Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow?

Orthodox day school kids are currently undergoing a back-to-school ritual common across across all hashkafot – lice check. Nothing freaks us out more than the thought of our kids being exposed to nits and lice – and nothing helps nits and lice spread like wildfire than having a bunch of infested kids in close quarters bumping heads in crowded classrooms. Hence the regulatory hair check before being admitted to school in the fall.

Apparently, there is at least one girls’ school in Lakewood that is killing two birds with one stone when it comes to lice check. As long as they are checking hair anyway, lice check is also the perfect opportunity to enforce a mandatory hair length requirement. 

In a letter to the parent body, this school stated that in order to be admitted to this school, hair length may not exceed four inches past the collarbone, irrespective of how it is worn (loose or in a pony). One has to wonder what would happen if a girl came with hair that was too long? Would she and her mother be publicly called out and sent away, chastised and ashamed, for a haircut? 

First they went for the moms’ wigs, now they’ve gone after the daughters’ hair. That’s right, yet another new and arbitrary tznius rule is being imposed, this time directed at young girls.

Every new rule regarding tznius always has wider implications – simply because it’s an area where every school has to keep up with the Joneses. If a competing school doesn’t have this hair rule, now it will be seen as the “less frum” option. You can bet that next year a letter stating a similar requirement about hair length will go out to its own parent body. This standard will then slowly trickle down until it reaches schools that aren’t bais yaakov institutions and aren’t even made up of yeshivish families. Is this new rule merely yet another means of exclusion and exclusivity disguised as frumkeit?

Some people are saying that this is an example of the community’s enforced lack of autonomy and over- sexualization of minor girls that is causing young women to go off the derech. When girls have no means of creative expression over their appearance (nail polish, jewelry, hair styles, hair length, clothing), sometimes it causes them to act out in more serious ways. Don’t sweat the small stuff and give them some wiggle room to rebel over the insignificant things. There may come a time when hair length is the least of the worries.

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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.

To build a better world, tear the old one down

demoRebecca Ross shared a guest post on her blog written by a person whose goes by the pseudonym, Mark. Mark shares his experience of having a good friend gradually cut off contact with him upon becoming orthodox. Mark and his friend Jake went on a Birthright trip sponsored by a non-orthodox organization, and Jake had enjoyed the trip so much that he started shopping around for other similar Israel trips, since Birthright only allows you to go once. Jake found that opportunity through an orthodox rabbi who offered a complete Israel trip package for $500. What Mark and Jake didn’t know, was that the rabbi required participants to begin keeping a full Shabbos with frum families before allowing them to go on the trip. This requirement was not divulged in the beginning, although the rabbi did invite the boys to have Friday night dinner with his family, after which they were free to leave.

In the beginning, Mark joined Jake at the rabbi’s house for Friday night dinner, and then they would leave after the meal to go out to bars and clubs. Eventually, Mark would leave, but Jake would stay behind to sleep over at various family homes in the orthodox community. Jake also began attending religious classes at the rabbi’s school, where he was paid a $400 stipend to attend. Jake had initially only been interested in a cheap way to go back to Israel for some fun, but had slowly become indoctrinated by a kiruv professional who hooked young adults in with the promise of the trip, and gradually encouraged them to take on more mitzvot like Shabbos, kosher, and religious clothing before they would be allowed to go.

After Mark’s experience with Jake, he began to see a similar pattern in grooming that happened to other young people who also got involved with religious kiruv workers. The relationships started out simple and undemanding, but slowly suggestions that bordered on demands influenced the targets to abandon their former way of life, including their non-religious family and friends. Towards the end of the post, Mark talks about how he recently attended Jake’s wedding. The guest list and mood were divided between two camps – Jake’s new religious friends were ecstatic and smiling throughout the wedding – and Jake’s family and old friends were somber and wondering when Jake would finally wake up and go back to being their son, grandson, and friend again. Mark said it was the unhappiest wedding he’d ever seen, at least on one side of the room.

Mark brought up a good point that the frum community spends a lot of energy and tears over people who leave the community, called “going off the derech.” There are constant efforts and new organizations cropping up to prevent “people at risk” from leaving. However, there is no acknowledgment that going off the derech works the other way too. Just as there are orthodox people lamenting the loss of loved ones who have left the community, so too there are non-orthodox people crying over loved ones who left them behind to enter a teeming sea of black and white that quickly closes ranks behind them until they are as indistinguishable to their own kin as one wave is to another in the ocean.

Mark’s story rang a bell because a few months ago I ran into an old friend of mine from college. After exchanging pleasantries, she asked “What happened to you? You just fell off the face of the earth!” You see, she and our other friends from college have all stayed in touch. Some are scattered around the country, but they still make time to have in person reunions, and those who live close by still see each other fairly regularly. I’m the one dropped out. I’m also the only one who became orthodox.

My story is different from Mark’s friend because I was never involved in a formal program, or rather, I dabbled in a few programs, but was mainly anchored by my boyfriend’s/husband’s hashkafic guidance. When I started college and decided to seek out a Jewish communal space in the form of Hillel, like Jake, I didn’t set out to become religious. I enjoyed learning about Judaism, but meeting other Jewish peers and having fun was my primary purpose. When my non-religious friends and I learned more about traditional observance, it was absorbed in an academic way. It was interesting, but had little to do with my own life. It’s kind of like how I feel now about the chumrot or cultural practices of other orthodox groups different from my own – it’s interesting to learn about how other people, say, keep Pesach, but learning about their practices isn’t going to change my own.

When I started dating my husband, I had the best of both worlds. When I was with my non-religious family and friends, I lived life as I always had. When I was with my boyfriend, I had an insider’s pass to the orthodox world. Friday nights were girl’s night out, and Saturday nights were date night. I had a place to spend Jewish holidays, a shul to attend, and a multitude of classes on any given night of the week at the synagogues in my husband’s orthodox neighborhood. Any Jewish topic I wanted to learn about (from an orthodox perspective) was now within my reach. Although I only lived a few miles away from the heart of the orthodox community, I hadn’t even known that any of these resources existed. I hadn’t even known that there were special kosher restaurants – much less that Chicago had some! I quickly got to know all of the kosher venues (and quickly grew tired of them – going from a selection of thousands to a selection of maybe eight was a rough adjustment). However, anytime I wanted to go to a treif place I could go during my time with family and friends. With my boyfriend, I stuck to the kosher stores, kind of like my family does with me now.

When someone curious about orthodoxy first meets people in the community, they are praised and encouraged. I was made to feel really good about the interest I showed and the efforts I was putting into taking classes, reading books, participating in Shabbos and Yom Tov festivities, and learning about mitzvot. I can’t really recall when it was that my teachers and orthodox peers gradually started making it clear that being orthodox isn’t a choice, but the way that every Jew is supposed to live. It wasn’t enough to learn about the Torah and orthodox practices like one would study a textbook for an exam.

As a Jew, learning about mitzvot isn’t supposed to be like a sociological study of some remote tribe in the Amazon Rainforest. Every Jew must learn about the Torah with the idea that the commandments are incumbent upon each and every one of us. Even if we were raised in ignorance of our obligation, nevertheless, we are still obligated and accountable for our negligence. Of course, someone raised without Torah knowledge is like a child captive, and is less accountable for transgressions than one who was raised with proper instruction. However, the more we learn, the greater our obligation in the performance of the mitzvot. Pleading ignorance stops working as an excuse once you become educated.

For the first time, I had fear of Hashem. Before the revelation that I was accountable for transgressions I hadn’t even known were transgressions (I always understood the stuff about murder or stealing and the like – but those are common sense ethical mitzvot that fall under the category of – don’t be a criminal!). I never knew that I could go to hell for eating bacon, or wearing a tank top, or going out for Saturday morning brunch. I hadn’t really personalized the new information I had been learning, but I was now being confronted with that mistake from multiple sources. That message caused me to become introspective.

What did I want my life to look like? Knowing what I now knew, how could I go back to my old outlook before I had been introduced to orthodoxy? Wouldn’t I now have a constant sense of guilt and fear desecrating Shabbos or eating treif, whereas only a few months ago I was blissfully unaware of any misdeed? On the flip side, I was told that living a life dictated by Torah principles brought blessings down upon believers. For any rational person, the choice should be simple. If you want a directionless life that’s likely to derail without the guidance of Hashem, don’t be religious. If you want a life guided by the Creator’s blueprint for stability and joy, be religious.

I didn’t think of all of the seeming exceptions to this choice – like my own friends and family members who weren’t religious, but still good and ethical people. Their lives didn’t seem so miserable, and I highly doubted they were cursed. However, I think I chalked it up to the idea of ignorance. Ignorance is the protection a non-religious person has from being accountable. My eyes were no longer closed, and I was now being judged along with all the other believers. Choosing not to be religious – was now a choice; an active rebellion, whereas before being non-religious was simply who I was.

