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The Orthodox feminist revolution has finally arrived – in London

22 Jun

Here’s a piece I wrote that was just published in The Forward for a U.S. readership about  about finding life back in London surprisingly cheering after a few years living in New York – from a Jewish (Orthodox) feminist perspective.

Also includes an interview with JOFA UK ambassador, Dina Brawer.

Enjoy the read 🙂

The Orthodox Feminist Revolution Has Finally Arrived — in London

Landing back in the Jewish community of my home town of London, U.K., after five years living overseas, I have the heady sensation of being caught up in a full-blown feminist revolution.

Back in 2010 when I left for a four-year stint in the U.S. (followed by a year in Kenya), London felt like a neglected backwater languishing decades behind the great world centers of Orthodox feminism in Israel and the U.S. Women were relegated to the “ladies’ gallery,” looking down at all the action taking place in the men’s section of the synagogue, and “feminism” was still a dirty word in the Orthodox Jewish community.

There were some signs of grassroots activity — women’s megillah readings on Purim, monthly Rosh Chodesh women’s prayer services, and a training program set up for women to become community educators. But as for any perceptible change in women’s participation at synagogues affiliated with United Synagogue, the country’s largest network of mainstream Orthodox synagogues, it all felt a bit tame and apologetic.

A friend mentioned a partnership-style minyan (prayer groups that retain adherence to Orthodoxy but allow women to lead certain sections of the prayer service and the weekly Torah portion), which someone was setting up in their North London home. Apparently, you needed a masonic handshake to gain entry, though, given how controversial such a minyan was considered then.

And then I arrived in the epicenter of Orthodox Jewish feminism in the world — Riverdale, New York, where I lived for the next four years. Attending the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a synagogue where the first Rabba (Modern Orthodox woman rabbi), Sara Hurwitz, is on the clergy team, and where it’s no big deal for women to read from Torah scrolls on their side of the mechitza on Simhat Torah, or recite Kaddish during services, I saw how women’s active participation could be a seamless part of Jewish communal life.

I also saw how partnership minyans and Yeshivat Maharat, the first yeshiva to ordain women as Orthodox clergy, are creating basic facts on the ground, new norms for Orthodox communities.

Scroll forward five years and I arrived back in London fretting that I was about to go back to the Dark Ages.

How delighted I was to be proved wrong. I came back to a completely transformed landscape. JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) has set up shop in London, four proudly out-in-the-open and thriving Partnership Minyans are now established, and lately a group have come forward with plans to create a more egalitarian Modern Orthodox high school.

It seems to me so unexpected and exhilarating that I can walk five minutes down the road from my home in Golders Green, a largely Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in North-West London, and hear women leading sections of uplifting Shabbat prayer services run by the lively Golders Green partnership minyan.

Are British Jews finally ready to embrace change? Sally Berkovic, a prominent Orthodox feminist and author of “Under my Hat: An Orthodox Woman Speaks Out for Her Daughters,” says: “When my book was published 17 years ago, issues I touched on — women’s ritual participation and leadership…the challenges of an Orthodox feminist mother raising daughters — were all fresh and new ideas. Now, they’re virtually old hat — and part of the mainstream conversation.”

JOFA ambassador to the U.K., Dina Brawer — formerly a rebbetzin working alongside her then-community-rabbi husband, now training with Yeshivat Maharat to become the UK’s first Orthodox woman rabbi — sums up her experience launching JOFA in 2013: “I spoke to a few women already sympathetic to the cause…they all advised me not to use the word ‘feminism’ because it would be too radical for the U.K. community… or to associate with JOFA (for the same reason). I went ahead anyway.”

“I did not see that there were favorable conditions — on the contrary, but I felt that there was an urgent need for action to accelerate the growth of Orthodox women’s opportunities for involvement,” she adds, explaining how JOFA is enabling many “formerly marginalized women and girls” to find a new place for themselves in Orthodox Judaism.

