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

Advertisements

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:

—————–

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.

001

 

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.

 

 

 

I’m back

15 Feb

I know, I know, I went quiet – yet again. But what to do? I get writer’s block, I get lazy, I lose inspiration, I find it again, I move to Africa, I leave Africa and sojourn back to the place where it all began, the area in North West London where I grew up (is it all just too familiar to write about???)…

So here I am, back in good old grey misty London, having spent most of my adult life to date gallivanting across Tel, Aviv, Paris, New York, Nairobi….and I’ve suddenly woken up to the fact that rebeccainspace needs to resound – with at least a modicum of feverish writing activity – once more.

So to crank things up on this dormant blog once again, allow me to present two arts features I’ve had published since I last posted.

Most recently, I wrote for Jewish Renaissance about Art Kibbutz, a unique international Jewish artists’ colony that a New York-based friend, Patricia Eszter Margit, set up. Here’s a link:

Creativity blooms at world’s first art kibbutz

And in late 2014, I had my first ever COVER STORY (beam), also in Jewish Renaissance, which looked at French photographer Frédéric Brenner‘s collaborative photography project This Place, focusing on representations of Israel. Here’s a link:

Frédéric Brenner: Israel under the lens

Enjoy reading 🙂

Polygamy, cheating husbands and wife-beating – is this still the fate for women in the 21st century?

10 Nov

I haven’t posted for ages – but wanted to come back to post the last blog entry I wrote for Times of Israel before we left Kenya earlier this year. This dates back to May this year when there was a big uproar in Kenya about a new polygamy bill of law that was introduced. Suffice it to say, the proud feminist that I am felt compelled to write in horrified response!

——————–

Polygamy, cheating husbands and wife-beating – is this still the fate for women in the 21st century?

Times of Israel, May 11, 2014

From the time I – white, Jewish, feminist, western woman – heard on the car radio a male DJ recommending his listeners to get a woman blind-drunk so as to be able ‘to bed her’ on a first date, I’ve been wondering about levels of equality between men and women in Kenyan society.

I received a confirmation to the negative recently when President Uhuru Kenyatta signed into law a bill legalising polygamy, with a particularly hostile-to-women amendment:

The bill “brings civil law, where a man was only allowed one wife, into line with customary law, where some cultures allow multiple partners.

Controversy surrounded an amendment to the bill, supported by many male MPs, allowing men to take more wives without consulting existing spouses. [my emphasis]

Traditionally, first wives are supposed to give prior approval.”

(BBC News, 29th April 2014)

What left me particularly speechless was this amazingly demeaning-to-women amendment. Not only does an existing wife apparently have no say in her husband choosing to take more wives, but he isn’t even obliged to have the courtesy to inform her that he is planning to bring into their home a second/third/fourth wife.

The BBC quotes a couple of male MPs who justify this amendment:

“When a woman got married under customary law, she understood that the marriage was open to polygamy, so no consultation was necessary.” (MP Samuel Chepkong’a, who proposed the amendment)

“When you marry an African woman, she must know the second one is on the way and a third wife… this is Africa,” (MP Mohammed Junet).

Kenyan female MPs stormed out of parliament in protest, but as they are a minority, were unable to stop the passing of the bill.

I’ve spoken to a few Kenyan women about this bill and they are horrified – but at the same time, feel utterly powerless to do anything about it.

Some local newspaper reports I read justified the developments by stating that polygamy is an effective way to combat men’s propensity to stray from their wives. In other words, if a man is allowed by law to take as many wives as he likes, he will no longer feel the urge to cheat on his partner.

Great news for women, then.

A Facebook group I joined for Nairobi mums has also opened up my eyes. Frequented by, from what I can tell, mainly middle-class Kenyan mums as well as expat (aka white, foreign) mums living in the Kenyan capital, what has struck me most is how much the Kenyan mums discuss straying husbands and issues of adultery. On Valentine’s Day, one woman posted a depressingly twee little poem giving all a blessing that their husbands should stay faithful to them on this ‘day of romance’.

