An unspoken dream is like an unopened letter

Many years ago when I was newly married, I woke up from a nightmare. I don’t get nightmares often, but when I do, they stay with me for a time, haunting my waking thoughts as I search to make sense of the frightening visions. I woke that night in a confusion between dream and reality, with tears streaming onto my pillowcase and barely concealed snuffles and sobs, trying not to wake my husband without success.

He asked me what was wrong, and I began to tell him about my dream, thinking that putting it into words outside of my dreamscape would take away the power of the disturbing alternate universe from which I had so recently emerged.

As I began to delve into the details, my husband stopped me.  “No!  Don’t tell me.  An unspoken dream is like an unopened letter.  If you don’t say it out loud, it won’t come true.” Apparently this was an adage that many in the frum community live by, and are deeply superstitious about.  Indeed, he seemed nervous at the prospect that I might say too much, thus bringing ill tidings upon us.  He spent time soothing and reassuring me that it was just a dream and everything was fine, until my little crying hiccups subsided and my eyes no longer ran in salty rivulets down my cheeks.

As I turned over on my damp pillow and heard my husband begin to softly snore, I lay awake and thought again about my nightmare.  I felt unsettled and restless, but I repeated the mantra to myself that it was only a dream.  Eventually I drifted off to sleep.  While the dream continued to haunt me for a few days afterward, not putting it into words eventually helped to eradicate it from my memory, as I have no recollection about the details today.  I have since kept my nightmares to myself, to the same amnesic effect.

It’s interesting to note that the idea of not speaking of dreams, lest they come to pass in real life, is typically only brought up when referring to bad dreams.  Nightmares are the visions that must be kept at bay, by not infusing them with the power of words.

I believe it’s this same theory that prevents us from speaking of real life horrors.  If we don’t name the atrocities, they don’t exist.  Except they do – much in the same way my nightmare affected me in a very real way – even though it remained unrevealed.  Even though I don’t remember the details, I still remember my fear and panic as I woke from that bad dream and struggled to put it into context.  I know the nightmare happened, I remember the trauma, whether I spoke of it or not.

There are some brave people in our world who dare to reveal what we all want to remain hidden.  They refuse to leave the nightmare unspoken, because if these nightmares are allowed to exist in the name of keeping unpleasantries out of the public eye, they grow and flourish like a cancer.  Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is one such champion who refuses to remain silent, if he can save even one child from being harmed by those things that go bump in the night, or even in broad daylight, while the rest of us “keep it sweet” and stay quiet because, “loshon horah,” because, “think of his/her (the abuser’s) family, because, “there are two sides to every story,” because, “it’s embarrassing to talk about such topics,” or because, “it will make a chillul Hashem for the rest of the world to hear of this happening in the Jewish community.”

Yes, especially when it comes to child sexual abuse, there are so many reasons to remain silent, yet that silence is mostly self-serving.  It alleviates us from the responsibility of getting involved.  We tell ourselves the rabbis will handle it, the parents will handle it, maybe even the police (if they are notified) will handle it.  It’s not for us to mish in (butt into someone else’s business).  Yet when all of us have that attitude, it leaves no one to mish in.

Rabbi Horowitz is the perfect example of why a person shouldn’t mish in, after all, look where his mishing in got him? A defamation lawsuit and failed attempt at an order of protection filed against him in the Israeli courts from U.S. convicted Level 3 sex offender, Yona Weinberg!  The lawsuit remains pending.

It all began when Rabbi Horowitz, founder and director of the Center for Jewish Family Life/Project Y.E.S. and founder and dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam of Monsey, discovered Weinberg had moved to the Har Nof area in Jerusalem, and sent out tweets to warn residents of his presence.  Ever since those fateful tweets, Rabbi Horowitz, a child safety advocate who speaks internationally educating parents and children on protecting themselves against predators, has been the subject of a legal campaign by Weinberg to silence him against warning residents of his Har Nof community about his criminal past.

Ironically, the media attention brought on by Weinberg’s own legal campaign has called more attention to his current whereabouts and criminal past than a few tweets ever could.

Rabbi Horowitz recently spoke in Har Nof about child safety, an event that was almost derailed by Weinberg’s attempt to get an order of protection against Horowitz, unsuccessfully arguing that Horowitz would incite community violence against him and his family. Hours after successfully fighting the petition for a restraining order in Israeli court, Rabbi Horowitz was able to give his seminar to an audience of 200 as planned, despite Weinberg’s legal effort to prevent him from coming to his neighborhood.  His speech from August 2 in Har Nof can be seen here.

Lohud featured a timeline of Yona Weinberg’s crimes and whereabouts, giving more background and justification for why Rabbi Horowitz would want the citizens of Har Nof to be aware of Weinberg’s presence –

June 2008: Brooklyn district attorney indicts Yona Weinberg, a 29-year-old licensed social worker and bar mitzvah tutor, on numerous charges including nine misdemeanor counts of second-degree sexual abuse and six of child endangerment.

June 2009:  Weinberg convicted of nine counts for victimizing two boys — seven counts of second-degree sexual abuse and two of child endangerment.

September 2009: Weinberg sentenced to 13 months in jail. At his sentencing, Judge J. Reichbach criticizes the Orthodox Jewish community for supporting Weinberg, noting 90 letters were sent attesting to his character and innocence — and mentioning nothing about the victims.

2010: Weinberg released from jail after serving roughly a year. He returns to his Brooklyn home, where he lives with his wife and young children. Weinberg is designated a Level 3 sex offender (high risk of repeat offense and threat to public safety).

June 2014: Police investigate a complaint Weinberg allegedly groped an 11-year-old boy after they were watching television in Weinberg’s apartment earlier that year. Prosecutors declined to bring charges, according to the Daily News.

August 2014: Weinberg allegedly elbows and slams the same 11-year-old against a coat rack in synagogue after prayer service, hurting the boy’s back. The boy told police that Weinberg pushed him against a bookshelf, threatening further harm if he continued to talk to authorities, the Daily News reported.

September 2014: Police file report about the alleged physical assault. The next day, police go to Weinberg’s Flatbush home to arrest him, according to the Daily News. His wife told police he was not home and referred them to his attorney. Weinberg moves to Israel. Shortly after, his wife and four children join him in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof.

January 2015: News of Weinberg’s presence in Israel appears in the Daily News. After the story, the NYPD notifies the state that Weinberg had moved to Israel. Rabbi Yakov Horowitz of Monsey, child-safety advocate, sends out a tweet to notify Har Nof residents of the presence of a Level 3 sex offender in their community. Tweet says he was as dangerous to children as “a terrorist with a machete.”

June 2015: Horowitz is served papers at his Monsey home, informing him that a summary judgement was issued against him for $55,000 in an Israeli court, stemming from a defamation lawsuit. Horowitz didn’t show up in court, he said, because he didn’t realize he was being sued.

Later that year: Horowitz’s attorney in Israel has judgment set aside. Horowitz is still required to pay some court costs.

July 2016: Weinberg seeks protective order against Horowitz, which would prevent the rabbi from giving a lecture on child safety in his neighborhood, where the rabbi has been lecturing for 13 years. The court denies the request.

November 2016: Trial date scheduled in Israel for defamation charges. Horowitz says he will appear in court to defend himself.”

Horowitz said that he will not be silenced by a bullying sex offender.

“I think this is a test case…,” he told The Journal News/lohud. “I am not giving up.”

Israel does not have a sex offender registry, and as such, some child abuse activists such as Horowitz take it upon themselves to warn residents of predators in their vicinity. “How can you slander a sex offender?” asked Horowitz..”

“Horowitz told The Journal News/lohud that he won’t be intimidated by Weinberg, who used his position as a bar mitzvah tutor to gain access to his victims, who were 12 and 13.

He also sees the fight as part of a larger effort designed to thwart others from exposing sex offenders and warning potential victims of the danger. The Israeli legal maneuverings are key to this tactic, he said…”

“If you care about the personal safety of children, these lawsuits should trouble you deeply. For, make no mistake, if these outrageous lawsuits are permitted to continue, fewer and fewer people will be posting warnings when convicted sex offenders move near you or those you love,” he wrote on his blog,

“Horowitz, who faces thousands of dollars in legal fees, in addition to the threat of a judgement against him, pledged to continue his defense in order to protect families who have a right to know a predator is in their midst….I will fight to the end,” he said.”

I asked Rabbi Horowitz how those of us who also feel this lawsuit is an outrageous and dangerous precedent can financially help him.  He said that the best way to help him is by donating to his efforts to distribute complimentary copies of his Project Y.E.S  Let’s Stay Safe books and give seminars to communities who want to learn how to protect their children from abuse.  The Let’s Stay Safe book has been translated into several languages and been culturally appropriated for various Jewish communities in Israel and the diaspora. Many of these communities are impoverished and so he gives his books away to them for free with no compensation for even basic costs.

Mishing in comes at a price, and it’s a price most of us aren’t willing to pay.  Thank God for those who mish in. Thank God for those who wake and tell what they saw, for those are the ones who will save lives, save worlds.  We can no longer afford to be dreamers, dreaming that if we don’t acknowledge the nightmares, they don’t exist.

Let’s assist Rabbi Horowitz in his important work so that he can continue to share his message to communities around the world.


What rabbinical yeshivas can learn from a Catholic seminary

Dr Dawn TwitterThe other week I read an article in The Chicago Tribune profiling Dawn Eden Goldstein. Dr. Goldstein is the first woman at the University of St. Mary of the Lake to earn a sacred theology doctorate, a pontifical degree issued under the authority of the Catholic Church.

In a class of 220 men studying to be priests, Goldstein is also the only woman who ever earned this degree at St. Mary since the school’s founding in 1844.  While she won’t be ordained as a priest along with her classmates, per the Catholic Church’s prohibition on women becoming priests, she is now qualified to train future priests.

St. Mary is a co-ed theological school where most students are men.  The Tribune article says, “She is earning the degree, issued by the authority of Pope Francis, at the same time Francis is pushing to raise the profile of women in the Catholic Church, most recently in his 260-page apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” in which he praised some aspects of women’s liberation, though he did not go so far as to say women should be priests.

The article peaked my interest because of Goldstein’s last name.  Of course, many non-Jewish people bear Jewish last names long after any actual Jews remain in their families. Still, here was a trail blazing woman, pulling off a feat in a parallel Catholic realm, that no Orthodox Jewish woman has been able to accomplish as of yet – graduate from a men’s rabbinical college.

As I read through the article, I learned that, indeed, Goldstein had started out in life as a Jew.  Growing up in New Jersey, her family was very active in the Reform movement.  The Tribune writes, “Goldstein became an agnostic in 1981 after a rabbi preparing her for her bat mitzvah told her questions about her Torah portion belonged to scholars, not 13-year-old girls.

However, here is where Goldstein’s story takes a sad turn.  The article goes on to explain that even before her bat mitzvah, her faith had already begun to fray, “At age 5, during her parents’ divorce, she accused a staff member at the synagogue of sexually abusing her — an allegation the rabbi did not believe at the time, and one Goldstein did not pursue. Goldstein said she was abused a second time years later by someone close to her mother, leaving emotional wounds that one day would direct her calling.

After pursuing other interests for many years, including earning a degree in communications, music journalism, blogging about pro-life issues, and being baptized at a Seventh-day Adventist church, Goldstein finally found her home with the Catholic faith in 2006.  She enrolled in a master’s theology program at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C..  However, a priest saw more potential in her and urged her to change her plans and enroll in the St. Mary’s doctorate program.

As Goldstein focused on her studies, she also began writing about societal issues within the Catholic faith.  The Tribune writes, “In 2012, she wrote “My Peace I Give You,” a book about how the lives of the saints could offer hope for abuse victims. As a Catholic, it disturbed her how defensive the church had become regarding the sexual abuse crisis…It’s not enough for the church to simply be in damage control mode,” she said. “We’re not serving our mission as a church if we’re not providing spiritual accompaniment to people who are hurting.

Goldstein is part of a new wave of female scholars helping to build the future of the Catholic Church.  Pope Francis is opening the doors for female theologians to take leadership roles that don’t violate church doctrine.  The Tribune states, “In his most recent papal document, he stated that women could and should help prepare men for the priesthood.

Goldstein says that Pope Francis’ position “…shows a respect for what women have to offer the church, without crossing the line into women’s ordination, which she thinks would be heresy. There have been a number of female theologians that have shown it is possible to be a woman in theology writing on topics of importance to women, yet to not to take this subversive kind of view.

Interestingly, Goldstein’s sister also chose a religious vocation, and is a Reform rabbi in Cincinnati.  “Goldstein’s sister, Jennifer Goldstein Lewis…thinks her sister will be a powerful force in the church and the formation of its clergy.  She is such a thinker,” Lewis said. “She’s going to be a unique voice as she teaches these new priests.

So, what can rabbinical yeshivas learn from this Catholic seminary?  Mainly, that keeping scholars and educators apart on the basis of their gender doesn’t make sense.  For example, I have often heard religiously educated men expounding on the fact that learned women have so much more in-depth knowledge of Navi.  Why not share some of that knowledge with aspiring rabbis?

Furthermore, there are other areas in which women can assist in teaching new rabbis that are even more important than learning religious texts.  Rabbis today aren’t only expected to be experts in gemara.  Yes, gemara might be the bread and butter, so to speak.  However, rabbis today are expected to be social workers, psychologists, fund raisers, mediators, communicators, orators, writers, and a host of other professions all rolled into one.

For example, IT workers today are in high demand for their “hard skills.”  Their programming knowledge is the first requirement to get them an interview.  However, just as important, if not more so, are their “soft skills.”  These kinds of skills can’t be quickly discerned nor quantified.  Do they work well with others?  Are they good problem solvers?  Are they patient and compassionate?  Are they adaptable to change?

In most cases, when a good rabbi gets bad press, it is not because of a deficiency in his gemara kup, but because he is lacking in one or more of those “soft skill” areas.

Of course, men can teach soft skills too. The obvious hole in many rabbinical curriculums these days is the total focus on gemara and lack of preparation to be immersed in the land of the laypeople – people of every gender and age who will seek a connection to their spiritual leader who, up until graduation, spent his days only among immediate family and fellow students and teachers in the beis medrash.

However, Orthodox Jewish women (having either a more advanced secular education, or at least an equal secular education to men depending on the community) have the skills and perspective necessary to educate future rabbinic leaders on a wide variety of subjects that will better prepare them to be 21st century Jewish leaders – not the least of which is to relate to women as teachers, experts, and authority figures (something that most Orthodox boys past elementary school and sometimes earlier don’t have experience with).

Additionally, women would have an opportunity to connect to future rabbinic leaders as advocates for women and children.  How would the rabbinic response to sexual abuse or domestic violence change for the better if women ran workshops that brought in abuse victims, representatives from women’s shelters, or therapists who specialize in treating rape survivors?  Sharing a female perspective directly, instead of indirectly, can have a deeper impact than hearing it second hand from another man.

Incorporating women into the smicha educational landscape, both as scholars and teachers, can go a long way in creating leadership that not only welcomes women’s input into how the future of Orthodox Judaism will develop, but also will create a leadership that considers women’s participation in rabbinic education essential to the process.  Once men realize how much women have to offer in helping to shape the educational curriculum of aspiring rabbis, as well as realizing that when educated women are shut out, they are at risk of seeking other alternatives (such as Goldstein did), they might realize that bringing women into the fold of rabbinic education has been the answer to Orthodox Jewish continuity all along.

Is the Orthodox community suffering from compassion fatigue?

compassionThis is something I’ve been wondering about for a while. The first time I heard about an incidence of child abuse in my community was over twenty years ago. Being an idealistic newbie to the Orthodox neighborhood, I was absolutely shocked to hear allegations (for abuse committed many years back) against a seemingly gentle old man. Apparently, this man (now deceased) had caused untold harm to young children back in his younger days, but was never held accountable for his actions.

Moving forward, the internet provided an underground grapevine of whisperings that before passed between families through word of mouth, but now passes through online bulletin boards, blogs, Facebook, and phone apps. Social media gives people the opportunity to openly share accusations to the world either under their own name or a pseudonym.

Even if the accused is never charged with a crime (often they are not), exposing the alleged perpetrator is one way for victims or their supporters to get some form of justice and also put out a warning to others who might encounter the individual in question. The global nature of the internet also means that someone who commits a crime in one part of the world, and tries to flee to another part of the world, can’t escape their notoriety by changing locations.

As online participation grew in the Orthodox community, so did websites and online publications devoted to unearthing maggots who committed heinous crimes under the guise of piety and under the protection of powerful leaders who felt that protecting the community’s reputation trumped getting justice for those irreversibly injured by human fly larvae sporting kippahs or wigs.

