to ensure that future pregnant students at CUNY and other colleges will be accommodated. At the end of the day, that’s all we want: to be accommodated, and therefore equal. We’re not looking to be pushed a step above or get an extra advantage. We just want the chance to be equal, and to pursue a better life.

I look forward to hearing that Stephanie Stewart got back her scholarship and BMCC and CUNY at large is reconsidering its current policies as they relate to Title IX.

For now, I'm inducting BMCC and CUNY at large into the Black Holes of Davida - people or institutions who let us feminists down by advocating misogyny, sexism, abuse, and other anti-woman thoughts and actions.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Blog for Choice Day: An Orthodox Jewish Feminist's Musings on Abortion

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I thank God that I am able to say that today is the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the historic decision legalizing first trimester abortion. NARAL Pro-Choice America is hosting its eighth annual Blog for Choice Day.

As an Orthodox Jew, fellow feminists are often wary around me when it comes to abortion politics, since they are unsure whether or not my religion allows me to support choice. The simple answer is that I am completely and totally behind Roe v. Wade. I strongly believe that it is imperative that abortion is legal, safe, and accessible to every American woman, regardless of class, race, or any other factor.

There is more complex answer, though. According to halakha (Jewish law), a woman may only have an abortion if her life is at risk. This is derived from the halakha that if somebody (in this case, the fetus) is trying to kill someone else (the mother), the pursued must kill the pursuer to protect him or herself. Because of this, I would never personally have an abortion, unless both my rabbi and doctor agreed that was necessary, God forbid.

However, I would never dream of imposing my own personal beliefs onto every American woman. Even if I disagree from a religious standpoint, it’s not any of my business if a woman wants to have an abortion. There has to be a separation between church and state; religious beliefs have no place in American law, whether they’re my own or somebody else’s.

I really don’t understand the Orthodox Jews who protest against legalized abortion. They’re working against their own religion. If a woman’s pregnancy is putting her life at risk, she must have an abortion - it’s not even an option or choice she has. It’s considered fulfilling a mitzvah (commandment) to do so. So if these (male) Jews who campaign against Roe v. Wade God forbid succeed, and their wives or daughters God forbid have a pregnancy that risks their lives, they’re in a real pickle. According to halakha, they have to have an abortion…but they would have to get an illegal, back alley, unsafe procedure because it’s not legal anymore. That just makes loads of sense, doesn’t it?

My mother recently told me that her aunt had an abortion when she was younger. My great-aunt survived the Holocaust with her mother, sister (my grandmother), one of her brothers, and husband. Eager to repopulate the decimated Jewish nation, she gave birth to a daughter and son in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany. (“When I was little, we would always joke that her son could never run for president because he wasn’t born in America,” my mom said, interrupting the flow of her own story. “But the daughter also couldn’t run for president, if she wasn’t born in America,” I said. “We didn’t think in terms of women being president in the 1950s,” my mom explained.) After my great-aunt came to America, she became pregnant again. She was an immigrant fresh off the boat, unfamiliar with the language or customs of her new country, taking care of two small children, and dealing with a husband whose income wasn’t yet stable. I imagine that she weighed all of these factors, plus some more that I’m not privy to, and decided that a third child would be irresponsible. She went with her mother (my great-grandmother) to get a back alley abortion.

My great-aunt has had Alzheimer’s since I was a little girl, so I was never able to ask her about this decision, nor will I ever be able to. However, having heard stories about her from my mother, I have to think that she supported Roe v. Wade and would believe in every women’s right to a legal, safe, and accessible abortion.

At the end of the day, as much influence as a woman may give to her husband, boyfriend, parent, clergy member, or other individual when it comes to deciding whether or not to have an abortion, the only person who can make the decision is the woman herself. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Her body, her choice. No governmental interference allowed.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Hurrah for Israel's Photoshop Law

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As of January 1, what the media has dubbed the “Photoshop Law” has gone into effect in Israel. This law mandates that models working in Israel have to have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of at least 18.5, the lowest healthy BMI possible, and companies have to clearly label advertisements containing pictures that were even slightly Photoshopped. Foreign ads must also comply. Considering 10% of teenagers in Israel suffer from eating disorders and anorexia is the number-one killer in the 15-24 age group, this law was sorely needed.

Rachel Adato, the sponsor of the bill, has been very involved in women’s health throughout her career. She served as the Chairperson of the National Council for Women’s Health and Advisor to the Minister of Health on Women’s Health, and was a member of the Steering Committees for Prevention of Violence Towards Women and Establishing Medical Centers for Victims of Sexual Assault, as well as a member in four delegations to the UN on women’s health.

Adato and Adi Barkan, a prominent Israeli photographer and agent, worked on writing the law together. I really commend Barkan for spending time and effort on this law. As a member of the fashion industry, he could suffer professionally, so it’s really heartwarming that he decided to bench his personal interests on behalf of young women’s welfare.

Thankfully, the law was passed by a large majority in the Knesset. I mean, who would be against this law? “Oh, I think eating disorders are a good thing, and girls should have extremely low self-esteem!”- said no one ever.

I’m confident that this law will, if not completely solve the issue, begin to improve the situation. Hundreds of studies have shown a correlation between eating disorders among teenage girls and images of hyper-skinny models with completely flawless skin, teeth, and hair in the media. Although ads and commercials will still be showing heavily made up models who are very thin (but still have a healthy BMI), it’s important that these images aren’t completely unrealistic.  

I think it’s excellent that Israel is really dedicating itself to fixing this overly-prevalent issue. I wish that the United States would pass similar legislation, but it’s doubtful that such a bill, if ever proposed, would meet with any success. Donald Downs, a University of Wisconsin professor and First Amendment expert, said that a Photoshop law like Israel’s “would be in tension with American cultural support for free speech in cases in which the harm is not direct or clear. We are much more wary of giving the state the power to prohibit expression in such contexts because the harm is not usually direct.”

Magazines have shown that they’re not going to voluntarily label digitally-altered photos and ensure the models they portray are healthy: in May, when a teenage girl petitioned Seventeen to stop using Photoshop, the magazine celebrated her efforts but did nothing in response. Seventeen has made it clear that the only way they’ll stop abusing Photoshop is if they must. It’s clear that America needs legislation. I just wish it could be a reality.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Feminization of Poverty

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I recently discovered that January is National Poverty in America Awareness Month. I’m saddened that I didn’t know this beforehand. This sounds like the type of awareness campaign the feminist community would rally behind. Well, even if it's not a terribly well-known campaign month, that doesn't detract from its extreme importance.

Poverty is very much a women’s issue, to the point that it has become known as the feminization of poverty. Both the number and percentage of women in poverty is higher than those of men, and the American poverty gender gap is wider than any other Western country. This trend is static over all ethnic groups.

Why are women so much poorer than men? One reason is because of the wage gap. Compared to the white man’s dollar, Asian-American women make 88 cents, white women make 82 cents, African-American women make 70 cents, and Latinas make a mere 61 cents. According to straight facts, women simply have less access to money than men do, and are therefore more likely to be poor.

Part of the reason why the wage gap is so wide is because women tend to work in lower-paying fields. Almost half of all women in the labor force work within only 20 occupational categories, whose median annual salary is barely $27,000. This makes sense, considering that approximately two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women. A woman paid minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) who has two children is left significantly below the poverty line, unable to adequately provide for herself and her family.

An interesting, but often ignored, reason for the feminization of poverty is women’s likelihood toprovide unpaid caregiving. Women tend to take care of elderly or disabled family members more often than men do; in fact, they make up over two-thirds of unpaid caregivers. When I was at the NOW conference last June, I heard JaniceLynch Schuster speak about this topic at a plenary session. I have definitely seen this trend in action; my aunt and mother took care of my grandmother for several years before her death, my best friend’s grandmother cares for her husband with Alzheimer’s, my mother’s female boss only has minimal assistance from her brothers when it comes to caring for their aged mother, a family friend of ours has been providing care for her mother for years, etc. I can’t actually think of a single man I personally know who serves as the primary care for a parent or spouse.

So how do we change this horrible state of affairs? How can we curtail the prevalence of poverty, especially because of its disproportionate affect on women?

We need to petition our representatives and all politicians to pass bills that will ensure equality in the workplace, help women gain access to quality education, and provide nationally-funded child and elder. Equal pay means fewer women below the poverty line. More education means more high-quality, higher-paying job opportunities. Federal child and elder care means fewer home responsibilities for women and more women in the workforce, lifting themselves up and out of poverty. It means a better, more equitable America for men and women alike. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Poor Reflection On Society

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In October, my father was niftar (passed away). Sitting shiva is part of Jewish mourning rituals, where the immediate family members of the deceased sit on low stools, rip their clothes, and mourn for a week.

