From Snow White to Meg: Shifting Perceptions of Gender in Disney Films


Growing up, my dream was to be the Disney princess Snow White.  I aspired to be her for a few reasons: we both had short dark wavy hair with bangs (so I had already mastered the visuals needed), she had a great costume with amazing makeup, and she was loved among both animals and dwarves.  I spent the next few years trying to stay out of the sun so I could achieve skin as white as snow, sneak red lipstick whenever my mom wasn’t looking, and tie my hair up in a red bow.  Vital to Snow White’s character was her sweet and innocent disposition, making her a “friend to all” and leading her to eventually find Prince Charming.  Unsurprisingly, I tried to imitate this personality by talking with a higher pitched voice, doing everything as gracefully as possible, keeping a big smile on my face, and occasionally frolicking through meadows to fully embrace and solidify my transformation into Snow White.

This intense desire to be a Disney princess hindered my true self from developing as a tomboy who wanted to play in the mud, and wear the same oversized orange t-shirt every day.  As I grew older, I realized that while I loved Snow White, her bubbly personality did not match me and I needed to embrace who I was–a sarcastic, slightly mischievous kid who preferred to run around complicating my teachers’ and parents’ lives.  This realization helped me form into the person I am today instead of attempting to mold myself into an ethereal but ultimately unachievable character.

As I’ve gotten older the world around me has shifted and I have entered communities that are filled with uninhibited courageous women who know they are powerful on their own and don’t need a tiara and costume to help reinforce that.  The women I have encountered while interning at NCJW|LA embody this as they are empowered by the positive change they know they can create without the need for gratification or saving by men. I’m in awe when I walk into a meeting and see women from all walks of life who can come together with one central goal: advocacy, in other words, to speak out against what they believe is unjust.

Working here has made me notice how far my ideals have come and how glad I am that I grew beyond the Disney princess mindset.  Without a new perspective on Disney, girls may become stuck in a princess trope, unable to reach their full potential as brave and independent women.

If you look closely at any woman represented in these princess films you may notice a few distinct differences between their bodies’ measurements and proportions and that of an actual human being.  The most prominent difference is their tiny waistlines. According to a Fast Company article, these waistlines are similar to Barbie’s in that they would only be able to fit a few centimeters of intestines and half a liver, meaning no actual human could survive. Another article by The Society Pages  shows the tiny proportions of hands and wrists in princesses.

Disney princesses are drawn to embody the “perfect feminine” body, according to Disney, one in which femininity is depicted through large eyes and dainty hands. The outcome of this is visible in the film Frozen—when Anna’s eyes are larger than her wrists. This tiny hand trend continues in many other Disney films and helps portray the ultra-femme woman with a strong male counterpart who typically has hands twice or three times as large.

This culture of advertising the “perfect” female body in Disney films can lead to “self-objectification and self-sexualization,” according to Peggy Orenstein, the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.  Self-objectification and self-sexualization create vulnerabilities in women and girls that can lead to depression, eating disorders, and distorted body images. And this is only covering issues that arise from the visual appearance of Disney princesses; their personalities and characters within films can lead to other distorted perceptions of what women are capable of in their romantic, professional and educational lives.

Earlier this year, a study was conducted which concluded that beginning around age six, girls can begin to believe that men are smarter and more talented than women. When told to point to an image of a smart person, most boys constantly chose a photo of a man and most girls older than five chose the same photo. The conclusions of the study were clear–young girls are very susceptible to believing that men are smarter and more capable than they are. This gender stereotyping is engrained in our brains from the media and our society beginning at a young age. Disney perpetuates many of these stereotypes in the form of cartoon movies targeted toward young children.

THE LITTLE MERMAID, from left: Ariel, Prince Eric, 1989, © Walt Disney

In the film The Little Mermaid, Ariel is willing to give away her voice for a man, literally removing her power and agency as a woman and handing it directly to a man (Prince Eric). The film teaches girls that men are only interested in your looks and that you should give up your life and family and change everything about yourself for a man. In addition, the “happy ending” of the film requires Prince Eric to kiss Ariel, thus undermining the critical concept of verbal consent. Ariel and most other Disney princess stories revolve around romance and a prince coming to save the woman, reinforcing the concept that women are less than and need a man to rescue them.

Many other Disney films have been sending similarly demeaning messages to girls for years. Beauty and the Beast, for example, starts out by presenting Belle as an aspirational character who is sending a positive message to young girls: be educated and do what you love regardless of what people think and don’t be afraid to reject someone if they’re a narcissistic egotistical creep regardless of their popularity and status.  However, the drastic shift once she meets the Beast creates a very different narrative that teaches girls to be kind regardless of how you are treated and that it’s okay to give up your independence and freedom for a man… especially if he’s a rich handsome prince.

It is important to realize that while Disney may teach young girls harmful lessons about who they are and should be, some (especially newer films) also teach girls to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals (Tangled), or that you don’t need a man to be a queen (Frozen).  My personal favorite is Megara from Hercules who states: “I’m a damsel, I’m in distress, I can handle this, have a nice day.”

As a nineteen-year-old woman, I still love Disney and occasionally aspire to be a princess, just not Snow White. I am now able to recognize  the over feminized, stereotypical characters that present impossible beauty and love standards and am, thus, able to prevent myself from buying into them. Figuring this out has allowed me to justify my love for Disney. I think it is a vital thing for any girl who grows up admiring Disney to learn so she too can escape the bubble that perpetuates these stereotypes, take off her tiara, and learn to soar as a courageous and independent woman.

Coincidentally, my hair is now long and red, I use sass and sarcasm whenever possible, and I have a slightly judgmental scowl as my resting face, similar to Meg.  Her damsel in distress quote is my phone lock screen because, as a college student, I am often stressed or in distress, but I know that I am capable and can handle it:“I’m a big tough girl, I tie my own sandals (or tennis shoes or combat boots or 6-inch heels) and everything.”—Meg

Julia Hagelberg is entering her Sophomore year at UC Davis as a Sociology major and Human Rights Minor.  She is an Advocacy Intern at NCJW|LA and enjoys dance and aerial silks in her free time. 

From Snow White to Meg: Shifting Perceptions of Gender in Disney Films


Growing up, my dream was to be the Disney princess Snow White.  I aspired to be her for a few reasons: we both had short dark wavy hair with bangs (so I had already mastered the visuals needed), she had a great costume with amazing makeup, and she was loved among both animals and dwarves.  I spent the next few years trying to stay out of the sun so I could achieve skin as white as snow, sneak red lipstick whenever my mom wasn’t looking, and tie my hair up in a red bow.  Vital to Snow White’s character was her sweet and innocent disposition, making her a “friend to all” and leading her to eventually find Prince Charming.  Unsurprisingly, I tried to imitate this personality by doing everything as gracefully as possible, keeping a big smile on my face, and occasionally frolicking through meadows to fully embrace and solidify my transformation into Snow White.

This intense desire to be a Disney princess hindered my true self from developing as a tomboy who wanted to play in the mud, and wear the same oversized orange t-shirt every day.  As I grew older, I realized that while I loved Snow White, her bubbly personality did not match me and I needed to embrace who I was–a sarcastic, slightly mischievous kid who preferred to run around complicating my teachers’ and parents’ lives.  This realization helped me form into the person I am today instead of attempting to mold myself into an ethereal but ultimately unachievable character.

As I’ve gotten older the world around me has shifted and I have entered communities that are filled with uninhibited courageous women who know they are powerful on their own and don’t need a tiara and costume to help reinforce that.  The women I have encountered while interning at NCJW|LA embody this as they are empowered by the positive change they know they can create without the need for gratification or saving by men. I’m in awe when I walk into a meeting and see women from all walks of life who can come together with one central goal: advocacy, in other words, to speak out against what they believe is unjust.

Working here has made me notice how far my ideals have come and how glad I am that I grew beyond the Disney princess mindset.  Without a new perspective on Disney, girls may become stuck in a princess trope, unable to reach their full potential as brave and independent women.

If you look closely at any woman represented in these princess films you may notice a few distinct differences between their bodies’ measurements and proportions and that of an actual human being.  The most prominent difference is their tiny waistlines. According to a Fast Company article, these waistlines are similar to Barbie’s in that they would only be able to fit a few centimeters of intestines and half a liver, meaning no actual human could survive. Another article by The Society Pages  shows the tiny proportions of hands and wrists in princesses.

Disney princesses are drawn to embody the “perfect feminine” body, according to Disney, one in which femininity is depicted through large eyes and dainty hands. The outcome of this is visible in the film Frozen—when Anna’s eyes are larger than her wrists. This tiny hand trend continues in many other Disney films and helps portray the ultra-femme woman with a strong male counterpart who typically has hands twice or three times as large.

