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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: http://forward.com/sisterhood/342458/the-orthodox-feminist-revolution-has-finally-arrived-in-london/#ixzz4CKuAQjU7

Single, Orthodox – and a mother?

2 May

I recently interviewed Dina Pinner, co-founder and co-director of an amazing Jerusalem-based organisation, KayamaMoms, that supports single religious Jewish women to become mothers.

Here’s the Q&A – published in The Sisterhood column of The Forward:

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Q&A — Dina Pinner of KayamaMoms Talks Motherhood for Single Orthodox Women

“I’m 41, religious and single. I’m not prepared to give up on motherhood and I’m also not prepared to give up on my halakhic devotion. If I can’t have a partner, at least I should have a child.”

With this impassioned plea, Aviva Harbater opened up the 2011 inaugural conference of KayamaMoms, a Jerusalem-based organization set up to support religious women anywhere on “the single mother by choice journey”.

Five years later, KayamaMoms can take credit for some 48 babies born to single mothers, and for creating a unique supportive community for these alternative families. The organization provides information on pregnancy and adoption, advice on financial planning and parenting, and runs seminars and regular support groups.

The Sisterhood recently interviewed KayamaMoms co-founder and co-director Dina Pinner, originally from the U.K. and living in Jerusalem for many years now.

Rebecca Schischa: How did KayamaMoms come about?

Dina Pinner: I was 37 and a friend sent an informal email round saying: “We’re all single and none of us is getting any younger — let’s have children and form a community.” I thought: “Why not?” We met at the home of one woman — who already had children on her own — and sat around the table discussing it. But it was completely non-committal. We met again a few months later and this time we said: “OK, let’s organize a conference.”

Together with my co-founders / co-directors, Yael Ukeles and Dvora Ross (and another woman who since left the group and got married), we spent a year planning, and our inaugural conference took place in November 2011.

And during this time, I met my partner! I was meant to be setting up this thing with single women and I felt kind of bad. Finally, about three months after we met, I emailed the others and said: “I’ve met someone, can I still be involved?”

How does KayamaMoms support single women to become moms?

We run two separate monthly meetings. One is for anyone on the journey to becoming a single mother by choice — to talk, ask questions, think out loud.

The other is for moms and kids. It’s important for the kids to meet up and realize that although their family does not look like other families, there are others just like theirs. It’s also important for our moms to have a safe space to talk. Single mothers by choice have particular challenges. One mom said when she was pregnant with her second child, her doctor told her not to carry anything heavy. She laughed and asked the doctor: “Can you carry my child and my shopping for me?”

We’re an international organization and have two secret Facebook groups, one in Hebrew and one English. We have women from the U.S., England, Europe, all over the place. I’ll be in New York and London in the next few months and hope to organize meetings in both places.

Have attitudes changed towards single mothers by choice in the religious community in Israel?

We knew we had become mainstream when my friend — who always tells me about Yossi, the janitor at the big organization where she works, who’s been saying to her for years: “Nu, when are you getting married?” — called me up and said: “You cannot believe what just happened to me! Yossi said to me: ‘What are you waiting for? Go have a baby! Haven’t you heard — religious women are having babies on their own now!’” We knew we had arrived then.

What kind of issues do single moms by choice describe?

The single mother by choice story is a beautiful story, which our moms pass on to their kids: “I was willing to do absolutely everything to have you.” All the kids know their stories. But situations do come up. One member described a conversation with her son. They were in the car and he said out of the blue:

“Yuval’s got an abba [dad], Can I have an abba?” At first she panicked…but then she remembered how to approach the subject: “Yes, Yuval’s got an abba — what did you notice about his abba that made you think you wanted one?” “Well, Yuval’s abba helped him learn to ride a bike. Who’s going to help me learn to ride a bike?” “OK, no problem, we’re going to speak to Saba [grandpa] tomorrow and he’s going to teach you how to ride a bike too.”

Are there any halakhic issues involved in single women becoming mothers?

There are rabbis who have said we are “destroying the Jewish family”. But there is no halakhic prohibition. Our rabbi-advisor, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, says that a woman shouldn’t really go into this before she’s around 34, as she should make “a gallant effort” to get married first. He says that ideally women should use non-Jewish sperm to prevent any issues later on of yichus [when someone could inadvertently marry a sibling]. But some women prefer to use Jewish sperm. It’s a personal choice.

Any final thought?

Alternative families are not going away anywhere, and either we can embrace them or we can make them and their children feel rejected. It’s the choice of the rabbi of each community as to what message they want to send out: that the unmarried and the childless should be ignored or that they should be embraced.

Interview with Jerry Springer

11 Apr

A recent journalism career highlight, on a mundane Monday afternoon:

My mobile phone rings:

“Hi, Is this Rebecca? This is Jerry Springer.”

“Oh hi, Jerry, great to speak,” I answer casually, heart thumping madly inside.

Delighted to present my interview with the legendary Springer in the latest edition of Jewish Renaissance. He was an absolutely fab interviewee, with tons of interesting stories to tell. Shame I had such a strict word limit, so had to be very selective with my write-up.

