Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Facts of real, virtual life

The following was originally published at the Ma'yan blog.

 I spend, conservatively, seven to eight hours on a normal school day in front of my laptop. I wake up and roll from bed into my desk chair to check Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, email, and a whole host of blogs. I communicate with friends via Facebook chat and text throughout my day, and am constantly refreshing my social media feeds. Teenagers get a lot of flack for our reliance on technology, and it’s trendy to idealize “technology fasts” – Romemu, a popular Manhattan synagogue, eschewed all email communication for the duration of Passover this year as a way to “ recognize the real chametz in our lives” -- and talk about “escaping” from the pressure of our screens.

Teenagers, especially teenage girls, are mocked for our communications via social media; the girl snapping a selfie for her friends, texting at a superfast rate, is a caricature, vapid, unworthy of being taken seriously. She is disengaged from the world around her, focused instead on insubstantial words and images behind flat glass. When the Oxford English Dictionary named “selfie” the Word of the Year for 2013, the mainstream media was inundated with denunciations of the self-obsessed millennial. A recent Allstate ad threatens adults: teenage girls on their phones will wreck your car! At Shabbat lunches, family events, and in high school classes, adults I admire (and those I don’t!) make snide comments about tech-obsessed teenagers. These critiques, however, is both ageist and sexist.

On an almost daily basis, I have discussions about gender, race, sexuality, and Judaism. These conversations don’t usually happen “irl;” rather, I and both close friends and relative strangers debate and explore via the internet. There are days when I have typed what would amount to pages and pages of text about Jewish marriage, or gender roles, or discrimination. I have learned and grown and formed lasting friendships entirely through dialogue carried on through technological means.

As a person whose feminist activism is in large part done through blogging as well as instant messaging and Facebook comment threads, I find dismissal of the internet as a forum for dialogue and political consciousness-raising to be incredibly elitist. Very few people have access to the halls of power, the opportunity to be published in print media or speak before a large group. The media is dominated by people who are older, usually male and white, and who have attained a certain level of education. But because of the internet, I, as seventeen-year-old, have been able to share my opinions and experiences with a huge range of people -- the internet is democratic, a forum for the voices of groups that are marginalized or not taken seriously in the wider world. My experiences, for example, as a teenage girl who observes traditionally “male” mitzvot, is a rare one, and one that I believe is crucially important to share in the quest to create a more just and equal Judaism, and a more just and equal world.

As a young women, I have bonded with peers and mentors digitally, and been given tremendous opportunities to have my voice heard, and to hear the voices of other marginalized groups and individuals. Because of the internet, The internet has given me an entrance into public discourse, and a chance to be taken seriously and to take others more seriously. On Facebook, I engage in conversation with other young people about the future of feminist, observant Judaism; we network about our lives, share our challenges, and create connections that strengthen our drive and ability to make change. On Twitter, I follow and engage with writers, feminists, and other adults I look up to and learn from; sometimes, they retweet or respond to me, and I am richer for every tweet. On Tumblr, I learn about the experiences of people whose lives are radically different from my own, and have gained sensitivity to and knowledge of my continuing need to educate myself about, the issues of racism, classism, transphobia, ableism, and more. (I also reblog pictures of people with cool hair and countless Harry Potter GIFs.) As a blogger, I have a broader platform than I would have had in any other period of history with any other resources; as a young woman, I get to share my experiences with others in a way that has potential to make an impact on the world.

Stories and images of women who perform Jewish ritual often conceived of as male, like wearing tzitzit and laying tefillin, are few and far between in most corners of the Jewish world, and were in my life as well. Via blogs and social media, I and other women who perform these mitzvot have begun to form a community. This community serves a dual purpose. Firstly, we women feel less alone, and even as we face stigma in out non-virtual lives, we know that we are not alone. Secondly, the internet gives us the power to spread awareness of our existence; when women in ritual garments are more visible, the idea of what an observant Jew looks like shifts in the communal imagination, and women who may previously have rejected tzitzit and tefillin feel more comfortable taking them on.

I am traditionally Shabbat-observant, which means that I take a “technology fast” for twenty-five hours, every week. I eat meals with my family, spend time with friends, and read interesting books. I also run for my computer the second Shabbat ends. I run to check with my friends about their Shabbat, to check up on news and blogs, to engage with even more parts of the world that I care about. I have no shame about this mad dash back to the internet -- I do not glorify my time spent away from that forum of discourse any more than I glorify the time I spend away from friends who do not live locally. They are facts of my life, facts which are sometimes positive and sometimes negative, but all part of my rich, full, life. The virtual components of my life are no less real.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Creating Community for Tefillin-Laying, Tzitzit-Wearing Women

 The following was originally published as a guest post at Star of Davida (one of the blogs that inspired me to start writing!)

