Ending 2017 on an Interesting Note – Recent Articles on Returning Women’s Images to The Orthodox World

On this last day of 2017 I would like to bring attention to some amazing recent articles that have gotten lots of attention concerning the public erasure of women’s images in Jewish Orthodoxy.

The first article is by tireless activist and talented writer Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll entitled, “Who needs rabbinic leadership? A call for Orthodox organizations to heed the voices of the women they cannot see.”

In it, Jaskoll takes the Orthodox Union and the RCA to task for not speaking up on behalf of women against this perversion of halacha. She writes –

“Both maintain that a key component of the Orthodox community is “listening to the rabbis.” Both have condemned in no uncertain terms the concept of Orthodox women clergy, and both have emphasized the vital position and importance of Jewish women in the community.

It baffles me, therefore, that neither the OU nor the RCA has taken a stand against the damaging practice of removing Jewish women and girls from publications that is taking over Orthodox society.”

Jaskoll cites statements from both the OU and RCA that extol the value of women –

 “Both the OU and the RCA use glowing terms to depict Jewish women in their statements on women clergy:

From the OU: “…female role models are, of course, absolutely critical for the spiritual growth of our community. Communities depend, and have always depended, upon women’s participation in a wide array of critical roles, both lay and professional, that are wholly consistent with Torah’s guidelines.”

From the RCA: “…the Rabbinical Council of America encourages a diversity of halakhically and communally appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women, in the service of our collective mission to preserve and transmit our heritage….”

Considering their opinion that Jewish women’s participation in a wide array of critical communal roles is vital, Jaskoll found it concerning and seemingly at odds with their position when the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action highlighted and praised multiple haredi publications that have a policy to exclude women’s photos from their pages.

Mrs. Jaskoll’s article was so compelling it prompted the RCA to make a statement about it on its Facebook page

 “We read with interest Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll’s recent Times of Israel blog, “Who needs rabbinic leadership? Orthodox organizations to heed the voices of the women they cannot see,” in which she expresses concern over “the damaging practice of removing Jewish women and girls from publications that is taking over Orthodox society.” She raises important concerns about the treatment of woman in the Orthodox Jewish public square.

In response to her blog we would like to go on record as affirming that it has never been the policy of the Rabbinical Council of America or its members to exclude images of women from its publications. In fact, we have never hesitated to have photographs of women and, more importantly, their contributions celebrated in our publications and websites.

Furthermore, we are of the opinion that it is important for every member of the Orthodox community to have women and men of integrity, piety, learning, and public serve as role models. This includes the names, ideas, and faces of women in publications.

Rabbi Elazar Muskin

President, RCA

Rabbi Mark Dratch

Executive Vice President, RCA”

While it was heartening to read that the RCA doesn’t adhere to a female free policy concerning images, and moreover, feels it’s important that women who can serve as role models have their names, ideas, and faces shared, they failed to condemn those who seek to erase female role models from Jewish media and public life. It isn’t enough for our leadership to say that they themselves don’t have such a policy, they need to speak out against such policies.

The RCA and the OU never have problems speaking out against left wing movements that “break with tradition,” yet seem to have lots of hesitancy speaking out against right wing movements that “break with tradition.”

Why is this? Is it because centrist Orthodoxy feels that left wing Orthodoxy is a diluted form of Orthodoxy, just as haredi Orthodoxy feels that centrist Orthodoxy is a diluted form of Orthodoxy? Is it a question of “stringency guilt?”

At least on the surface, the RCA and OU seem to seek acceptance and approval from their right wing counterparts as a legitimate Orthodox movement, while at the same time seeking no such validation from left wing Jewish movements. There is no concern over giving offense to left wing Jewish leaders, and so official statements condemning their practices appear to be easier to procure.

It seems so many of the OU’s and RCA’s public statements on women self consciously speak to an audience of both their right wing members and the larger right wing Orthodox world, careful in their language to not alienate women seeking progress and recognition, yet making it clear that they stand in the same camp as their haredi brethren concerning female spiritual leadership roles. They try so hard not to offend or appear to be critical of right wing cultural practices that they end up offending and not protecting their own constituents. It’s obvious which audience they fear more, and hint, it’s not the women.