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My top four work highlights of 2015- freelance writer, editor, translator, blogger…

22 Feb

New year’s resolution for 2016: I’ve been working as a freelance writer, editor and (French-to-English) translator for a few years now, and 2016 is the year I’ve decided for ramping up my business.

Stage 1 in this process is a good dose of self-promotion – so allow me to introduce my professional self, through my top four work highlights from the last calendar year (and a it) – further information on what kind of work I do and my contact details follow below:

1. Launching into B2B copywriting 

Being a trained journalist and editor, I’ve recently branched out into the field of copywriting for the corporate sector, and was hired for a great job in 2015, writing marketing copy in the form of case studies / success stories for a multi-national business training company.

2. Translating a full-length cookery book for an avant-garde French chef into English

I have translated lots of shorter-length materials before, including website copy, academic writing, news stories and features, but 2015 was the year I translated a whole cookbook into English: A different perspective on cooking, written by Jérôme Fesquet, a French chef with a penchant for healthy eating. It was a satisfying and intellectually stimulating job.

3. Seeing the end-result of a memoir I’ve been working on as writing coach and editor

An ongoing project I’ve had in the last couple of years has been working as writing coach and editor for a New York-based client writing a memoir on healing from an eating disorder. Well, late 2015 saw the book finally complete – and both of us happy with the end-result. She is now putting the final touches to the book and pitching it to agents and publishers. Here’s hoping to see the memoir published in 2016.

4. My first ever cover story as a freelance journalist:

I’ve written a fair amount of arts reviews and features in the last few years, but it was only last year that I got my first ever cover story – for Jewish Renaissance magazine– about “This Place”, French photographer Frédéric Brenner’s huge collaborative project exploring the complexities of Israel and the Palestinian territories. It was a great moment opening the magazine when it arrived in the post and seeing the front cover.

Here’s a link to some of my other published work as a freelance journalist.

Finally – where do YOU come in?

Please get in touch to discuss your writing or editing needs (or if you know someone who is looking for some help, please send them my way too). Here’s the kind of work I specialise in:

  • Website copy
  • Case studies
  • Press releases
  • Blog entries and news stories
  • Translating from French to English
  • In-depth copy-editing and proofreading
  • Writing coach
  • Freelance journalism – writing interests in the arts and women’s issues

Feel free to contact me any time via email: rebeccaschischa at gmail dot com  – or directly on this blog via the comments section.

 

 

 

“The real king of England” on the BX10 bus in The Bronx

23 Jul

Got chatting to a funny-strange New Yorker on the bus tonight whom I almost offended when I lightheartedly accused him of speaking a corrupted version of the English language.

Turns out he’s originally English, from the illustrious locale of Bognor Regis, and moved to America when he was eight years old. He even slipped into an authentic English accent to prove his authenticity.

Anyway, wasn’t sure how much of his chitchat was the well-oiled claims of a pure fantasist and how much was in the realm of truth, but he claimed the following:

1) He attended William and Kate’s Royal Wedding, not as a mere flag-waving member of the hoi-poloi-riff-raff  in the street, but in Westminster Abbey as one of the esteemed invited guests.

2) His claim to fame? He is actually the ‘real king of England’ as his family, from Bognor Regis (Regis = king in Latin), can trace their lineage back to those natives who booted the Romans out of the land of pastures green somewhere way back in the early centuries of A.D., thus significantly pre-dating the Windsor dynasty currently presiding rather undemocratically over the kingdom.

I offered to bow down to him, but he politely demurred.

Parrot on the F Train

16 Jun

Second story in my “Feathered Friends On the NY Subway” (first was the pigeon on the 1 Train back in January this year):

Today I got into a carriage on the F Train in Brooklyn where I was met by the sight of a nattering parrot a’perching:

Preening its fine feathers:

Sharpening its beak:

Funny thing was that the man next to the parrot – presumably its owner – was totally indifferent to the surreal aspect of the scene, or to the attention the parrot was creating. In fact, I think he was simply taking a moment to have a nice little nap.


The art of being degenerate

11 May

Just wrote an art review, published in The Forward:

Here’s the first part of the review (click here for a link to the full review on The Forward website):

Slideshow: Departures, Experiments and ‘Degenerate’ Art

By Rebecca S

                       Gert Wollheim, ‘Head of an Old Man’

Among the Nazis’ persecuted minorities were Jewish and non-Jewish artists, musicians and writers branded “degenerate” by the regime.

“Radical Departures: The Modernist Experiment,” an exhibition currently showing at the Leo Baeck Institute/Center for Jewish History in New York, gathers together work by these “degenerate” artists, including Georg Stahl, Samson Schames, David Ludwig Bloch and others.

Although compact, the exhibit presents a whistlestop tour through the major European art movements from the turn of the 20th century, taking in German Expressionism and Weimar Modernism, through to the Second World War period, and the Surrealism and Abstract art of the postwar era.

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