From left: Lee Broda, Shani Atias, Noa Tishby, Azita Ghanizada. Photo by Gerri Miller

Israeli, Muslim Women Team to Fight for Equality in Hollywood


Stories of sexual misconduct and abuse, workplace discrimination and pay inequality have dominated the headlines recently, drawing attention to issues women face every day in Hollywood. But for women of Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian heritage, there are additional issues of stereotyping and racism that make getting ahead that much harder.

Women Creating Change hopes to counter that through networking, creative collaboration and bridging the long-standing divide between Jews and Israelis on one side and other Middle Easterners on the other.

The new organization, founded in June by Israeli actress-producer Lee Broda, held its inaugural event on Nov. 18 at Los Angeles Community College, featuring a panel discussion, workshops on writing and branding, as well as one-on-one mentoring sessions.

“It’s one thing to talk about empowering women and another to actually make it happen,” Broda told the Journal. “We’re bringing the Arab-Muslim and Israeli-Jewish worlds together to create opportunities, refer each other, hire each other. We’ve connected writers with producers. There already are results.”

Broda acknowledged that “there are issues on both sides” that may make it uncomfortable for some Israelis and non-Israelis to work together at first. “But just by understanding and talking about it, we can be a voice and show our communities that it is possible to find common ground. It’s a small shift that we’re making, but we’re hoping it will trickle down,” she said.

Israeli actress, singer and activist Noa Tishby (“The Affair,” “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”), the daughter of a feminist mother whose father was Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, never faced discrimination as a young actress in Israel. “It never occurred to me that women can’t do the same things men can,” she said on the panel. “Then I moved to the States, and people wouldn’t even take meetings with me because I’m Israeli and a woman. It was shocking to me.”

Tishby talked about being bumped from a project she created and said she’s been “humiliated and propositioned” in the past. Nevertheless, she said, “It’s important that we acknowledge the difficulties. We will not win all the time. It’s going to continue to be hard. But we should not shy away from trying.”

“We will not win all the time. But we should not shy away from trying.” — Noa Tishby

Actress Azita Ghanizada (“Alphas,” “Complete Unknown”), who was born in Afghanistan, has often faced negative ethnic stereotyping in her acting career. But the Jewish creators of “Alphas” changed her character from Chasidic to Muslim when they cast her. And the character she plays in the forthcoming “Kilroy Was Here” originally was written as Latina but is now a Muslim. She sees both “small steps” as a victory for diversity and inclusiveness.

Ghanizada is encouraged that filmmakers like Ava DuVernay “see things through a differently colored lens” and believes Women Creating Change “is a step in the right direction. It creates an open dialogue between women from different regions of the world,” she said. “We have similar stories based on common threads of how we grew up and what we struggle against. There are way more similarities than differences created by politics and religion.”

Moroccan-Israeli actress Shani Atias, who has a recurring role on “Ten Days in the Valley” (returning to ABC on Dec. 23) will appear in the Starz series “Counterpart” in January. The younger sister of Moran Atias (“Tyrant”) will play the title role in the biblical movie “Jezebel” and star in “The Color Red,” a short film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She’s a founding member of Women Creating Change.

“With SAG-AFTRA, Women in Film, and other great organizations backing us up, we’re already one step ahead of the game,” she said. “The next step would be passing laws and regulations that [state] you have to hire a certain amount of women, and that women have to get paid equally. It has to start with us.”

The Western Wall and Dome of the Rock in the old city of Jerusalem. Photo via WikiCommons

Netanyahu calls body searches of female worshippers at Western Wall ‘unacceptable’


Body searches of female worshippers at the entrance to the Western Wall are “unacceptable,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu asked Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan to look into accusations that at least four female rabbinical students were subjected to body searches while attempting to enter the Western Wall Plaza, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement issued Friday morning.

On Wednesday, the students from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, including two Americans, were asked to lift their shirts and skirts for security before being allowed to enter the Western Wall plaza, where an egalitarian prayer service was being held. The four said they were questioned and pulled aside into a private room.

The women were among a group of 15 rabbinical, cantorial and Jewish education students from North America and Australia who joined about 200 men and women in an egalitarian service held that morning on the plaza behind the men’s and women’s sections. The egalitarian service took place following the monthly rosh chodesh service of the Women of the Wall group.

Erdan told Netanyahu that no complaint had been filed with police, the statement said. Erdan also said that if a complaint is filed, it will be “thoroughly checked.”

Netanyahu and Erdan “agreed that if this indeed took place as described, it is unacceptable and will be addressed in accordance with the law and the instructions of the court,” the statement said.

The Israel Religious Action Center of the Reform movement said Wednesday that it would submit formal complaints about the body searches on the students.

Western Wall security did not say what they were looking for, according to the Israel Religious Action Center. Western Wall officials in the past have detained women and searched for Torah scrolls and other religious items they consider inappropriate for women to bring to the wall.

In January, Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that women are not to be subjected to intense body searches when entering the Western Wall.

Leaders of the Reform movement said in a statement Thursday that they sent a letterto Netanyahu calling on the prime minister to “issue a swift and clear denunciation” of what they called the “degrading” searches.

Women of the Wall members bringing Torahs to the Western Wall on Nov. 2, 2016. Screenshot from Twitter

Suspension of Western Wall deal leaves Jewish leaders feeling betrayed


They’ve tried strongly-worded statements. They’ve tried private meetings with the prime minister. They’ve tried negotiations, protest and prayer.

But for the past five years, despite broad internal consensus and consistent pressure, the American Jewish establishment has been unable to persuade Israel’s government to create an equitable space for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall.

The latest setback in that fight came Sunday, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the suspension of a 2016 agreement to expand the holy site’s southern section, used for egalitarian prayer, and appoint an interdenominational commission to oversee it. The compromise was a result of three years of negotiation between the Jewish Agency for Israel, non-Orthodox leaders, the Israeli government and the Western Wall’s Charedi Orthodox management.

Work to expand the egalitarian section will continue during the suspension.  But a new agreement will now be negotiated by Israel’s cabinet, and will need to come to a new vote before moving forward.

The suspension is a result of pressure from Netanyahu’s Charedi Orthodox partners, who allowed the compromise to pass last year but have since railed against it, blocking its implementation. American Jewish leaders had hailed the agreement last year as a step forward for Jewish pluralism, and at the time, Netanyahu called it a “fair and creative solution.”

Now, the American Jewish leaders who pushed for the agreement say they feel betrayed by Netanyahu. They will be meeting in Israel this week to discuss a response, and the Jewish Agency will hold a special session Monday to discuss the issue. But no leaders committed to concrete plans for a response, beyond continued vocal protest.

“It’s deeply troubling and very disappointing that they would suspend the implementation of this resolution,” Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, told JTA Sunday. “We are going to be assertive in asking what’s next.”

Various advocates for the agreement have warned of a crisis among American non-Orthodox Jews should the compromise collapse. Last year, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the collapse of the deal “will signal a very serious rupture in the relationship between North American Jewry and the State of Israel.”

On Sunday, Jacobs expressed strong disappointment in the suspension, but did not say it would lead to any concrete loss of support for Israel from the Reform movement. He included it in a list of recent Israeli government decisions the Reform movement opposes, including recent legislation to bar supporters of Israel boycotts from entering the country, and another law legalizing Israeli settlements’ appropriation of Palestinian land.

“This decision screams out that when all is said and done, the state of Israel and government of Israel is willing to sell our rights and our well-being for coalition politics,” he told JTA. “This does not add up to be a compelling example of what all of us understand Jewish life to be, and if there’s growing dissonance between those who lead the state of Israel and those who lead American Jewry, the consequences are serious.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said the best way forward for non-Orthodox leaders may be Israel’s Supreme Court. A court petition filed by a range of Israeli pluralist groups in 2013  seeks to compel the government to provide for non-Orthodox prayer at the wall, but had been tabled while the 2016 agreement was being negotiated and implemented.

Now that the agreement is suspended, Schonfeld feels the Supreme Court may rule favorably on the petition, forcing the government to accede to non-Orthodox demands.

“The Israeli Supreme court seems to be the only governmental venue that appreciates the long-term impact of Israel advocating its role as the home for all Jews,” she said. “Inevitably, we will find our way back to the courts. We will continue to protest.”

A range of other groups have also criticized Sunday’s decision, including the American Jewish Committee, the Women of the Wall prayer group, the Israel Democracy Institute think tank and the Jewish Agency, whose chairman, Natan Sharansky, was one of the architects of the 2016 agreement.

“After four years of intense negotiations, we reached a solution that was accepted by all major denominations and was then adopted by the government and embraced by the world’s Jewish communities,” Sharansky said in a statement. “Today’s decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult.”

Non-Orthodox leaders also decried the Israeli government’s advancing a bill to centralize authority for Jewish conversions under the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, a Charedi Orthodox body. Silverman compared the bill to a 2010 bill on conversions in Israel, which American Jewish groups also opposed because they argued it would delegitimize non-Orthodox conversions.

“The conversion bill that was approved by the ministerial committee and Knesset is one that definitively changes the status quo in conversions,” Silverman said. “This is something that almost every 10 years comes up, and would have a dramatic effect on who is a Jew, which obviously has a significant impact.”

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Western Wall tunnels in Jerusalem on May 28. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO

Jewish Agency, Reform movement cancel meetings with Netanyahu following Western Wall decision


The Jewish Agency’s board of governors canceled a scheduled dinner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the Israeli government decided to freeze a plan to create an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall.

Also Monday, the heads of the Reform movement in the United States and Israel said they would cancel a meeting with the prime minister scheduled for Thursday in the wake of the decision. The meeting had been arranged several weeks ago.

The Jewish Agency announced the cancellation on Monday, the day of the dinner. The statement also said the group would change its entire agenda for the remaining two days of its meetings in Jerusalem “in order to address the ramifications of these decisions.”

A Knesset ceremony Monday to kick off the board of governors meeting also was canceled.

The Jewish Agency also announced that it had unanimously adopted a resolution calling on the Israeli government to reverse its decision to suspend the deal and a separate decision to advance a bill that would only recognize conversions completed under the auspices of the haredi Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate.

The resolution said the proposed conversion bill “has the devastating potential to permanently exclude hundreds of thousands of Israelis from being a part of the Jewish people.” It also said the board “deplores” the decision to freeze the Western Wall agreement intended to “establish the Kotel as a unifying symbol for Jews around the world, as stated: ‘One Wall for One People.’”

“The Government of Israel’s decisions have a deep potential to divide the Jewish people and to undermine the Zionist vision and dream of Herzl, Ben-Gurion, and Jabotinsky to establish Israel as a national home for the entire Jewish people,” the resolution also said.

The Jewish Agency’s newly installed board of governors chairman, Michael Siegal, told Haaretz on Monday that his agency would re-evaluate its relationship with the Israeli government.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, explained in a statement that his movement had been “deeply encouraged” 18 months ago when Netanyahu and his Cabinet, over the objection of haredi Orthodox parties, had passed an agreement that was negotiated by the Reform and Conservative movements, Women of the Wall, the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government.

Jacobs said Netanyahu rescinded the agreement without discussion with North American leaders.

“The decision cannot be seen as anything other than a betrayal, and I see no point to a meeting at this time,” Jacobs said. “After yesterday’s shameful decisions, we feel that at this moment, after more than four years of negotiations, it is not clear that the current Israeli government honors its agreements.”

The agreement would have doubled to nearly 10,000 square feet — half the size of the Orthodox main section just to its north — a section where men and women could pray together on the western side of the Temple Mount. A committee of non-Orthodox leaders and government officials was to manage the non-Orthodox section, and a single entrance was to lead to both sections.

Aly Raisman celebrates on the podium after winning a silver medal at the Rio Olympic Arena, on Aug. 16, 2016. Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Aly Raisman is the most famous Jewish athlete, according to ESPN


Three Olympic gold medals. Six total. Captain of the victorious 2012 and 2016 U.S. women’s gymnastics teams.

Now Aly Raisman can add one more accolade to her list: Most famous Jewish athlete in the world.

Raisman, 23, the two-time U.S. Olympian from Massachusetts, is the only Jew on ESPN’s 2017 list of the 100 most famous athletes worldwide. She sneaked in at number 99, immediately below Aussie golfer Adam Scott (not the guy who plays Ben in “Parks and Rec”), and above Mohamed Salah, an Egyptian soccer player for the Italian team Roma.