This culture of advertising the “perfect” female body in Disney films can lead to “self-objectification and self-sexualization,” according to Peggy Orenstein, the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.  Self-objectification and self-sexualization create vulnerabilities in women and girls that can lead to depression, eating disorders, and distorted body images. And this is only covering issues that arise from the visual appearance of Disney princesses; their personalities and characters within films can lead to other distorted perceptions of what women are capable of in their romantic, professional and educational lives.

Earlier this year, a study was conducted which concluded that beginning around age six, girls can begin to believe that men are smarter and more talented than women. When told to point to an image of a smart person, most boys constantly chose a photo of a man and most girls older than five chose the same photo. The conclusions of the study were clear–young girls are very susceptible to believing that men are smarter and more capable than they are. This gender stereotyping is ingrained in our brains from the media and our society beginning at a young age. Disney perpetuates many of these stereotypes in the form of cartoon movies targeted toward young children.

THE LITTLE MERMAID, from left: Ariel, Prince Eric, 1989, © Walt Disney

In the film The Little Mermaid, Ariel is willing to give away her voice for a man, literally removing her power and agency as a woman and handing it directly to a man (Prince Eric). The film teaches girls that men are only interested in your looks and that you should give up your life and family and change everything about yourself for a man. In addition, the “happy ending” of the film requires Prince Eric to kiss Ariel in order for her to regain her voice, thus undermining the critical concept of verbal consent. Ariel and most other Disney princess stories revolve around romance and a prince coming to save the woman, reinforcing the concept that women are less than and need a man to rescue them.

Many other Disney films have been sending similarly demeaning messages to girls for years. Beauty and the Beast, for example, starts out by presenting Belle as an aspirational character who is sending a positive message to young girls: be educated and do what you love regardless of what people think and don’t be afraid to reject someone if they’re a narcissistic egotistical creep regardless of their popularity and status.  However, the drastic shift once she meets the Beast creates a very different narrative that teaches girls to be kind regardless of how you are treated and that it’s okay to give up your independence and freedom for a man… especially if he’s a rich handsome prince.

It is important to realize that while Disney may teach young girls harmful lessons about who they are and should be, some (especially newer films) also teach girls to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals (Tangled), or that you don’t need a man to be a queen (Frozen).  My personal favorite is Megara from Hercules who states: “I’m a damsel, I’m in distress, I can handle this, have a nice day.”

As a nineteen-year-old woman, I still love Disney and occasionally aspire to be a princess, just not Snow White. I am now able to recognize  the over feminized, stereotypical characters that present impossible beauty and love standards and am, thus, able to prevent myself from buying into them. Figuring this out has allowed me to justify my love for Disney. I think it is a vital thing for any girl who grows up admiring Disney to learn so she too can escape the bubble that perpetuates these stereotypes, take off her tiara, and learn to soar as a courageous and independent woman.

 

Coincidentally, my hair is now long and red, I use sass and sarcasm whenever possible, and I have a slightly judgmental scowl as my resting face, similar to Meg.  Her damsel in distress quote is my phone lock screen because, as a college student, I am often stressed or in distress, but I know that I am capable and can handle it:

“I’m a big tough girl, I tie my own sandals (or tennis shoes or combat boots or 6-inch heels) and everything.”—Meg

Julia Hagelberg is entering her Sophomore year at UC Davis as a Sociology major and Human Rights minor.  She is the Advocacy Intern at NCJW|LA this summer and in her free time she enjoys dance and aerial silks. 

Do women need men?


If you ask a healthy man, “Does a man need a woman to lead a fulfilling life?” he most likely will answer in the affirmative. Most men know how much they grow in terms of maturity and happiness, as well as ethically, psychologically and even professionally after they marry.

But since the beginning of the feminist movement, it has become less and less common for well-educated women to acknowledge that a woman needs a man. The famous feminist slogan “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” encapsulated the dominant feminist view.

Women used to need men for their incomes, the feminist argument goes, but with women now capable of earning a living on their own, men are just not that necessary. 

Not even as fathers. A few years ago, The Atlantic published an article by Pamela Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, titled “Are Fathers Necessary?” She summarized academic studies that purport to show that lesbians do a better job at raising children than a woman married to a man, and that single mothers are superior parents to single fathers: “Two women parent better on average than a woman and a man. … The bad news for Dad is that despite common perception, there’s nothing objectively essential about his contribution.”

Two generations of women have been told over and over at college — as well as by their feminist mothers (and, increasingly, their feminist fathers) — that a successful career should be their goal. Marriage to a man is secondary. If a woman really wants children one day, it is very easy to have them without having a man in her life, let alone being married to one.

I regularly ask young women (usually 18 to 25 years of age): “If you could be guaranteed a great career or a great marriage, which guarantee would you take?” I explain that neither guarantee means that the other choice cannot be attained, but only one of them is guaranteed. The responses are evenly divided. What is particularly instructive is that the more educated the woman — that is, the more time she has spent (being indoctrinated) at a university, the more likely she is to choose the guarantee of a great career.

For two generations of educated women, it has been deemed a sign of weakness to admit to preferring marriage over career. (Just imagine a young woman at college announcing in a women’s studies class that her greatest hope is to marry a man and make a family.) More than anything else, feminism has taught young women that their goal should be “independence”; dependence on anyone, especially a man, is weakness.

As one female psychotherapist put it in Time magazine: “The message is clear: It’s O.K. to feel a void if you don’t have a job you love, but it’s not O.K. to feel a void if you don’t have a man you love — because healthy, successful women shouldn’t need men.”

While some women are happy never to have married, this feminist thinking has produced a lot of unhappy women. Many never-married women acknowledge in midlife that they were sold a bill of goods: returning to their apartment with no man in it isn’t quite as satisfying as they were told it would be. And more than a few other women without men are simply angry. You can see their anger in the disproportionate number of women leading and participating in protests for every imaginable cause. It would seem that they have channeled their unhappiness into anger at society. It is probably not a coincidence that Black Lives Matter, as angry a group as exists in America today, was founded by three single women.

The happiest women are women in happy marriages. Just ask happily married women to compare their happiness now with their happiness when they were happy and single. More importantly for society, they also are the most mature women, just as married men are widely, if not universally, regarded as likely to be more mature than single men. So, too, men who have never married also are likely to be particularly angry. 

Let me offer an example. In 2016, Prager University had more than 200 million views on YouTube and Facebook. Every week, it releases a video on the most disparate subjects, most of them controversial — the Middle East, abortion, God’s existence, the minimum wage, marriage, race, Islam, etc. Guess which subject garners the most angry and even hate-filled comments, by far? They are the videos advocating that men marry. Many single men literally curse us for releasing such videos.

At least with regard to the 97 percent of the population that is heterosexual, it is simply a truism that men need a woman and women need a man. That feminism has told generations of women that the latter statement is nonsense is one of the saddest, and most harmful, developments of the modern era.

A final note: Given the number of Jews who have attended college and graduate school, and the high esteem in which they therefore hold feminism, many Jewish readers will dismiss the thesis of this column. 

I have a question for these individuals: From time immemorial, Jews have wished parents of newborns that their child grow up to “Torah,” “chuppah” and “ma’asim tovim” — Torah, the wedding canopy and good deeds. Should we drop the second?


Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the internet-based Prager University (prageru.com)

Haredim’s refusal to sit next to opposite sex delays Delta flight


A Delta Airlines flight to Israel was delayed after haredi Orthodox men and women deplaned rather than sit next to members of the opposite sex.

The flight Monday night from New York’s Kennedy Airport arrived more than an hour late on Tuesday afternoon due to the incident, Haaretz reported.

After the haredi passengers decided to leave the plane, their baggage had to be removed, causing the delay.

It is not known if the passengers’ fares were refunded.

In September, an El Al flight that landed in Israel on the morning of Rosh Hashanah eve was delayed in New York after haredi Orthodox men assigned to sit next to women attempted to switch their seats.

The haredi passengers who could not switch their seats stood up immediately upon takeoff and remained in place throughout the flight, crowding the aisles and inconveniencing fellow passengers and flight attendants, Ynet reported at the time.

The queerness of love: A Jewish case for same-sex marriage


Last year, I officiated at the first same-sex wedding in the 145-year history of my synagogue.  For a Conservative congregation, this was quite a break with tradition.  Nevertheless,  I was proud to stand beneath the wedding canopy with this couple, who affirmed the sacredness of their union “in accordance with the laws of Moses and the people of Israel.”  Before I chose to officiate, I studied the texts, teachings, and arguments in my tradition.  I didn’t make this decision lightly.  Today, I am unfazed by the apparent biblical injunction against homosexuality as an “abomination.”  I am confident in my stand, despite a 3,000-year-old tradition that has no precedent for such a marriage.  In fact, it is from a place of humility and awe before my tradition and God that I have chosen take this stand.

The Hebrew word for wedding is “Kiddushin,” which means ‘Sanctification,’ or ‘Holiness.’  A wedding is the formal declaration of the holiness of love.  All the blessings and rituals and formulae under the wedding canopy affirm one idea:  when two human beings find each other and love each other, it is Godly:   a taste of the World to Come, a world of perfected justice and joy.   It is in our capacity to love that we are holy, and most fully in the image of God.  If there’s anything that 3,000 years of Jewish history has shown us—3,000 years of so much exile and persecution—it’s that the only hope for humankind is to strive toward ever-more loving and just societies. 

We Jews are a people who have never quite fit into the same categories of peoplehood or religion that other nations do.  We are a distinct people, even as we bear a message of God’s universality.  We affirm that we are different from other peoples, even as we know that we are no different than any other human being.  Our presence in the world has often been a source of anxiety for other nations, religions, and people.  In this way, we Jews have always been a queer people .  And yes, I use the term ‘queer’ deliberately.  To be queer is to be troubling, unsettling, not meeting expectations of the way others might want things to be.

It is, in fact, the Jews’ queerness in the world that captures our particular Divine message to all humanity.  As Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, creator of Queer Spiritual Counseling teaches, the existence of God is the queerest thing about the universe.  God, too, cannot be categorized or boxed in. The inexplicable mystery of God is a source of unspeakable anxiety to so many of us who long to reduce God to our simplistic categories.  Finally, we declare the love of a wedded couple to be holy because love, too, defies all classifications and can never be bounded–it’s a feeling, but not just a feeling; it’s a state of being that “have,” that we “are,” but it is larger than any one individual or relationship.  Love is queer, and in recognizing this, we find its holiness, its Godliness.

It is no accident that the famous Levitical injunction concerning homosexuality appears in a section of the Torah called “Kedoshim,” meaning “Holy.”  When seen in context, the homosexual act described comes amidst a series of many kinds of human couplings—all of which are abusive because they are not loving acts.  When one man rapes another man simply because he does not have access to a woman, such an act is indeed an abomination, a desecration of God’s holiness, a desecration of love.  Such an act is the farthest thing from the love of two human beings—of whatever gender—that we can and must sanctify whenever it arises in our human condition. 

I reject the idea that the Bible declares that the only sacred love that can exist is the love between a man and a woman.  Love is queer — it can never be limited to our categorizations of roles and gender.  Love is commitment, presence, and kindness so awesome and mysterious that nothing in our power can contain it.  We must, in our very imperfect world, celebrate, sanctify, and lift up love wherever we find it; because our loving relationships are the only way that we will bring Godliness to this world.  For these reasons, I proudly stand for the evolution of Judaism,  in awe of the wisdom of my Jewish people and tradition, the of holiness God and the queerness of  love.


Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

In Antwerp, a Charedi pariah forces school to go coed


With a soft smile and two young boys in tow, a mild-mannered Moshe Aryeh Friedman appeared undeserving of his reputation as the scourge of the local Charedi Orthodox community as he walked his sons to school on Monday.

Until, that is, he led them straight into Benoth Jerusalem, a girls-only public school that was forced by a judge to admit Friedman's boys on the grounds that Belgian schools cannot discriminate on the basis of gender.

In the Charedi community, gender segregation is the norm, and Friedman's push for admission is considered so sensitive that Belgian police assigned an escort, lest the Friedman boys be attacked upon their arrival.

“This is a fascinating development in our society,” Friedman told the 15 or so Belgian journalists who had turned out to see his sons — Jacob, 11, and Josef, 7 — attend their new school. “Finally boys and girls can study together, ending centuries of discrimination.”

Friedman, a 40-year-old Brooklyn native, is an unlikely champion of gender equality in Jewish schools. The Charedi rabbi became a pariah after attending a 2006 conference in Iran questioning the Holocaust and for his friendship with the country's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A fierce anti-Zionist, Friedman has befriended the leaders of Hamas and has cast doubt on whether 6 million Jews actually died in the Holocaust.

As a result, Friedman was excommunicated by Jewish communities in Antwerp and Vienna, where he had lived for several years, and his children were denied entry to communal institutions. In 2007, Friedman sued the Viennese Jewish community after three of his daughters were expelled from Talmud Torah, a private school. Friedman said it was because of his trip to Tehran; the school cited unpaid fees.

In 2011, Friedman returned to Antwerp with his wife, Lea Rosenzweig, a Belgian national. When no Charedi schools would admit their sons, Friedman tried to enroll them in schools for girls. That failed, too, so he sued.

“We had very few public schools to choose from,” Friedman told JTA. “The element of collective punishment against my children is well known.”

Friedman says the Jewish community is taking “revenge” on him because of his opinions.

Aron Berger, the father of one of Benoth Jerusalem’s 200 female pupils, acknowledged that Friedman was left with little choice. But he added, “We need to ask why this community and the one in Vienna left him no choice. There’s trouble wherever Friedman goes.”

In a separate and pending case, Friedman has sued a Zionist all-boys yeshiva in Antwerp for denying admission to his daughters.

By involving the Belgian courts, Friedman has violated the Orthodox norm of resolving conflicts internally — a move that is unlikely to improve his standing in the community. Perhaps even more important, he has compromised the Charedi community’s pedagogical autonomy and separation of the sexes — two hyper-sensitive points for a devout group striving to insulate itself from Belgium’s secular and often unsympathetic society.

“It’s a sad day for the community, which has lost a battle which is important to it and its tradition,” said Michael Freilich, who as editor in chief of the Joods Actueel Jewish monthly has been writing about Friedman for years.

At an improvised news conference outside the school, Friedman declined to comment on the Holocaust, his private life, his past and the various accusations made about him. Instead, he confined his remarks to the legal issue at hand, which he presented as a matter of gender equality. Friedman did not respond to further questions by JTA by phone and email.

Friedman has been a thorn in the Jewish side for years. In 2006, The Associated Press reported that he had announced a new “coalition” between himself and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe, after a meeting in Stockholm with Atef Adwan, a senior Hamas figure. Friedman also has been accused of having dealings with Austria's extreme right.

A Jewish umbrella group in Flanders filed a complaint against Friedman for Holocaust denial a few years ago. More recently, a lawyer from Antwerp accused him of not paying off debts in the United States and in Austria. In 2007, Friedman reportedly was attacked by Jewish pilgrims during a visit to Poland.

“Pretty much any Charedi community would shun Moshe Friedman,” said Freilich, who maintains that Friedman's problems are less about his politics than his tendency to “use the law as an instrument of terror, which makes the community afraid of him.”

For now, the Benoth Jerusalem school is struggling to adjust to its sudden fame. The leader of the Belz Chasidim community, to which the school is affiliated, asked community members to let things take their course regardless of their personal feelings. The school sent parents and staff a letter asking the same.

But the community is anything but resigned to the new status quo.

“For 30 years I have managed to do my work in silence and devotion but now, to our detriment, we have been made famous by Moshe Friedman,” said Leibl Mandel, the school's director. “It’s bad for education.”

It may also be bad for Friedman's children, as they may be sucked deeper into the escalating fight. Henri Rosenberg, a lawyer from Antwerp who has compiled a file on Friedman’s business transactions in Vienna and the U.S., last month called for a probe by child welfare services into their domestic circumstances.

“Enrolling them here is child abuse,” Berger said. “They can have no social interaction here, when the girls play among themselves.”

Prenatal whole genome sequencing technology raises Jewish ethical questions


Expectant mothers long have faced the choice of finding out the gender of their child while still in the womb.

But what if parents could get a list of all the genes and chromosomes of their unborn children, forecasting everything from possible autism and future genetic diseases to intelligence level and eye color?

The technology to do just that — prenatal whole genome sequencing, which can detect all 20,000 to 25,000 genes in the genome from fetal blood present in the mother’s bloodstream — is already in laboratories. While not yet available in clinical settings because of the cost, once the price falls below $1,000 it is likely to become common, according to a report by the Hastings Center, a nonpartisan bioethics research institute.

With it will come a host of Jewish ethical dilemmas.

“We need a serious set of conversations about the implications of this new technology,” said Peter Knobel, a Reform rabbi who teaches bioethics at the Spertus Center in Chicago and is the senior rabbi at the city’s Temple Sholom.

How will parents react to a pregnancy destined to produce a child with an unwanted condition? What do parents do when genetic sequencing shows a predisposition for a deadly disease but not a certainty of it? What about diseases not curable now but which may be cured by the time the child reaches adulthood? When, if ever, is the right time to tell a child he or she has a genetic predisposition toward a particular disease?

It likely will be the most contentious social issue of the next decade, predicts Arthur Caplan, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center.

”Anyone who thinks that information that could lead to abortion isn’t going to be controversial has been asleep since Roe v. Wade,” Caplan said.

According to Orthodox Judaism's interpretations of Jewish law, abortion is permissible only when the mother’s health is at risk. The Conservative movement agrees, but its position includes other exceptions.

“Our real concern will be massive increases in the number of abortions,” said Rabbi Moshe Tendler, professor of bioethics at Yeshiva University. “You have a young couple, 22, 23, 24 years old, and they don’t plan to have more than two or three children. Why take a defective child? I call it the perfect baby syndrome. The perfect baby does not exist.”