At the same time, a Kenyan woman I know showed me scars on her wrist where her husband had attacked her with a broken bottle when he returned home after a drunken spree. She said he gets blind-drunk on almost a daily basis these days. And Kenyan newspapers are full of reports of drunken husbands turning violent.

As a white, Jewish, feminist, western woman, I’ve been caught in an ongoing philosophical battle with myself for the last I don’t know how many years. The two sides of my brain argue as follows:

Me A: Yes, I need to shout out against this treatment of my fellow women.

There are universal standards of justice and equality that all societies should strive towards.

Me B: No, the constraints of cultural relativism demand that I butt out and accept that ‘this is Africa’ [substitute Middle East, ultra-orthodox Jewish society etc etc], it’s not up to me to change other people’s cultural norms.

Luckily for Me A, the fact that Kenyan women themselves are angry gives me permission to express my own distaste at this anti-woman trend that hits me in the new culture I’ve found myself living in these last nine months.

In the meantime, as the wife of a rabbi of an orthodox Jewish synagogue here in Nairobi, I haven’t even broached the subject of how my feminism plays itself out in this communal role.

That will have to wait for another blog.

Gulp – is being a rabbi’s wife not so bad after all?

11 May

Having been thrown into the thick of the most rabbi-wife-like activities – coordinating a communal Passover Seder – I realised that I was actually kind of, dare I say it, having fun.

Read more at my blog post on The Times of Israel:

——————-

Gulp – is being a rabbi’s wife not so bad after all?

Times of Israel,  April 12, 2014

Somehow, somewhere along the line, I’ve got roped into doing more and more full-on ‘rebbetzin-esque’ duties at Nairobi Synagogue, where my hubbie is rabbi. My guerilla anti-rebbetzin campaign, it seems, is all for nought.

It started a month or two back. Margarita, a good friend in the community (yes, somehow, I seem to be finally gaining some friends along the way too), asked me casually if I’d join the Passover Seder planning committee. Imagining it would involve just a meeting or two to discuss just a matza ball or two, I said yes, of course, no problem.

Scroll forward to last week. Somehow, over 80 people have now reserved a spot at the Seder; somehow, the menu now involves a vast array of intricate dishes, most of which can only be prepared at the last minute; and to top it off, somehow, all the people on said committee seem to have left Nairobi temporarily and disappeared overseas.

Leaving just two of us ‘fryerim‘ (as the Israelis put it so eloquently), Margarita and me, to direct the multi-faceted operation and ensure that a three-course banquet, involving table hiring, flower arranging, seder plating, volunteer gathering, staff managing, market shopping and vegetable chopping will be prepared in time and the evening will go off swimmingly.

And the weird thing about it all – I’m enjoying every minute of it. Weeeird.

The whole process has been really entertaining – we’ve spent half the time giggling, and the other half haggling raucously at the fruit and veg Hawkers’ Market in central Nairobi with bemused market vendors, or cooking up a veritable storm in the synagogue kitchen, while debating vigourously over the sweetness levels of our haroset (me – too sweet – M – not sweet enough) or the garlic levels of our vegetarian main (me – too much garlic, M – not enough).

Man, I’ve even enjoyed making gargantuan vats of GEFILTE FISH. What is happening to me? (Although I did make sure it was Marg to get her dainty paws stuck into the gefilte mixture, meaning she would be the one to scare off her nearest and dearest that night with that overpowering heimishe whiff of chopped fish and not me).

In the meantime, the synagogue’s new back-up generator is experiencing birthing pains just as Kenya Power has decided to wreak particular havoc on the power supply to our part of town, people keep trying to book spots for the Seder at the last minute, and instead of going to bed so as to be wide awake for the last two daunting days of the cooking marathon ahead of us, I’m sitting here blogging.

Well, happy Passover to anyone out there, from here in the heart of East Africa.

%d bloggers like this: