Tag Archives: Hebrew Institute of Riverdale

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

On Orthodykes and Acceptance

19 May

Here’s my write-up, published in The Sisterhood column, in The Forward, of a very powerful event I went to this week, at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

The issue of the night: Orthodox gay women speaking about their lives and throwing out a challenge to Orthodox Jewish communities to accept their LGBTQ members–


May 18, 2011, 5:27pm

Gay, Female and Seeking a Home in the Orthodox Community

By Rebecca S

Miryam Kabakov – Courtesy of Miryam Kabakov

The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale was the first Orthodox synagogue on Miryam Kabakov’s “You Are Not Alone” book tour.

Kabakov, founder of the New York Orthodykes and the editor of the 2010 book “Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires“ — an anthology of 14 essays by Orthodox (or Orthodox-leaning) women who identify as lesbian or LGBTQ — said the book tour is about hearing women’s stories and continuing the discussion that the book started. (Check out our recent podcast with Kabakov here.)

Rabbi Steven Exler, a member of the Hebrew Institute’s rabbinic staff, also thanked the audience for “heeding the call that this is an important conversation to be had.”

Alongside Kabakov at the May 16 event were contributors to the collection. They included the pseudonymous Ex-Yeshiva Girl with her “radical queer politics” and the lawyer Elaine Chapnik, each of whom read from their essays. Also taking part in a spirited Q&A was Chani Getter, a lesbian mother-of-three and a former member of the Hasidic community.

Speakers issued several challenges to the audience — a multigenerational, cross-denominational crowd, of both straight and gay people. Kabakov asked: “I ask you, members of the Bayit” — as the Bronx congregation is known to its members — “are you there for your LGBT members?”

Getter, who spoke with passion about her and her three children’s journeys to acceptance within the family’s Modern Orthodox community, closed her comments with the question: “Will you be one of the ones who makes it easy or difficult [for children of gay parents]?”

While there was debate about the issue of whether or not lesbian relationships are halachically prohibited, HIR community members showed active interest in ‘reconfiguring’ the issue away from halachic discussion, and sought out practical steps to make the community more LGBTQ-friendly.

“It’s about visible representation”, said Kabakov. “We want our life passages to be marked, just like you.” Other suggestions included getting Jewish schools to talk about diversity, and starting “intolerance to intolerance” campaigns.

A gay mom in the audience gave another suggestion: “Accept our straight children as potential marriage partners.” She recounted how her daughter was avoiding dating for marriage, fearing any partner would reject her once he discovered that her mother was gay.

There were also great moments of Jewish humor during the evening. One participant spoke about encountering at an Orthodox lesbian gathering a Bobover Hasidic woman who was bemoaning the dearth of suitable gay women to meet in her Hasidic community. Another participant suggested setting her up with “a great Lubavitcher woman.” To which the Bobover woman apparently replied in horror: “Lubavitcher? No way!”

Tackling eating disorders in the Jewish community

9 Mar

Just had a piece published in The Sisterhood column, in The Forward; a Q&A with Aviva Braun, a psychotherapist specialising in eating disorders and body image issues in young women. She has a very interesting, feminist approach to treating these issues.

Braun is teaming up with Rabba Sara Hurwitz to talk about these issues this coming Saturday night, 12 March 2011, at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

Here’s the first half of the article – (Alternatively, click here to read the full version of the article ):

Rabba, Therapist Team Up To Fight Eating Disorders

By Rebecca S

Aviva Braun, a social worker and psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders in young women, and Rabba Sara Hurwitz, a pioneering Modern Orthodox spiritual leader at New York’s Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Yeshivat Maharat, are teaming up for an event that will focus on body image from feminist, therapeutic and Torah perspectives. The event — aimed at bat mitzvah-age girls through college age women, and their parents — will take place at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 12, at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. There will also be a screening of “Hungry to be Heard,” the Orthodox Union-produced documentary about Jewish adults struggling with eating disorders.

“Judaism supports the notion that our bodies are sacred,” Hurwitz told The Sisterhood. “Philo, a Jewish philosopher said, ‘The body is the soul’s house. Shouldn’t we therefore take care of the house so that it will not fall into ruin?’ We have an obligation as a community to help foster a positive body image in our own selves and in our children.”