Rabbi Avram Reisner, a bioethicist on the Conservative movement’s Committee of Law and Standards, says abortion by whim is clearly prohibited.

“Judaism is not pro-life,” said Reisner, the spiritual leader at Congregation Chevrei Tzedek in Baltimore. “Jewish law allows abortion. And it is not pro-choice. It is concerned with managing the health of the mother. It does not support abortion as a parental whim.”

The Reform movement, though adamantly pro-choice, has a similar position.

“Abortion should not take place for anything other than a serious reason,” said Knobel of the Spertus Institute, “hopefully in consultation with a religious or ethical adviser.”

As far as Jewish ethics are concerned, prenatal whole genome sequencing has some elements in common with current genetic testing.

Embryos of Ashkenazi Jews routinely are tested for such diseases as Tay-Sachs and the breast cancer genes BRCA — two illnesses disproportionately common among Ashkenazim.

In haredi Orthodox communities where arranged marriages are common, matchmakers routinely consult databases that hold genetic information anonymously to see whether a match would face a genetic obstacle. That practice, and genetic testing during pregnancy, has practically eliminated Tay-Sachs disease in the American Ashkenazi community, according to Michael Broyde, professor at the Emory University law school and a member of the Beth Din of America, an Orthodox rabbinical court.

The difference between prenatal sequencing and current genetic testing is the amount of information and its usefulness. Current tests look for specific genetic disorders. Prenatal sequencing is a fishing expedition, looking at everything.

At present, the information is of limited use. No one knows what 90 percent of genes do, and it usually takes more than one gene to do anything. Furthermore, genes are not destiny: Just because one has the genes for certain diseases, such as coronary heart disease, does not mean one will get it.

“All genetic stuff is probabilistic,” Caplan said.

Some say that raises the question of whether Jews should be undergoing genome sequencing at all.

“Just because you can get the whole genome, why do that?” asked Rabbi Elliot Dorff, chairman of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Law and Standards. “How much do you want to find out and how much do you want to share with the couple, and later with the child? Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

The operative question, he notes, is whether it will cure or detect a serious disease.

“With all questions of this type, the law doesn’t ask how something is being done; it asks what we are accomplishing,” Broyde said. “If sequencing makes people healthier, it’s a good thing. If it’s going to make people ill, it’s sinning.”

Knobel says, “We need what I call an ethics of anticipation. We need a serious set of conversations about the implications of using the new technology, about how we can understand the values and ethics and come to grips with what it means in the long term.”

USDA rescinds guidance on gender separation


The U.S. Department of Agriculture rescinded guidance it issued in May that called for an end to gender separation during the administration of federal child nutrition programs.

The guidance was directed at school breakfast and lunch programs at schools and camps.

Religious schools and camps could apply for an exemption, but no information was given on the process when the guidance was released.

Agudath Israel of America had raised several concerns with the USDA on the process since the guidance was first released.

“We did not know if the requirement would involve onerous administrative procedures or, for example, how it would apply to single gender entities,” Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for federal affairs and Washington director for Agudath Israel of America, said in a news statement Monday. “More importantly, we did not know if the agency was contemplating adjudicating whether a specific religion’s tenet truly required the separation—an inappropriate action that would surely offend constitutional principles.”

Jewish and other religious schools were never required to apply for such an exemption for the administration of child nutrition programs in the past.

Following the USDA’s withdrawal of the guidance, Cohen praised the department for its decision.

“The USDA is to be commended for understanding the unique problem the guidance presented for religious entities participating in federal food programs and for responding effectively and expeditiously to resolve it,” Cohen said in the statement.

Facebook acquires Israeli Face.com


Facebook acquired an Israeli company that specializes in facial recognition software.

The terms of the deal between Facebook and Face.com were not disclosed by either company, according to the New York Times, which reported the deal on Monday. 

Face.com has been used by Facebook in the past two years for its “tag” feature in order to identify individuals across Facebook.

The facial recognition technology used by Face.com is designed to identify individuals by their gender and age.

A spit of death


I am sickened to hear the recent reports from Israel concerning eight-year-old Naama Margolese who is afraid to go to school because “orthodox” extremists spat on her and called her a whore for dressing “immodestly.” In addition to violating the biblical commandment of Ahavas Israel, and Maimonides warning against extremism, this fanatical behavior can have disastrous consequences.

Some 30 years ago I was asked to meet with an Israeli woman who was involved with the Church of Scientology. Here is her story.

When she was 12 years old her uncle took her by train from her home town of Haifa to Jerusalem.  This first trip to the holy city would be her special Bat Mitzvah present. Upon arriving at the old Jerusalem train station she got separated from her uncle and turned to a religiously dressed man for help. She was wearing a sleeveless top because of the summer heat and the individual who could have helped her, decided it was more important to spit on her because he disapproved of her immodest dress.

She cried uncontrollably and eventually told her uncle that if this is the way religious Jews act she want nothing to do with them or their religion. 

Years later during the six-day-war she was assigned to a unit in the Sinai and witness the depression war brought upon the soldiers. Out of nowhere she heard music and witnessed a bus load of Chabadniks arrive with a friendly smile and a few L‘Chaims. She thought to herself, “Maybe not all religious Jews are bad.”

After the war she married and settled down in Haifa. Her first daughter was born with a disability that prevented her from walking. Every hospital told her there was no hope. In desperation they traveled to visit medical experts in London and New York. The prognosis was awful. Nothing could be done.

Depressed and out of money she sat on a New York City park bench holding her daughter and crying. A taxi stopped and the driver asked if she needed a ride. Upon hearing her situation the Israeli driver said, “Let me take you somewhere you can get help.” He dropped her off outside the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s office in Brooklyn. The Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Binyomin Klein greeted her in Hebrew and invited them to stay with his family. He also arranged to have all the medical records presented to the Rebbe for his advice and blessing.  Weeks passed and the Rebbe finally recommended she move to Los Angeles. With nothing to lose she accepted the Chassidim’s financial assistance and traveled to LA.

It was a USC Medical Center where is discovered a new treatment that helped her daughter. Then on Yom Kippur her daughter had a relapse and needed to go to the emergency room. She asked a neighbor for a ride and once again contrary to Jewish law a “religious” and dare I say ignorant Jew, refused to help her. Some secular Israelis came to the rescue and drove them to the hospital and though there friendship introduced her to Scientology.

I was able to help her see though the propaganda of Scientology and invited her to Shabbat dinner at the original Westwood Chabad House. I will never forget the moment she arrived with her husband and daughter who walked in unassisted. She sat with my wife singing Shabbat songs together. I started crying and thanked God for the opportunity to witness this miracle.

For the third time this woman, who could have been turned off to Judaism forever, saw that not all religious Jews are bad and this time she committed herself to staying actively involved in Jewish life.

As the Talmud teaches, we must ask ourselves if our actions save a Jewish life or destroy it. Do we draw a person close with kindness or push them away with anger.

I hope the extremists wake up and realize they are making a horrible mistake and I also hope Naama reads this story and it warms her heart and gives her hope.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz is the founder and director of Jews for Judaism International. He is dedicated to keeping Jews Jewish and can be reached at la@JewsForJudaism.org

Netanyahu, Peres deplore gender segregation


Israel’s prime minister and president came out against efforts by some haredi Orthodox Jews to segregate women in public.

Civil liberties groups have complained about gender segregation in buses and public places frequented by haredim, and the shunning by some religious soldiers of female entertainment troupes in the conscript military.

Speaking Monday at a conference on human trafficking, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “The place of women in public spaces must be ensured and equal.

“The segregation of women clashes not just with the democratic principles that we know and cherish. It also clashes with Jewish tradition,” he said.

At the same event, President Shimon Peres said that men should be free to avoid the company of women to whom they are not related, “But no man has the right to force a woman to sit in a place that he decides on.”

Rabbi Uri Regev heads Hiddush – Freedom of religion for Israel


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton caused a storm with her remarks about Israel in a closed session at the Saban Forum in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 2. Untypically, Secretary Clinton not only addressed international involvement with Israel, but also chose to express her deep and growing concern over the marginalization of women in the public sphere, a direct result of the growing religious extremism in the country. Clinton even remarked that this discrimination reminded her of what is happening in Iran and drew an analogy to the discrimination faced by Rosa Parks.

Lest recent events appear to be isolated incidents of religious extremism, both Clinton and the State Department are aware that this discrimination has reached untenable levels and can no longer go unaddressed. In addition, Hiddush polling shows 89 percent of the Jewish public in Israel sees recent expressions of religious rigidity resulting in gender segregation in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and on bus lines as a distortion of Judaism (42 percent) or exaggerated and unnecessary (47 percent).