In the beginning, when online allegations would be published, there were mixed reactions. Some people were outraged that good people, who had never been charged with a crime, were being slandered. Other people were outraged that the accused escaped justice and the victim left to rot in the depths of the trauma they endured. Cases that were reported to police and received wider news coverage divided the camps within the community even more. Offline rallies were organized in some instances; those in Camp A railing against abuse being covered up and allowed to continue, those in Camp B defiantly defending the accused, speaking out against the victim, and organizing fundraisers to pay the accused’s legal expenses.

The comments on abuse articles on some popular Jewish blogs sometimes outnumbered the comment sections of major newspapers. Vicious fights took place between opposing sides, and sometimes even more poignant insights to the frum world could be found in the comment sections than in the original post.

The complex reactions that people have to finding out that they have been betrayed by someone inside their “circle of trust” is mind boggling. For some the revelation is met by determined denial and defense of the construct they’ve always believed in. For others, the news is met by distrust and rejection of the entire system. Still others will take a more pragmatic view of individual situations, and blame the perpetrator, but not necessarily the leadership that allowed the person to continue living among the community, perhaps under supervision. Pragmatists will allow that there is room to acknowledge that the high rate of recidivism among sex offenders wasn’t fully understood by those of us without a background in criminal psychology, and that the leadership did their best with the information they had.

Today, 10-15 years out from the early days of social media sharing, the lurid stories sometimes pour out at a dizzying pace. Additionally, in a positive move forward, abuse survivors are stepping forward and speaking directly to the public in their own voice, defying those who would dare tell them to hide in the shadows and deny their own truth. Conferences with panels of abuse experts and testimonials from survivors attract generous audiences, and are usually captured on video for wider viewing. There is now an open public dialog in the Orthodox community about child sexual abuse and sexual abuse in general. The next phase, which is happening in some progressive Jewish day schools, is classroom education geared for children to speak to them about abuse in language they can understand.

This new openness is a good thing, as victims now have a better chance to be seen as the wronged party and treated accordingly. The shame factor for survivors has diminished significantly with public discourse, although, I will say that many of the victim testimonies I have listened to online are from those who are safely married and no longer in danger of not finding a marriage partner due to their activism. It still takes an extra dose of courage to come forward as a single person and share a sexual abuse story with the world.

However, I have to wonder, as with any tragedy reported in the news that at first is shocking, but becomes just another headline to skip over after the thousandth report on the topic, are we suffering from compassion fatigue? Compassion fatigue is lessening of compassion over time due to constant exposure to traumatic situations. Health care professionals, first responders, family members caring for seriously ill loved ones, and others, report feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, fatigue, and other negative symptoms due to burn out. There are those who have suggested that our constant exposure to shocking news items has dulled the emotions and expected compassionate response of readers. It’s all too much.

These musings came shortly before the announcement that Shmarya Rosenberg is leaving his Failed Messiah blog after 12 years. Failed Messiah was a blog of guilty interest that probably prompted more Rosh Hashanah resolutions before Yom Kippur (in the coming new year, I will give up….reading Failed Messiah) for Jews, than the number of Catholics who give up candy for Lent before Easter.

Love it or hate it, Failed Messiah was one of the first blogs to openly publicize accusations of child abuse, the whereabouts of accused molesters who had evaded justice, and the identities of those who assisted such perpetrators. Whether he left his blog to pursue other interests, for financial gain, or simply because of burnout is something only he knows. However, there is still work to be done. Protecting our children from predators and spreading awareness only works as a relay race. Child abuse activists often burn bright and burn fast, so being able to pass the baton to others is imperative. It will be interesting to see if new faces will step up to fill the void.

Is this seat taken?

In 2014, the RCA formed a committee to review its conversion processes in the wake of the Freundel scandal. The panel was comprised of 6 men and 5 women, with two of the women being converts. When the committee’s 22 page report to improve the RCA’s Geirus Protocol Standards came out this summer, The Jewish Week quoted RCA executive vice president Rabbi Mark Dratch as saying that the report marked the beginning of a new era –

“This is the first time the stakeholders themselves are deeply involved in the process,” he said, referring to the converts on the committee as well as the 835 Jews by choice and conversion candidates who were surveyed. “We learned the most from looking at this through their eyes.””

What in the heck happened between July and November?

Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

New era!

New era who?