Braun spoke recently with The Sisterhood about the specific challenges of treating eating disorders in the Orthodox community, Braun’s use of a feminist therapeutic model and her forthcoming book that is part memoir, part recipes.

Rebecca S: Generally speaking, what are the pressures placed on young women in the Orthodox community?

Aviva Braun: The pressures on Orthodox women are about looking a certain way; the pressures to look good and stay thin are very much part of the community. But on the other hand, there are all the ceremonial meals we eat on Shabbat and the holidays, when there’s always lots of food on the table, so the messages Orthodox women get are conflicting. Then there are the pressures to do well at school, and pressures to get married at a young age.

What is the prevalence of eating disorders in the Orthodox community?

There is not a higher incidence in the Orthodox community per se, but the fact that Orthodox women wait longer to seek help means it is really difficult to treat. There’s a fear of being found out, and shame or stigma for the family. Women feel it could affect the status of their family, even shidduch [matchmaking] prospects.

You talk a lot about using a feminist therapeutic model in your work. What do you mean by this?

After receiving my master’s degree in social work, I was professionally trained at the Women’s Therapy Centre Institute in New York, where I studied eating and body image problems from a feminist psychoanalytical and cultural perspective.

The feminist perspective is that women develop eating disorders because they are told by the culture at large to deny their need for hunger, for food and for other things. Women’s needs in general should be shrunk so their bodies become shrunk. … So my therapeutic work is about getting women to be able to identify their hunger.

A world overflowing with inter-faith love? Don’t worry, there’s still enough intolerance flying around…

19 Jan

Last night I went to shul* to see an Afro-American Baptist gospel choir bring the house down.

What’re the chances of having such a boast?

And yet, in the vibrant spiritual underbelly of New York City, this is exactly what happened to me last night.

For yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a public holiday in the US where concerts and events across the land commemorate the great civil rights leader’s legacy.

And here in the Bronx, NY, I wandered up the road to the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR), an open-minded, left-leaning Orthodox synagogue, to witness something quite remarkable – and the most un-shul-like experience you could possibly imagine.

view concert flyer here

Here was a truly uplifting evening of song starring a dead cool Reverend (Roger Hambrick) with his Green Pastures Baptist Choir singing their socks off (to quote Cheryl Cole) alongside Jewish spiritual singer Neshama Carlebach to a packed auditorium. It all just felt far too cool to be taking place in a shul.

(well, apart from a very sincere communal rendition of the American national anthem which nearly got me and another English friend into trouble as we nearly got the giggles – can you imagine British Jews being patriotic enough to sing ‘God Save the Queen’ in shul?)

Here were Rabbi and Reverend, Jew and Christian, Black and White, man and woman, old and young, all standing together, singing, dancing, cheering, committing to right the wrongs in the world. Here were Afro-American gospel singers putting their own spin on legendary Carlebach tunes, Rabbis pledging the Jewish community’s commitment to helping victims of the Haiti earthquake, to rebuilding post-Katrina New Orleans.

Here was Judaism actually getting off its insular, complacent backside and turning outwards to connect with other faiths, mobilising to fight injustice.

You simply couldn’t help getting carried away with all the upbeat energy floating around the room – it was positively infectious this positive energy thing. I was starting to get worried about myself – could this American ‘Yes We Can!’ upbeat optimism really be getting to cynical old European me?

Well, guess what, the first thing I did when I got home was send an email to a local NGO about volunteering possibilities…

…And then a new day began, and I came back down to earth with a bit of bang:  Apparently the world had not become perfect overnight after all. People still hated each other. Sigh.

I heard reports that today in Manchester, in the north of England, there were anti-riot police called in to watch over some Satmar** Hassidic demonstrators sparring with pro-Israel counter-demonstrators outside a hotel where a meeting was going on for Jewish people interested in moving to Israel.

Fractured inter-denominational Jewish communities? Business as usual?

* Shul – the common Yiddish term for “synagogue”

**Satmar is a Hassidic group extremely hostile to the idea of the modern secular State of Israel.

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