Is Silence Enough?

Both the RCA (in a Facebook post) and the OU (in an email shared to a Facebook group by its recipient) have shared their opinions that their actions speak louder than words. Because these rabbinic organizations do not engage in the practice of excluding women’s images from their publications, dayenu.

When I think about other forms of abuse, and yes, attempting to eliminate 50% of the population from the public sphere is abuse, is it enough to stay silent? Even if I myself am not an abuser, does that absolve me from speaking up when I know that others are being harmed?

The Jewish community often cites this poignant quote from Protestant pastor Martin Niemoller, an outspoken activist against Hitler who spent seven years in a Nazi concentration camp –

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Kowtowing to extremists never ends well. Although remaining silent and uncritical might seem like the more diplomatic solution – as long as we aren’t part of their group or one of their targets, let them continue their madness until the movement fizzles itself out – this is a naive belief. The other naive belief is that because we, as Jews, have historically been victimized, we can never be the victimizers. It’s all well and good to read Pastor Niemoller’s words while nodding out heads and saying, “Yes! You didn’t speak up for us and in the end they came for you too!” However, are we capable of taking his lesson further to understand that we are also included in his admonition to speak up for others who have no voice – yes, even victims are responsible to speak up for their fellow humans wherever possible.

Wasn’t it only just over a year ago that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate put out a “blacklist” that rejected the conversions of foreign liberal rabbis – 77 of them from the United States, with 40% of that number being RCA members? Were there a few rabbis excluded because of individual scandal associated with them, yes. However, it was disturbing to see a possible push by the haredi Israeli Chief Rabbinate to discredit American modern orthodox rabbinic leaders. Point being, the move from the right to exclude and erase won’t end with women.

Silence on the part of witnesses is an essential element needed for criminals to get away with their crimes. Secrecy is another essential element. Harboring fugitives to help them evade confrontation and punishment also makes one culpable in their crimes. Both the RCA and OU have historically been proud “old boy networks.” Oh to be a fly on the wall of some their formal and informal meetings where the men can speak freely.

Unlike us women, I have no doubt that the members of these organizations know exactly who is behind the movement to erase women. There are probably a few proponents within the ranks of the RCA and OU themselves who support and encourage such an attitude. However, their names will never be given up – members will continue to close ranks and remain silent in support of their right wing comrades – even if they personally disagree.

Silence equals acquiescence. It means that while you wouldn’t do a certain thing yourself, you are willing to stand by and let someone else do it. It means that you have absolved yourself of responsibility toward your fellow Jew.

They have taken our voices, now they have taken our faces. Ladies, there are no knights in shining armor coming to save us. The time has come for us to save ourselves.


The Jewish Observer – Ahead of Its Time

I recently reread a 2015 Haaretz article by Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt entitled, Inside the World of ultra-Orthodox Media: Haredi Journalists Tell It Like It Is that had an interesting interview with Mishpacha magazine’s news editor Binyamin Rose. In the article, Rose justified the exclusion of women’s images in his magazine by saying – 

“This is how we avoid the objectification of women,” Rose answers to me in an earlier meeting. “Our policy is that we do not alter pictures as they are. If there is a woman in a photograph, we’ll simply use another picture.”

“I can only put it like this,” he says. “Based on community standards, there are constraints for our work.”

“Mishpacha isn’t going to be the first to introduce women into the magazine. If the standards were to change, it’s a subject that can be reconsidered. But I don’t like to make predictions. Today, a significant readership would object to images of women – we won’t break ranks with them.”

The good news is that Mishpacha doesn’t have to be the first to introduce women into Orthodox magazines – there has already been a trailblazer in this arena – The Jewish Observer, an Orthodox magazine published by Agudath Israel of America from 1963-2009. Since The Jewish Observer already set this precedent, maybe it will be easier for magazines such as Mishpacha to reverse their policy about including women’s photos in their publications.  

Below are examples of photos from The Jewish Observer (keep in mind that the early years of the magazine had mostly text content and very few images in general, and due to the photo quality you have to squint to see some images).  

I love seeing these photos; even the advertisement drawings.  They bring to life what women and girls of these previous generations were like and what sorts of things they did, what they thought, what they bought, and what styles they wore. I only wish there were more images to look through. 

Just think of the vital history that’s already been lost and that continues to be lost every day since ultra Orthodox media has eliminated female images! It’s not only the images, but once you cut out the image, the magazines tend to cut out the women themselves.  

For example, in 1985 The Jewish Observer did a cover story on Selma Mayer, known as Schwester Selma.  She was the head nurse at the original Shaare Zedek Hospital on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem for nearly 50 years. For many years she was the right-hand assistant of the hospital’s founding director, Dr. Moshe Wallach. It’s hard to imagine how an ultra Orthodox paper would profile such a woman today, without using any photos.  Most current magazines probably wouldn’t run large stories on modern day heroines – precisely because of the picture problem. Hence, women are being left out of Jewish history in a major way.

Along those same lines, based on The Jewish Observer’s trend in photos, because women are left out of the general narrative, these female-free publications morph into “men’s magazines,” written from a man’s lens, even though they are marketed as family publications.  This means that women aren’t portrayed as autonomous individuals, but solely as daughters, brides, wives, and mothers.  The lack of complete coverage paints a false picture that the only roles for females in Orthodox society are as children or as whatever relationship they are to a boy/man – because women are only discussed and visually represented (in drawings or blurred photos) in these capacities. 

The evolution of these photos from 1964-2009 is quite remarkable.  The heyday decades for women’s photos seem to be from the mid 70s to the mid 90s.  The turn of the century marked the gradual erasure of women from The Jewish Observer.  If anyone knows of a major public prohibition against women’s photos from a prominent rabbi or organization from the turn of the century, please enlighten me.  Perhaps competing publications started that banned female images and The Jewish Observer felt they had to follow suit or lose revenue?  I hope you find these images as interesting as I did.

Edited to add – here is an anonymous letter to the editor from 1992 criticizing The Jewish Observer for publishing photos of females in its pages.  The anonymity speaks volumes, as this female-free policy seems to have no direct attribution to any Torah authority (if there is a direct attribution to be made, he/they don’t make it easy to find their names or quotes).

-letter hat tip Fred MacDowell on Facebook

Photo Essay of Female Images Published in The Jewish Observer 1964-2009

-compiled by Sharon Shapiro, 2017

Hillary Clinton has gone where no woman has gone before – the cover of Yated!

hillary yatedYes, that’s really her arm – and her sleeve is threatening to slide above her elbow!

Things are getting more complicated by the minute for the Haredi press.  It was bad enough that the Treasury Department announced new designs earlier this year for several bills that will incorporate women, including Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony and Eleanor Roosevelt.  Ultra-orthodox men will now be forced to carry around pictures of women in their wallets, and even fondle their faces as they attempt to find the proper currency to purchase a Shmiras Einayim sefer from their local Jewish book store – exchanging the forbidden photos with all the shame and excitement of young adolescents swapping issues of old girlie magazines stolen from the corners of their father’s closets.

However, with the looming prospect of the first female American President being elected this November, some of the papers that have historically shunned showing images of women will now have to rethink their policies.

Right now most of those papers have written stories about Hillary Clinton either eschewing a photo all together, or showing loosely related images of her surroundings.

An example is this recent photo of her supporters that appeared in Mishpacha magazine accompanying a story about her strategic DNC acceptance speech:

hillary1(note the signs don’t even have her name on them)

Or another photo from the same publication of her husband Bill Clinton when Hillary finally clinched the nomination as the Democratic Presidential candidate:

hillary2Indeed, if Hillary wins, it will most likely appear as if Bill Clinton has won a 3rd Presidential term in the Haredi press, as his face will likely be switched out for hers wherever possible.

Ari L. Goldman of the Columbia Journalism Review writes that:

In interviews, the editors of four major English-language ultra-Orthodox publications, three of them published in New York and one in Jerusalem, said that they are reevaluating their no-women policy in light of the Clinton candidacy, but would not make any final decisions alone. As with all important decisions, they will take the question to the boards of rabbinical advisors with whom final authority over the publications’ content rests. One of the editors, a rabbi himself, said that a Clinton victory could spell a change in the longstanding no-women policy in his paper and the others. “I think we’re going to have to rethink it,” Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, the executive editor of Ami Magazine, told me. Not to do so, he said, “would be disrespectful.””

This is a big statement coming from a publication that has a well-known policy not to use any photos of women, and has been accused of cropping women out of photos for its publication.

Goldman goes on to say:

All of the editors said that the practice of not using women’s photographs started with the Israeli papers, which set the standard. Most of them said that the vast majority of their subscribers read other publications with pictures of women, but that they declined to use women’s pictures out of fear of alienating the more observant segment of their readership.

The adoption of this standard has led to some foibles that garnered worldwide media attention.  For example, in an excerpt of Goldman’s CJR piece, OnlySimchas reprints a photo from 2011 when Di Tzeitung, published in Brooklyn, digitally removed then Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton, from a picture of the White House situation room on the night of the military operation that assassinated Osama bin Laden:

hillary3Goldman says, “While the editor of Di Tzeitung apologized for manipulating a White House photo, which is a violation of the licensing agreements, Rabbi Frankfurter of Ami defended his stance, saying that cropping is “done routinely by most papers and magazines.

Also shown in the OnlySimchas excerpt is a photo that circulated among Haredi publications that cropped out Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, from a long line of world leaders at the huge rally in Paris after the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists:

hillary4Goldman writes, “But continually cropping out President Hillary Clinton might prove too much even for Rabbi Frankfurter. “We would be locking ourselves out of a lot of opportunities,” he said. “We couldn’t even run photos of the White House Hanukkah party.”