Raisman is one of only eight women on the list, which includes her U.S. gymnastics teammate Simone Biles (#48), martial artist Ronda Rousey (#16) and tennis pros Serena Williams (#19) and Maria Sharapova (#23).

Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese soccer icon, topped the list. LeBron James, the basketball superstar now gunning for another NBA championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers, was number two.

Raisman won her first Olympic golds as an 18-year-old in 2012, and won our hearts by performing her first-place floor exercise to the tune of Hava Nagila. Her adorably anxious parents, Lynn and Rick, only added to her Jewish charm.

Raisman took home two golds in 2012 — for the team win and floor exercise — as well as a bronze for the balance beam event. In 2016, she was nicknamed “grandma” for being the team’s oldest member — at 22. But age didn’t stop her. Raisman won three more medals that year: a gold for the team win, and two silvers for all-around and floor exercise.

Raisman will be 26 when the 2020 Olympics kick off in Tokyo, but she’s planning to compete again. If she wins two more medals, for a total of eight, she’ll break the all-time record for U.S. women gymnasts.

ESPN calculated the rankings by looking at endorsement money, social media following and Google search results. Raisman has a paltry $450,000 in endorsement deals (by comparison, LeBron does $55 million in endorsements), but she boasts 2.2 million followers on Instagram and nearly a million on Twitter.

She has also excelled outside of the arena. Raisman placed fourth on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” in 2013, and she can do a mean box jump.

Women in Orthodoxy: The plot thickens


Some tense debates are going on right now within the Orthodox movement as it deals with the forces of modernity. Perhaps the most contentious issue among them is whether Orthodoxy should allow women clergy.

The “traditional” camp, represented by mainstream Orthodox groups such as the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, says no. The “open” camp, a fledgling movement of more liberal Orthodox rabbis, says yes.

There are arguments on both sides. The letter of halachah (Jewish law) does not specifically prohibit women clergy. But one of the hallmarks of Orthodoxy is a deep respect for tradition and continuity, to the point that tradition itself can take on a legal status.

The traditional view gives great emphasis to the spirit or the ethos of the law, while the open view looks for legal ways to thread the needle and make tradition more inclusive. It’s a classic struggle, and I see value with both views.

If you go by modern trends, the open view looks like a slam dunk: How can you tell a woman that she cannot do what a man does? This egalitarian mindset has become so ingrained in our thinking that anything less can seem offensive.

And yet, as much as my mind leans toward a more inclusive and open approach, I find myself having a place in my heart for the maintenance of tradition. Maybe this comes from conversations I’ve had over the years with Orthodox women who live happily in the traditionalists’ camp.

Let’s take one example of an Orthodox custom that can offend non-Orthodox Jews — the physical barrier (mechitzah) between men and women in synagogues. This feels like another slam dunk: Why separate men from women?

Here’s what one woman told me who moved from the Reform to the Orthodox camp: The separation helps her better connect with God. Sitting next to her husband can distract her from that intimate moment of prayer. You can disagree with that sentiment, but still respect it.

Similarly, why would so many Orthodox women be OK with only men being officially part of the rabbinate?

Again, it’s because they see something holy in the notion of separation. Shabbat, for example, is a sacred separation from the rest of the week; so is the home from the outside world and so is the bedroom from the rest of the home.

In a marriage, this sanctity of separation means embracing different roles for men and women. Because the woman feels dignity and fulfillment within the roles that she has, she feels no inclination to appropriate the man’s roles. In her eyes, “different” doesn’t mean superior or inferior, it means holy and equal.

In other words, what may look like retrograde to you is sanctity to them. At least with the women I spoke to, they associate this sanctity of difference with holiness in the home and harmony in their lives.

Still, it’s worth noting that Orthodoxy has not been immune from the forces of modernity. In recent years, Orthodox women have become more and more engaged in areas that traditionally have been more associated with men.

Even the statement earlier this year by the Orthodox Union opposing female clergy noted “the important and fundamentally successful roles that women can and must play within our communal and synagogue structures, including as educators and scholars.”

It is the role of women in synagogues, rather than in schools, that is especially sensitive. As is often the case with these debates, it comes down to red lines. Traditionalists want to draw a red line at women clergy; the Open camp doesn’t feel this is necessary.

If no compromise is reached, Open Orthodox institutions, although still a small minority, may end up being excluded from Orthodox umbrella groups — something that would open a permanent breach in the movement. I hope leaders on both sides will struggle to find an arrangement for the sake of heaven.

Maybe each side can give a little. The Open camp can create a spiritual leadership role and a title for women that pushes the halachic envelope yet still falls short of the traditional clergy position, while the Traditional camp can tolerate this arrangement for the sake of communal harmony and broadening the Orthodox tent.

It would be like saying: “We agree to disagree on this one issue, but for the sake of a higher ideal, we have both compromised a little and will coexist under the same Orthodox tent.”

I have dear friends on both sides. When I see the deep attachment to Torah in both camps, it strikes me how much they’re really all on the same side.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Rabbi Sharon Brous. Photo by Donovan Marks/Washington National Cathedral

It’s time to reclaim religion


This is a transcript of a speech delivered at TEDWomen 2016.

was a new mother and a young rabbi in the spring of 2004 and the world was in shambles. Maybe you remember. Every day, we heard devastating reports from the war in Iraq. There were waves of terror rolling across the globe. It seemed like humanity was spinning out of control.

I remember the night that I read about the series of coordinated bombings in the subway system in Madrid, and I got up and I walked over to the crib where my 6-month-old baby girl lay sleeping sweetly, and I heard the rhythm of her breath, and I felt this sense of urgency coursing through my body. We were living through a time of tectonic shifts in ideologies, in politics, in religion, in populations. Everything felt so precarious. And I remember thinking, My God, what kind of world did we bring this child into? And what was I as a mother and a religious leader willing to do about it?

Of course, I knew it was clear that religion would be a principal battlefield in this rapidly changing landscape, and it was already clear that religion was a significant part of the problem. The question for me was, could religion also be part of the solution? Now, throughout history, people have committed horrible crimes and atrocities in the name of religion. And as we entered the 21st century, it was very clear that religious extremism was once again on the rise. Our studies now show that over the course of the past 15-20 years, hostilities and religion-related violence have been on the increase all over the world. 

But we don’t even need the studies to prove it, because I ask you, how many of us are surprised today when we hear the stories of a bombing or a shooting, when we later find out that the last word that was uttered before the trigger is pulled or the bomb is detonated is the name of God? It barely raises an eyebrow today when we learn that yet another person has decided to show his love of God by taking the lives of God’s children. In America, religious extremism looks like a white, anti-abortion Christian extremist walking into Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs and murdering three people. It also looks like a couple inspired by the Islamic State walking into an office party in San Bernardino and killing 14. And even when religion-related extremism does not lead to violence, it is still used as a political wedge issue, cynically leading people to justify the subordination of women, the stigmatization of LGBT people, racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. This ought to concern deeply those of us who care about the future of religion and the future of faith. We need to call this what it is: a great failure of religion.

But the thing is, this isn’t even the only challenge that religion faces today. At the very same time that we need religion to be a strong force against extremism, it is suffering from a second pernicious trend, what I call religious routine-ism. This is when our institutions and our leaders are stuck in a paradigm that is rote and perfunctory, devoid of life, devoid of vision and devoid of soul.

Let me explain what I mean. One of the great blessings of being a rabbi is standing under the chuppah, under the wedding canopy, with a couple, and helping them proclaim publicly and make holy the love that they found for one another. I want to ask you now, though, to think maybe from your own experience or maybe just imagine it, about the difference between the intensity of the experience under the wedding canopy and maybe the experience of the sixth or seventh anniversary.

And if you’re lucky enough to make it 16 or 17 years, if you’re like most people, you probably wake up in the morning realizing that you forgot to make a reservation at your favorite restaurant and you forgot so much as a card, and then you just hope and pray that your partner also forgot.

Well, religious ritual and rites were essentially designed to serve the function of the anniversary, to be a container in which we would hold on to the remnants of that sacred, revelatory encounter that birthed the religion in the first place. The problem is that after a few centuries, the date remains on the calendar, but the love affair is long dead. That’s when we find ourselves in endless, mindless repetitions of words that don’t mean anything to us, rising and being seated because someone has asked us to, holding onto jealously guarded doctrine that’s completely and wildly out of step with our contemporary reality, engaging in perfunctory practice simply because that’s the way things have always been done.

Religion is waning in the United States.

Across the board, churches and synagogues and mosques are all complaining about how hard it is to maintain relevance for a generation of young people who seem completely uninterested, not only in the institutions that stand at the heart of our traditions but even in religion itself. And what they need to understand is that there is today a generation of people who are as disgusted by the violence of religious extremism as they are turned off by the lifelessness of religious routine-ism.

Of course, there is a bright spot to this story. Given the crisis of these two concurrent trends in religious life, about 12 or 13 years ago I set out to try to determine if there was any way that I could reclaim the heart of my own Jewish tradition, to help make it meaningful and purposeful again in a world on fire. I started to wonder: What if we could harness some of the great minds of our generation and think in a bold and robust and imaginative way again about what the next iteration of religious life would look like? Now, we had no money, no space, no game plan, but we did have email. So my friend Melissa and I sat down and we wrote an email, which we sent out to a few friends and colleagues. It basically said this: “Before you bail on religion, why don’t we come together this Friday night and see what we might make of our own Jewish inheritance?”

We hoped maybe 20 people would show up. It turned out 135 people came. They were cynics and seekers, atheists and rabbis. Many people said that night that it was the first time that they had a meaningful religious experience in their entire lives. And so I set out to do the only rational thing that someone would do in such a circumstance: I quit my job and tried to build this audacious dream, a reinvented, rethought religious life which we called IKAR, which means “the essence” or “the heart of the matter.”

Now, IKAR is not alone out there in the religious landscape today. There are Jewish and Christian and Muslim and Catholic religious leaders — many of them women, by the way — who have set out to reclaim the heart of our traditions, who firmly believe that now is the time for religion to be part of the solution. We are going back into our sacred traditions and recognizing that all of our traditions contain the raw material to justify violence and extremism, and also contain the raw material to justify compassion, coexistence and kindness — that when others choose to read our texts as directives for hate and vengeance, we can choose to read those same texts as directives for love and for forgiveness.

I have found now in communities as varied as Jewish indie startups on the coasts to a women’s mosque, to Black churches in New York and in North Carolina, to a holy bus loaded with nuns that traverses this country with a message of justice and peace, that there is a shared religious ethos that is now emerging in the form of revitalized religion in this country. And while the theologies and the practices vary very much between these independent communities, what we can see are some common, consistent threads between them.

I’m going to share with you four of those commitments now.

The first is wakefulness. We live in a time today in which we have unprecedented access to information about every global tragedy that happens on every corner of this Earth. Within 12 hours, 20 million people saw that image of Aylan Kurdi’s little body washed up on the Turkish shore. We all saw this picture. We saw this picture of a 5-year-old child pulled out of the rubble of his building in Aleppo. And once we see these images, we are called to a certain kind of action.

My tradition tells a story of a traveler who is walking down a road when he sees a beautiful house on fire, and he says, “How can it be that something so beautiful would burn, and nobody seems to even care?” So too we learn that our world is on fire, and it is our job to keep our hearts and our eyes open, and to recognize that it’s our responsibility to help put out the flames.

This is extremely difficult to do. Psychologists tell us that the more we learn about what’s broken in our world, the less likely we are to do anything. It’s called psychic numbing. We just shut down at a certain point. Well, somewhere along the way, our religious leaders forgot that it’s our job to make people uncomfortable. It’s our job to wake people up, to pull them out of their apathy and into the anguish, and to insist that we do what we don’t want to do and see what we do not want to see. Because, we know that social change only happens when we are awake enough to see that the house is on fire.

The second principle is hope, and I want to say this about hope. Hope is not naive, and hope is not an opiate. Hope may be the single greatest act of defiance against a politics of pessimism and against a culture of despair. Because what hope does for us is, it lifts us out of the container that holds us and constrains us from the outside and says you can dream and think expansively again, that they cannot control in you.

I saw hope made manifest in an African-American church on the South Side of Chicago this summer, where I brought my little girl, who is now 13 and a few inches taller than me, to hear my friend Rev. Otis Moss preach. That summer, there had already been 3,000 people shot between January and July in Chicago. We went into that church and heard Rev. Moss preach, and after he did, this choir of gorgeous women, 100 women strong, stood up and began to sing: “I need you. You need me. I love you. I need you to survive.” And I realized in that moment that this is what religion is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about giving people back a sense of purpose, a sense of hope, a sense that they and their dreams fundamentally matter in this world that tells them that they don’t matter at all.

The third principle is the principle of mightiness. There’s a rabbinic tradition that we are to walk around with two slips of paper in our pockets. One says, “I am but dust and ashes.” It’s not all about me. I can’t control everything, and I cannot do this on my own. The other slip of paper says, “For my sake the world was created.” Which is to say, it’s true that I can’t do everything, but I can surely do something. I can forgive. I can love. I can show up. I can protest. I can be a part of this conversation. We even now have a religious ritual, a posture, that holds the paradox between powerlessness and power. In the Jewish community, the only time of year that we prostrate fully to the ground is during the High Holy Days. It’s a sign of total submission. Now, in our community, when we get up off the ground, we stand with our hands raised to the heavens, and we say, “I am strong, I am mighty and I am worthy. I can’t do everything, but I can do something.”

In a world that conspires to make us believe that we are invisible and that we are impotent, religious communities and religious ritual can remind us that for whatever amount of time we have here on this earth, whatever gifts and blessings we were given, whatever resources we have, we can and we must use them to try to make the world a little bit more just and a little bit more loving.

The fourth and final is interconnectedness. A few years ago, there was a man walking on the beach in Alaska, when he came across a soccer ball that had some Japanese letters written on it. He took a picture of it and posted it up on social media, and a Japanese teenager contacted him. He had lost everything in the tsunami that devastated his country, but he was able to retrieve that soccer ball after it had floated all the way across the Pacific. How small our world has become. It’s so hard for us to remember how interconnected we all are as human beings. And yet, we know that it is systems of oppression that benefit the most from the lie of radical individualism.

Let me tell you how this works. I’m not supposed to care when Black youth are harassed by police, because my white-looking Jewish kids probably won’t ever get pulled over for the crime of driving while Black. Well, not so, because this is also my problem. And guess what? Transphobia and Islamophobia and racism of all forms — those are also all of our problems. And so too is anti-Semitism all of our problems. Because Emma Lazarus was right.

Emma Lazarus was right when she said until all of us are free, we are none of us free. We are all in this together. And now somewhere at the intersection of these four trends — of wakefulness and hope and mightiness and interconnectedness — there is a burgeoning, multifaith justice movement in this country that is staking a claim on a countertrend, saying that religion can and must be a force for good in the world.

Our hearts hurt from the failed religion of extremism, and we deserve more than the failed religion of routine-ism. It is time for religious leaders and religious communities to take the lead in the spiritual and cultural shift that this country and the world so desperately need — a shift toward love, toward justice, toward equality and toward dignity for all. I believe that our children deserve no less than that.


SHARON BROUS is founder and senior rabbi at IKAR Los Angeles

A high tech company which employs ultra orthodox women in Modiin Elit on Aug. 17, 2009. Photo by Abir Sultan/Flash 90

Here’s how Israeli women are fighting for equal pay in tech


High-tech workers know there’s no problem that can’t be solved with a spreadsheet.

So a group of Israeli women seeking to combat the gender wage gap in the industry created one last month with data about their qualifications and salaries. They hope to empower one another in salary negotiations.

As of Friday, nearly 200 women had contributed to the survey, and the data showed a wide range of earnings — even for women with similar qualifications working in similar positions.

“We know from surveys and from personal experience that women tend to name lower salaries than men when we go into negotiations, and obviously employers never tell you to ask for more,” said Liora Yukla, 35, one of two women who spearheaded the effort. “This gives us something substantive we can look at to start feeling more confident about the kind of numbers we can name.”

Yukla’s group, XX+UX Israel, is a 2-year-old community for women who work in the field of user experience, which encompasses a range of high-tech jobs. Its some 1,500 members work together to promote women’s status in the industry, including sharing advice and support in their active Facebook group. The group is a largely independent branch of the global XX+UX, which was started by women at Google headquarters in Northern California’s Silicon Valley.

Anat Katz-Arotchas (Facebook)

Anat Katz-Arotchas (Facebook)

(In the United States, Tuesday is Equal Pay Day — the date when women’s salaries, on average 20 percent lower than men’s, “catch up” to men’s from the previous year.)

“It’s about helping women and solidarity,” said co-founder Anat Katz-Arotchas, who also runs a consultancy that advises tech companies about how to build female-friendly products. “Rather than dictating to women, we listen and let them tell us, ‘This is what we need and this is how to do it for us.’”

Katz-Arotchas said the survey, although unscientific, could serve as a much-needed reference for group members and empower them to be bolder in their salary demands. Professional industry surveys have not looked at women’s salaries separately, she said.

Despite narrowing in recent years, Israel’s gender wage gap is among the widest in the developed world, according to a report released last year — with women making less than three-quarters of what men earn. The gap is even wider in high-tech, where women have been found to earn a little more than half as much as men.

According to a recent Taub Center study, the biggest reason for the disparity is that on average, women work fewer hours than men. Another key factor is that women are more likely to be employed in lower-wage occupations and industries. Many have argued that those factors are influenced by discrimination as well.

The challenge of asking for higher pay came up recently in a discussion on the XX+UX Israel Facebook group. Shortly thereafter, two members of the group posted a Google spreadsheet for members to share information about their job, professional experience and monthly pay.

“We’re basically just a group of women who work in high-tech, and this is the kind of thing we talk about,” Yukla said. “It was a really long, vibrant discussion, so we realized a lot of us are probably interested in what the standard is.”

Liora Yukla (Facebook)

Liora Yukla (Facebook)

The survey, which the group plans to systematically analyze, showed monthly salaries ranging from 6,000 shekels (about $1,700) for a starting designer to 46,500 shekels (about $13,000) for a veteran product manager. It also found that some women with similar jobs and qualifications reported significantly different incomes. One project manager at a large company said she made 20,600 shekels (about $5,700) per month, along with bonuses and a company car. Another with the same education and six more years of experience said her salary was 16,000 shekels (about $4,400).

“One thing that was sort of surprising was you saw different salary levels for the same job, the same skill set,” Yukla said. “I think the question here is: Would it be different for our male colleagues?”

Group members responded enthusiastically to the survey.

In comments on Facebook, one woman wrote, “Well done, finally the real data and life.”

Another said, “Fabulous activism! This is super important and I’m sure it’s going to help many girls negotiate better in their next salary negotiations.”

Another commenter noted that despite what many agreed was wage discrimination in their industry, the women were fortunate to be part of Start-up Nation. The average Israeli high-tech worker’s salary was 24,000 shekels last year, according to an industry survey, compared to 10,000 shekels for all Israelis.

“Amazing! Fabulous!” she said. “Even though there are gaps, our situation compared to the market is really good!!”

Rabba Sara Hurwitz, right, is the dean of Yeshivat Maharat in New York, which since its founding in 2009 has ordained 14 Orthodox clergywomen. Photo by Uriel Heilman

A response to the Orthodox Union’s statement on women clergy


Several people have asked me my thoughts on the Orthodox Union’s recent statement regarding women clergy. As you know, the advancement of women’s leadership and scholarship provides one of the fundamental tenets that make Shalhevet High School what it is.  The topic also is important to me on a personal level. I am proud to daven frequently at B’nai David-Judea, a synagogue that employs a female clergy member. My wife has spent this year in Jerusalem studying to become a Yoetzet Halacha. I routinely use my soapbox to call for progress on a host of issues triggering difficult halachic discussions – including women’s issues, LGBT issues, and more – and have received a good deal of flak for those stances.

And yet, I find the resentment towards the Orthodox Union, and these Rabbis in particular, in reaction to this statement, somewhat exaggerated and unfair. Please do not misunderstand me – I have issues with the statement. But I look at the response to this statement (mostly on social media and in private emails) and I see a lot of knee-jerk reactions instead of carefully considered critique. I see individuals demonizing the rabbis who penned the statement, decrying their chauvinism, and declaring their standing on the wrong side of history. Many people I have spoken to do not seem to have read the piece carefully, if at all.

You don’t agree with the decision? Great. Disagree! That is the Jewish way, the Talmudic way, which has charted our course for millennia. I understand that this statement is painful for many people. But let’s not jump to assume the worst about those with whom we disagree. Let’s avoid assuming that its authors acted in bad faith. Rather, collect your thoughts, respond point-by-point, identify what you consider to be any logical missteps, and advance the dialogue on this important issue. All too often these days, people don’t just disagree– they demean, malign, reject and delegitimize. The rabbinic authors of this statement are talmidei chachamim who are filled with ahavat Yisrael, and think day and night about the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of the Jewish people.

As I have written in the past on numerous occasions, we need not agree on every issue. I respect and admire Rabbi Kanefsky tremendously. I consider him a role model and a true tzaddik. Rabbi Kanefsky disagrees with the Orthodox Union decision, which is his right. Just as Rabbi Kanefsky retains the prerogative to diverge from the OU’s line of reasoning, so too does the OU have the prerogative to make public that decision and rationale.

I understand the opinion that people often will use halacha to confirm a certain predisposition to an issue. But that is an oversimplification of the halachik process. Halachik decisors draw not only on precedent and clear-cut textual sources but on what they take to be the spirit that animates the halachik system in its totality, a spirit that they have drawn from a comprehensive study of halacha and its sources. Similarly, those who earnestly seek to expand the role of women generally do so in an attempt to advance what they consider to be the goals of the halachik system. We can disagree without arguing that the other side is acting in bad faith.

Given that this debate implicates the overall values of the halachik system, there is enough “give” in centuries of Biblical commentary, Talmudic discourse and Halachik Responsa to justify opposite conclusions on the issue of women clergy. And what’s true of the debate over women clergy is true of a wide variety of other halachik issues that draw upon the relative weight we place on the wide range of halachik values within our tradition. But the existence of multiple values in no way diminishes the integrity of halachik analysis.

Both the supporters and detractors of the OU’s statement approach this issue with important and valid halachik values essential for any honest and thorough conversation over the role of women within the clergy. Let us focus on what both sides in this debate share in common.  A deep commitment to halacha and a recognition that in the year 2017 there is a need for an expanded role for women in synagogue leadership .  The OU document, while saying no to women rabbis, carves out a much greater amount of space for women to serve and lead.  This is significant given the community from which the document emanates.  Yes, many would love to see more; yes, many feel that women rabbis are acceptable in halacha.  Let’s argue, but by all means let’s also recognize how much common ground the two sides of this debate share. The value of honoring Mesorah (tradition) and making religious leadership available to women can both be seen as Torah objectives; the relative weight we give to those values can each support honorable Torah worldviews. And precisely because each worldview comprises Torah values, each position will find halachik support. Should we bemoan this reality? I don’t think so. It speaks to the complexity and depth of the Jewish tradition. We are a tradition of debate, not of unanimity.

There is one reality, however, that we should bemoan: our inability to debate with dignity and respect. We have lost our ability to have genuine empathy for any side that disagrees with our worlviews. If the Jewish community joins our current society at large in choosing this direction, then I struggle to see how we will heal the wounds that have formed in this toxic atmosphere we have created.

When the rest of the world is going so low, should not the Jewish community go high? Does our mission not contain the mandate to shine a light unto the world? If we do nothing but emulate the coarse ways of a polarized world, then who are we?

Modern Orthodoxy can lead the way in shining a Jewish light unto the world. Our rabbinic leadership must begin to define its movement in positive, as opposed to negative terms. Our decisors must describe for us what we as Modern Orthodox Jews can and should be, a vision to which we can aspire, as opposed to offering a steady diet of restrictive pronouncements. Far too many Orthodox Jews feel that the rabbis only show up periodically to offer a “slap on the wrist” when societal norms have gone too far afield. This does not inspire a greater reverence of, and commitment to, halacha. Rabbi Soloveichik, with his writing of the Lonely Man of Faith and other works, inspired a generation. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Amital’s writings inspired yet another generation. While they said no at times, and yes at others, everyone was inspired by them, saw their humanity and sensitivity and understood that they were torn and pained at times when they had to say no.

Developing empathy for both sides should be the starting point for dignified debate. Without that, we rush into another one of those communal food fights that throws out lots of heat and generates little light. We are better than that. We should be better than that. Our ancestors did not struggle for millennia to see their descendants turn into dogmatic warriors who constantly turn on each other.