While issues of women’s rights are close to Clinton’s heart, her condemnation of the dangers of the rights against women do not exist in a vacuum. Israel is continuously shown to be the Western democracy that lags furthest behind in its implementation of religious freedoms overall. The U.S. State Department’s comprehensive annual reports on International Religious Freedom track Israel’s disturbing performance in this arena, and the Israel Democracy Institute shows that Israel ranks among the likes of China, Saudi Arabia and Syria in an international comparative religious freedom scale, giving Israel a score of zero.

With international Human Rights Day approaching on Dec. 10, it is critical that Clinton and all who stand for human rights see the bigger picture of these disturbing events: The exclusion of women is one symptom of a deeper and more dangerous problem in Israel. Women’s rights cannot be divorced from the system that denies of right of marriage to hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens for religious reasons only, including all Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist converts to Judaism; forces women to divorce through an anachronistic and discriminatory religious court system; and includes government policies that consistently discriminate against both non-Orthodox Jewish movements and non-Jews.

The universally cherished human rights of religious freedom and the right to marry both enjoy overwhelming public support in Israel, as evidenced year after year by Hiddush’s Israel Religion and State Index and other similar studies, including that of Israel’s governmental Central Bureau of Statistics. According to Hiddush’s 2011 index, 83 percent of Israeli Jews want to see freedom of religion and equality become a reality, and 80 percent are dissatisfied with the government’s handling of matters of religion and state.

In 1948, there were two historic events: the establishment of the State of Israel and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Israel was a signatory. But the Israeli government and Knesset have continued to thwart the principles of both the Declaration of Human Rights and the Israeli Declaration of Independence, hindering the right to marry and the religious freedoms promised in both. On this celebration of Human Rights Day, we must remember the rights that are yet to be realized and continue to work toward their fulfillment.

Rabbi Uri Regev is president of Hiddush for Religious Freedom and Equality.

Growing gender segregation among Israeli haredim seen as repressing women


On the No. 3 bus line in Jerusalem, women passengers pay their fare and walk directly to the back to find a seat.

Men, most of them haredi Orthodox with long sidecurls that brush the shoulders of their black wool suits, sit in the front section. Behind them, following a space of about two feet separated by the rear doors of the bus, sit the women and girls.

The Arab driver tersely explains protocol as he begins his route through a string of largely religious neighborhoods toward the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.

“This is a ‘mehadrin’ bus,” he says, using the term for strictly kosher. “Women sit in the back.”

Even though an Israeli Supreme Court ruling has banned enforced separate seating, this is one of 63 private or public gender-segregated bus lines in Israel, according to Hiddush, an Israeli organization that advocates for religious freedom and equality.

“I wish all lines were like this,” said one haredi woman aboard the bus who appeared to be in her 60s. “This is about modesty and ideally how things should work in the Land of Israel. Chaos follows when men and women sit near one another.”

She added, “Baruch Hashem, maybe this is what will hasten the coming of the messiah.”

The bus lines are one of the more visible examples of the growing segregation of men and women in the haredi Orthodox world, part of the larger, long-running battle in haredi society to keep outside influences at bay.

In Jerusalem, women have been excluded from billboard advertising so as not to offend haredi sensibilities, and a major haredi neighborhood enforced gender-segregated sidewalks over the Sukkot holiday.

Last Friday, hundreds of demonstrators, including Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, protested the exclusion of women from public areas.

“It’s simply become harder to control haredi society now that it has become so big,” said Shahar Ilan, who heads research and public outreach at Hiddush. Increased focus on gender segregation is part of the effort of control, he said.

There long has been strict separation of the sexes in this highly conservative society, from synagogues to wedding halls and schools. But in recent years, gender segregation has grown to encompass more and more public venues. In some Israeli haredi neighborhoods, segregation has extended to sidewalks, grocery store checkout lines, dentist office hours and in some cases even family Shabbat meals.

Some preschools are gender segregated, and one town has separate playground hours for boys and girls. And at a segregated HMO in Jerusalem with separate entrances and waiting rooms for men and women, a posted list of rules advises that girls be examined only by female doctors and boys by male doctors.

Haredi leaders say gender separation is essential for maintaining traditional notions of modesty, and to prevent men from lewd thoughts or actions and protect women from unwanted glances.

The rising number of separated venues has coincided with increasingly “modest” dress—that is, more covering up for women. In some areas, haredi women have taken to wearing a poncho-type garment intended to make the female form as shapeless as possible. In the Jerusalem suburb of Ramat Beit Shemesh, a few women have donned full-body burkas that cover even their faces.

To be sure, there is great variation within the vast camp of religious Jews known in Israel as haredim—a term that means “those who tremble” before God.

For example, on the most austere and stringent side, among the Gur Chasidim, married couples do not walk together in public and young men are discouraged from conversing with their brothers’ wives. Among the more liberal sects, married couples sit together on buses, and many privately express their discomfort with the widening gender gap.

Kimmy Caplan, a professor of Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University who researches haredi society, said the trend toward gender separation is partly a response to the growing number of haredi women entering the workforce.

“They are meeting all kinds of people, and some haredi leaders see this as dangerous,” Caplan said. “It has the potential, as far as some leadership sees it, to be a danger because it can bring home questions, doubts, exposure to alternative ways of life.”

He explains that “There are certain leaders who think there is a need to create a balance by having more segregation in the neighborhood to compensate for a drop of segregation by women going out to work every day.”

It wasn’t always like this, scholars note. In Europe before the war, haredi women didn’t always cover their hair, and in photos of Agudot Yisrael youth groups from that period, teenage girls and boys can be seen together, Caplan said.

Naomi Ragen, an American-born Israeli novelist who is Modern Orthodox and writes about the Orthodox world, has been an outspoken opponent of gender-segregated buses ever since she was threatened verbally on a bus in 2004 when she refused to move to the back with the rest of the women.

Ragen later was among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit by the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Jewish Reform movement, against the Israeli Transportation Ministry and bus companies that operate segregated bus lines. The lawsuit, heard by the Supreme Court, resulted in a ruling that such buses are illegal but that voluntary segregation could not be banned.

Since the ruling, signs must be posted on mehadrin buses stating that it is illegal to force anyone to move from their seat.

“The changes in Orthodoxy since the time I accepted it as my way of life have been unbelievable,” said Ragen, who became Modern Orthodox some 50 years ago. “It’s day and night from what I see today. My theory is the rise of Muslim fundamentalism as a patriarchy-influenced Orthodox patriarchy.”

Ragen says she sees the trend as part of a broader process of extreme behavior employed by haredim, such as rioting at a municipal parking lot in Jerusalem that was opened on Shabbat. She says the clashes have more to do with internal power struggles and an attempt to sideline women than piety.

“Few people are involved in this radicalization; most of the people in Mea Shearim, for example, are removed from it,” she said, speaking of a large haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem. “It is just unfortunate that a great majority of people in the ultra-Orthodox world that are good and straight people are being bullied and battled by a vocal minority that has nothing do with Judaism, holiness or the Torah.”

One woman who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that she be identified only as Hannah became a plaintiff in the lawsuit against segregated bus lines after she was verbally harassed and threatened for not moving to the back of a bus. She says she still worries that the men who threatened her will make good on their pledge to “track her down and deal with her.”

“I am a 60-year-old woman and was told I was sitting up front because I wanted to flirt with men,” Hannah said. “I was told that I was the reason the messiah was not coming and I was doing something vile by not moving.”

She says other haredi men and women have approached her to express sympathy, but fear that if they speak out against the extremism they and their families will face negative consequences.

The Israeli Religious Action Center says gender segregation is being used to suppress women.

“The term ‘gender segregation’ does not refer to a system that divides public space into two equal halves, maintaining equal access for both sexes,” said a report on haredi gender segregation by the organization. “Almost invariably it entails the displacement of women and their removal from the public realm.”

But for women like Rivkah (not her real name), a 20-year-old from the Vishnitz haredi sect who was riding the No. 3 bus to the Western Wall to pray ahead of her upcoming wedding, separate seating was a comfort, not an affront.

“It’s not extreme,” she said. “The temptations men feel are great, and it’s hard for them not to look at women. Sitting separately helps them not to look.”

In her community, interactions between the genders are highly regulated. She will be marrying a man she met once for an hour after their respective families extensively researched their backgrounds and suitability.

“And I won’t see him again until the wedding,” she said before disappearing into the crowded women’s section of the Western Wall.

Gender segregation still OK on Israeli buses, with caveats


Gender segregation on Israeli public buses may continue as long as passengers agree, the country’s Supreme Court ruled.

The practice will still be allowed on dozens of bus lines serving the haredi Orthodox community, known as Mehadrin lines, as long as passengers are not coerced and no violence erupts, according to the ruling issued Thursday.

The finding adopted recommendations made last year by a Transportation Ministry committee which found that the Mehadrin lines should be allowed as long as the segregation was voluntary and women were not forced to sit in the back of the bus, Haaretz reported. The state had accepted the finding.