While mainstream Orthodoxy is still resistant to much of JOFA’s philosophy, Brawer cites several important changes that the organization has engineered since its inception, including: “This is the first time individuals have felt empowered to create religious events outside the established structures, for example minyanim or ceremonies in their own homes to celebrate bat mitzvahs”.

Brawer also points out that the UK’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mervis has already implemented some of her suggestions, including her call for talented women to be given the opportunity to become community leaders independently of being married to rabbis. Mervis has recently launched the Ma’ayan Programme, a high-level qualification for women in laws of family purity and women’s health which, on completion, will enable them to take on leadership roles in Jewish communities.

JOFA is also running education programs for Jewish students on UK campuses, and an awareness-raising campaign about the Agunah and Gett abuse issue, among other activities.

A great time to be an Orthodox Jewish feminist in London.

Read more:


confessions of an orthodox feminist

28 Oct

Some musings of mine published recently on the Forward’s Sisterhood blog, which I haven’t written for for quite a while.

These thoughts were triggered after the whole shul (synagogue)-going binge over the high holidays, during which I came to the (disquieting) realisation that I, the supposed feminist, still feel a bit too at home in not very feminist-friendly shul settings.

Was pleased to see the article prompted a good flurry of comments, some of which attacked me for my complacency in this sphere.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the piece – click here for a link to the full article (and comments):


Confessions of an Orthodox Feminist

By Rebecca S

Over the recent (and somewhat endless) round of high holidays this year, I came to some disconcerting realizations about my attitude to shul-going as a woman and a feminist.

Coming from an orthodox background, I have realized that however much of a feminist I am, I still don’t feel comfortable in prayer settings of other denominations where real equality reigns. It’s a dismaying head-versus-heart dilemma, and I’m trapped by it. Why is it that I, a supposed 21st century feminist, still feel more at home in a segregated prayer service than at an egalitarian service where women are fully active participants, not just onlookers?

Again and again, I confess that I betray my feminist sensibilities by seeking out the comfort of orthodox shul settings. And I find myself squirreling away quietly behind the mechitza (the partition separating men and women) in the women’s section, instead of joining in the services as an equal participant, and as a real feminist should.

This year, for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, my husband and I chose to attend a small hasidic (“ultra-orthodox”) shul in our neighborhood of Riverdale, in the Bronx. We usually go to a more modern orthodox shul, which is very large and can be quite impersonal. But I yearned for a more intimate prayer experience — and also hoped the services might not drag on as long

heads, shoulders, knees and toes

21 Jul

The latest installment in the “extreme modesty” saga  is that girls three years old and above must now wear tights all year round when they attend kindergarten (pre-school).

This from a contact of mine whose family live in Stamford Hill, a hasidic community in London, where parents clothe their baby girls in tights from the tender age of three, and where kindergarten rules dictate this same vestimentary requirement. From doing some Googling, I understand that this is already the norm in some hasidic communities in Israel too.

Three-year-olds forced to wear tights the whole year round? I’ve had enough.

I accept – even if I don’t quite adhere to – the reality in orthodox Judaism that there are well-established halachot relating to a woman’s external modesty. Namely, that her elbows and knees must be covered at all times once she reaches bat mitzvah (coming of age at the age of 12). Within the orthodox community, these are universally accepted halachic requirements.

I’m not going to get into deconstructing these laws by arguing that they are merely the product of a long-gone patriarchal era when such rabbinical rulings reflected societal norms on modesty – although I could.