    A few years ago, I began to think about the possibility of wearing tzitzit and laying tefillin. As a curious fourteen-year-old, naturally the first place I went to explore this idea was the internet. But when I searched for "women and tefillin," I found only articles explaining why women do not wear tefillin, and "women and tzitzit" turned up "tzitzit belts" marketed by messianic Christians. In the past few months, the Jewish news and blogosphere has exploded with stories of young women laying tefillin. It has been my great joy to be a part of these stories, and I hope that now, when some young woman Googles "women and tefillin," she is met

    This press coverage, however, is not enough. The driving force behind my decision to finally begin observing these mitzvot was my female role models. Conversations with female teachers solidified my beliefs and strengthened my resolve, and when I finally screwed up the courage to lay tefillin, it was a woman who taught me. The number of women interested in tzitzit and tefillin, however, is small (but growing!) and not concentrated in one place. Many women, including myself, often feel alone, and this makes it even harder to muster up the courage to stand out by doing mitzvot.

    It is for this reason that I have founded V’Tzivanu: Women, Tefillin, and Tzitzit. V’Tzivanu is a forum for the publication of women’s writing about their experiences with tefillin and tzitzit. Our first post, from Jen Talyor Friedman, a soferet who writes tefillin, went up yesterday, and upcoming posts explore women’s relationship to tzitzit and tefillin in light of motherhood, veganism, family custom, and more. It is my great hope that V’Tzivanu will be a resource for girls and women who fear that they are alone, and for the broader Jewish community. There can never be too many women's stories in the world, nor mitzvot.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Feminism as a Moral Necessity: Open Orthodoxy's Failure

In the past thirty years, the liberal Modern Orthodox community has made great strides in the area of women's ritual inclusion. Many shuls now have women's tefillah groups, where women have intimate access to the order and liturgy of the service. Girls have their bat mitzvahs in such groups, making it more and more normative for girls to learn to read the Torah with cantillation as a rite of passage, giving them a layer of Jewish literacy beyond what they would gain from simply having a party and delivering a speech. Partnership minyanim have increasingly become accepted, and in these settings mothers as well as fathers are honored with aliyot at the bar and bat mitzvahs of their children. In both of these prayer spaces, which self-define as Orthodox, women have numerous opportunities to participate in and have access to the service. So what could be the problem with this?
Women of the Wall conduct a women's tefillah service at the Kotel.

The issue is twofold. Firstly, Orthodox feminist prayer spaces of both styles are primarily defined by "women can't." Women's tefillah is carefully designed to avoid having women lead certain prayers; since women are not considered full halakhic adults, no matter how large the group of women, they cannot say Kaddish, Kedusha, or Barchu, and many groups do not recite the blessings for the reading of the Torah. A great number of these prayer communities rely on a rabbi for halakhic advice; his primary role is to dictate what women may not do in their services. Partnership minyanim allow women to lead certain parts of the service, but not Shacharit or Musaf, the primary components of Shabbat morning tefillah. Women cannot receive the first three aliyot, and while some partnership minyanim wait for ten women and ten men before beginning prayer, women cannot count as part of the ten adults who must be present.

Secondly, Open Orthodoxy is very tentative about the issue of "women must." There is no language of obligation surrounding women's ritual practice; women are permitted and often encouraged to "take on" mitzvot that they are considered exempt from, but the exemption itself is not evaluated. Liberal Orthodox women, as a group, do not wear tallitot or tzitzit or lay tefillin, and are not communally encouraged to. Girls are offered lulavim and etrogim on Succot, but are not required to carry them like their male peers are. This lack of obligation results in a group of committed Jews who are much more inclined to skip a day of shaking lulav, or show up to shul only for kiddush.

The root of these two problems is the failure of Open Orthodoxy to engage with feminism as an absolute moral imperative. When feminism is viewed as a value that can add to a community, that will enhance women's religious and spiritual lives, its key message is weakened. Instead of seeing feminism as a critique of the absolute injustice of treating half of the Jewish people as less than full halakhic adults, feminism is seen as a favor to the female half of the community. As long as feminism is ignored as a moral demand, the Open Orthodox community will not analyze halakha in such a way so as to fully enfranchise women. As long as feminism is viewed as a bonus instead of a basic necessity, Open Orthodoxy is not a truly movement towards women's equality.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Hitting My Head on the Mechitza

I have a long-held policy of avoiding non-feminist prayer spaces as much as possible. This manifests in my choice to pray in the morning at school in the group that is not part of the "main mechitza minyan," but rather just a
few girls in a classroom, and my sleep late, pray alone Shabbat mornings. The avoidance of my family's
shul and school davening is a conscious decision, made with a lot of thought; during some of my initial religious feminist struggles, I chose, to entirely misuse and distort Sheryl Sandberg's advice, to lean in. I arrived at shul early on Shabbat morning and prayed all of the prayers. At school, I attended the main minyan and davened seriously, following along and answering the chazzan out loud. But after a month or so, I realized that despite all my efforts to focus on prayer, I always ended up sitting and stewing to myself, hating the religious systems and community I was trying so hard to insert myself into. Thus followed my flight from shul.
For some, the epitome of Rosh HaShana imagery.

For the last year or so, my private prayer practice has been spotty at best. Try as I might, I just can't summon up the enthusiasm to daven. I tell people that I'm constitutionally not a davener, that a struggle with a difficult page of Talmud is much more spiritual for me, and it's true. But when I daven, I don't mind it; it's finding the motivation to begin, to add it to my routine, that's the struggle. Community also helps; whenever I find myself in a feminist/egalitarian prayer space, I'm always a little surprised to be reminded that I don't hate shul -- I just hate sexist shuls.

All this struggle and introspection leads me to Rosh HaShana, two of the three days a year when shul attendance is practically compulsory. Even more than that third day, Yom Kippur, I really HAD to go to synagogue on Rosh HaShana, to fulfill my obligation to hear the shofar blown. The first day wasn't so bad; I walked in ten seconds before the first round of blasts, stayed for that and to pray the individual, silent Amidah, and then promptly left until the shofar was next blown. I was surprised and delighted by my ability to fluently read the Hebrew that I struggled through last year; it was heartening evidence that my Jewish texts skills are improving. I also changed some of the male God-language to the feminine form, and when I alternated male and female verb forms, the liturgy seemed much less objectionable. I especially liked the juxtaposition of extreme divine power with feminine God-language.

The other shofar blasts were interspersed with a few pages of liturgy, recited by the chazzan -- I read my volume of Mishna during that part, and on the whole it was tolerable. The second day, however, I made it into shul five fateful minutes earlier. Those five minutes were Hachnasat Sefer Torah, the returning of the Torah scrolls to the ark.

Those five minutes epitomized all the reasons I stopped going to shul in the first place. Men were honored, paraded around this sacred object that they seemed to have exclusive claim to, and male voices dominated the auditory space. Even during congregational singing portions, women were quiet, leaving only the deeper rumble of their husbands, fathers, and sons to fill the room. Coupled with this, my family had seats in the front row of the women's section, and the glass-topped mechitza ended right in the middle of my field of vision when I stood up in the heels I was wearing; the way it cut across my line of sight gave me a pounding headache. This inauspicious start left me feeling grumpy and uncharitable, generally a bad state of mind on Rosh HaShana. I followed the same patterns in prayer (and leaving prayer) that I had the day before, but I was unable to appreciate the liturgy or really feel that it had meaning. Instead, I spent most of the time that I stood with my machzor reading -- and changing -- the words and resenting all the men in the room; their wives were doctors and lawyers, and they felt no cognitive dissonance when the considered consigning them to the back of the room!?

What was most frustrating for me was that when I bowed at the beginning of the Modim section of the Amidah, I all but hit my head on the glass mechitza in front of me, something that's happened to me many times in the years my family has sat in the front row (more often then not, my head really does make contact, painfully, with the glass). The designer of the space made the front row too close to the mechitza, a simple, inadvertent gesture that showed that whoever designed the women's section wasn't thinking about the  real, live, women who would pray there, swaying and bowing. That little injustice made the larger injustices seem all the harsher.