New era is nowhere-a to be found when it comes to recognizing women in clergy positions by the RCA.

Just when we thought modern orthodox rabbis were ready to give female stakeholders a seat at the table in shaping future policies, we have been told there are none available for those with an XX chromosome.

Not having women involved in their decision-making process to ban women from any position or title resembling that of a rabbi was neither modern nor orthodox. In fact, people are coming forward with stories from the ultra-orthodox camps discussing the esteemed spiritual leadership roles women have in some right wing communities, functioning in almost every way as rabbis, except without the title.

Current Maharat student and blogger, Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez, succinctly introduced herself in her blog post, My Maharat Life

“….I am passionate about working in diverse Jewish communities and in helping people engage their Judaism. I am an Orthodox Jew (without any modifiers). I am no less an Orthodox woman or a Jewish communal leader because of my desire to combine them.

I cannot speak for any of my colleagues at Yeshivat Maharat, or any other institution training Orthodox women for leadership positions. I can only speak for myself. And for me, being at Yeshivat Maharat makes it possible to live my dreams while also being true to who I am.

This is my Maharat life.

I heard my call and I am here. Hineni.”

Why wasn’t a person like Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez contacted for input? Even if women don’t have an official vote at the RCA table, isn’t the future role of women within modern orthodoxy worth at least as much time and effort spent on the Geirus Protocol Standards?

Shouldn’t there have been a committee made up of say, 6 men and 5 women, two of the women being Maharats, to give their perspectives? Shouldn’t at least 835 Jewish women who belong to modern orthodox synagogues led by RCA rabbis have been surveyed for their opinions?  Shouldn’t the process have resulted in an extensive report of at least 22 pages?

I think many of us are waiting for a time when there can be direct communication between rabbis making communal policies and the stakeholders those policies affect.  There seems to be a caricature in place of the feminist as a smug, man-hating, self-important, pompous, yet ignorant woman.  If women currently employed as orthodox clergy, studying to receive a form of ordination, or women who simply believe that their sisters should be allowed to achieve their potential would have the ability to speak directly with rabbinic decision makers, the stereotypes would fall away.

Face to face, people are just people, each as individual as their own fingerprints. With direct communication, the fear that leads to derision, dismissal, or even hatred has a chance to disintegrate.  Both sides can work together to forge a path that can take everyone where they want to go with the common goal of staying true to themselves and to the halachic blueprint provided by the Torah.

That will truly be the mark of a new era.

HarediFem – The Rise of the Challah Bake

One might think that while modern orthodox feminists are fighting for the right to don tefillin and tallisim, pray with a Torah at the Kotel, come up with creative solutions to free agunot, or receive smicha equivalency degrees, women from right wing orthodox sectors are shaking their heads and refusing to participate in progress.

On the contrary, American haredi women find themselves in an unusual position these days. At levels surpassing modern orthodox women, haredi women are now socialized to be the sole or primary breadwinners of their households. Young haredi men are expected to learn full time in kollel until either parental support dries up or their own dwindling resources demand that they look for work. Young women, on the other hand, are encouraged to get an education and find a profession that will support a growing family, indefinitely if possible.

In other words, haredi women control the purse strings in a way that even most modern orthodox women don’t. For the most part, both spouses in modern orthodox homes are college educated. In keeping with overall American statistics, most women make less money than men, especially when taking into consideration that many modern orthodox women gravitate toward traditionally female dominated professions that typically pay less money (teaching, social work, nursing, speech therapy, physical therapy, etc).

In the haredi world, similar career paths mean that even though women are often the primary bread winners (perhaps with heavy subsidization from parents), they still aren’t making big bucks. Even so, one of the complaints feminists had in the 1970s was the financial chains that husbands use to control wives in marriage. If that’s the case, it would seem logical that same would work in reverse. If women control the cash flow and the allocation of funds, wouldn’t that give them control over their husbands? Additionally, if a large source of communal tzedaka money is coming from households where women are the earners, wouldn’t that give women greater control within the community at large? Doesn’t money talk?

In my mind, I can picture teachers of older girls exhorting them not to hold their financial advantage over their future husbands. Everything they earn is for the family and it’s only through Hashem’s kindness that they have the ability to earn salaries, a privilege that can be taken away at any moment if a wife becomes haughty, stingy, or controlling concerning her paycheck. Additionally, the true provider will always be her husband, because it is only in the merit of his learning that she even has a job and can bring home a salary. So, even though she is the one who works, her husband is still the main breadwinner.