So, this is a call for dignified debate, for radical moderation. This is a call for empathy before judgement. This is a call for reasoned rebuttal. Finally, this is a call for us to shine a Jewish light unto the world, no matter how deep our disagreements.

Are we up to the challenge?


Rabbi Ari Segal is Head of School at Jean and Jerry Friedman Shalhevet High School.

Inspiring stories of family, support as keys to success


An idea that came up again and again over the course of the recent Women’s Leadership Network’s fourth annual Woman to Woman Conference benefiting Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) was the importance of support by family and those who become like family. It was an especially fitting theme given that so much of JVS’ work in helping people find meaningful, long-term employment depends on a family-like network.

The event, held at the Skirball Cultural Center’s Guerin Pavilion on Nov. 17, attracted nearly 500 women — from recent college graduates to grandmothers — along with a smattering of men. For some attendees, it was their first Woman to Woman Conference. Many others were returnees happy to support JVS’ mission and eager for another healthy dose of inspiration, of which they got plenty from the day’s two featured speakers.

Dr. Margareta Pisarska, director of the Center for Fertility and Reproductive Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, began by speaking about her parents, both Holocaust survivors from Poland who were sent to concentration camps as Christian prisoners of war. She showed pictures of a small metal cross a man who had worked in an ammunition factory had fashioned for her mother from a bullet casing. “I believe this kept her going,” Pisarska said. “He was not her family in a traditional sense,” she said, but through his actions he became family.

Pisarska talked about her father’s colon cancer diagnosis when she was a high school freshman, and the “special moments” they shared when she accompanied him on train trips to his treatments at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. She also helped change his dressings. It was at that time when she decided to become a doctor. When her father died a year later, Pisarska said, she “became her mother’s rock and roles were reversed.” She considered not going to college, but her mother would not have it and sold the family’s motel to support her. 

“My mother was not only my family but my mentor and champion,” Pisarska said. 

The mother of three also shared stories about her other critical “mentors, champions and family,” including her fellowship director at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, who was keen to hire her for an open clinical position but ultimately encouraged her to head west to Stanford University, where she would have an opportunity to do more research as well as take care of patients. This “selfless” act, she said, ultimately helped her grow and flourish.

Pisarska went on to talk about her work helping people build families through some of the latest advances in the field of reproductive medicine.

The event’s other featured speaker, Nancy Spielberg, shared comic stories of growing up with her “rogue” mom and three siblings in Phoenix. There was the pet monkey. There was acting in her big brother Steven’s home movies. (Yes, that Steven Spielberg.)

“I was abducted by aliens when I was 6 years old,” she recalled.

Spielberg said her mother regularly wrote notes for her kids and even their friends so they could skip school. But despite those quirks, Spielberg said, her mother “allowed us to thrive and venture into whatever direction we felt ourselves pulled.”

Spielberg spoke candidly about being “the sister of” her celebrity brother, including registering for writing classes under her married name so she would not be prejudged.

“I never wanted to be a filmmaker,” she said. “Probably that’s partially due to the fact that the bigger my brother became, the more intimidated I became — not by my brother, because he’s a really nice guy, but by public opinion. You know, it’s that fear of failing publicly or measuring up.” 

But even when she questioned her own ability, Spielberg said, her husband — whom she described as “brutally honest but very supportive” — cheered her on. “Many times he would say, ‘You can do this,’ and I would cower and say, ‘I can’t.’ ”

Eventually, Spielberg’s belief in herself caught up to the belief that others had in her. Today, at 60, she is a highly respected documentary filmmaker. Her films include 2014’s “Above and Beyond,” about volunteer fighter pilots in Israel’s War of Independence, and the new “On the Map,” which revisits the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team’s 1977 European Cup victory. Currently, she is at work on a film called “Who Will Write Our History,” about uncovered archives from the Warsaw Ghetto.

“One of most important things I learned is that collaboration and support and respect are really the salt in every successful recipe, whether you are running a business or making a movie,” Spielberg said. “Find your support group, like you are today. Ask for help. Ask questions. People love to help. So it’s a win-win.”

This message was echoed by three JVS clients who spoke at the event, including Nicole Johnson, a mentee in JVS’ WoMentoring Program. Motivated by her 14-year-old son with  autism, and with the support of a devoted volunteer mentor, Johnson hopes to launch next year a creative incubator space for young people with autism.

The conference brought in close to $300,000 for JVS programs such as WoMentoring; A Girl’s Place, which serves at-risk middle and high school students; and BankWork$, which provides job seekers eight weeks of intensive training and placement support for entry-level positions in the financial services field.

In the words of conference co-chair Nancy Paul, “There is nothing more powerful than women joining together to help each other overcome, advance and succeed.”

Miriam’s House opens doors for struggling women and their children


Rhonda Evans was 40 years old and addicted to drugs when she decided she needed help. She had three sons — two living with her parents and one with her — and she had been living in a motel, cobbling together money to pay for her habits. 

What turned her life around was a place called Miriam’s House, a nonprofit sober home for mothers. From 2007 to 2009, Evans lived at the house and got her life back on track, eventually getting to the point where she went to school to learn substance abuse counseling. 

“It was a passion of mine. After I lived [at the house], I wanted to give back,” said Evans, who is now the home’s program director. 

The West Los Angeles house opened its doors in 2007 and focuses on women recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. It has 15 rooms and is currently hosting seven women with little to no income. Residents might just be regaining contact with their children, getting a degree and going to work. 

It sits on a large property and has communal spaces for children to play in and women to gather. There also is a back garden where residents can sit outside and have time alone.  

Miriam’s House is part of the Promises Foundation, started by Lisa Rogg, a holistic medicine expert, licensed acupuncturist and lifelong resident of Los Angeles, along with her husband Richard, who founded Promises Treatment Centers.

“When you are a homeless mother or a mother living below the poverty line, it’s difficult to find help for addiction,” Lisa Rogg said. “Often you are faced with the choice of giving up custody of your child or receiving the support you need. As a mother, it was my mission to help these women keep their families together.”

The home, which is funded by private donors, has a success rate of more than 90 percent for reuniting mothers with their children, according to executive director Brenda Valiente.

“The women are so inspired by their children to become better people,” Rogg said. “When you have that threat of losing a child to the system, you really don’t want to go through that.”

If a woman wants to be admitted to Miriam’s House, she has to be at least 30 days sober and willing to follow the designated schedule, along with Alcoholic Anonymous’ 12 steps of recovery. She can bring along one or two children under the age of 10, who live with her in her room. During the time that she’s there, which can range from a few weeks to a year, her children can attend the public elementary school a few blocks away.  

The staff at Miriam’s House aims to get the women back on track and contributing to society. They make sure the residents are set up with housing after they leave, are able to work at a job or get a degree, and know how to plan for their future. 

“We try to impact their lives,” Valiente said. “We not only believe that they can be self-sufficient, but we give them the tools to make sure they are.” 

Miriam’s House hosts AA and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, offers parenting classes, provides child care, shows the women how to meditate and do yoga, and asks them to prepare and attend nightly dinners. The house also holds celebrations for various holidays, including a Chanukah dinner and candle-lighting in partnership with the Reconstructionist synagogue in Pacific Palisades, Kehillat Israel, which Rogg attends. (Residents do not need to be Jewish, and not many are.)

 Not every woman succeeds during her first stay at the house — about 1 in 15 relapses — but in those cases the woman is welcome to try again. 

“We’ve had women relapse,” Rogg said. “But they show a lot of strength and determination and are then very successful.” 

Valiente said that since the women aren’t forced to be there, they must resolve for themselves to do their best. “The women admitted have shown and agreed to certain standards they will fulfill for being in the program. They have to show that they’re committed to being in recovery.”

Evans said places like Miriam’s House are essential because there are too few organizations for mothers in recovery. “There aren’t a handful of places like this where women with children can get sober and the skills they need to be on their own.”

Like Evans, many of the mothers go on to earn their degrees in social work and become drug and alcohol counselors, Valiente said. They find jobs through outlets like Jewish Vocational Service Los Angeles and the nonprofit Chrysalis. Some residents receive scholarships from the Promises Foundation to fund their education. In terms of housing, the women may go on to live in Section 8 buildings, transitional homes, or apply for help from St. Joseph Center, a nonprofit that helps the needy find housing and treatment for mental illness, as well as receive education and training for jobs 

After women graduate from the program, they are always welcome to reach out for support from their counselors. The house hosts alumni events, like a Mother’s Day gathering, to stay connected to their network of mothers.

“What we’ve learned is the women who stay connected and engaged tend to stay sober,” said Valiente. “They feel like they want to do good in the community and pay it forward.”

By assisting mothers on the road to recovery and allowing them to stay with their children, Rogg said, Miriam’s House is able to make a real impact on their sobriety. 

“I think that being able to keep the family together and not have kids go into the foster care system is probably one of the best preventative measures for stopping the cycle of addiction.” 

Burkini ban is great for business, says Israeli-French maker of modest swimsuits


According to the latest tally, at least 30 French municipalities have banned the product that the Paris-born businesswoman Yardena G. sells for a living.

Yardena, a haredi Orthodox mother of nine from Jerusalem, owns the Sea Secret fashion label of modest swimwear for devoutly religious women. And she regards the bans on full-body bathing suits for Muslim women, or burkinis, as “the best commercial ever for modest swimwear.”

In fact, Yardena said in an interview Thursday with JTA, she predicts the controversial bans will “end up boosting sales in a big way.” (Citing privacy issues, she asked that her last name not be mentioned in the article.)

Yardena, who immigrated to Israel 14 years ago, sells various models of “full-body” swimsuits that leave little more than the hands and feet exposed.

The bans on the distinctive Muslim swimwear have ignited a polarizing debate in a divided France, which is struggling to balance freedom of worship with its attachment to other liberal values — including the fight against radical Islam and the oppression of women.

Defended by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls as a countermeasure against “a political project … to perpetuate female servitude,” the burkini ban and its enforcement have angered millions of Frenchmen who regard it as a gross infringement into the private realm and unwarranted discrimination toward Muslims.

It also dismayed Yardena, 45, who started her line of modest swimwear with a female business partner “to empower women” who adhere to religious laws, common to Muslims and Jews, that demand women cover up to various degrees.

“It’s like someone turned the world on its head in France,” she said. “Instead of promoting modesty and good measures like leaders and figures of authority ought to, they’re telling women to take it off.

“I don’t understand what’s happened, but I do know that as a person who keeps modest clothing, such measures will do nothing to discourage other women like me.”

Sea Secret’s dozen or so sales agents in France have reported to Yardena that French Jewish women, who constitute the lion’s share of the firm’s clientele, are worried they may be affected by the ban.

“It’s creating a problem for Jewish women because it’s poisoning the atmosphere for everyone – Muslims, Christians and anyone who doesn’t want a police officer making wardrobe decisions for them,” Yardena said.

Some suits in the  Sea Secret line could be classified as a burkini, she said. Yardena noted one model featuring an elastic shawl that can be used both as a hijab and a traditional head cover of the sort favored by haredi and modern Orthodox women.

One of several Jewish-owned businesses offering modest swimwear for women, Sea Secret does have some Muslim clients. But many Muslim women refrain from buying its products because it is known to be Jewish-owned and Israel based.

“They perceive it as political,” Yardena said.

Christian women, however, account for a third of sales.

“I believe women who observe modesty observe the sanctity of God no matter what their own faith happens to be,” Yardena said. “I think our brand is truly a light onto the nations.”

The mainstream representative organs of French Jewry, which are normally quick to offer their take on current affairs — especially on religious issues — have remained conspicuously silent on this issue even as the Board of Deputies of British Jews complained Wednesday about reports of “police harassment” of Muslim swimmers in Nice. It was an unusual move for the board, which rarely comments on foreign issues without consulting the relevant Jewish communities.

A senior rabbi, Moshe Sebbag of the Grand Synagogue of Paris, acknowledged in an interview with JTA on Tuesday the reluctance of other French Jewish leaders to speak out on the issue.

“It’s a complicated subject and both sides have compelling arguments,” Sebbag said, adding that the French state is a “secular country with freedom of religion.”

But Sebbag ultimately defended the bans, whose supporters, he said, “understand today there’s a religious war, a takeover of the secular establishment of the French republic, and this is what they find unacceptable.” Asked if he agrees with the burkini bans, he said: “Yes, because you see that going with it [a burkini] is not innocent, it’s sending a message.”

