Friday, January 31, 2014

Blogging the JOFA Conference: Blogging for Change

This post is part of a series discussing the 2013 Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) 8th International Conference of Feminism and Orthodoxy.

For the last session of the day, I spoke on the panel Blogging for Change. My co-panelists were Sonia Isard, the Associate Editor of Lilith magazine, and Sarah Seltzer, a blogger for the Forward’s Sisterhood blog and a journalist, essayist, and fiction writer. The panel was moderated by Gabrielle Birkner, the founder and editor of the Sisterhood.

This was my debut as a panelist, and I have to admit that I was a little nervous about it. I’ve never been afraid of public speaking, but I had never presented on a panel before. I had certainly never spoken while sitting next to three women whose work I follow and respect enormously. Although I did worry about the panel in the days leading up to it, I sort of forgot to worry once I was at the conference itself. Once I sat down and we began to speak, any nerves I had suffered from flew out the window. I felt comfortable, like I was in my element. I ended up really enjoying the experience.

I was honored that so many people came to hear this panel and listen to our thoughts on the intersection of blogging and activism. I had expected all of the attendees to be 30 and under, since that tends to be the demographic that’s most involved in the blogosphere and Internet activity in general, so I was happily surprised when I saw the age range went from high school students to grandparents. The audience was really receptive; everyone was really engaged, asking a lot of questions and prodding us to think twice about our answers. We easily could have sat there answering questions for another half hour or more.

One of the questions that Birkner asked was how often we seek out women’s spaces for our work. I suppose it’s not a far-fetched question, especially since Birkner founded and runs the Sisterhood, but I thought it was interesting. Personally, I don’t usually purposely seek out gender-specific spaces for pieces I’ve written, and said as much at the panel. I consider my blog a gender-neutral space that belongs to men as equally as it belongs to women. However, I do think it’s important that women-only spaces exist, since it’s important for women to have a forum where they can express themselves without being subjected to direct patriarchal influence.

Amram Altzman, a fellow 36 Under 36er and conference presenter who blogs for New Voices, said that he found it interesting that Isard, Seltzer, and I all came to blogging in different ways. I feel like blogging is one of those professions that nobody grows up saying they want to do, and that most bloggers sort of fall into it and just enjoy the ride. Although I always knew writing was going to be a key part of my life, I certainly never thought that it would take the form of blogging, if only because such a thing didn’t exist when I was growing up.

Avigayil Halpern, a fabulous feminist blogger and tefillin wearer, told me that she enjoyed the discussion of issues-based journalism, and how all three of us made our investment in the activist side of blogging clear. The panel was titled Blogging for Change for a reason; we all consider advocacy work extremely important facets of our lives, and that comes out in our writing. I know that whenever I write a blog post, I try to add something that will translate into real world change, whether it’s encouraging readers to sign a petition or to just look at life in a different way.

Overall, I really enjoyed my panel, and am so happy that JOFA organized a panel on this subject and thought of me to participate in it. I’ve been running Star of Davida for nearly four years, and it’s validating to know that people read and appreciate my thoughts. So thank you, JOFA, for having confidence in me. Thank you, readers, for sticking with me. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Blogging the JOFA Conference: The WOW Factor: Women of the Wall

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.

After being interviewed for the Forward video about the JOFA Conference, I went to The WOW Factor: Women of the Wall. I was familiar with panelist Rabbi Jackie Koch Ellenson, the Director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network and International Vice-Chair of Rabbis for Women of the Wall, from her involvement in Lilith magazine. I had not heard of the other panelists: Cheryl Birkner Mack, a WOW board member and teacher of Judaics and English as a Foreign Language, and Rahel Jaskow, a longtime member of WOW and translator, editor, writer, and singer. The session was moderated by Rabbi David Kalb, Director of Jewish Education for the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at 92nd Street Y.

When I first entered the Jewish feminist scene, I immediately began to support WOW’s controversial prayer services at the Kotel (the Western Wall). When Anat Hoffman, WOW’s leader, was arrested in 2009 for praying with a tallit (prayer shawl) because it is traditionally only worn by men, I rallied behind WOW. I’m not sure how much I thought about the issue at hand, though; my support mostly stemmed from the desire to be in solidarity with the rest of the Jewish feminist blogosphere. Once I started thinking about it a little more, I began to feel my support for WOW waver. I strongly believe that when we participate in Jewish feminist actions, it is vital that they come from the heart and not from some misguided sense of making a statement. The more I kept up with WOW’s doings, the more I felt like WOW was going for shock value and political statements rather than a genuine desire to make the Kotel a comfortable prayer space for every Jew.

However, having heard this panel about WOW, I now realize that these women are in it to improve the Jewish people and state of Israel, not get their names in the press. They want to make the Kotel accessible and welcoming to every Jew, regardless of their denomination or past experiences with Judaism. I heartily support them in this goal.

Although I would not feel comfortable praying with tefillin (phylacteries) or a tallit, as many WOW members do, I still think that WOW’s message and aim are worthy ones. My personal attitude towards Israel is that it should be a Jewish state, not an Orthodox one. Consequently, all forms of Jewish expression should be recognized as equally legitimate, and all of the denominations should make space for each other. This should apply at the Kotel as well. Although I do not personally want to lay tefillin at the Wall, I think it’s extremely important that women are able to do so without being harassed or arrested. That’s all WOW is after: When asked about what her hopes for the future of the Kotel are, Birkner Mack responded, “respect and acceptance.”

I just came home from a ten-day trip to Israel through Birthright, and I have never more spiritual or connected to God than when I prayed at the Kotel. Touching the ancient stones and placing a note in their cracks, I became fully aware of the magnitude of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash (Temple); I have never felt such a deep yearning for it to be rebuilt. For me, it was meaningful to say Psalms and make requests in my own words. For WOW members and other women, it is meaningful to participate in Torah reading while wearing tefillin and tallit. I could not imagine taking such a powerful experience away from them.

I am so happy that I experienced this panel, because it opened my eyes to the reality of WOW. I truly hope that I make it to Israel at least one more time so I am able to pray with them.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Women, Tefillin, and the Orthodox Schism

If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably already heard that SAR and Ramaz, two New York schools that identify as Modern Orthodox, have announced that they will allow female students to lay tefillin (phylacteries) in school. This deviates from the standards of normative Orthodoxy, in which only boys lay tefillin. Since I have previously professed my own desire to lay tefillin and support for other women who do so, you probably assume I’m on SAR and Ramaz’s side. However, I’m not entirely sure what I think.

To be honest, I feel like I’m up a creek without a paddle. The Orthodox movement is undergoing a schism, and it’s mainly coming to a head around women’s status. As a feminist who allies herself with organizations like NOW and JOFA, I’m supposed to automatically champion whatever it is that seems to empower women more. However, as someone with a deep commitment to observing halakha (Jewish law) and adhering to the dictates of Orthodoxy, I cannot blindly support any issue that impacts Jewish life.

Having thought about the issue at hand, I am reluctant to support SAR and Ramaz in this venture. My hesitance at least partially stems from the fact that girls are simply not obligated in tefillin. It only makes sense for schools to encourage girls (and boys, for that matter) to first master mitzvot (commandments) they’re obligated in before taking on additional ones. For example, there’s no teacher who would tell a group of students that don’t keep kosher to keep halav yisrael, a stringency on dairy products. I’m not trying to cast aspersions on the halakhic observance of girls who lay tefillin, but as I’ve yet to meet a single person who truly follows every halakha, I highly doubt that these girls are. This is not to say that a person should never take on additional religious responsibilities; however, it seems unwise to advocate for it on a systematic level. It makes more sense for SAR and Ramaz to teach their students not to eat non-kosher dairy products than to lay tefillin.

Then again, does it hurt anyone if girls begin to lay tefillin? It is a mitzvah, and can only bring more kedusha (holiness) into the world. Nobody thinks twice about women shaking the lulav during Sukkot, although women are exempt from that mitzvah as well. Why should we question women who lay tefillin, but not those who shake lulav?

But I’m wasting my time debating the halakhic merits of women laying tefillin. This isn’t about tefillin or halakha. It’s about drawing lines in the sand. By making this decision and publicizing it, SAR and Ramaz are making statements about where they stand, religiously and denominationally. I’ve already seen people on the Internet accuse them of leaving the realm of Orthodoxy and venturing into the Conservative movement; others are holding that as Modern Orthodox schools, SAR and Ramaz are legitimizing girls laying tefillin as permissible by Orthodox standards. I would be a fool to claim that I know which side is correct. Only time can tell whether girls laying tefillin becomes part of Modern Orthodoxy or not.

Regardless of what happens in the long-term, I live in the present, so I have to decide whether I want to identify as part of the left or right wings of Orthodoxy. I’ve been straddling the two sides for what feels like a lifetime, and it’s getting increasingly difficult to do. Should I participate in the right-wing backlash against SAR and Ramaz, or should I applaud the schools for their progressive outlook? Do I go Modern or right-wing? I have to choose, but I don’t know where to turn. No matter which side I opt to identify with, I have to accept a lot of stuff that I don’t agree with or want to live with. I know that there is a small middle ground that still exists, but it frustrates me that the left and right wings seem to be swelling in comparison.

At the end of the day, my attitude is live and let live. I won’t lay tefillin, but I will shake lulav, because that’s how I was raised and how I feel comfortable practicing Judaism and connecting to God. I truly hope that girls who lay tefillin are able to connect to tefillot (prayers) in a deeper, more meaningful way because of it. I just wish that a person’s support of girls wearing tefillin was not a denominational marker.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Blogging the JOFA Conference: 'Slut!' The Shame Effect

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.

‘Slut!’: The Shame Effect was probably my favorite session at the whole conference. The panel included Leora Tanenbaum, feminist lecturer and author of Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation; Rachel Hercman, a psychotherapist specializing in sexual health, dating, and relationships; and Laila Goodman, the Dean of Students at Gann Academy, a pluralistic Jewish school. The session was moderated by Dasi Fruchter, a student at Yeshivat Maharat. I was attracted to this session because of Leora Tanenbaum, whose book is famed in the secular feminist sphere, but I ended up finding each speaker very perceptive and interesting.

I personally have never been called a slut, nor have I ever felt like a victim of slut-shaming. I think this is because I attended a right-wing Orthodox all-girls high school for the past four years. The word slut was considered a bad word, tantamount to bitch, by the vast majority of girls in my school; very few would have even dreamed of using it in direct reference to another person. As I was always careful to follow the school dress code, even when it diverged from my own interpretation of tzniut, I was never criticized for my mode of dress. The only time I was exposed to potential slut-shaming was in collective settings, when faculty would address the school at large about the import of following tzniut; however, I never felt like these speeches contained slut-shaming. The only exception was after the Fogel family zt”l was murdered by terrorists, when my principal told the school that such tragedies would not occur if our skirts were longer. (She was fired later that year.)

Although I’ve never really felt slut-shamed, I know that many girls my age, particularly those at Orthodox schools that have dress codes based off tzniut (ritual modesty), complain bitterly about it. Goodman discussed how she, as a school administrator, has to deal with the fine line between disciplining and slut-shaming girls for dress code infractions. I appreciate the difficulty of her situation; she has to enforce school rules, but she doesn’t want to make her students feel bad about themselves.

I lack pity for students who break dress code (would you expect me to sympathize with students who break any other school rule?), but I strongly believe that faculty members have no right to call girls out in a way that makes them feel slut-shamed or religiously inferior. There’s a way to tell a girl (or boy, for that matter) that her outfit isn’t appropriate for school, and tzniut should not be dragged into it.

Hercman is probably not surprised that tzniut and slut-shaming are linked issues in Orthodox schools, as she discussed how slut-shaming in the Orthodox community primarily revolves around tzniut and shomer negiah (the prohibition of touching members of the opposite sex). I found Hercman particularly insightful. She touched on the idea that the community’s overemphasis on tzniut reduces women into bodies, and makes tzniut the most important halakha (Jewish law) for women. “The message is that women have to wear their religion and not necessarily have any internal religion,” she said.

Goodman and Hercman both focused on slut-shaming within the Jewish and Orthodox communities, and Tanenbaum discussed the issue on a broader level. Everything she said was eye-opening, but what intrigued me most was the new phenomenon of girls and women who embrace the label of slut in order to “assert a positive or defiant attitude about their sexuality” and try to own the identity.