However, it would be nearly impossible for haredi women to go to college, work at internships, and enter the workforce without having some exposure to feminist ideas. A common response to feminist concepts seems to be derision; a derision that stems from defensiveness. After all, if you look at some of the main objections feminism has regarding male dominated cultures, fundamentalist religion carries all the markers of perceived misogyny, including orthodox Judaism. For orthodox women who never thought of themselves as oppressed, and in fact, might think of themselves as having an elevated status in their world, having other women slap the “oppressed” label on them is galling and offensive.

Hence, the rise of HarediFem, or haredi feminism. While not all women engaging in haredi female empowerment consider themselves to be either haredi or feminists, I am referring to women who attempt to expand their voice and control in the orthodox world within the parameters of activities approved for women. We are seeing a greater public display of the three mitzvot thought to be unique for women – candle lighting, taking challah, and tznius. The focus on doing women’s mitzot is a way to flex female muscles to positively change the world for the better.

Actually, the three special mitzvot for women are candle lighting, taking challah, and taharas hamishpacha, but out of modesty, we are unlikely to see full page advertisements asking women to do a few extra bedikas on behalf of klal yisroel, or to make sure to bring in at least one shailah to a rabbi this month in the merit of the tragedies happening in Israel. Therefore, the mitzvah of modesty is raised to a place of prominence in terms of public discussion and display along with challah baking and candlelighting.

For example, cutting wigs shorter to prevent further tragedies such as the Har Nof massacre

sheitelsImplying that wearing tznius maternity clothing can prevent miscarriage, stillbirth, or other tragedies that can occur with mother or infant-

maternityWomen shaping the future of their community by attending a community wide meeting about current and new standards of modesty for women –

tznius meetingA contest for little girls to dress modestly in the merit of defending Eretz Yisroel

ice creamCommunity wide challah baking events for women and girls to share the experience of helping to create “the gift of Shabbos” –

challah bakeDisplaying car magnets advertising the power of candle lighting as a way to fight terrorism –

candles fightAdditionally, there are always lectures for women on topics such as parenting, how to create and maintain shalom bayis in the home, the power of prayer, how women can hasten the arrival of Moshiach, etc. There are also community wide women’s tehillim sessions during community crises; the power of many voices thought to have more sway than one in seeking a reversal of bad fortune. Women’s fundraising events happen on a frequent basis as well, with several gatherings happening every week in larger communities. All of these activities provide an active social outlet for women, giving a sense of both camaraderie and the empowerment that comes with the belief of doing something that can produce positive change.

Although these activities don’t culturally conform to secular feminist ideas of empowerment, nor to the ideals of feminist progress for many modern orthodox women, many haredi women feel differently. I have heard haredi women wax poetic about how powerful the prayers of women can be. I have heard haredi women speak about the sense of fulfillment they have in their roles as Jewish wives, mothers, daughters, friends, and spiritual beings. They don’t feel powerless, left out, or under the control of the men in their lives. Some truly feel that a position of public leadership is beneath them, as their honor is to be private, much like the Ark of the Covenant was hidden inside the Holy of Holies.

Every woman’s idea of empowerment is different, and every woman’s struggle is different, which is why there has been a backlash forming against “white feminism” from women of color (misogynoir), and even more recently, an accusation that the Suffragette history has been white-washed, forgetting the contributions of women of all races to achieving the vote. There has been push back against the idea that the problems of privileged white upper class women represent the problems of all women.

This also extends into the idea that privileges enjoyed by women in different cultures might not be considered privileges by the women in surrounding dominant cultures, who are quick to condemn those foreign ideas as being sexist.

I feel as if the modern orthodox feminist culture borrows largely from white feminism. The movement doesn’t always take into consideration that the cultural differences of our haredi counterparts might have more to do with different ideas of empowerment. What might make a modern orthodox woman feel dis-empowered, might be a prime example of feminist achievement to a haredi woman.

We can talk about what we do and don’t want for ourselves, but when do the lines of discrimination and racism get crossed when we demand that other Jewish women want the same things we do? We all come from different places, travel different roads, and have different outlooks on life. If a woman says she is happy with her lot, who am I to tell her otherwise?