The burkini ban is turning France away from its own core values, according to David Isaac Haziza, a French-Jewish columnist for La Regle du Jeu, the commentary and news site edited by the philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy.

Haziza is critical of those who wear the burkini, which he described as a sign of radicalization at the expense of integration. Nonetheless, Haziza argued against fighting it through legislation and regulations. The fight, he said, should be “on a moral level.”

‘Inside’ Jessi Klein: From lingerie to baby drool


In Jessi Klein’s eyes, there are two kinds of women: Those who are poodles and those who are wolves.

The poodles are delicate, hyper-feminine women who always wear matching bras and underwear and lose their virginity in high school. Then there are the wolves. They’re funny, sweat a lot, own two bras total, and don’t have sex until at least their junior year of college. 

Klein is a member of the latter group, and in her new book, “You’ll Grow Out of It,” the comedian and head writer and executive producer of “Inside Amy Schumer” talks all about her wolf status, motherhood and going from what she calls a tomboy to a “tom man.” 

In the book, released in July, Klein reveals her vulnerability, especially in situations where she was confronted with the idea of womanhood. She writes about trying on more than 100 wedding dresses before getting married and pumping breast milk at the Emmys after winning an award for “Inside Amy Schumer.”

Though she’s written for many other shows, “Inside Amy Schumer” is where Klein can get personal and incorporate her real-life experiences, she told the Journal. In one sketch that aired this past May, Schumer goes shopping for a black T-shirt in a size 12. The thin sales associate shows her doll-size tops and then takes her out to a pasture with Lena Dunham and a cow, two of the other shoppers. 

The sketch, which pokes fun at body shaming in retail stores, is similar to the time Klein went into an upscale French lingerie store and ended up crying because nothing fit, an episode that is related in her book. 

“All of the writers [go personal],” she told the Journal. “The voice of the show is very intimate, and our process involves the writers embarrassingly kicking around the more awkward details of their lives.”

The Torah of female power


Men had their chance. 

I’m even willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and say maybe they didn’t rule the world as badly as it seems they did. Because the truth is, we do not yet know what an equal world looks like, let alone one in which the world’s women might hold a disproportionate balance of power. So the notion that a better world than the one we have now might exist remains strictly speculative. 

But if the wildly unpredictable U.S. election has taught us anything about the direction of our future, it’s that change is not only necessary, it’s imminent. 

Like her or loathe her, this week Hillary Clinton became the first woman in U.S. history to clinch the Democratic nomination for president. And you know what? That’s f—–g cool. 

In the same week, Forbes released its annual list of the world’s most powerful women, with Clinton coming in second behind German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Last year, Merkel stunned the international community when she dared to invite hundreds of thousands of refugees inside Germany’s borders, demonstrating the courage to do something many believed unimaginable and dangerously unpredictable. Perhaps it takes a leader who comes from outside the conventions of power to make choices that defy convention. 

But even with modern, wind-tunnel forces like Sheryl Sandberg and Melinda Gates, Oprah Winfrey and Anna Wintour, Christine Lagarde and Michelle Obama, “Statistics on women in positions of power remain bleak,” Forbes noted. Citing the nonprofit tracker Catalyst, a survey found that women occupy only “a measly 4% of corner offices at S&P 500 companies. And they hold only 25% of executive or senior-level jobs in those same firms.”

The fact that this list exists at all is a triumph; it is a public nod to women’s impact on the engines of our world, and it is evidence of a spreading, worldwide contagion.

In the Jewish community, the Jewish Women’s Archive in partnership with Jewish Women’s Theatre recently launched an online database of women rabbis that explores how female leaders are transforming Judaism. Since 2009, the organizers surveyed women rabbis from across the denominational spectrum, and their testimonies describe risky, experimental and innovative choices that are revitalizing Jewish life to the point of “renaissance.” 

And yet, we live in a world of contradictions. For every bit of progress — in every sphere — inequality remains. We see it in Jewish liturgy and communal life, and in the wider world. Ordaining women rabbis was a good first step in expanding the unharnessed potential of Jewish possibility; but how many women run our community’s most important institutions? And how much are they paid in comparison with their male counterparts? 

Liberation is a process still unfurling. We know that for every Forbes woman of power, there are tens of millions of women around the world who suffer the daily indignities of utter powerlessness. What does female power even mean if those with newly realized strength do not uplift those who are weak? 

As Shavuot teaches us, liberation alone is not enough. You can leave Egypt and become free, but freedom is meaningless without a system for living that ensures freedom for all. The only thing that could stop newly freed slaves from repeating the mistakes of their oppressors was to give them Torah — a system of laws that could shape a just and fair society. 

Isaiah Berlin famously taught that there are two kinds of freedoms: freedom from and freedom to. What good is freedom from oppression without the will to make a better world? 

So I say to the world’s powerful women: Liberation is only the first step. It is now up to you to use your newfound power to enact the values that feminism has always promised. Electing a woman to the highest office in the land is meaningless unless that woman ensures that all the things she’s talked about become real — including women’s reproductive rights, paid maternity leave for families, equal pay for equal work and rebuilding the middle class. To be able simply to call someone “Madam President” is a mark of liberation, not transformation. Without the will to change, it would be like leaving Egypt without ever getting to Sinai. 

I want to believe that shifting the balance of power could mean new ways of exercising it. Liberian activist and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Leymah Gbowee once told a story about her father, who was a respected community leader, but was demoted when he refused to subject his daughters to female genital mutilation. His defiance of tribal custom cost him, and he lost the respect of many in the community. But his courage to act preserved his daughters’ dignity. Real power, Gbowee learned, was not about keeping it all for yourself, but having the strength to give some power away. 

The power structure of every lasting system, from religion to government, can become antiquated. But survival depends on an ability to adapt to the needs of an evolving populace. What will women bring that will improve upon institutional foundations? How will the memory of oppression shape the experience of female power? 

In Judaism, ultimate power resides in partnership with God, a shared responsibility for the well-being of the world. Female leadership should reinforce the idea that greatness comes from empowering others. 

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Hillary vs Bernie: ‘It’s the ego, stupid!’


Bernie Sanders’ and Hillary Clinton's voting records on women's issues may be — as Sanders claims — very similar. But experienced women know what qualities ultimately determine whether someone will be good or bad for them. And when it comes to personality traits, the two candidates couldn’t be more different. Watching them in the last few debate rounds, town halls, and TV interviews clarifies for me why I, a mature female voter, want to see Hillary Clinton as the next President of The United States. To borrow from an old phrase popular during a previous presidential election, “It’s the ego, stupid!”

He is rigid; she is flexible. He is dogmatic; she is inquisitive. He is theoretical; she is practical.  He is abrupt; she is measured.  He reduces; she enlarges. He simplifies; she qualifies. He has an unequivocal answer for every question. She pauses, ponders and often follows a question with a question.  He sees the world in black and white. She sees the world in shades of gray.

A woman complains that in her case, The Affordable Care Act resulted in higher, less affordable rates. What kind of health plan did you have previously? Hillary asks. She listens; she probes; she offers several practical alternatives. Bernie, on the other hand, always responds instantly.  He will fix everything. His single payer health program will provide adequate free care for all.

As far as he’s concerned, the solutions are crystal clear; they always were: “We live in a rigged economy.” Our enemies are “Wall Street,” and “the billionaire class.” “Can you name one billionaire you like?” a man in one town hall asks him. Maybe Oprah, or Gates, or Buffet, I hope. “Oh no,” Bernie answers.  “This isn’t personal.” I should have known. Marxist theory divides the world between “class friends,” and “class enemies.”  Those labels are never personal. If Secretary Clinton used her education, knowledge, and experience to speak to the enemy and got well paid for her work, her checks must have been tainted. Such accusations bring bad memories. In The Socialist Republic of Romania, where I grew up, if you got caught talking to or buying from a “class enemy” – a Western tourist, for example – you could get arrested.  

Bernie will lead the revolution to tear down the ancient capitalist structures and erect novel ones according to his theories and specifications. In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times editorial board, Sanders claims that no president can “literally do anything for the American people, unless there is a political revolution,” against “the ruling class — that is Wall Street, that is corporate America, that is the wealthy contributors, that is corporate media…” And how exactly will President Sanders work with the other side, let's say during the first 100 days of his revolution, editor Goldberg asks him. Bernie responds that he will tell Mitch McConnell, “Hey Mitch, look out the window. There's a million young people out there, now!”

Hillary, by contrast, limits her claims.  Obamacare isn’t perfect care, but she will work hard to expand our choices and improve our alternatives. She will encourage non-profits to join the competition, and she will pressure insurance providers to lower their rates. “I don’t know if my answer will solve everything,” she says, “but I am going to take them on.” As far as she is concerned, we live in a complex, volatile, ever changing world; she will lead efforts to improve, modify, evolve, elevate, learning from past failures and building on past successes; if we elect her, she will create an environment that will increase the incentives and opportunities that will empower more of us to maximize our chances for success. This is the American way – not the Swedish or Russian or Cuban way.

Bernie reminds me of Aylmer, the scientist in Hawthorne’s, “The Birthmark,” who wants to perfect his wife, as Bernie wants to perfect his country, by cutting out her birthmark, and ends up killing her in the process. Hawthorne was a champion of women’s rights and many of his male reformers, like the utopian Hollingsworth, in The Blithedale Romance (“the bond slave” “to that cold, spectral monster, his philanthropic theory”), end up favoring theories over people and harming those they mean to help.

But then Bernie appears sincere, while Hillary seems studied. He is passionate, and she, reserved. Isn't a charismatic idealist with noble dreams preferable to a cautious pragmatist with mundane plans? Some Millennials think so. I think about my father, who joined the communist underground in Romania during World War II, believed in the worker's paradise, rose to become Vice-Secretary of Defense in the new, socialist government only to discover that the nouvelle elite used its power to enrich itself and oppress the rest. He exposed the truth in his book, Gulliver In The Land of Lies, which earned him a sentence of 25 years in prison. Today, his country recognizes him as a hero, “The Romanian Solzhenitsyn.”

As a young woman, I glorified him over my mother, the way young women sometimes glorify their charismatic fathers over their dependable mothers. But it was she, the pragmatist in the family, who had to pick up the pieces of her husband’s shattered dreams, put bread on her children’s table and start a new life from scratch, alone with two children.  And I wonder: How many experienced, resilient, pragmatic women and mothers, married and single, are choosing Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders because they know the difference between dreams and reality, fact and fiction, words and deeds?

Listening to Secretary Clinton’s thoughtful answers to the complex questions raised by Wolf Blitzer after the Brussels attack (“I’m a very strong supporter of Nato. It’s the best international defense alliance I think ever,” but “we have to keep adjusting and changing its mission to meet the new threats that we, as members of Nato, face”), I have faith that this intelligent, experienced, resilient woman has the capacity to bring peace and prosperity to our embattled land.


Irina Eremia Bragin is chair of the English Department at Touro College, Los Angeles. She is the author of the memoir, Subterranean Towers: A Father-Daughter Story

Women and armed conflict: A need for a united resolution not a UN resolution


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

The turmoil engulfing the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) today is at one of its most vicious and aggressive phases. It would seem that everywhere you look around there is a state falling apart, a nation being divided, an economy collapsing and most of all chaos and terrorism. What’s worse is the fragmentation of the social texture, which unlike infrastructure and governments, will take decades to heal.

Despite its significance, not many politicians or decision makers are prioritizing or even acknowledging the effects of conflict on culture and societies. There are the immediate concerns of deaths, injuries, displacement, food insecurity and other humanitarian emergencies, and there is the long term issue of rebuilding state institutions and putting sound political systems in place. What about the people? Aren’t they the ones who are supposed to do all that, from rebuilding the economy to enforcing and respecting the law?

According to a survey by the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research (HIIK); compared to seven violent crises in the region in 2005, the number has risen to 32 in 2014. And according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, conflict forcefully placed nearly 60 million persons by end of 2014, either Internally Displaced or as refugees. With the numbers of civilian causalities increasing exponentially it becomes obvious that whatever MENA politicians are trying to do to stabilize the region is not working, that is, if they are indeed trying to do something about it rather than being the reason behind it.