The legal opinion was in response to a lawsuit filed in 2007 by a group of women and the Israel Religious Action Center, an organization of Israel’s Reform, or Progressive, movement.

“A public transportation operator, like any other person, does not have the right to order, request or tell women where they may sit simply because they are women,” Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein wrote in his ruling. “They must sit wherever they like.

“As I now read over these lines emphasizing this, I am astounded that there was even a need to write them in the year 2010,” he added. “Have the days of Rosa Parks, the African-American woman who collapsed the racist segregation on an Alabama bus in 1955, returned?”

The judges ordered the Egged bus company to institute the new rules during a 30-day trial period, during which time the Transportation Ministry must hold undercover and open inspections to ensure that the rules are being followed. The company also must establish complaint centers for women passengers, according to the ruling.

Women’s groups and the Israel Religious Action Center told reporters that they were pleased with the decision, which they said shows that the court endorses the idea that segregation is illegal.

Philanthropy from Venus differs from philanthropy from Mars


Women give charity differently than men.

They are a little more generous across the board and a little less egocentric in their giving. More often they believe that charity is a moral obligation. And they tend to be more inclined toward education, religion and health-related causes.

Saying so isn’t a case of sexism or stereotyping, it’s just statistics, said Debra Mesch, the director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

“Women tend to want to spread the wealth a little more, and a lot of that has to do with how men and women are socialized in terms of their upbringing,” Mesch told JTA. “In this culture especially they are the nurturers and are charged with raising the family. Their altruism is more developed.”

Statistics show that single women are twice as likely to give charity than single men, she said.

That’s why, in part, as the National Women’s Philanthropy division of the United Jewish Communities preps for its annual Lion of Judah conference, organizers and philanthropy experts are saying that women’s philanthropy is more important than ever.

The annual conference, scheduled for Nov. 9-16 in Tel Aviv, is the preamble to the UJC’s General Assembly in Jerusalem immediately afterward.

The Lion of Judah, so named because of the solid gold lion-shaped pins that women are awarded because of their giving — and bejeweled in relation to the size of the gifts — is expected to draw some 1,100 women who each give more than $5,000 annually to their local federations.

Over the past decade, the federation system has seen its general annual campaigns slump, but women’s giving has grown rapidly, according to the managing director of the National Women’s Philanthropy division, Beth Mann.

The Jewish federation system in 1946 became one of the first charities to launch a separate campaign to solicit gifts from women. In its first year, giving by women to that campaign accounted for $10 million — or 10 percent — of the total taken in by the federations.

That dollar total has climbed steadily to $61 million in 1973 in the aftermath of Israel’s Yom Kippur War, and to $138 million in 1995. As the general campaigns fell flat, in 2006 the women’s campaigns took in $192 million, or 22 percent of all of the money that federations raised.

Thirty-four percent of donors to the federation system are women, and that doesn’t count the women who give gifts from couples and families.

Mann estimates that some 50 percent of all the dollars federations take in come from women.

That number stands to increase in coming years.

By 2010, experts estimate that women will control some 60 percent of America’s wealth — a figure that could increase as some $41 trillion is passed on from the oldest generations to younger generations over the next 50 years. That’s because with women living on average seven years longer than men, many husbands will end up leaving their estates to their wives.

Some observers see women’s philanthropy as a new well that could help bridge the philanthropic gap between today’s economic crisis and recovery.

“Women’s philanthropy has been an untapped resource because I don’t think people have been paying attention to women’s giving and women’s power,” Mesch said.

The Lion of Judah conference is focused on thanking women for their giving and inspiring them to give more. That same week, Indiana University will run its own symposium on women’s giving to help fundraisers focus on how to tap into the women’s market — a problem for a fundraising world that still more often focuses on courting men.

“I hear from development officers at Indiana that they talk to the man,” Mesch said. “If there is a couple sitting with them, they assume it is the man writing the check, so the discussion always goes to the man. The thank-you note goes to the man.

“But you need to do the little things and realize that it is the women who open the tap. I think it is a huge faucet.”

Other philanthropies are catching on. The United Way started its National Leadership Women’s Council in 2003 to help guide local United Way branches as they started separate women’s campaigns. Already the charity has seen gains.

The system as a whole saw a 2.6 percent growth in donations last year, but local branches that started women’s campaigns saw on average a 3.6 percent growth, according to the United Way’s director of strategic marketing for the women’s council, Linda Paulson.

To put into perspective how effective the federation system has been at raising money from women, consider this: The United Way raised $4.2 billion systemwide in 2007 and took in $102 million from women.

In the same year, the federation system raised $908.1 million through its general campaigns, $193 million from women.

And while rumors persist that the federation’s umbrella organization, the UJC, has had trouble with sagging attendance numbers for this year’s General Assembly, the Lion of Judah conference is bringing about 400 more attendees than organizers anticipated.

“In the future,” Mann said jokingly, “there will be a general campaign and a separate men’s campaign.”

For those women who are the givers, the mission is less about bridging the gap than it is about fulfilling a personal mission.

“The opportunity to give your own gift means that you can express yourself philanthropically in a different way,” said Cheryl Fishbein, a board member of a litany of charities, including the UJC and the UJA-Federation of New York.

Before she became involved in the women’s campaign 15 years ago, Fishbein’s giving was done with her husband or her family.

“We really believe in a lot of the same things, but if it is my own gift, I can have a say in where it is going to go and what it will fund,” said Fishbein, who is a Lion of Judah. “And as I have become more knowledgeable on philanthropy, it gave me an opportunity to feel that the things I am most passionate about, I can fund.”

Israeli study: As negotiators, man smart, woman smarter


Forget the men when it comes to business negotiations. Women may be more skilled than their masculine counterparts, according to a new study by an Israeli researcher.

The doctoral study, by Yael Itzhaki of Tel Aviv University (TAU), indicated that in certain groupings, women offered better terms than men to reach an agreement and were good at facilitating interaction between the parties.

“Women are more generous negotiators, better cooperators and are motivated to create win-win situations,” Itzhaki said.

Itzhaki, an adjunct lecturer at TAU’s Faculty of Management at the Leon Recanati Graduate School of Business Administration, carried out simulations of business negotiations among 554 Israeli and American management students at Ohio State University, in New York City and in Israel.

The simulations, which were designed to examine how women behave in business situations requiring cooperation and competition, involved negotiating the terms of a joint venture, including the division of shares.

During the course of her research, Itzhaki discovered that while women in mid-management positions are often held back from promotion for being too “cooperative” and “compassionate,” men have begun to recognize the skills of their female colleagues and are now incorporating feminine strategies into their negotiating styles. “The men come in and use the same tactics women are criticized for,” she said.

Although both men and women can be good negotiators, Itzhaki emphasizes that there should be more women in top management jobs. Women have unique skills to offer, she said: They’re great listeners, they care about the concerns of the other side, and they’re generally more interested in finding a win-win situation to the benefit of both parties than male negotiators.

woman smarter william shatnerThese are especially desirable traits in today’s business world, which is calling for service improvements for customers and clients. Women today are earning more top positions in banking because of this trend, Itzhaki says.

In part, she says, women don’t reach CEO positions because they lack the right professional experience for the job and never enter the pool from which top positions are drawn. Managers commonly choose successors and colleagues who are most similar to themselves, Itzhaki explains. As a result, men are more likely to promote men.

Itzhaki, who is the founder of Netta, a nonprofit organization that promotes the advancement of women in the workplace, is currently advising Israeli companies on how to take affirmative action. Enforcing equal opportunity laws is one concern, but her advice also responds to concerns beyond the law. Are women being heard in corporate boardrooms? Does the company have policies that measure the amount of work accomplished and not merely hours on the job?

A lot of women don’t want to “fight” to be recognized, she said, preferring cooperation over competition. But more women in management can translate to a healthier bottom line, Itzhaki said.

“Businesses need to develop an organizational culture where everyone is heard, because women’s opinions and skills can give businesses a competitive edge,” she said.

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Stumbling through my bat mitzvah


My bat mitzvah was an unmitigated disaster.

I’d hoped the guests would be as taken as I was with my dress, first high heels and the orange and yellow petit fours at the Kiddush.

But instead, they were left with an altogether different image when I fell while parading the Torah scroll around the sanctuary. As I began ascending the modern sanctuary’s shallow steps to the bimah I tripped, badly skinning my knees and ruining that first pair of pantyhose, though I managed not to drop the Sefer Torah. What sounded to me like a huge gasp of collective horror still echoes in my head.

But that wasn’t even the day’s low point; that was more private, and yet to come.

Everything I was supposed to say in Hebrew — and it wasn’t much, three decades ago in our Reform temple — had to be transliterated into English; despite years of Hebrew school, I could not understand enough to actually read it.

I hated that day, and it wasn’t because I appeared to be the world’s klutziest bat mitzvah girl.

It took years of distance and reflection to realize that it was because the day was about making things look appropriate, not having a meaningful experience. So rather than mastering part of our central text and feeling accomplished, I felt like a fake, fraudulent and inauthentic.

I don’t often think back to that day, but when I recently heard stories from women who had the first bat mitzvah ceremonies in their communities, it made me realize just how different things should have been.

They shared stories in December at a Moving Traditions event at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. It was there, 85 years ago, that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan officiated at the first bat mitzvah ceremony in America for his daughter, Judith.

Moving Traditions is an organization focused on gender and Judaism. It runs the “Rosh Chodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!” program for some 4,000 “tween” and teen girls around the country, and is currently developing ways to engage boys. (The Rosh Chodesh ritual marks the beginning of a new month.)

Now the group is turning its attention to bat mitzvah “firsts,” those who were the first in their communities to mark the occasion.

“We want to understand how religion changes, and bat mitzvah is a great case study of how it does,” said Sally Gottesman, chair of Moving Traditions. “In our century it went from being a radical thing to do to de rigeur. We want to make Rosh Chodesh just as commonly accepted as bat mitzvah.”

In 1956, Carol Anshien was the first girl to celebrate becoming bat mitzvah at her Bronx Conservative synagogue.

It “gave me a sense of being someone who could challenge barriers and break through old ways,” she recalled for Moving Traditions.

In an interview, she said that her bat mitzvah “gave me a strong sense of my Jewish identity. It was definitely a doorway into having a sense of myself as a leader.”

Since bat mitzvah ceremonies are now regular rites of passage, perhaps our challenge today is to make each and every 12- and 13-year-old girl feel that celebrating hers is as meaningful as Anshien’s was for her.

Maybe my own daughters will be my family’s bat mitzvah “firsts” — the first girls to enjoy Torah-centered, spiritually engaged and empowering bat mitzvahs.

We celebrated our oldest child’s bar mitzvah earlier this year, and our son did a gorgeous job leading an uplifting Shabbat morning service. As someone who connects with prayer in a way I envy, he knows to his very core that he has the ability to be a religious leader.

I want my daughters to have that same sense as they grow. I, on the other hand, still feel too insecure to play almost any ritual role in our synagogue.

My girls’ bat mitzvahs are several years off, since they are just 8 and 6 years old. Our older daughter sometimes helps lead Aleinu toward the conclusion of Shabbat morning services at our Conservative shul, which is a sweet first step toward becoming comfortable on the bimah.

I value her budding leadership even more now that, since hearing the stories of bat mitzvah “firsts,” I understand how deeply meaningful celebrating a bat mitzvah can be.

I hope my daughters feel as connected to their bat mitzvah as Anshien did to hers. And I hope that my own experience becomes a “bat mitzvah last.”

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is the author of “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls Into the Covenant.”

Where the Boys Aren’t


The Chanukah party for Adat Ari El’s junior United Synagogue Youth group had all the elements the seventh- and eighth-grade members had requested: latkes, a gift exchange and a fierce board game competition. Yet, said, Julee Snitzer, the synagogue’s youth activities director, of the 13 who participated — only two were male.

Her experience is not unusual. Many of the informal Jewish education activities geared to teens in the greater Los Angeles area — such as camps, synagogue youth groups, school clubs and Jewish community centers — draw more girls than boys. The ratio in formal Jewish activities, such as Jewish high school and religious school, appears to be more gender balanced.

“Looking at what’s happening locally and nationally, we’ve found that fewer teen boys enroll in informal Jewish activities than they did in previous years,” said Lori Harrison Port, senior associate director for planning and allocations at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

A survey done by her department showed that informal Jewish education programs generally attract 60 percent girls and 40 percent boys. The lack of participation among boys could lead to a weakening of their Jewish affiliation over time, some fear.

A special report analyzing results from the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-01 indicates that participation in camping and youth groups may impact Jewish identity as much as or more than attending up to six years of supplementary religious school. The impact is directly linked to the length of involvement in those youth-oriented activities.

Last fall, The Federation and the Bureau of Jewish Education hosted a conference for Jewish youth professionals to explore the issue and generate ideas for cultivating greater male involvement in informal Jewish activities. Held at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, the program was an outgrowth of the bureau’s Youth Professional Advisory Council, which facilitates sharing of ideas and resources for those serving Jewish teens.

Keynote speaker Bob Ditter, a Boston-based psychotherapist who consults nationally with camps and other youth-targeted agencies, shared insights about boys’ development and led attendees in discussing how to design their programming and marketing to attract boys.

“The central [element] in boys’ development is task and action. Boys want to feel that they’re good at something,” Ditter said. “Boys develop friendships through the stuff they do. Girls develop friendships and then go do stuff.”

Ditter said that boys engage in activities — such as tossing a ball or comparing video games — as a way to connect. He suggested that youth group leaders and counselors allow boys to do an activity first before expecting them to sit and talk.

He also urged group leaders to recognize that boys initiate connection through a challenge or dare. For example, Ditter witnessed a teen participant make a sarcastic comment to his counselor at a camp’s opening campfire. Rather than feeling threatened or insulted by such remarks, leaders “need to hear the invitation [to engage] rather than the challenge” he said.

“It’s a myth that adolescents distrust or don’t respect adults,” he added. “They’re hungry for meaningful connections to adults they respect and feel respected by.”

The group also discussed the underlying pressures that children of all ages face to compete and excel, whether that means getting into the right preschool or taking the most Advanced Placement courses.

“At social events, they just want to hang out,” Ditter said. “They need to depressurize.”

Looking at how these factors might affect marketing to teen boys, the conference participants agreed that programs — and their promotional materials — must reflect teens’ reality and clearly state the benefits of participation, such as providing community service hours or leadership opportunities.

Ellie Klein, Wilshire Boulevard Temple youth director, noted that many students are attracted to participate in the synagogue’s Wednesday night program, which consists of dinner, a recreational elective and a Jewish-themed seminar, because there is excellent tutoring available through the program’s supervised study room.

Wilshire Boulevard bucks the norm by attracting more boys than girls at its programs. Klein said she’s baffled by the male-to-female ratio, although it helps that eight of her 11 staff members are men and one of the synagogue’s rabbis, Dennis Eisner, is popular with the youngsters and actively recruits participants.

“I’m not selling basketball,” she said. “I’m selling community and connection.”

Temple Sinai’s Sinai High, an educational program for eighth through 12th-graders that draws from the synagogue’s religious school graduates, also boasts a good ratio between boys and girls. Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei, who oversees youth programs, said programming is specifically geared to attract boys. As an example, he noted a popular series of classes that examined Jewish values as evidenced in “The Simpsons.”

Schuldenfrei said the trend of females outnumbering males is not limited to the teen realm. Sinai’s ATID group for young professionals in their 20s and 30s struggles to attract a male audience. For Sukkot, ATID held a Sukkah Sports Night, offering a televised game and beer, as well as a holiday teaching under the sukkah, and was rewarded with more male participants than normal. Schuldenfrei said that programming “needs to speak to males, as well as females.”

This advice may apply throughout the age spectrum. “In liberal communities,” said Rabbi Karen Fox of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, “60 percent to 70 percent of people participating in adult education are women.”

 

A statement by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior


The following is excerpted from a statement by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior, read Monday at the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, by Ambassador Mordecai Yedid, the head of the Israeli delegation.

Madame Chairperson,

Why, when the world was created, did God create just one man, Adam, and one woman, Eve? The Rabbis answered: so that all humankind would come from a single union, to teach us that we are all brothers and sisters.

This Conference was dedicated to that simple proposition. We, all of us, have a common lineage, and are all, irrespective of race, religion or gender, created in the divine image. Indeed, this single idea, unknown to all other ancient civilizations, may be the greatest gift that the Jewish people has given to the world, the recognition of the equality and dignity of every human being. The foremost right that follows from this principle is the right to be free, not to be a slave. It is imperative that international community address and duly acknowledge, already far far too late, the magnitude of the tragedy of slavery.

The horror of slavery is profoundly engraved in the experience of the Jewish people — a people formed in slavery. For hundreds of years the children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt. The Jewish response to slavery was remarkable. Rather than forget or sublimate the suffering of slavery, Jewish tradition insisted that every Jew must remember and relive it….But remembrance of our suffering as slaves has a more important function — to remind ourselves of our moral obligations….We have a responsibility to protect the weak, the widow and the orphan and the stranger….

And indeed in every country in which they have lived, Jews have been in the forefront of the battle for human rights and freedom from oppression. The same urge for national liberation, that led to the Exodus, and that led to the Zionist dream that Jews could live in freedom in their land, was intrinsically bound up with the belief that not just one people, but all peoples must be free. It was this conviction that Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, expressed in his book Altneuland, as early as 1902: "There is still one problem of racial misfortune unsolved. The depths of that problem only a Jew can comprehend. I refer to the problem of the Blacks…. I am not ashamed to say, though I may expose myself to ridicule for saying so, that once I have witnessed the redemption of Israel, my people, I wish to assist the redemption of the Black people…."