The Layer Project Magazine’s Publisher and Editor in Chief, Shira Lankin Sheps and Hannah Dreyfus weighed in on this recent conversation with this –

“When, late on Thursday night, we read the Rabbinical Council of America’s response affirming that it had never been their “policy” to exclude images of women from its publications, we felt a glimmer of hope. We felt grateful that this organization — the largest coalition of Orthodox rabbis in America — heard what Jaskoll had to say and took it seriously. We appreciated the affirmation that this voice of authority believes that women belong in the public domain as role models — including their names, ideas, and faces.

But then the statement ended, and it stung. What was left unsaid was the condemnation of this new standard in the publications that are readily available throughout the Orthodox world.

What the RCA left out is crucial:  the clear, unmistakable and resounding message that this phenomenon is toxic for our impressionable young men and women, and flies in direct opposition to how we, as a community, understand Torah values. The RCA statement failed to set a boundary for our community. They failed to say this is not ok.

While many of our communal problems start in the dark shadows of home life, this major problem starts at the top. Who was it that decided that women need to be hidden away? The leaders of Charedi communities, donors, advertisers, publishers? Who decreed that women should be removed from media spaces because it is not tzanua, modest, to look at our faces?”

Their words touched on something I myself pondered in a Facebook post a few weeks ago-

“Doesn’t it seem that the battle of female image inclusion is a battle we are fighting against ghosts? Who actually makes up this phantom opposition?

I have heard publications blame the lack of inclusion on their “chassidish base,” advertisers who would be offended, private donors, and often anonymous poskim – but none take direct responsibility and even claim not to be in hashkafik agreement with not including photos of women.

So where are these specters and why can’t they explain themselves directly on their own behalf? I’m beginning to think this opposition movement is hiding in plain sight – the people deciding to erase women are the ones who have a media platform, yet deliberately choose to use it to create a fantastical alternate universe populated only by men – all the while blaming some other faceless entity.

Without names and faces, we are blindly swinging out into the air hoping to get a hit. Publications like Mishpacha will keep deflecting and putting the blame on the “ultra Orthodox” sensibilities of their subscribers and financial supporters. What I would be interested to see is an investigative report in their own magazine publishing a survey and detailed responses of those who support a “female free photo policy.”

I would love to hear from big machers on why they would stop financially supporting Mishpacha if it started printing photos of women. I’d like to see some names and faces of those who will proudly stand up for their principles to erase women from the frum media. Where are these people who have managed to decimate the images of women entirely under the radar – perhaps even pretending to be appalled at the exclusion of women when asked about it? It’s time for them to stand up and be identified.”

Sheps and Dreyfus bring up another important point along these lines – it’s time for Jewish leadership who stand opposed to this public erasure to stand up and be identified – in no uncertain terms. It will be interesting to see what 2018 will bring. Stay warm and stay safe tonight!

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Help Solve The 31 Year Old Murder Mystery of Chaim Weiss

This isn’t my normal type of post, and since I rarely update this blog anymore it’s a shot in the dark that someone with information will see it, but just in case, I feel compelled to reach out to anyone who might ease the pain of the family of Chaim Weiss, a Long Island Yeshiva student who was murdered in the school’s dormitory in the early morning hours of November 1, 1986 by helping to find his killer. Anyone having any information about the case should contact a special hotline set up by the Nassau County Police at 1-800-244-TIPS.

This article describes the case and includes a video (linked below) 

This is a video from Unsolved Mysteries that goes into greater detail about the case –

Here is an October 4, 2017 podcast about Chaim’s case on Robin Warder’s “The Trail Went Cold.