Hence, comes to play the role of women as peace builders. A 2015 research highlighted in the Global Study commissioned by UN Women under the title “Preventing Conflict, Transforming Justice, Securing the Peace” emphasized the role of women in improving humanitarian assistance, peace keeping efforts and economic recovery. This study comes 15 years after the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) issued its 1325 resolution on women and armed conflict (issued in October 2000) which was created after the issuing of four similar resolutions on children and armed conflict (Resolution 1261 issued in August 1999 and Resolution 1314 issued in August 2000) and civilians and armed conflict (Resolution 1265 issued in September 1999 and Resolution 1296 issued in April 2000).

The United Nations Peace Keeping agency states that this resolution “stresses the importance of women’s equal and full participation as active agents in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace-building and peacekeeping. It calls on member states to ensure women’s equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security, and urges all actors to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspective in all areas of peace building.”

Since the Beijing Declaration and its Platform of action in 1995 it took women’s movements and gender activists five years to lobby for a resolution at the international level, one that would respect and facilitate the positive involvement of women in the peace process, hence the 1325 resolution in 2000. Eight years later, the UNSC issued another resolution on women and armed conflict (Resolution 1820 issued in June 2008) which “reinforces Resolution 1325 and highlights that sexual violence in conflict constitutes a war crime and demands parties to armed conflict to immediately take appropriate measures to protect civilians from sexual violence.” This was in turn followed by a two resolutions in 2009 (Resolutions 1888 and Resolution 1989 issued in September and October 2009 respectively) which aimed at “further strengthening of women's participation in peace processes and the development of indicators to measure progress on Resolution 1325..” These was again followed by another resolution (Resolution 1960) in December 2010 and two more three years later (Resolution 2106 and 2122 issued on June and October 2013 respectively) re-endorsing all the previous resolutions and inviting the Secretary-General to review resolution 1325’s implementation.

Table

At the international level, the UN Security Council has adopted seven resolutions on Women Peace and Security. Source UN Peace Keeping:

Resolution Number

Year of adaptation

1325

2000

1820

2008

1888

2009

1889

2009

1960

2010

2106

2013

2122

2013

Although the UNSC and its member states unanimously endorsed the various resolutions on women and armed conflict while acknowledging the fact that women were deliberately shunned away from the warfare paradigm, in reality not much has been done to follow up on these promises. In his article in the 2010 NATO Review on women and conflict, Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury who was led the initiative on UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in his role as President of the Security Council expressed his disappointment at not living up to the promise. His article under the title “10 years on, the promises to women need to be kept” he says that the main point is not to make wars safe for women, but rather not to have wars in the first place by structuring the peace process in a way that prevents future conflicts. He says, “That is why women need to be at the peace tables, involved in the decision-making and in peace-keeping teams. They need to be there particularly as civilians, to make a real difference in transitioning from the cult of war to the culture of peace.”

It is not the lack of UN resolutions or international treaties that undermine the important role of women in armed conflict whether representing their best interest as victims or seriously acknowledging their contributions to peace building and conflict resolution. It is rather the lack of political will and adequate practices in peace building processes which are almost always are exclusively managed by men; that is the problem. Although in theory, there is slight improvement in the referencing of women in peace agreements. The same global study by UN Women marking 15 years since the resolution indicated that only eleven percent of signed peace agreements referenced women, a percentage that has increased to 27 percent since 2000. Naturally it is gravely inadequate to reduce women’s involvement in the peace process to a percentage of agreements where women were referenced.

There are many stories that illustrate how involvement of women in conflict resolution and peace keeping could prove significantly useful to sustaining the peace and catering to the minorities especially from a cultural perspective. Women have an innate skill in attending to the social fabrics of the society being the nurturers and the consensus builders. There are examples of heroic peace building efforts by women in conflict zones in the MENA region itself such as in Palestinian-Israel conflict, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and beyond. These stories remain of no interest to most media and decision makers who fail to see the real value of women in such turbulent times. Consider this alternative scenario of the MENA region: If at least one third if not half of the participants in the peace processes were women, would the results be any different? Would there be more peace in the region? My answer is definitely yes. Why not give women a chance to contribute to stability, after all, men have been doing it for a long time and a new way of thinking is long due.

Nadia Al-Sakkaf is a researcher and independent journalist. She was Yemen’s first Information Minister in the 2014 cabinet and the Editor of Yemen Times for nine years before that.

Though they still can’t drive, Saudi women running in local elections


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

For the first time in Saudi Arabia’s history, more than 1000 women will compete in municipal elections next month. It is the first time that women will run for election in the desert kingdom, and activists hope it signifies a change in the status of women.

“This is hugely significant,” Hatoun al-Fasi, a professor of history at King Saud University and long-time women’s rights activist told The Media Line. “We have over 1000 women convinced they can make a difference and who convinced their families to be part of this experience.”

Al-Fasi said that about 30 women have dropped out of the race because of pressure from their families, but 1031 remain in the race. Saudi King Abdullah, who has been replaced by King Salman after his death, ruled in 2011 that women could both vote and participate for the first time in the current 2015 election. Planners said they expected only a few dozen women to run, and were surprised at the outcome.

The municipal councils in Saudi Arabia, like their counterparts almost everywhere, deal with local issues such as local budgets and planning regulations. Some analysts said that including women in these elections was less significant than al-Fasi claims.

“Psychologically speaking it’s good, but in terms of changing the reality on the ground it won’t change anything,” Ali al-Ayami, the Director, Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, (CDHR) told The Media Line. “It is just to appease the international community and to silence their critics. These councils don’t have any power.”

He said that power in Saudi Arabia is concentrated in the hands of the royal family which has done little to encourage women’s rights. Women are still not permitted to drive, and still need consent from male guardians for many activities.

However, one of the biggest changes has been in the area of women’s education. Women now make up 60 percent of university students, and tens of thousands of women now have advanced degrees, including PhDs. In addition, Saudi Arabia has sponsored 750,000 students to study abroad including in the US over the past ten years. About a third of those are women, many of whom return to Saudi Arabia.

“The position of women has changed radically in the past 15 or 20 years,” Richard Spencer, the Middle East editor of the Telegraph newspaper told The Media Line. “Hundreds of thousands of women have now traveled abroad and that’s something you can’t undo.”

Until a few years ago, Spencer said, there were few women shop assistants in Saudi Arabia. That meant that women shopping for lingerie were waited on by male workers, often migrant workers from outside Saudi Arabia. In 2012, however, the King began allowing women to work in shops, and tens of thousands have followed.

The municipal elections are not the first time that women have participated in governmental bodies. For the past two years, the King has appointed 30 women of the total 150 members of the Shura Council, the Consultative Assembly. But the Shura Council has little power to disagree with the King.

Saudi Arabia is a young country, with three out of four citizens below the age of 30. They are among the most prolific consumers of social media in the world, using platforms like Instagram and SnapChat to meet each other and to hold political discussions.

“This is the 21st century and the age of social media,” al-Ayami said. “Women are out in front demanding their rights and are even willing to go to jail.”

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive, and the World Economic Forum ranks Saudi Arabia among the countries in the world with the largest gender gap. Only about 15 percent of Saudi women are employed, many of them as teachers. That number is increasing, however, as more women join the work force.

Many say it is only a matter of time until women will be allowed to drive.

“It’s not an issue for the upper class because most of them have drivers,” al-Ayami said. “But it is an issue for working-class women who want to pick their children up at school.”

At the same time, women’s activist Fanoun al-Fasi says she does not expect change to happen so quickly.

“We really hope and we pray for this,” she said. “But we know that change is very slow.”

A view from the women’s section on Orthodox spiritual leadership


I have a vivid memory of sitting in my yeshiva high school principal’s office, imploring him to start teaching the girls Mishnah and Gemara, to offer a little more respect to our intellects and our souls by giving us access to all the Jewish texts that form the basis of our heritage, of what we were expected to live every day. He said no, for four years. Did he quote sources at me stating that women’s minds are too feeble for it? Say that it wouldn’t interest me anyway? That it’s simply not done? I’ve shut those details out of my memory, but my mission was clear: If I wanted access to the heritage that is rightfully mine, I was going to have to get out of the principal’s office. And I did. After I graduated from yeshiva high school, I started taking adult Gemara classes, and I continue to do so today. 

Last week, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA)
I have found a Modern Orthodoxy so meaningful, so relevant and so true to the halachah and values central to the Torah, that I don’t need RCA approval to tell me I’m doing the right thing.

A few months ago, Bnai David installed Morateinu Alissa Thomas-Newborn as the first female clergy member in an Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles. (Full disclosure: I serve on the board that hired her.)

My shul, my community, my Judaism, are stronger and richer for having a woman as a holy presence among us. Morateinu Alissa delivers heartfelt and learned drashot, offers halachic guidance on highly personal issues with immense sensitivity, and shares deep insights as a teacher. She relates to our teen girls and has brought her unique interests, her brand of empathy, her youthful perspective, to complement Rabbi Kanefsky’s dynamic wisdom and courage and menschlichkayt. 

But mostly I appreciate Morateinu Alissa’s presence. In our shul, men and women are physically divided by a mechitzah, and nearly all the action goes on on the men’s side. That tradition continues, as Morateinu Alissa, like all women, does not lead any of the davening or even count toward a minyan. But now, we women can feel that we own a little more of what goes on in shul. We have a religious leader we can sit next to during davening, with whom we can shake hands or hug when she descends from the bimah after giving a beautiful sermon, to whom we can look during davening as an inspiration for kavanah, of holy intention, without the obstruction of the wooden latticework of our mechitzah barring our full view, our full access. 

Maybe the RCA should feel threatened. Women and men who experience the added dimension and texture that a female perspective can bring to congregational life might realize what they have been missing all along.

And women who experience the sense of belonging and relevance might demand it in other shuls, even in shuls where the mechitzah is not built with the same symmetry and sensitive semi-transparency, or where the velvet-cloaked Torah scroll is not carried through an array of women’s outstretched arms offering kisses or a caress. 

I remember the first time I saw a sefer Torah up close. There I was, 19 years old, already having had about 16 years of formal Jewish education, and I had never seen the letters of the Torah, never read a verse from an actual scroll. I was working at a summer camp, and my then-boyfriend, now-husband, brought me into the tented beit knesset in the middle of a field, took a scroll from the ark, and opened it for me. It was that simple, and that complicated.

A few years later, my husband taught me to lein Torah for the women’s prayer group I had just joined, and I realized that those little symbols I had always ignored were not only a melody, but punctuation. For years, I had been reading the words of the Torah with an unnecessary handicap.

What we are doing in Modern Orthodoxy is removing those unnecessary obstacles so we can use all the tools offered to us to find the truest meaning of our traditions. We are not suggesting a halachic free-for-all, but rather a more authentic adherence to what the halachah does and does not demand of us.

I know I might be naïve and delusional to thumb my nose at the RCA. I am not a professional spiritual leader, so my livelihood and life’s mission are not at stake. And more important, in Orthodoxy, community is everything. I’d like to see the RCA do what the grass-roots community does — recognize that there is a place in the Modern Orthodox community for all of us. Because stepping outside the community has very real consequences. 

I guess what both sides need to figure out now is how to define, and who is defining, today’s Modern Orthodox community.

Mayim Bialik: Let Orthodox Jewish women be called ‘rabbi’


Something is going on in the Jewish world that may be the most important thing to happen in a very long time. In a recent statement, a leading board of Orthodox rabbis reaffirmed that although they encourage many different professional opportunities for learned women, “due to our aforesaid commitment to sacred continuity, however, we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.” (Full statement is here.) For those of you unfamiliar with Judaism, this may seem bizarre and silly (and I will explain it all here, and we’ve included a number of resources below for those of you who want to read more on the subject); but for those of us who are Jewish, it’s incredibly important.

While the Reform and Conservative denominations of Judaism have been ordaining women as rabbis since 1972 and 1985 respectively, the most ‘stringent’ denomination, Orthodoxy, has not, largely because there are certain restrictions about women’s roles in traditional Judaism that have not before been challenged or changed since they came into being. As an example, a woman cannot serve as a witness in a court of Jewish law (other prohibited categories include imbeciles, children and professional gamblers). Why were women banned from being witnesses? Because thousands of years ago, women were typically either too busy rearing children – which they were solely responsible for — or deemed too unstable or emotional (as most every culture in the world has claimed women to be) to make legal decisions with consistency.

These kinds of stereotypes have led to an Orthodoxy that – despite historical shifts that have allowed Orthodox women to enter just about every other arena of society – remains largely devoted to maintaining the roles of women as caregivers and rulers of the home sphere rather than the public sphere. Today, an Orthodox woman can go to law school and become a lawyer and serve as a senior judge in a court, for example, but in her own Jewish community, she could not even serve as a witness or sign a legal document such as a marriage contract.

