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High School Feminists Discuss Women's Rights Advocacy

Talia bat Pessi

This summer, I attended Genesis at Brandeis University, an academic summer program for Jewish high school students. As an Orthodox Jewish feminist, I came to Genesis hoping that there would be a space to discuss the issues closest to my heart. While I initiated and participated in numerous informal conversations about Jewish feminist topics with my peers, I still wanted a more defined space to discuss the issues. As a result, I decided to run an activity on Shabbat (the Sabbath) entitled “Jewish Feminism.”

With approximately 20 people – both participants and staff, male and female – in attendance, I started off the activity by having everyone introduce him or herself and say what inspired him or her to attend an activity about Jewish feminism. Some had come to give me moral support, others had joined in the conversation because they are active in feminism (both Jewish and secular), and others had attended because they were curious about what would be discussed.

Due to popular demand, I started off the conversation by talking about mehitzah, the divider between the men and women in traditional synagogues. We discussed the place of mehitzah in every Jewish denomination, the source of mehitzah in Jewish law, and the purposes behind it. Based on studying different Orthodox rabbis’ opinions, we determined that there is no reason mehitzah has to be used to subjugate women or make them invisible. Our discussion segued into a conversation about separate spaces for men and women, and the positives and negatives of designating different areas (physically and spiritually) for men and women.

I then led the conversation to the topic of women in leadership roles within the Jewish community. Since non-Orthodox denominations have ordained women as rabbis for decades, most of the discussion centered around Orthodox women’s struggle to pursue leadership roles. Rori Picker Neiss, a student at Yeshivat Maharat (an institution which trains Orthodox women as spiritual leaders), helped me plan the activity and was present. She brought a very unique perspective to the conversation. We discussed Jewish women leaders throughout history, like the biblical Deborah and 19th century Hasidic rabbi Chana Rochel Verbermacher (aka the Maiden of Ludmir). We also talked about modern-day women, like Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the first (controversially) ordained Orthodox woman rabbi; yoatzot halacha, who are women certified to answer questions about Jewish law pertinent to women; and mohelot, or female circumcisers. We also explored the religious obstacles women face in entering the rabbinate and how such roadblocks can be overcome. The group began debating whether or not the title that a woman goes by – rabbi, ritual director, rosh kehilah (head of the congregation), or whatever else – is important.

After we finished talking about leadership roles, I opened the floor to any participants who had unrelated questions about Jewish feminism. One attendee asked about agunah, the situation that occurs when a husband refuses to issue his wife religious divorce papers, leaving her in a state of limbo where she cannot remarry. That began a new conversation about agunah, an issue which Orthodox feminists have prioritized, and what people can do to help agunot.

The activity lasted for about two hours. The time really flew by – I had no idea how long we had been talking until the activity ended. The whole thing was like one long conversation. I was so glad that all the participants were really engaged and genuinely curious about what was being discussed. Most participants who came asked thought-provoking questions and provided interesting, unique points of view on the subjects that were being discussed. Everyone came from very diverse backgrounds – every major Jewish denomination was represented – but nonetheless respected other participants’ beliefs and opinions. I really enjoyed coordinating Jewish Feminism, and I think that all the attendees appreciated the discussion. It reminded me of an amazing session at the recent NOW conference titled "Faith and Feminism" (which the YFTF's own Jerin Arifa participated in!), about how religious women can still be feminists. Let's hope that more conversations like this can happen!