I have never thought that reclaiming negative terms is a good idea, so I’ve always opposed using sexist epithets like slut and bitch in a positive way. Tanenbaum and I are of the same mind, believing that “whether bashing, shaming, or reclaiming, calling a girl or woman slut reinforces sexist norms…[and] perpetuates the rape culture.” To quote the cult classic Mean Girls, “You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores! It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores!” Even if a girl or woman feels that the word empowers them, on a large scale, it has a terrible effect on the social status of females, and should not be used.

Slut-shaming may not be an issue that I’ve struggled with, but I still think it’s extremely important for the feminist community to make society aware of the unacceptability of the term. Words carry unspeakable importance; from when we’re young, we’re taught that the ones we use can make others hurt or heal. It is imperative that we take what Goodman, Hercman, and Tanenbaum said about their experiences with slut-shaming and turn it into social change. For ourselves. For our daughters. For a better, more equitable, society.

I’m going to be traveling to Israel on Birthright for the next couple weeks, so I won’t be blogging for a while. See you soon!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Blogging the JOFA Conference: Mirror Image: Eating Disorders in the Orthodox Community

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.

For the second session of the day, I went to Mirror Image: Eating Disorders in the Orthodox Community. Speaking on this panel were Dr. Esther Altmann, a specialist on eating disorders within the Jewish community, and Professor Yael Latzer, the founder of the Eating Disorders Clinic of Rambam Medical Center in Haifa.

I was particularly interested in this session because several of friends have struggled with eating disorders. Consequently, even though I have never personally dealt with one, this is an issue near and dear to my heart. I also think it’s important for the sake of women’s welfare at large, as eating disorders are a symptom of a culture that values women’s bodies more than their contributions to the world. It’s a shonda, a shame, an embarrassment, that our society allows them to continue.

When she started off the session, Altmann asked the audience, “Why are eating disorders and religion juxtaposed?” She pointed out that Jews suffer from various mental issues, but only eating disorders are linked to Jewish religion or culture. I’ve pondered this relationship as well, having written an article for The Beacon (also posted on my blog) debunking the idea that halakhot (Jewish laws) like keeping kosher have a direct impact on the development of eating disorders. Obviously, it’s basically impossible to come to any hard and fast conclusions about this issue, as studies disagree if Jewish or Orthodox girls are more likely to have eating disorders than the general public. I do think that it’s important for us to get a better idea of the situation, since we need to understand the reasons behind eating disorders in order to change the culture to benefit women and girls.

However, some culture change can occur without extensive background knowledge of the Jewish community. Altmann emphasized how much of a difference can be made if we just reevaluate our speech patterns and behaviors in regard to eating, dieting, and weight. I never thought about how triggering it could be for someone with an eating disorder to be told by an unwitting friend how great she looks because of her weight loss, or how toxic it is for children to see their mothers constantly dieting and feeling bad about themselves because of weight. The media sends enough negative messages; we don’t need to hear it from the people in our lives as well.

Now that I see the light, I am actively trying to avoid making weight- or dieting-related jokes or comments. However, it’s hard when I hear other people saying things that contribute to the tyranny of slenderness that our culture perpetuates. The Shabbat (Sabbath) after the JOFA conference, I was in a conversation with a woman in her 20s who is looking to get married, and she was bitterly complaining about how much she weighs. I didn’t know how to respond; do I assure her she is thin, or will that just prompt her to continue to put herself down in order to get positive reinforcement? Do I encourage her to view herself as beautiful and disregard societal standards for weight and thinness? It’s a slippery slope, and I don’t know if there’s one response that will work in every situation.

Although both Altmann and Latzer were interesting to hear, arguably the most powerful part of the session was the Q&A session. It was clear that both presenters’ words hit a chord with many of the people in the audience, as many asked their questions in tears, sharing personal stories about their loved ones’ experiences with eating disorders.

It was rather discouraging to hear Altmann say that “the problem [of eating disorders in the Jewish/Orthodox community] hasn’t gotten much better,” but I cling to the hope that the situation will improve, slowly but surely, in the years to come. There is so much more awareness of the issue nowadays, and that awareness is spreading. Although I doubt that my generation will ever be able to benefit from a cultural body-positive revolution, I pray that future women and men will.