It doesn’t make us look good, I know. Especially considering the fact that other religions have made significant shifts in their representation of women. It doesn’t make us look good.

In the past decades, the number of Orthodox women who want to join the leadership of the Jewish people in ways that are consistent with Jewish law has been growing. There have been trailblazers in this world of female scholarship and leadership. Reb Mimi Feigelson is a scholar among scholars and a profoundly devoted religious leader here in Los Angeles. Rabba Sara Hurwitz in New York established Yeshivat Maharat, a Jewish seminary to train women who are learned in Torah and devoted to religious life who want to be a part of Jewish leadership in a formal and recognized way. Their titles point to their scholarship and their leadership, but are also a source of controversy. Only in the most modern Orthodox of circles are they seen as equal to the males who hold the “rabbi” title.

Like it or not, Jewish law does not preclude a female rabbi. And that’s not opinion, it’s fact. So what’s the issue here? Why are we having this discussion? As the joke goes: where there are two Jews, there are three opinions. And lots of Jews have lots of opinions on this subject. Here are mine.

The way I see it, there are two issues at hand.

Cultural Relevance

In Judaism, men and women occupy distinct and important roles which are historically relevant and compelling. As a matter of fact, I happen to be a big fan of gradational roles for men and women. However, God did not ordain these roles — history and cultural bias did. When electricity was harnessed in creating the lightbulb, no one cried out, “We should not use lights because God did not put them in the Torah!” So, too, as history and culture have moved forward, the needs of men and women have changed and there is nothing about those shifts that is antithetical to the word of God nor our love for God and the Torah.

The God I believe in cares about the oppressed, the orphan and the widow. The God of Judaism seeks for us to make relationships with a Divine Being so that we can care for the oppressed, the orphan and the widow. Does this God draw the line for compassion and care at gender equality? No, only humans can do that.

The people most in touch with the Torah and Judaism are made to be leaders. Period. If Judaism is a religion of ethics and justice, our commitment to tradition and to authentic Judaism should not preclude a fierce commitment to ethics and to justice in our leadership and in our communities.

Nomenclature/Whatchamacallit

The RCA seems particularly upset about what we call these women leaders. Are they Rabbis? Are they clergy? Are they Rebs or Rabbas, titles derived from the more familiar “rabbi” or “rav,” or – as one local Maharat-trained leader is known – are they Morateinus (meaning “our teacher”) or…? There is a tradition that Moses granted semicha (a conferring of leadership) from Sinai down to the Rabbis of the mishnah (the first part of the Talmud), but that semicha was lost. The title “rabbi’ isn’t even Biblical, and it isn’t God-given. In modern times, a rabbi derives authority not from the heavens, but from the people who recognize what a great master of Torah, spirituality and morality he is. That’s why Jews often call great rabbis “rav,” which is the word for master, or teacher.

A Jewish leader is someone we learn from. In the 21st century, why can’t we honor a woman who is a master by calling her a master? If she is a teacher, do we not call her a teacher? A rose by any other name would indeed smell just as sweet. The RCA’s fixation with nomenclature is a distraction tactic. (To learn more about the issue of naming Orthodox women leaders, see this article from the Jewish Journal.)

As it says in Psalms (19:8): The Torah of the Lord is perfect, satisfying to the soul; the Testament of the Lord is trustworthy, enlightening the simpleminded.

Men and women alike can enlighten us as masters of the Torah. Let them.

Seriously? I guess if this is what we are focusing on and spending our time and energy on, it must mean that we have successfully eliminated all suffering, immorality, injustice and hypocrisy in Judaism and in the world. It must mean that we have all of this time and energy to spend on dissecting what a group of learned women want to call themselves, and if they have a right to lead that is equal to the right that men have to lead? We are picking on women who are so in love with Judaism and Orthodoxy that they are enrolling in seminaries in order to become learned teachers, and we are spending our time placing them under a microscope and we are examining why they are thus devoted.

In Numbers 11:16-29, when Moses asked God for help bearing the weight of the fledgling Jews, 70 elders are made into prophets to help him. Moses’ second-in-line, Joshua, finds that two more than the 70 are prophesying and Joshua asked Moses to imprison them. Do you know what Moses says? “Would that all of God’s people be prophets, and that His spirit rest upon all of them.” Exactly.

Judaism is losing members in great numbers, assimilation is freaking everyone out because the number of Jews in the world is declining left, right and center, and the RCA is upset that there are women this devoted and committed to Judaism that they are devoting their lives to it?

The threat of punishing synagogues who hire these women is absurd, and it’s divisive, and it alone will be the thing that causes the splitting off from Jewish denominations, not hiring competent, learned, God-fearing observant women into our clergy offices.

This conversation also hits me on a personal level. I have already written about the recent hiring by the first Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles of a female leader named Alissa Thomas-Newborn to serve our community as a religious leader and expert of Jewish law and policy. I wrote about how, as a woman devoted to Torah living going through a divorce, I craved the guidance of a woman who was both able to understand me in a way all the male rabbis I spoke to could not, and able to understand Torah and the questions I had about Jewish tradition and how it would affect my life as a divorcee.

What’s more true for me than that is that I have wanted to be a rabbi since I was 15 years old. I told my rabbi in front of the ark at my Reform synagogue as he blessed me on the night of my Confirmation. We were both startled, and he reminds me of it whenever I see him. More than anything else, my desire to serve my people as a leader is the thing that has been consistently true about me since I was 15. I began learning more and more about Judaism from an Orthodox perspective when I was in college, and I have not stopped. My life path took me to marriage and a PhD in the years that – had my life path been slightly different – I might have been one of the women of Yeshivat Maharat who are blessed to spend their lives devoted to studying to become Jewish leaders. I am now a PhD-holding divorced woman and a mother of two sons. I support myself and my children by being a full-time actor. My chance to be a rabbi is gone; my life is meant for something different. But I still remember, understand and feel the desire to lead. That’s why this issue hits so close to home.

I don’t want to be a Jewish leader because I am a woman. I want to be a Jewish leader because I am a Jew who has a deep and abiding faith in the Maker of this Universe, and I know for certain that the fire I have in me for Torah was meant for leadership somehow.

This fire is the fire God puts in people who are meant to touch others through God’s Torah.

And my fire is not the only one. That fire dates back thousands of years to the beginning of creation.

It is in the hearts and the souls of every woman who gives her life to study Torah. This fire is in the hand that held Adam’s as we were sent out of the garden of Eden, and it is in the cries of the women in Egypt we helped as they gave birth to the sons and daughters of the next generation. It is in the songs we have sung since we crossed the Sea of Reeds and it is in the reflections in the mirrors we made out of our jewelry, so we could look attractive to our men to encourage love, when we were slaves and we had nearly given up hope. It is in the judgments of Deborah and the tent-pin Yael used to slay an enemy general. It is in the sacrifice we make on Day 8 and it is in the immersion we make on Day 12*. It is in me and it is on me like black fire on white fire.

It is that it is.

We all believe in the same God. We revere the same Torah. We want a cohesive Jewish community. Let’s build that based on God and Torah, men and women alike. Let’s show the world that we are ready to enter a new time where the cultural customs of the past of keeping women in back rooms is not what we stand for.

One step at a time, gently, so gently, we can do this together. We – all of us – can lead.

*”Day 8” refers to the day on which ritual circumcision (a bris) is performed. In the laws of family purity, a woman is permitted to immerse in the ritual bath (mikvah) on the 12th day of her cycle, as a step toward resuming sexual relations with her husband.

Mayim Bialik plays neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler on CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory.” She holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of California, Los Angeles, and she is the founder of the web community GrokNation.com, where this article originally appeared.

The Reform movement’s new holiday prayer book is radically inclusive


When some Reform synagogue-goers open up their prayer books this High Holiday season, they will be greeted with snippets of poems by the likes of Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda. Feminist and LGBTQ-friendly terms and phrases will be subtly incorporated into the prayers, and scattered between those prayers will be original woodcut prints inspired by the holidays.

How can this be, you ask? The Central Conference of American Rabbis, the principal organization of North American Reform rabbis, has revamped its High Holidays prayer book for the first time since 1978.

The new prayer book, or machzor, reflects an effort to be more inclusive of women and LGBTQ Jews. In some cases, God is referred to as a woman. One passage substitutes the words “bride” and “groom” with the gender-neutral “couple.” In a blessing that calls congregants to the Torah, mention of gender is left out in a gesture to transgender people.

“There’s no way to give you a percentage [of what has changed] — it’s a totally new book,” said Rabbi Hara Person, the rabbinical conference’s director of publications. “Of course, it’s based on the structure of any machzor … but it’s not just a sort of tweaked version.”

The new prayer book also features what Person calls counter-texts, which accompany traditional prayers and challenge their assertions. For example, the important Untaneh Tokef prayer is followed by a philosophical Carl Sandburg poem and then by the new sentence: “I speak these words, but I don’t believe them … clearly there’s no scientific foundation …”

In addition to textual changes, the new two-volume book contains original artwork for the first time: 11 commissioned woodcuts by renowned artist Joel Shapiro, to be exact.

The goal, Person says, is to make all Jews, no matter how religious they are, feel more comfortable during High Holiday services, even if they only attend due to family pressure.

When the prayer book was unveiled at the Central Conference of American Rabbis’s annual convention in March, 180 synagogues had already ordered it. That number has now risen to approximately 300 as the holidays approach.

So far, Person said there has not been much negative backlash among Reform rabbis. The book had been in the pipeline for seven years – four years of which involved testing the book in services at select congregations across the country – so those in the know have been expecting the changes for some time.

“We haven’t gotten any calls or emails saying What did you you do?” Person said. “I think that the piloting and the education process paved the way because it became a very interactive process.”

Palestinian women stymied by suppressed employment opportunity


Despite having higher levels of education than their male counterparts, Palestinian women suffer from one of the lowest rates of female participation in the workforce in the world, according to a report by the Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka.

Less than one in five women residing in the Palestine Territories are employed full time, says Samia Al-Botmeh, a policy adviser with Al-Shabaka and an assistant professor in economic studies at Birzeit University. This compares to an average of one-in-four women in other Arab workforces and just over one-of-two women throughout the rest of the world.

This despite the fact that Palestinian girls have higher rates of primary and secondary school attendance and are less likely than their male counterparts to drop out of the educational system before graduation.

The low rate of employment is believed to be a primary factor leading to greater incidents of poverty in the West Bank, an issue that has been acknowledged by Palestinian politicians. “There was a decision to raise the minimum wage to 1,475 [Israeli] shekels per month [about $390],” Zahira Kamal, general secretary of the Palestine Democracy Party, told The Media Line. “The raise has benefitted women more because many were only making 600-900 shekels [about $160 to $238], where men received 1000 shekels [about $264].  In Israel, though, that same minimum wage is 4500 shekels [$1200], but we are buying with the same prices as in Israel,” she said.

Kamal blames Israel for what she argues is an ongoing cause of low employment rates among women: the inability to travel around the West Bank to work due to Israeli army checkpoints. “We can't go from one place to another, the West bank to Jerusalem, for example…We need to end the occupation,” she said, adding that tourism, too, is an industry with great economic potential that is being stifled, leading to even lower employment among both male and female Palestinians.

Jumana Salous, a program manager at Business Women’s Forum, also identified obstructed travel due to checkpoints as a limiting factor for employment, but added that, “most jobs are here in Ramallah.”

Salous did not lay all the blame at Israel’s feet. She explained that most of the employers in the Palestinian Territories, “are male and prefer to hire men because they are seen to come without family obligations and restrictions on working hours,” she said.

Such cultural mores are hard to change but according to Salous, progress is being made. To underscore her point, she points to a project at the Bank of Palestine that stipulates an equal number of women and men must be hired – a scheme which has led to a number of women in senior management positions.

Salous’ organization, the Business Women’s Forum, is seeking to add to this with a project aimed at developing female entrepreneurs. “We provide the business development services. We have more than 200 women registered in the forum. Many of the women work in textiles, handicrafts, food and services sectors,” Salous explained.

However, it’s not guaranteed that free movement or even a change in attitudes would solve all of the problems for female workers. When there is a shortage of jobs, it is often the case that those that are available are filled first by men.