Another part of shiva is covering all the mirrors in the house. One reason given for this custom is so that mourners are focused on grieving and not on their appearance. Another is because it is forbidden for mirrors to be in a place of prayer, where we should focus on God and not the appearances of humyn beings. Frankly, it’s a blessing that you can’t see yourself during shiva, since you’re also to allowed to shower, shave, or do much in the way of hygiene.

To be honest, it was amazing how empowered I felt sans mirrors. I’ve read about women who have done campaigns where they avoid looking into mirrors for a specific amount of time, and I’ve even considered doing something like it, but I just found it impossible. Ignoring the mirrors that hang in my bathroom and by my bed, they’re just about everywhere in the public world. There are huge ones above the sinks in every bathroom at my school. A building I pass as I walk to and from school is made out of reflective glass. Every public bathroom has mirrors. How could I avoid these mirrors on a regular basis?

But during shiva, I didn’t have this problem. Confined to the four walls of my home with covered mirrors, I felt AMAZING. Even though I knew I looked horrible by any societal standards in my unwashed, unshaved, and greasy state, it really didn’t bother me. If I had been exposed to reflective surfaces, however, I know I would have been messing with my hair in useless attempts to make it look less limp, staring at my skin and fretting about the surfacing pimples, and generally brooding over my lackluster appearance. Without mirrors around, I wasn’t physically capable of caring about how I looked, because I couldn’t actually see how I looked. Instead of worrying about my appearance and how I was presenting myself, I could focus on shiva and the people around me so much better.

Although I appreciated my Week of No Mirrors, the shiva period has been over for a while and I’m back in the real world, again surrounded by reflective surfaces. Although my self-esteem and confidence in my appearance was never abnormally low, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a Western girl who’s completely and totally satisfied with every aspect of how she looks. I’m no exception to this rule.

It’s really a pathetic statement about our society that the only way a girl can feel good about herself is when there are no mirrors around. I know I shouldn’t generalize my own feelings as those of every other Western girl, but based on statistical and anecdotal evidence, I don’t think my own attitudes aren’t too unusual. So it’s just completely and totally messed up how obsessed we all are about how we look. Why should I care? Who am I trying to impress? And yet, I do care, and apparently am trying to impress somebody.

As much as I may dislike mirrors, they’re a reality I’ll have to face. I certainly hope my daughters and their friends will not feel as self-conscious as me and my generation, and that they do not have to grapple with looking into mirrors the way that I have.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Hierarchy of Needs

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My school does a program with a school for girls from difficult family situations in Pinsk, Belarus. Students travel to Pinsk over their winter break and hang out with the girls. Last year, I didn’t have the privilege of going, but two of my best friends did. One of them told me that they played a game with the Pinsk girls called Priorities, where they went through cards that said things like “family,” “friends,” “being skinny,” etc. and prioritized them. All of the girls put “being skinny” last. 

This really shows how cultural and situational differences really impact a person’s mindset. 85% of these girls have one parent or less; many of them can’t afford things as basic as pajama pants. The last worry on their minds is how they look.

Obviously, they live in a different world than we do, and it wouldn’t be fair to tell a middle class Western girl that she’s being ungrateful when she feels down about how she looks or her weight. I think this really gives perspective, though, and makes us grateful for all of the things that we have.

In psychology, Abraham Maslow has the pyramid of needs: physiological needs required for survival; safety needs, from physical to economic security; love and belonging needs, whether from friends, family, or a partner; esteem needs, to be valued and respected by others; then, finally, self-actualization, when the person  realizes his or her full potential and become all that he or she can possibly be. 

If we accept Maslow's pyramid of needs as true, the girls in Pinsk are stuck on the lower levels of the pyramid of needs, where Western girls have the privilege to be a little higher up. Again, I don't want to fault Western girls for having an advantage, but thinking about how much privilege we do have does put things in perspective, at least for me. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Photoshopped Standards

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Do you think the woman on these three magazine covers is the same person? Believe it or not, all three are Reese Witherspoon.

I have always love computers, but ever since I took an advanced computer graphics course in school last year, I've been addicted to Photoshop. I'm actually retaking the course again this year, it's just too much fun. I really love working in Photoshop (I can usually be found in the computer lab messing around on it) because you can do so many awesome things with pictures.