Now, I'm left still resentful of the entire congregation of people, men and women, who are blind to the injustice they perpetuate. By avoiding shul for a while, I had avoided that unpleasant feeling, and I have no regrets about that, nor do I plan to change my general practice of avoidance. But I'm left with this inability to forgive the blindness. I can't in good conscience go into Yom Kippur in this same shul feeling the way I do about its members, but nor can I forgive them. I'm left hitting my head against the mechitza, a solid expanse in front of me that everyone else looks through and ignores.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Guest Post #1: Men and Feminism

 This post was written by my friend and male feminist, Josh Rosenbaum.
            It took me until tenth grade to begin associating with the feminist movement. I don’t let myself live that down. Feminism encompasses so much of what I stand for. It is a movement based solely on the concept that every person that God created deserves equal rights and opportunities. Does the fact that I didn’t start calling myself a “feminist” until tenth grade mean I wasn’t pro-equality until then? No. I know I was. But what was it then? Why hadn’t I associated? The answer is simple – I was scared. I was scared because I knew my views aligned directly with this movement, but this movement, the word “feminist” itself, carried and carries such a poor connotation -- especially considering my own gender. It took me until tenth grade to see past that. I came to the realization that this connotation was based off of lies and misunderstandings. I realized that there had been other times in my life when I had to do something like this, and there were sure to be more in the future. Take my support for Israel, for instance. Much of the media, unfortunately, has a tendency to portray Israel in a negative light. I see past this, though, and remain an avid supporter and advocate for the state. Why? Because I know that although no movement is flawless, it’s what is right. I realized that, especially as a male, I have to be above the social constructs of inequality and injustice, no matter the opposition. And so, I began associating.
            Joining a movement brings upon an odd phenomenon – you begin to see your movement in everything. You start seeing things that are wrong – in everything. Such was me with feminism. As I began to pay more attention in the day to day and see more and more things that were wrong, I found myself becoming further and further immersed in feminism. Things that I hadn’t paid much notice to were all of a sudden becoming issues. The way I thought, the way I acted, and the people and movements I associated with had to change.
            In my case, though, there is another factor that is crucial to my involvement in the feminist movement -- that being, I’m a guy. I feel the impact of this in my interactions both inside and outside the feminist movement. From the outside, I’m barraged with questions. “You’re a guy and a feminist. How does that even make sense?” “You do realize no one is oppressing you, right?” “You understand that male privilege comes to our advantage, right?” And then from the inside, where, until recently, I “often found myself isolated in a female-dominated movement.”
            Judgments from others aside, logistically being a male feminist has its differences. In Orthodox minyanim, I’m not boxed away and prohibited from being involved in any part of the congregational services. I don’t have that perspective. I’ll never know what it’s like to do equal work and receive unequal pay. I’m not oppressed. I’ll never be lied to and told that because of my gender’s “holiness,” I’m not allowed to connect with God in certain ways. I’m privileged. I’m lacking a perspective. I just don’t understand. But yet, for some reason, I began to feel uncomfortable in Orthodox minyanim. I felt uncomfortable with my privileges. I felt that I don’t deserve the things I’m guaranteed because of a biological difference between me and my far more deserving female friends. I felt bothered by the male chauvinism that is so apparent in daily life. I felt disgusted by the social constructs of patriarchy. But worst of all, I felt guilty. I felt guilty that my gender is the oppressor. I felt guilty that I had spent so long basking in my male privilege; getting an aliyah and thinking nothing of it, walking around the streets at night and feeling safe, having no struggle getting dressed in the morning. I felt guilty that I couldn’t have those perspectives.
            Soon, though, I began looking at things differently. I began seeing my gender as an advantage. I have an in. I have a real opportunity to stand up and be noticed. My feminism, as a male, makes people ask questions and think. And when people ask questions, I have an opportunity to defend myself, and maybe even to win them over. Male involvement in the feminist movement is crucial to furthering the cause. Feminism needs men, and men need feminism. Men need feminism to finally, finally, reach that point of equality that any honest and God-loving person must strive for. So please, my male peers, don’t watch the fight from the sidelines. Don’t let it go. Don’t even quietly cheer us on, under the impression that we’ll win without you. Understand the impact that you can have, as a male, but also just as you. You bring something to the table that no one else does, because they’re not you. You may be such an integral piece to the puzzle. If you believe in equality, and you believe that there’s no reason you should be more privileged than anyone else because of what’s in your pants, do what’s right. Make that leap, and everything will flow from there. Associate.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

No Big Deal: Egalitarian Minyanim

This past Shabbat, I was privileged to be able to attend an egalitarian minyan hosted by friends, the first prayer gathering of this sort my community has seen. Their living room was overflowing with people, men and women. There were about twice as many women as men; this, to me, seems easily understandable, as the majority of participants in the minyan were members of Orthodox synagogues, and men are more likely to already feel comfortable and not seek out an alternate prayer setting.