After listening and reading about Chaim’s case, I can’t help but hear so many details taken as fact that don’t make sense to me.  Without the benefit of more information other than what’s been published in the media, this is my armchair detective take on things as they stand – which could be completely wrong – but I wonder if anyone else reading this from the perspective of the orthodox Jewish world noticed these things too.  I am also going to add in a detail that goes against what has been reported in the press thus far.

There are a lot of strange bits of information in the case.

For example, the memorial candles lit in Chaim’s dorm room for the shiva period. First of all, only immediate family members sit shiva for a departed loved one (these would be Chaim’s parents and siblings), and they are the ones to light the memorial candle (they have large 7 day candles for this purpose, so you don’t usually keep lighting individual candles). Second of all, you wouldn’t light such a candle at the place of the departed’s death (like Chaim’s room), but rather, most likely in the family home where you are sitting shiva (in a place safe for lighting candles and perhaps on a nice tray and a place of visual prominence).

The second off detail is how much of a prominent role the idea that Jews are targeted for violence on Halloween plays in the push to consider that the killer was a random non Jewish stranger. This is a common paranoia in more insular orthodox Jewish communities, because historically, there were times when Jews were harmed on Halloween. However, in 20th and 21st century America, almost no one else outside of the orthodox Jewish community would associate Halloween as a “kill the Jews” day.

Generally speaking, I don’t believe that in America, there is a great uptick in violent crime against Jews during this largely “dress up in costumes, watch scary movies, and eat lots of candy” cultural version of Halloween as it is celebrated today. I can’t say if a Yeshiva, with its group of boys, might attract other groups of non Jewish boys for general mischief like egg tossing, but certainly, I can’t recall any murders or mayhem happening specifically to Jews on Halloween in recent times in America. My son went to an out of town dorm Yeshiva and so did my husband and they didn’t experience crime or harassment specifically on Halloween. Maybe they got lucky.

My point is, only someone with a firm belief that it’s widely accepted that Jews are targeted for violence on Halloween would feel that police would also think it a reasonable motive for a non Jew to murder a random Jew on that day. To anyone outside the enclave, that theory seems pretty far fetched and without recent precedent. Which is why I personally think this was an inside job perpetrated by someone in the community.

The third inconsistency I see is the widely reported detail that Chaim was one of only two students with his own room. This is the part of the story where I have heard the opposite of what has been reported. I mentioned my husband went to a dorm Yeshiva. In 1986, my husband was in a Yeshiva in Baltimore. Shortly after Chaim Weiss’ murder, one of Chaim’s classmates joined my husband’s Yeshiva. Not just any classmate, but Chaim’s roommate.

He told the boys that he had been spending that Shabbos at home when Chaim was murdered. His parents were so freaked out by the situation that they never sent him back to the Long Island Yeshiva and transferred him to Baltimore.

Now keep in mind that at that time in 1986, Chaim’s murder had a huge impact on the orthodox community all over America – especially in the Yeshiva world. It was all anyone talked about. So, it is possible, that a newly transferred high school student, anxious for friends, attention and clout, might exaggerate his level of involvement with the victim. Certainly, roommate or not, I can see why his parents would have panicked and removed him from the school. However, if he really was the victim’s roommate, how might that change things? Why would the school have told police that he had his own room?

Certainly, if this was a premeditated murder, waiting until Halloween might seem like a good night to claim that an antisemitic stranger bent on murder randomly struck down Chaim. But maybe the Halloween part was incidental and the murderer picked a night when the roommate would be gone and surely wouldn’t return until after Sabbath? Of course, there is always the possibility that this roommate had something to do with Chaim’s demise and the school covered it up and allowed his parents to shuffle him to another Yeshiva (this theory seems unlikely, as my husband didn’t say this kid was a troublemaker or behaved strangely in any way).

The other odd mention was that there was no dorm counselor present during the night – dorm counselors are usually younger unmarried guys (early 20s) and there have been unofficial (read unreported) cases of abuse between dorm counselors and students in the past. Where was the dorm counselor that night? He wasn’t around during the night to detect an intruder or hear the sounds of murder and the subsequent movement of the body and cleanup, but he was around the next morning to find his body and tell everyone to get out of the building?

Which bring me to what I see as the smoking gun that the murderer was a staff member – Chaim’s hysterical crying phone call from camp during the summer before school started, asking his father to bring him home. As with the murky accusations about abuses in dormitories, there have likewise been reports (both official and unofficial) of kids being abused in Jewish camps by staff. Most cases are never reported much less convicted. We can thank the internet for bringing attention to such accusations, but of course, you can only believe what you hear about on the internet so much. However, in terms of opportunity, it is so much easier to abuse a child in a mountain camp in the outdoors – no parents, much less supervision than in a school setting, and many more places to go to commit the crime unseen.

Apparently there are online sleuths who feel that Chaim was likely abused at the school or camp (it was mentioned that this was a camp run by his school with the same staff as during the school year), and by the time his father came to the camp a week later, after returning from Florida, the staff and/or possibly the perpetrator had already convinced Chaim not to tell. The fact that the yeshiva’s principal was so anxious/nervous to speak to Chaim after camp ended (probably to make sure he didn’t talk outside of the influence of himself or other staff), and also convinced Chaim not to reveal the contents of their conversation to his father, is all the more suspicious. An odd detail reported in a 1986 New York Times article on events that happened at the school shortly before Chaim’s murder –

Also, last summer, a mattress was found burning at one of the yeshiva dorms, according to Rabbi Chaim Wakslak, a local Orthodox leader.

My opinion is that Chaim’s murder was an inside job, but none of the people involved, nor those close to them, will talk. It’s not because they have a moral obligation not to accuse someone unless they are certain, which is what potential witnesses have told media and authorities. It’s because they have a moral obligation not to be an informant against another Jew to secular authorities. This is misguided, as respected rabbis have rules that in cases of abuse (how much more so murder) a Jew is required to go to authorities. But many religious Jews still feel that reporting a Jew to non Jewish authorities is still worse than whatever crime the Jew committed. Of course, the actual murderer(s) exploit this belief because it’s to their advantage not to be turned into the authorities.

These are just my theories and opinions based on what I’ve heard and read about the case. I came across another article that discusses a taunting letter sent to Chaim’s family eight years after his death in 1994. One commenter on that article said the Yeshiva had suggested that the school’s Polish janitor committed the murder and then fled back to Poland, sending the taunting letter years later. This version could be true, or the letter could be a plant by the true killer trying yet again to put forward a theory of an outsider (non Jew) as the murderer who conveniently skipped the country and couldn’t be questioned. Was there even actually a Polish janitor?

I would be interested to hear your perspectives and who you think might have committed this atrocity. Chaim’s family is in agony even to this day. His parents are getting older, and it would be a terrible thing for them to leave this world without ever knowing who killed their son and to know that they will never get justice unless the murderer is found.

Again, the hotline is Nassau County Police at 1-800-244-TIPS

Seven Times Around

At a Jewish wedding ceremony the bride (often accompanied by her mother and mother-in-law) circles the groom under the chuppah seven times (some have the custom of three times). There are many reasons given for this according to website ketubah.com

Seven is the number of days of creation, and the wedding ceremony is the creation of a new household; seven is the number of times the phrase “when a man takes a wife” occurs in the Bible; seven is the number of times Joshua circled the walls of Jericho in order to bring them down, and in circling her groom a bride brings down any wall that may remain between them.

I have always heard that the circling is the bride’s way of saying that her world will revolve around her husband – that he will be the immovable center of her universe. An article on Chabad’s website tries to give a more feminist perspective on the hakafot, or circling ceremony, entitled A Man’s Deepest Secret. It states that the circling ceremony is the opposite of a man indicating authority over his wife, instead –

The bride, by circling the groom, expresses her awesome power…Men are taught to hide their feelings, to create an impression of impenetrability, to make it seem that they have it all figured out. Men create elaborate defenses to hide any sign of weakness or vulnerability, and fiercely guard their deepest secret – that inside they are sensitive and meek, simple and soft. But a wise woman can pierce this defensive wall. If she surrounds her husband with the protective aura of her love, if she envelops him with affection, and if she makes him feel that he is the anchor, the center, the focal point of her life, then he can feel safe and comfortable. When that happens, the walls protecting his heart come tumbling down. Then she has conquered him – all of him.

Although the article tries to put a modern spin on things, it’s conclusion is the same. Men need to feel like they are at the center of everything their wives do in order for their hearts to be conquered. There is no similar concept that men must pledge themselves exclusively to their wives, making them the focal point that inspires their every action, in order to win their love.

I thought about this because it is the assumption, in both larger society and the Jewish world, that women’s actions are always influenced by what men think – particularly when it comes to clothing and fashion choices.

Recently there was a skit on Saturday Night Live where Cecily Strong played a harried HR worker going over revised sexual harassment policies to a baffled Colin Jost in the wake of recent Hollywood scandals –

Then she was on to the second question, featuring a visual aid of a woman in a professional outfit. “You run into your co-worker at the office. Is she, A, giving you a seductive look that says hey come get this? B, she said no in the past but that little skirt is saying yes, yes, me horny? Or C, she is living her life and it has nothing to do with you?”

“I’m going to say C,” Jost said, prompting Strong to immediately shout, “YES, LEAVE HER ALONE.”

That line, “she is living her life and it has nothing to do with you” has really stuck with me as I read more male responses to the “sheitel shaming flyer incident” and their opinions that while such shaming is wrong, the bottom line is that long Hollywood sheitels are immodest and that women who wear them either have bad relationships with their husbands, or poor communication causing a misunderstanding of what their husbands find attractive. There is also criticism of men who want and encourage their wives to wear such wigs. The underlying assumption is that women choose the hair they wear to attract their husbands and not to please themselves.

There are men who assume that women are not autonomous beings who can make decisions independent from what men think of them. If a woman dresses attractively and uses makeup, married or not, men often feel that she does so with a male audience in mind. Men often dismiss and scorn women who don’t dress typically feminine because it’s apparent she isn’t dressing up for them.

Despite this assumption, I can’t say that I know any married women whose husbands are intimately involved in the type of wig she chooses. It’s true they are often involved in the decision of how much she can spend, because wigs are such a costly investment. However , that’s usually where the involvement ends. To say that women use their husband’s opinions as the primary factor in determining the length, color, cut, and style of their sheitels is not the norm, in my opinion.

Women have identities and wants and needs and opinions that are purely their own. It isn’t true, nor is it reasonable, to expect that one half of a marriage is going to solely focus on the other half, while that other half gets to have their focus partly on their partner, yet also divided elsewhere between their own needs and the needs of others outside the home. Women can’t negate their own needs as individuals and still have the strength to hold up husbands and children. When you make everyone else your focus, without focusing on yourself, in the end the entire enterprise crumbles, because it’s being held up by a ghost. As Emily Dickinson said –

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Are you – Nobody – too?

Then there’s a pair of us!

Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!

How public – like a Frog –

To tell one’s name – the livelong June –

To an admiring Bog!

Maybe blaming husbands for their wives’ fashion choices is a gallant way to deflect the criticism being hurled toward those who wear long sheitels. More likely though, it’s just a continuation of the thought pattern that women’s lives revolve around seeking attention and approval from their spouse or potential suitors.

Rainy Day Musings – Attractive Not Attracting

Be attractive, not attracting. That’s the standard that frum women are supposed to hold of in determining what they should wear, how they should do their hair, how heavy a hand to use with makeup. Do a self check in the mirror before we leave for the day – will our look attract the male gaze?

What do you find attractive? You would be surprised at the seemingly strange features that some folks find irresistible.