One reason Photoshop is so infamous is because it can be used is to airbrush and otherwise “improve” photographs. Before I knew how to use the program, I had always assumed that it was difficult to “fix” pictures like that. In reality, once you know how to use Photoshop, it’s not hard at all. Smoothing out skin and hiding pimples is literally done by blurring them out or clicking a few times with a specific tool. Making a person look thinner, or getting rid of any undesired part of a picture, is just done by using an eraser tool to erase parts of the body, just like in a basic paint program. Brightening teeth, hair, eyes, and other body parts is done by painting them the desired color or using a specific tool. Making skin tone a “better” shade is done by adjusting the picture’s color levels, a process that’s hard to explain but takes approximately 45 seconds.

These are just a few of many methods that magazines use to edit models’ and celebrities’ pictures. I say all this to show how the editors at all the supermarket magazines barely have to work to make a picture adhere to today’s beauty standards. In reality, the celebrities we all worship and wish that we looked like don’t really have the faces and bodies we think they do. (Have you ever noticed that celebrity babies are often not particularly cute? It’s because their parents aren’t particularly cute in real life, either.) I would estimate that 75% of it is Photoshop-induced, and the other 25% is plastic surgery, personal chef, and personal trainer.

So why should you strive to attain that impossible standard that celebrities set in magazines? It’s not real, so you’ll never be able to reach that goal. There’s no reason you should stare into a mirror for hours on end, wishing you looked more like the women you see in the tabloids. If you want to change the way you look, it’s definitely worthwhile to have concrete goals, but they have to be possible. If not, you’ll never feel happy with yourself, and doesn’t that defeat the whole point?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Strong Jewish Women: From the Bible to Holocaust

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Jael stops for a moment. As she takes a few breaths to calm down, she stares at the sleeping man on the floor of her tent. Jael cannot believe that Sisera, the Canaanite army general, the second-in-command to the king subjugating her people, chose to barge into her tent as he escaped from the war field. When he fell asleep, she realized that God gave her the opportunity to save her nation. How could she turn it down?

She breathes deeply and looks around her home, spotting a tent peg out of the corner of her eye. She quickly unties it, fingers shaking with anticipation. The tent wall flaps in the wind as she nails the peg into Sisera’s temple.

“That’s for killing my people,” she says bitterly. She feels remorse for committing murder, but reminds herself that she saved innumerable lives by ending Sisera’s, avenged thousands of Jewish deaths. The least she could do is fight back.

The Jews live in their homeland for centuries. They are exiled, their Holy Temple destroyed. They return, rebuild what was lost, and are exiled again. They spread throughout every corner of the world, strangers in strange lands, a nation that is scattered and separate. They are always persecuted for being different, punished for their beliefs. But like their biblical foremothers, they fight back.

“Wrobel, are you coming?”

Eta looks up at the speaker. Although the trees in the dense Polish woods block out all the moonlight, she can still recognize him as one of the men in her partisan unit. “Yes. Of course.”
“We’re going now. Take this shovel.” He hands her a rusty tool and leads her to where the rest of the partisans are gathered. Several men carefully hold landmines, which they will bury in enemy territory to cut off supply routes and disrupt Nazi activity.

After whispered conversation, the partisans begin to walk through the woods. They are silent; their lives depend on it. Even though it’s difficult being a partisan, Eta does not regret her decision to become one for a second. When she joined the group, she realized that God gave her the opportunity to save her nation. How could she turn it down?

When they reach their destination, the partisans stop. Silently, they begin to bury the mines. Eta digs a hole in the hard winter ground and gently places a mine inside it. She then carefully covers it with dirt, patting the soil down so it is undistinguishable from the rest of the earth. Eta repeats the process several times, until every landmine has been buried.

“That’s for killing my people,” she whispers bitterly as she finishes concealing her final mine. Eta feels remorse that lives will be taken because of her actions, but she reminds herself that the Nazis’ mission is to wipe the Jewish nation from the face of the Earth. Anything she can do to hinder their efforts is a slap in Hitler’s face, a way to avenge the millions of Jews he has murdered in cold blood. The least she can do is fight back.

Six million die, but many survive. They return to their homeland, rebuild what was lost yet again. Despite everything that was taken from them, they reestablish the decimated Jewish communities, reunite families, recreate homes and businesses. They teach the next generation what they learned the hard way: always fight back when injustice and prejudice rear their ugly heads. As Jews, it is part of our legacy. How can we forget our foremothers’ actions and stand idly by?