Men and women reading from the Torah at an "egal minyan."
The minyan was, in some ways, a new experience for me. I have prayed many times in partnership minyanim, Orthodox settings divided by a mechitza, where women lead certain parts of the service, read from the Torah, and are able to be called up to the Torah to recieve aliyot. However, this minyan based itself on the halakhic article written by Rabbis Ethan Tucker and Micha'el Rosenberg, which lays out in great detail the reasons why it is permissible to count women in a minyan and for women to lead all parts of the service. Additionally, while men and women sat separately, there was no physical partition.

When I arrived, the young son of the hosting family was running around counting "grown-ups." Upon seeing myself and my mother come in, he called to his mom, "We have seven grown-ups now!" His mom corrected him, saying, "Avigayil counts as a Jewish grown-up too." I was blown away by this, first that the young boy has been raised so that he excluded me not based on my gender but merely my age, and secondly the simple fact that, for the first time in my sixteen years of serious Jewish commitment, I was helping to make a minyan. This didn't feel at all foreign or inappropriate; I was a serious, committed Jew, coming to pray. Of course I should count!

When we prayed, Shacharit was led by a woman (in Orthodox circles, even partnership minyanim, this central prayer is always led by a man), and I answered Amen to Kaddish, Barchu, and Kedushah, the primary components of prayer, which I was hearing for the first time in a voice that sounded like my own. Again, this didn't feel at all earth-shattering or groundbreaking; a Jew was leading other Jews in prayer. That was it.

I was given the honor of recieving an Aliyah, and I was given shlishi, the third portion. Not only was the portion read for me the one featuring that amazing Daughters of Tzelofchad demanding equality, in many partnership minyanim, shlishi is always given to a man.

I was reminded, as I sat for three hours in prayer, that it is not prayer itself which I dislike, that makes me squirm, but the sexist trappings in which prayer so often is encased. The egalitarian minyan confirmed all of my previously-held beliefs about Judaism. Tradition is not lost when women are included. Tefillah feels the same when led by a woman. Women are fully functioning adults in society, and that status should not change when we walk into a place of prayer.

Egalitarian minyanim are not earth-shattering. They are a natural evolution of the acknowledgement of women's full humanity.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Five-Year-Old Me Would be Grateful: On Yeshivat Maharat's Inaugural Graduation

    At the age of five, I created plans for what was to me an ideal society for myself and other children. I decided that we would build small houses in my backyard, and “grown-ups” would only be allowed when we needed them to cook. Being the detail-oriented, slightly controlling child I was, I stood at my mother’s elbow and dictated a document to her that described this backyard metropolis. Upon cleaning my room recently, I found this typed page, titled “Kidville.” Its most striking sentence reads: “Only girls can be rabbis. This is because no one lets girls be rabbis right now.” Later, I declare that, “there are rabbi classes for rabbis. Only girls can be in the rabbi classes.”

    Were I the same young Orthodox girl eagerly creating that plan today, I likely would have designated “rabbi” as an equal opportunity job; in 2013, there is not only an Orthodox female spiritual leader, but an entire school for, as I put it eleven years ago, “rabbi classes” for women, one that graduated its first class this Sunday. Yeshivat Maharat is the first school to train Orthodox women as halakhic, spiritual, and Torah leaders (Maharat is an acronym that stands for just that).

    During the graduation ceremony (which I watched streaming online), countless references were made to the historic significance of the event, and the way having officially ordained female leaders is a major change in the landscape of Modern Orthodoxy. As a teenager who aspires to, if I do not attend Yeshivat Maharat myself, see my friends and sister attain the levels of learning and leadership the institution provides, these statements were especially moving. I’m not a big crier, but I teared up when at the end of the ceremony, Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the yeshiva’s founder and dean, mentioned that young girls will now see women leading, and be able to aspire to fill the same role.

    Due to the hard work and courage of the groundbreaking leadership, students, and graduates of Yeshivat Maharat who, in the words of newly ordained Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold, “stand on the shoulders of those women who first cracked open a gemara,” little girls like me will no longer feel a need to create affirmative-action-style worlds in which girls can only lead in a fantasy. We will know that it is not just something to play at, but a real, viable, valuable career.

The newly ordained Maharatot and their teacher. From left to right: Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rachel Kohl Finegold, Abby Brown Scheier, and Rabba Sara Hurwitz

The Yeshivat Maharat Inaugural Graduation Ceremony can be watched via this link.