The problem was that I still loved my old world. I wasn’t disenchanted with society (that came in my 40s!), and I had built a support network of family, friends, and mentors, many of whom weren’t religious. I went from having several very close friends to having a few precarious new friendships. I had a routine, which included work and outings on Shabbos, and going out to eat at non-kosher restaurants. I had goals that would be harder to achieve because of the scheduling demands of a frum lifestyle. I had stability, but I was about to demolish the foundation. I suppose I adopted the philosophy that to build a better world, I had to tear down my old one.

It’s kind of like an alcoholic just out of rehab who must separate herself from her regular watering hole and her drinking buddies. There was just too much temptation to go back to my old life, and I needed to cut ties and surround myself with people who were living the life I aspired to emulate. Maybe I was afraid that the people I cared about, and who were probably as worried about me as Mark was about Jake, would talk me out of my determination.

The religious people I met didn’t seem to miss not going out on Shabbos, or wearing jeans, or eating deep dish pepperoni pizza at Gullivers. They didn’t seem to have trouble convincing their bosses to let them leave work early on Friday, or not to assign them a Saturday afternoon shift. They didn’t seem to have issues with midterms falling over Sukkot or Pesach. It was also helpful to talk to other baal teshuvot who were a few steps ahead of me, both for commiseration and tips on how to deal with those new challenges and relations with non-religious family members.

I didn’t handle things any better than Jake’s friend. I didn’t really know who I was anymore – I was undergoing a metamorphosis into a newly religious person – and the transformation was fragile. I definitely burned some bridges along the way, and distanced myself from once close relationships that never grew closer as I found my sea legs. That kind of thing happens when you disappear on someone – just because you might be ready to reengage doesn’t mean they are sitting around waiting for your call. There were definitely human casualties in my journey to frumkeit. I know that other people have handled it better – I have a friend who is still close with many of the non-religious and non-Jewish friends she grew up with.

However, most people I know who have become religious have similar stories to Jake’s and mine. Some are closer with their families than others, but many have long since lost touch with old school friends. While it’s not unusual to lose touch with school friends the farther out you get from graduation, the distinction here is the purposeful withdrawal from friends who might compromise your religious goals. Juxtaposed against those who grew up in the frum community and often keep in touch with their orthodox classmates for a lifetime, people who enjoy these lifelong friendships in the FFB community might be able to see how the absence of those friendships would be a major loss in a person’s life.

It’s true that no one forced me to give up or distance my relationships with my non-religious family and friends, but that is a common byproduct of radically changing your lifestyle from the one you were raised with. It’s the exact same reason why formerly religious people who adopt a non-religious lifestyle sometimes end up severing ties with everyone they used to be close to. While it’s more common in the frum community for the religious family to separate from the one who goes “off the derech,” it can also be the person themselves who makes a break. To remain in their community of origin would lead to the risk that they will be persuaded to come back to a life that they have decided they don’t want anymore.

At my age, I realize that building up and tearing down is constant enterprise throughout a person’s life. Sometimes the demolition is gradual, and sometimes subtle. Sometimes the razing is a choice, and sometimes it isn’t. The problem is that the particular shake up of joining a religious community often comes during a time of youth when a person is least equipped to balance the various relationships in their life gracefully. When you are younger, things are often black and white, all or nothing.

I can’t go back in time, and neither can Jake. I don’t know how old Jake is now, but I wonder if he will regret cutting himself off from his loved ones later in life? I wonder if older baalei teshuvot who lost touch with non-religious loved ones when they were younger end up wishing they hadn’t been so hasty? It’s not a subject most people talk about.

Preaching to the choir

choirWhen I started this blog, I started it for an audience of one. I wanted to reign in the tangled yarn of my thoughts into one solid skein that I could hold, turn over, or unravel and rewind if I had to. Along the way, I’ve encountered those who vehemently disagree with my opinions and those who validate my viewpoints and make me feel like maybe I’m not as crazy as I think I am. Sometimes these assenting or dissenting voices come from the same person depending on the topic.

I’ve made some mistakes along the way. Sometimes I overstated my case, or was too quick to judge. Sometimes I felt that an injustice or some form of discrimination needed to be called out, and since no one else was speaking up, I would be the one to do it. Giving voice to the voiceless, and all that jazz.

I still don’t know which has more merit – being the one to bring attention to disturbing circumstances, or being the one who recognizes injustice, but sits back and waits for someone else to speak up. It’s much easier to merely click a like button than actually be held accountable for bringing the situation to light.

I do believe in the concept of what goes around comes around, because I’ve seen it and experienced it. You can call it karma, divine retribution, or less ominously, the world mirroring back to you what you have shown to others for the benefit of self-reflection. Recently I was shown that mirror through the trials and tribulations of social media, and I’ve taken heed.