I found an article that shared a women’s online discussion about things that shouldn’t be seen as attractive but are anyway . Some of the things mentioned –

-sweaty

-left-handed

-prematurely grey

-curly eyelashes

-smelling like cigarette smoke (although a nonsmoker yourself)

-scars

-repaired cleft lip

-partial amputation

-acne

-short guys

-being funny

Lest you think that women are more forgiving or broad minded in the kinds of traits they find attractive, here is an article that discusses things some men like that they don’t usually acknowledge . Some of the items men go crazy for –

-sweaty

-left-handed

-big noses

-veiny forehead

-big hands

-crossed eyes

-a chubby pot belly

-stretch marks

-crooked teeth

-scars

-lisp

-double chin

-wearing a ponytail through a baseball cap

-giant ears

-all over body hair

-potty mouth

Obviously beauty and attraction are in the eye of the beholder. What is or is not provocative is a completely subjective thing.

A woman going for a walk in a ponytail wig with a baseball cap probably isn’t setting out to entice anyone, but she might be doing just that. A woman going for a walk in a ponytail wig with a baseball cap and schvitzing might be attracting two separate guys – the ponytail man and the one who likes sweat. A woman in a ponytail wig with a baseball cap and schvitzing with crooked teeth may now be attracting three separate men. If the woman with a ponytail wig with a baseball cap who is schvitzing and has crooked teeth walks with her friend who has a big nose, giant ears, a pot belly, and a lisp they might be attracting seven different men. Include a third walking buddy with stretch marks, a double chin, and crossed eyes and now we have a minyan!

It is not up to women to try to determine every possible permutation of physicality that might attract a man. The possibilities are endless for men and women both in what we may or may not find attracting. We can follow basic guidelines of dress, but trying to make sure we tick all the boxes for a non-attracting appearance before we leave the house simply isn’t realistic, nor is it our job.

Real or Hoax? Phony Outrages Hurt The Cause

So, this photo broke the frum internet yesterday – 


I blurred out the photos because some people were saying that the wig sellers whose Instagram images were used for this flyer might understandably not be happy to have their businesses represented in this manner.

Of course, everyone who saw it went berserk, which was also my initial reaction. Basically, we assumed that either a rabbi or a self-proclaimed male tznius policeman trolled Instagram for these photos and put the flyer together.  My friend (HT RW) put together a trail of subsequent flyers that came out in response to the original – 


After my initial assumption that the flyer’s author was male, I revised my opinion.  It had to be a woman.  Instagram is like Pinterest in the frum community.  We are kind of late to the party, but for the most part, it’s growing appeal is for women to share modest fashion ideas and wig styles.  

Fashion retailers hoping to appeal to those seeking tznius options showcase their wares on Instagram and are gaining many followers.  Fashionable frum women with a passion for modeling who wouldn’t be able to pursue those career goals by wearing the skin-baring runway options of top fashion designers, can create virtual runways for themselves on Instagram.

Only a woman would know where to troll to find sheitel sellers on Instagram – or even have the interest to pursue such an endeavor.  How sad that women can betray other women like this?

However, after folks began asking where the flyer originated – who posted it first, and was there a name associated with it – I’m thinking it is a hoax.  The first Facebook sighting seems to be on a page called Hasidic WTF that posts jokes and negative stories directed at the Hasidic community.  Perhaps they got it from WhatsApp or another social media platform, but certainly the flyer doesn’t seem to have been published in any Jewish newspaper or under any individual’s name.

The person who created it may have done so as a joke, or simply to spread negativity and cause people to rant against the frum world.  If so, it worked.  But if it is a hoax, it takes away from the real work of fighting for women’s rights and respect within Orthodoxy.  Every hoax chips away at the credibility of the very real issue of frum women being judged by their external appearances and fashion choices.

If anyone has any information about the authenticity of the original flyer and where it came from, please comment below.

ETA 11/3/17 10:11am – A friend (HT OF) just alerted me to a new flyer –


This is just getting more and more ridiculous – which makes me even more certain it’s one or more people/copycats getting in on the “joke.” If it is a joke, meant as an ironic statement against frum society, the joke itself is mysogynistic and can have a negative impact on women owned businesses.