If slavery is one form of racist atrocity, anti-Semitism is another….Those uncomfortable recognizing the existence of anti-Semitism not only try to redefine the term, they try to deny that it is different from any other form of discrimination. But it is a unique form of hatred. It is directed at those of particular birth, irrespective of their faith, and those of particular faith, irrespective of their birth. It is the oldest and most persistent form of group hatred; in our century this ultimate hatred has led to the ultimate crime, the Holocaust….Those who cannot bring themselves to recognize the unique evil of anti-Semitism, similarly cannot accept the stark fact of the Holocaust, the first systematic attempt to destroy an entire people. The past decade has witnessed an alarming increase in attempts to deny the simple fact of this atrocity, at the very time that the Holocaust is passing from living memory to history. After wiping out 6 million Jewish lives, there are those who would wipe out their deaths. At this Conference too, we have witnessed a vile attempt to generalize and pluralize the word ‘Holocaust’, and to empty it of its meaning as a reference to a specific historic event with a clear and vital message for all humanity….

The 20th century, which witnessed the atrocities of the Holocaust, also witnessed the fulfillment of the Zionist dream, the reestablishment of a Jewish state in Israel’s historic land. For Zionism is quite simply that — the national movement of the Jewish people, based on an unbroken connection, going back some 4000 years, between the People of the Book and the Land of the Bible. It is like the liberation movements of Africa and Asia, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. And it is a movement of which other national liberation movements can be justly proud. It has strived continually to establish a society which reflects highest ideals of democracy and justice for all its inhabitants, in which Jew and Arab can live together, in which women and men have equal rights, in which there is freedom of thought of expression, and in which all have access to the judicial process to ensure these rights are protected.

….It is a tall task. It is a constant struggle. And we do not always succeed. But, even in the face of the open hostility of its neighbors and continued threats to its existence, there are few countries that have made such efforts to realize such a vision. Few countries of Israel’s age and size have welcomed immigrants from over one hundred countries, of all colors and tongues, sent medical aid and disaster relief to alleviate human tragedy wherever it strikes, maintained a free press, including the freest Arabic press anywhere in the Middle East.

And yet those who cannot bring themselves to say the words "the Holocaust", or to recognize anti-Semitism for the evil that it is, would have us condemn the "racist practices of Zionism". Did any one of those Arab states which conceived this obscenity stop for one moment to consider their own record? Or to think, for that matter, of the situation of the Jews and other minorities their own countries?

These states would have us believe that they are anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic, but again and again this lie is disproved. What are the despicable caricatures of Jews that fill the Arab press and are being circulated at this Conference: what are the vicious libels so freely invented and disseminated by our enemies if not the reincarnation of age-old anti-Semitic canards?

There is profound difference between criticizing a country, and denying its right to exist. Anti-Zionism, the denial of Jews the basic right to a home, is nothing but anti-Semitism, pure and simple…. The conflict between us and our Palestinian neighbors is not racial, and has no place at this Conference. It is political and territorial, and as such can and should be resolved to end the suffering and bring peace and security to the Israeli and Palestinian peoples…. The outrageous and manic accusations we have heard here are attempts to turn a political issue into a racial one, with almost no hope of resolution…..

The head of the Palestinian Authority, rather than utilize this vital forum to inspire his own people, and the people of the world, to seek peace, honor and harmony, he chose to use this podium to incite to bitterness and hatred. Another missed opportunity by the leader of the Palestinian people….

Here today, something greater even than peace in the Middle East is being sacrificed — the highest values of humanity…..Humanity is being sacrificed to a political agenda….. Can there be a greater irony than the fact that a conference convened to combat the scourge of racism should give rise to the most racist declaration in a major international organization since the Second World War?

Despite the vicious anti-Semitism we have heard here, I do not fear for the Jewish people, which has learned to be resilient and to hold fast to its faith. Despite the virulent incitement against my country, I do not fear for Israel, which has the strength not just of courage, but also of conviction.

But I do fear, deeply, for the victims of racism. For the slaves, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the inexplicably hated, the impoverished, the despised, the millions who turn their eyes to this hall, in the frail hope that it may address their suffering. Who see instead that a blind and venal hatred of the Jews has turned their hopes into a farce. For them I fear.

We are here as representatives of states, and states of their nature have political interests and agendas. But we are also human beings, all of us brothers and sisters created in the divine image. And in those quiet moments when we recognize our common humanity, and look into our soul, let us consider what we came here to do – and what we have in fact done:

We came to learn from our history, but we find it being buried to hide its lessons.

We came to communicate in the language of humanity, but we hear its vocabulary twisted beyond all comprehension.

We came out of respect for the sacred values entrusted to us, but see them here perverted for political ends.

And ultimately, we came to serve the victims of racism, but have witnessed yet another atrocity, committed in their name.

Raising Boys


This past year, Toys R Us was excoriated for proposing and, in some instances, constructing separate “Boys World” and “Girls World” sections. But public outrage quickly forced the 707-store retailer to abandon this gender-based marketing concept, which it euphemistically referred to as “logical adjacencies.”Twenty years ago, I would have vehemently condemned Toys R Us’ discriminatory actions, perhaps even joining the ranks of the politically correct protesters. Girls, I would have argued, have as much right to play with a Tonka truck as boys with a Little Tikes vacuum cleaner. And not only a right, a need.Twenty years ago, I was single, childless and clueless.

But I had come of age in the late 1960s and 1970s, witnessing the birth of the pill, Ms. Magazine and Helen Reddy’s hit song, “I am Woman,” watching a total upheaval of traditional sexual roles, rules and expectations.

By the early 1980s, I had seen Sally J. Priesand ordained as the first female American rabbi, Sandra Day O’Connor appointed as the first female United States Supreme Court justice and Sally Ride launched into space as the first American female astronaut. And I firmly believed the slogan – before I met my husband, Larry, of course – that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.

The truth is that the feminist movement, especially during the last 30 years, has brought women unprecedented and very necessary civil rights. It has increased our pay, our sense of confidence and our reproductive options. Clearly, in the words of Bob Dylan, “the times they are a-changin’.”

Changing so much that by late 1983, married and pregnant, I envisioned raising my first son in an idyllic, egalitarian environment. I would teach him to be vulnerable and sensitive, to share his toys graciously with his playmates and to assist me joyfully and willingly with household chores. My future daughter-in-law, whoever she might be, would sing the praises of my parenting skills.

Then Zack was actually born – and I watched the powers of the Y chromosome unfold before me. I watched him hide his favorite toys before a friend would come over. And even more horrific, in our then-adamantly pacifistic, weapon-free home, I watched him fashion guns out of Legos or pieces of toast. Or shoot with a pointed forefinger and raised thumb.

In 1987, Gabe was born. As a toddler, he transformed his cute, cuddly Care Bears into deadly weapons to hurl against his older brother. Later, he used his artistic skills to draw guns and forts and armed castles. Then, in 1989, with the birth of Jeremy, I learned the true meaning of the word risk-taker. Barely walking, he regularly climbed atop the kitchen table and marched across it. Worse, before he learned to swim, he jumped fearlessly into the deep end of swimming pools. He also wrapped Levolor cords around his neck and headed for electrical outlets with letter openers.

By the time my fourth son, Danny, arrived in 1991, my feminist outlook had flip-flopped. I had accepted the reality of innate, intrinsic and God-given gender differences, differences not easily altered by well-meaning and enlightened parents and parenting manuals, differences fundamentally immune to social and cultural influences.

The Talmud agrees. “It is the way of man to subdue the earth, but it is not the way of a woman to subdue it.”

My friend Doug Williams also agrees. Recently comparing our respective hormonally charged home environments, Doug, the father of three daughters, said, “At our house, we have talking, talking, talking. Everything has to be processed.””Come to our house,” I offered. “We have punching.”

“Boys are just hard-wired a certain way,” my husband, Larry, says. And studies confirm this. Males have 10 to 20 times higher testosterone levels than females as well as lower levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that reduces confrontational and impulsive tendencies.

Overall, men are more competitive, aggressive, physical and prone to taking risks.That’s why, with four boys, we have plastic surgeons on call.And that’s why females, who have been trying for the past several decades to remake males in our image, to make them more communal, cooperative and compassionate, have been unsuccessful. Indeed, no matter how much we ask our husbands and sons to talk about their feelings, how often we ask them to process and not necessarily solve problems or how many pink polo shirts we buy them, biology trumps behavioral influences, nature trumps nurture.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t passionately and unequivocally believe in equal civil, social and religious rights for males and females.

It doesn’t mean that I condone rude, offensive, outlandish or inappropriate behavior. Or that I ever accept the excuse that “boys will be boys.”

But it does mean that no matter how generically, unideologically or “illogically adjacent” Toys R Us arranges its thousands of toys, my sons, every time, will make a beeline to the weapon aisle.

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