Thursday, September 11, 2014

Jewish Feminist Preschool Education: My Experiences

If we want to create a society that values equality, it’s imperative that we teach feminist values to children from an early age. Although I have no interest in going into education, I volunteered at the kids’ group at my shul (synagogue) every week on Shabbat (Sabbath) throughout middle and high school. Once I started becoming knowledgeable about feminism in the summer before ninth grade, I began to examine the group’s feminist values and instill them where I felt they were lacking.

Created and run by the rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) for over thirty years, the group gives kids aged six and under an introduction to Shabbat and Jewish songs as well as tefillot (prayers). My shul is Orthodox, but few congregants are observant, so this service serves the dual purpose of educating children as well as their parents. Although people at my synagogue tend to be more liberal, the rebbetzin is very traditionally minded, to the point that she once told me point-blank that a woman’s place is in the home. Despite this rather conservative mindset, I believe that she developed a relatively feminist-friendly kids’ Shabbat program.

The only part of the group that really bothers me is when we sing the song “Hashem is Here.” The song teaches children that God is everywhere, enumerating all the different directions where God is and then stating “that’s where He can be found.” When the rebbetzin isn’t there and I have to lead the group, I usually substitute “Hashem” for the “He,” since using gendered terms for God deeply troubles me. When the rebbetzin is around and I have to sing “He,” I feel bad that I’m reinforcing God as male in these impressionable children’s minds.

To my mind, his us really the only issue. The rebbetzin always encourages all of the kids, regardless of gender, to lead the group in singing songs and saying brakhot (blessings). She herself models the viability of women’s leadership, and encourages the group’s helpers (who are usually women) to do so as well.

I know that some feminist-minded young people who work at kids’ Shabbat groups feel frustrated that they have to teach children different brakhot for boys and girls. In my shul’s group, the rebbetzin glosses over the problem pretty well. When I attended the group as a child, I always thought her methodology was fair: the boys got to say a brakha over their tzitzit (ritual fringes), and then the girls got to say a brakha that was billed as thanking God for making them female. The rebbetzin frames these brakhot as equal, making both boys and girls feel pride in their special brakha. I believe this is the most feminist way possible to include sex-specific brakhot and thereby adhere to normative Orthodox liturgy.

Yes, I am aware that this arrangement is still very flawed. I know that a brakha determined by sex is insensitive towards transpeople, the brakha that the girls say can still be construed as offensive to women, and that many would be horrified that only boys are encouraged to wear tzitzit*. One could say that it would be easier to just skip over these brakhot entirely, particularly because many other prayers are left unsaid in this abridged, child-centered service. I don’t necessarily disagree; however, these brakhot are part of traditional morning prayers, and the rebbetzin wants the children to learn them. If they have to be included at all, I believe that my rebbetzin unwittingly integrated them in the most feminist-friendly way possible.

I’ve previously written about theinfamous pink Torah, and how gendered the desire to hold the sole pink Torah is. When I was volunteering at the group, it was nearly impossible to navigate the politics of which girl could get the pink Torah when. However, while I was home this summer and helping out at the group, I noticed that there was less interest in the pink Torah. I don’t really have a hypothesis for why it’s gone down in popularity; perhaps this crop of girls is just less invested in the color pink, or maybe the rebbetzin put her foot down one Shabbat when I was away. Can I dare to hope that the media is not inundating girls with an obsession with pink anymore? Whatever the case, I’m happy that there are no longer tears being shed over something as inane as a pink Torah.

Pink Torahs and gendered language aside, I really do think that the children’s program at my shul gives kids a relatively feminist introduction to Jewish prayers. Education, especially in the early years, is so vital. If we want to raise a generation of feminists, we need to educate them as such, starting right now.

*A few years ago, there was a girl who wanted to wear tzitzit. Interestingly, it was the very Modern mother who wouldn’t allow for it, and the rebbetzin who didn’t particularly care. The mother told me that the way she got her daughter to stop was by saying that nail polish is for girls and tzitzit is for boys, so she could only have one or the other. The girl chose the nail polish and that was the end of the matter. 

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