For the most part, I’ve been preaching to the choir. While I’m very grateful that there is a like-minded choir to preach to, what I have realized, is that people only change if they want to change. Anyone who is opposed to my opinions will remain opposed, no matter how eloquently I attempt to make my case. People turn a deaf ear to viewpoints they consider treif. When an argument is dismissed as being born from secular culture, it is invalid, and therefore, no consideration for change is merited.

Additionally, many of us won’t practice what we preach when it comes to compassion toward hot button social issues such as child abuse, people going off the derech, homosexuality, the shidduch minefield, drug and alcohol abuse, inclusion of people with mental or physical health issues, women’s rights, etc. Words cost nothing, but actions can cost a great deal.

As fast as many of us are to step up on our social media soapbox and condemn discrimination and injustice in our society, many of us would be equally fast, for example, to squash a shidduch suggestion for our child with someone who has experienced sexual abuse, a chronic health issue, or a sibling who is gay. Sometimes an issue we can be tolerant about from afar, is an issue we can’t abide by close to home.

Conversely, continuing the shidduch example, there are sometimes valid considerations for not wanting a child to marry someone who, for example, has an extensive history of drug addiction and relapse, or a history of medical non-compliance for severe mental health issues. Not wanting a child to be subjected to that kind of uncertainty and tumult isn’t being discriminatory, it’s simply being a concerned parent. The devil is in the details, although such considerations might also be labelled intolerant by the social media peanut gallery.

It makes me wonder about our current culture of online lynching. Social media is the new Wild West, and frontier justice is alive and well. So many viral condemnations are started by the dissemination of partial truths and half told stories. There’s no doubt it’s entertaining to watch the sparks fly and the responses flood in at a dizzying pace in the name of public outrage. However, once the storm subsides and interest wanes, was anything actually accomplished? When the old outrages are buried under the weight of the new ones in our Facebook feeds, can we justify the harsh words read and written by claiming they promoted change? Most of the time, the only thing accomplished was machlokes and gossip.

Again, those who were already sensitive to the general issues being publicized will continue to be sensitive to those wrongs brought to light. Those who were unaware, and willfully so, will continue their backlash against those who try to shine a light on perceived injustices. Change has to be initiated by the individual’s own desire to change. Those who aren’t open to it won’t do an about face because of online shaming – especially if they feel that their position is God’s position. Adding religious righteousness into the mix only intensifies someone’s unwillingness to see another side, particularly if they feel that the other side is unquestionably against halacha or mesorah, which are one and the same in many Orthodox minds.

Since starting this blog and monitoring the Jewish news and social media, I have seen the same issues come up repeatedly over the past few years. Often, the same controversial spiritual and community leaders are called to task over their latest rantings or proclamations. Nothing really changes though – despite their detractors there are always more followers continuing to support even the most provocative of spiritual gurus. On an individual level, I’m sure some people have shifted in their thinking. I know I have. However, on a communal level, I haven’t seen a universal shift.

I know that change happens slowly. For example, there is a growing call to report sexual abuse cases to the police in Orthodox communities, even in communities where such reporting was practically unheard of only a few years ago. Rabbinic leaders are changing their minds on how to handle abuse cases in light of new information on how sex offenders often re-offend and how permanently scarring such abuse is to victims.

Another example of change is how women are slowly, albeit controversially in some cases, taking up leadership roles in Orthodox religious life. It is getting to the point where any Orthodox religious body that speaks out against advancements for women or scorns the idea of women in positions of spiritual leadership will be swiftly condemned, and so the language and tone coming from Orthodox clergy is getting tamer – even if the basic message of resistance is essentially the same.

Nothing happens overnight, yet that is exactly what social media users demand – instant satisfaction. I readily admit to subconsciously hoping for immediate resolution to the social ills I’ve dwelt upon. It’s not possible. Many of the problems that plague our communities took decades to develop. They won’t instantly disappear with the rantings of one angry person, or even several angry people, no matter how quickly a viral post spreads.

So this leaves me back to where I started – back to an audience of one – which is the only audience that really matters anyway. It’s appropriate that I should be examining my own heart, writing to detangle my thoughts, and thinking about where I stand on societal and spiritual issues. However, writing or ranting about my views online has a limited long term impact. It’s actions and not words that matter most. As 2016 approaches, I hope that I can have a greater impact by doing rather than saying. The audience might be smaller, but the results of offline actions have a better chance of yielding long term results. Words are important and have their place, but sometimes words come too easy. As they say, nothing worth having ever comes easy.

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.