What I AM going to get my teeth into is the fact that what was once a clearly delineated line between the actual halacha, and the chumras, or stringencies which particularly devout Jews choose to take upon themselves, exists no longer. This line has now been utterly eroded by the religious establishment, so that the ever-increasingly draconian dictates on modesty issued by haredi rabbis are now taken on by their followers with the same vigour with which they observe the actual halacha. As I argued in my previous post becrying the hasidic communities who ban women from driving:

Indeed, it is the spurious conflation of these societal prohibitions or taboos – often involving dubious ways of repressing women in the name of modesty (women not driving, women having to shave their hair when they get married) – with real halachic prohibitions (such as not keeping Shabbat or kosher) that is the problem here. The women – and men – in these communities are not even taught the difference between real Torah prohibitions and community-specific interdictions. Thus, they grow into adulthood fully believing that if a woman learns to drive a car, she’s well-nigh breaking a Torah commandment.

So when you ask me what bothers me in this whole sorry story, it’s not just the feminist in me that protests (although believe you me, she’s raging mad), it’s also the Jew/person of religion in me that cries out against this insidious and entirely disingenuous slide within the orthodox Jewish world – and invariably in other faith communities too – that is allowing community leaders to create ever-more dazzling structures of power, control and prohibition under the guise of religious leadership.

Time to call time out perhaps? Hasn’t this gone just too far? These modesty ‘norms’ have reached immodest proportions. This business of swaddling every inch of a three-year-old baby girl’s  body – from her collar bone down to her feet – under the guise of a modesty ‘norm’, is not halacha, it is simply an abuse of her human rights.

This is what one woman wrote in the comments section on an Israeli blog posting entitled Hyper-Tzniut Fashions for Young Girls:

My girls (4 of them) have worn tights all year round since the age of three. If you start at this age, they get used to it, and you don’t have to battle with them at age 10+ to cover their legs.

All I can say is the time has come to blow my own cultural relativism quandary right out of the water. It is morally wrong to argue that we should accept these women’s religious choices. What we need to do is speak up against the religious establishment which is going about creating such oppressive norms.

I am nothing but depressed by this woman’s wholly dubious argument justifying her restrictive dress-code on her four daughters from the age of three.

What, so, following her logic, should we start covering a three-year-old girl’s hair too so she’ll get used to and won’t kick up a fuss later on when the time comes for her to get married? And while we’re at it, why don’t we force all three-year-olds to start fasting Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av too so they get used to deprivation from food and drink and won’t protest at Bar/Bat Mitzva age that they don’t want to fast?

(Or maybe my argument doesn’t even work here, seeing as what she’s priming her young daughters for – wearing tights – is not even a halachic requirement like fasting Yom Kippur.)

When and where will this madness end?

I propose a return to modesty and moderation on the part of the religious leadership of the orthodox Jewish community. Let’s stop this ever-increasing spiral into an Iran-style police state, where women – and baby girls’ – modesty is constantly scrutinized, and let’s get back to basics. Let orthodox women keep the halachot on modesty which are required and let’s all get on modestly with our own modest lives.

JOFA Conference – Jewish feminism speaks out

12 Mar

Am attending the JOFA Conference this weekend here in New York. This is the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance annual (biannual?) event, with probably 1000 participants and any ‘JOF’ of note (Blu Greenberg, Tamar Ross and other heavyweights, as well as newer arrivals such as Rabba Sara Hurwitz, who attracted so much news coverage in recent times because of her newly endowed title ‘Rabba’ – feminine of ‘Rabbi’)  in attendance.

It looks like a MASSIVE event, with sessions covering anything from sex slavery and human trafficking, ovulation, and Agunot (‘chained women’ who are denied a religious divorce from their husbands), to women’s leadership in Orthodox synagogues, prenup’ agreements and issues of prayer and ritual.

There’s also a film festival on the Saturday night, as well as a number of Jewish women artists displaying their work (including English artist Jacqueline Nicholls who’s bringing her wickedly subversive ‘Ladies Guild’ paper-cuts challenging rabbinic misogyny over the pond.)

Reassuringly to see  in the 21st Century, it looks like quite a lot of ‘JOF’ speakers are of the male variety. Phew, the message finally got across to the male half of the population that feminist issues are relevant to them too.

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