Interestingly, the publishers and editors of two prominent Haredi newspapers with a no-women photo policy are women themselves, Ruth Lichtenstein is the publisher of Hamodia and Shoshana Friedman is the editor of Mishpacha.

Goldman concludes:

Friedman, who at 36 is the youngest of the editors I interviewed, said that being a woman editor who doesn’t run photos of women sometimes puts her in an uncomfortable position. “Every now and then, I get a letter from a reader who asks, ‘Why don’t you run pictures of women? I want my daughter to have role models in life. I want her to see that women can achieve great things.’ ”

Friedman added sadly: “For these women I don’t have a good answer.”

If Clinton is elected President, and the Haredi press does relax its no-women photo policies, It remains to be seen if only she, as Commander in Chief, will be given a special dispensation to be shown in photographs, or if a more liberal policy will be given to all women.  For example, if there is a photo of “President Hillary Clinton” beside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will Merkel still be cropped out?  Or maybe the Haredi newspapers will alter their policies based on the woman’s religion – choosing not to publish photos of Jewish women, but conceding to publish photos (or partial photos) of non-Jewish women?  For example, if Hillary Clinton is standing beside Ayelet Shaked, Tzipi Livni, or Miri Regev the Jewish politicians would be cut out, but Clinton would remain in some form?  Would a policy like this continue to preserve the modesty and sanctity of the bas Yisroel?

It will be interesting to see what creative solutions they come up with – or which publications might abandon their no-female policies all together, following the lead of the historical Yiddish newspaper, Der Tog, which was published between 1914-1971, and became the first Yiddish newspaper to include female journalists on the editorial staff.

Wikipedia says:

Adella Kean-Sametkin wrote about women’s issues, and Dr. Ida Badanes, about health matters; the popular fiction writer Sarah B. Smith was also a regular contributor over many years.[15] Before making her mark as a poet, Anna Margolin (pseudonym of Rosa Lebensboym) distinguished herself as a reporter and editor for Der Tog, contributing a column, “In der froyen velt” (In the women’s world), under her actual name, and articles about women’s issues under various pseudonyms, including Clara Levin.

Often accompanying stories written by women were photographs of women.  The blog, From the Vault, said,

One page from a May 1952 edition of Der tog that has been cut out in its entirety—“In der velt fun froyen” (“In the World of Women”), a section for female readers, formerly edited by the well-known Yiddish poet Anna Margolin—is studded with photographs of international beauties in the latest bathing costumes and eveningwear. At the bottom is a society snapshot: “a khasene in holivud” (“a wedding in Hollywood”), with the actors Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis “vinshen zikh mazl-tov” (wishing each other mazl-tov) following their wedding ceremony. (Note that the editors misidentify the couple: it is the Reagans in the center and William Holden with wife Brenda Marshall on the outside, not the other way around.)

hillary5From the Vault also shares another photo of the newly elected “Mame fun der velt” (Mother of the World), Chilean First Lady Rosa Markmann (right), on a visit to the just-completed headquarters of the United Nations from that same 1952 issue:

hillary6As a humorous aside, the headline near the photo is “an article by one Sarah Koenig (a past incarnation of today’s NPR broadcaster, alike in name and journalistic rigor?) headlined “Fete froyen zaynen oft gliklekher in leben” (“Fat Women Are Often Happier in Life”). The piece contains such surprising evidence as “Fete froyen zaynen oykh mer religyez geshtimt un hoben lib tsu geyn in shul davnen” (“Fat women are also more religiously inclined and enjoy going to shul to daven”) and “Di statistik hot bavizn, az tsvishen fete menshen bikhlal zenen faran mer gut hartsige, vi tsvishn dine menshen” (“Statistics have shown that among fat people generally, there are more goodhearted people than among those who are thin”), a claim that the writer juxtaposes to the assertion that overweight people’s higher blood pressure necessitates their having a calmer disposition. The piece ends by comforting the reader with the assertion that though the number of plump women is great among Jews, the proportion of overweight Italian women is greater, and anyway, “Iz do zehr fil froyen vos di diklikhkayt past zey, un fete froyen kenen zayn sheyn un reytsnd” (“There are many women whose stoutness suits them, and fat women can be beautiful and alluring”).

My understanding is that Der Tog is the great-grandfather publication of the modern day Alegemeiner Journal.  Though it was founded by businessmen and intellectuals, and not a religious publication, the fact that it was in Yiddish and intended for Jewish audiences means that in the early 20th century, a time when there wasn’t a dearth of American Haredi newspapers being published, odds are the religious community made up a nice portion of its readership.  That probably came to an end in 1953 when laid off Der Tog editor, Dr. Aaron Rosmarin founded Der Yid, and hired a Satmar editor named Uriel Zimmer, which then established Der Yid as the religious and anti-Zionist alternative to Der Tog.

Will Hillary Clinton be the revolutionary figure to finally break past the no-women photograph barrier in Haredi publications?  Will she be a one-time anomaly, an exception to the rule, if her image does get published?  It remains to be seen, both literally and figuratively.

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?