Al-Shabaka’s Samia Al-Botmeh believes that the root causes of the struggling economy and the subsequent lack of employment opportunities for women in the Palestinian Territories stem from an over-dependency upon the Israeli market. Al-Botmeh points to the economic imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians, arguing that the $5 billion in imports from Israel and its reciprocal total from the West Bank of less than one-half billion pales as insignificant in comparison to Israel’s over-all imports of $90 billion.

Botmeh also argued that the anti-Israel “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement benefits the Palestinian economy and the issue of women’s employment. “In light of the fact that Palestinians are restricted from conducting ‘normal’ economic life under occupation…a significant opportunity for expanding the productive sectors arises from replacing imports of Israeli goods and services by local production.” Therefore, Al-Botmeh went on to argue, “the boycott of Israeli goods is a form of economic resistance that helps revitalize the productive sectors, hence women's perspective employment.”

Ultimately, the Palestinian Authority has limited scope to deal with all of these issues, according to Kamal. “The PA is unable to unilaterally change Palestinian cultural tendencies or economic dependency or Israeli army policy,” she said, explaining that, “The PA is an authority without authority. We are in a very complicated situation that has consequences for more than just women and girls.” In Kamal’s estimation, “When we talk about women, it is also a problem of the whole Palestinian people.”

Robert Swift contributed to this story.

Frozen in time: Why women don’t have to race the clock


I’d heard of Tupperware parties and Botox parties — but I’d never heard of egg-freezing socials until I had the chance to attend one recently at Beverly Hills hotspot Via Alloro.

Hosted by the Southern California Reproductive Center (SCRC), a Los Angeles-based fertility center, it was a swanky soiree with a three-course dinner and bottomless wine. So I wined and dined at a long table with crisp white linen, socialized with about 25 women and learned more about the human anatomy than I had in any high school biology class.

The first successful pregnancy resulting from frozen eggs dates back to 1986. The process, which has seen extensive advances since then, allows a woman to preserve her eggs in the hope of using them to achieve a future pregnancy.

Although I was a newbie, some of the women had attended as many as three previous egg-freezing socials. I don’t blame them — these things are fun.

“My friends just aren’t informed on egg freezing,” one of the attendees said to herself while scrolling through her phone (though loud enough for women nearby to hear). At age 42, this was her second social. 

Bethany King, director of marketing at SCRC, said the socials target a specific demographic of women who are looking into freezing their eggs as insurance for the future. Mostly, that means working women in their late-30s and mid-40s who want the option to delay having children.

Of course, egg freezing is a viable choice for other women, too. It allows those diagnosed with cancer or autoimmune diseases who will be undergoing harsh treatments -that affect fertility — such as steroids and radiation — to preserve their eggs.

“I grew up in a large family, so family means a lot to me,” Brooke Moore, a 40-year-old blonde with hot-pink lipstick and heart-framed sunglasses, told the Journal, 

“I also think I can be a kick-ass mom,” she added, sipping on a glass of white wine, leaving the faintest stain of hot pink on the rim of her glass. 

Moore, a New Jersey native who grew up in a Catholic family with three sisters and one brother, now lives in Hollywood and works in the entertainment industry. “I just haven’t met my partner yet,” she said. Taking matters into her own hands, she decided her next step would be freezing her eggs.

As the first course, a tricolore salad, was being served, informational PowerPoint slides were projected onto a screen.

“These are your ovaries at age 25,” said fertility specialist and SCRC co-founder Dr. Hal Danzer, showing a split-screen comparison of ovaries at birth (when eggs are copious and resplendent), ovaries at age 25 (by which time the egg count has dropped significantly) and, finally, ovaries at 40 (you can only imagine). I felt my 26-year-old ovaries cower as I swallowed a mouthful of mixed lettuce.

Dr. Mark Surrey, a co-founder of SCRC and member of Ohr HaTorah, said that, physiologically, “We as human beings are built to have children in our early 20s, but that’s just not the case anymore.” 

And although our bodies haven’t evolved to conform to social trends, science has done a pretty good job at keeping up. About three years ago, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine lifted the “experimental” label from the procedure because of advancements in the field via a flash-freezing process called vitrification. SCRC said it receives about 200 patients per year. 

Typically, egg freezing starts at a base cost of $9,000 and can climb to more than $15,000 for injections, medications and the number of collected egg samples. It’s not usually covered by insurance, but some companies, such as Apple and Facebook, will pay for elective egg freezing for their female employees as they try to balance work and family.

Surrey said egg-freezing socials are a good way to educate people in “a relaxed and calming environment,” a hum of chatter behind him as he spoke.

“Everyone knows somebody who’s had their eggs frozen,” said Dr. Shahin Ghadir, a partner at SCRC who goes to Stephen Wise Temple for holidays. 

SCRC’s first egg-freezing social took place in January of this year at Pan Asian restaurant Rock Sugar at Westfield Century City, and it’s starting to become a trend. As someone from an Iranian-American household, Ghadir said the socials are helping to open up discussions on a topic that was once taboo within the Middle Eastern Jewish community. In the future, he sees the egg-freezing process becoming the norm for women after they reach a certain age.

Amid the bustle of waiters clearing dessert courses (a chocolate mousse concoction), replenishing drinks and serving coffee, a ceramic plate crashed and broke. The room fell silent and in that moment, one of the women called out, “Mazel tov!”

Not a bad way to end an egg-freezing social.

In Britain, Jewish and Muslim women connect over Mitzvah Day


Good deeds can be contagious. Just ask Laura Marks, a British Jew who is widely credited with creating one of her community’s most widely celebrated new traditions: an annual Mitzvah Day, now in its 11th consecutive year, in which thousands of British Jews perform charity work in retirement homes, homeless shelters, hospitals and even neglected cemeteries.

Inspired by the custom of some American Jewish communities, including in Los Angeles and Detroit, Marks thought the activity not only promised to brighten people’s lives but would give American-style confidence to a community where “many feel being Jewish is slightly embarrassing,” as Marks put it.

The idea took off — and its scope has reached far beyond the Jewish community. In 2010, inspired by Mitzvah Day, Britain’s Hindu community launched a date of good deeds called Sewa Day. And in March, the Muslim community held its first Sadaqa Day.

“I took the inspiration and the model completely from what Laura is doing, and I have no hesitation in saying that,” said Julie Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Britain and the founder of Sadaqa Day.

Marks facilitated the creation of Sadaqa Day, and the cooperation between the two women gave birth to a new interfaith initiative that launched last week with an event at the Jewish Museum in the London Borough of Camden attended by 100 women.

In working together to adapt Mitzvah Day to the Muslim community, Siddiqi, a British-born convert to Islam, and Marks “realized charity and social action were an effective basis for strengthening women’s involvement in communal life in both communities,” Marks said.

For Muslim men and women, “Sadaqa Day’s a good way to show what their faith is about as opposed to what people think and read about Islam,” Siddiqi said. For Muslim women especially, she added, “it’s a way to do something self-led in a way that they are not given, or feel they’re not given, the opportunity to do normally in their male-led faith communities.”

Muslims and Jews unite around Mitzvah Day in Detroit, where members of both communities hold joint charitable activities each year. But Muslim-Jewish relations are far more strained in Britain, where Jews last year were the target of at least 1,168 anti-Semitic attacks, of which many are believed to have been perpetrated by Muslims over Israel’s actions last summer in Gaza.

Across Europe, interfaith dialogue took a hit in recent years as Jewish communities reported attacks at record levels. In France, the French Council of the Muslim Faith pulled out of the annual dinner in February of its Jewish counterpart, CRIF, an umbrella of French Jewish communities and groups, after CRIF’s president said that most anti-Semitic attacks were the handiwork of Muslims. And in the Netherlands, the Jewish-Moroccan Network was disbanded amid fights over Israel.

“It’s true that when something happens in Gaza, people all over social media talk about it and it becomes very toxic,” Siddiqi said. But while politics can sometimes poison relationships, “Mitzvah Day and social action are apolitical, helping to form friendships that will hopefully stop the dynamic in the next round of violence,” she added.

At the interfaith event, participants divided into four tracks — sports, culture, business and social action — to brainstorm and draw up plans for interfaith work in those fields.

Women especially have the potential of changing the dynamic, according to Rabbi David Rosen, the England-born, Israel-based director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee.

“Despite the setbacks, interfaith dialogue is expanding and is actually more robust now than it has ever been,” Rosen said. He cited Vatican initiatives and a host of joint Jewish-Muslim actions to curb the radicalism that led to the slaying of 12 people in three attacks on Jewish targets in France and Belgium by Islamists since 2012.

In this context, Rosen added, the development of women’s initiatives “has great potential because it expands interfaith beyond the male-dominated establishment” of Muslim and Jewish communities, “reaching new audiences”— an  elusive goal for interfaith activists seeking to extend beyond their own progressive circles to compete for the rank-and-file’s hearts and minds.

“The contribution of women, who, I think we can all agree tend to be more sympathetic, can be profound,” Rosen said.

Back in London, Marks and Siddiqi’s new initiative is already bringing down barriers for Nicola Gee, a London Jewish mother of four who, despite having many Muslim friends, has never visited a mosque in Britain.

“Instead of writing 13 emails to arrange a tour or whatever, I called one of the women I met last week at the launch,” she said. “I’m going to the mosque Friday.”

Orthodox educator Rabbi Elimelech Meisels sued for sexual assault


Rabbi Elimelech Meisels, who runs four religious seminaries in Israel for young Orthodox women, is being sued for sexual assault and fraud.

The civil suit was filed Monday with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on behalf of four parents with daughters signed up for Meisels’ haredi Orthodox seminaries for the 2014-2015 school year. The parents are seeking to recover their tuition deposits.

The suit alleges that Meisels would lure girls under his charge “into late night coffee meetings and other private settings and then sexually assault them.” It says he threatened to ruin girls’ marriage prospects if they told and would “intimidate his victims by telling them that no one would believe that a rabbi and author with his reputation would have done such a thing.”

Meisels denies the allegations.

“The allegations are completely false,” Meisels told JTA in a phone interview from Israel. “My attorney has advised me to pursue legal action against all those who are wronging myself and the seminaries.”

The seminaries named in the suit are Peninim, Binas Bais Yaakov, Chedvas Bais Yaakov and Keser Chaya.

The complaint said that seminary attendance has had negative impacts on the marriage prospects of the Orthodox women who have gone there. The parents involved in the lawsuit allege that Meisels is committing fraud by misrepresenting the seminaries as institutions that help Orthodox girls become upstanding Jewish women. Aside from Meisels, other administrators at the seminaries are named in the suit.

The matter was initially brought to the attention of the Chicago Beit Din, a Jewish religious court, which concluded that “students in these seminaries are at risk of harm and it does not recommend that prospective students attend these seminaries at this time,” according to the lawsuit. Following the Beit Din determination, two institutions that offered college credits to students attending Meisels’ seminaries suspended their affiliation with them.

Though Meisels claimed to have sold his seminaries following the Beit Din ruling, the Beit Din did not accept the sales as legitimate, according to the complaint.

Though the schools are based in Israel, Meisels and the other defendants named in the suit are U.S. citizens, and the non-profit organization that processes funds for the seminaries — Peninim of America — is a nonprofit charity in the United States, according to the complaint.

Arab Spring: Where are the women?


Every time I see something in the Middle East that disgusts me, it’s usually associated with men. It’s not that women can’t be violent and evil, or that men can’t be compassionate and kind. It’s simply that the vast majority of evil in that part of the world — or, for that matter, anywhere in the world — is done by men.

It’s the kind of evil that lobs terror missiles on civilian homes, blows up children in pizza parlors or unleashes a sea of death in Syria. It even kidnaps innocent boys and terrorizes their families. 

These conductors of evil are almost always men, weak men, who can express their worth only through brute strength. They haven’t figured out how to gain power and influence through great ideas, real accomplishments or moral leadership, so they fall back on the primitive values of dominance and physical force. 

Take Hamas, for example.

About eight years ago, they took over the Gaza Strip, a potential paradise with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. With imagination and hard work, they could have turned their “Gaza prison” into a “Gaza Riviera” that would have rivaled Tel Aviv as a global tourist destination.

Instead, the male brutes in charge built a culture of destruction, a culture where killing Jews in the name of Allah is more important than building a future in the name of decency.

Go through the Middle East and you see pretty much the same pattern — male brutes wreaking havoc and destruction in the worship of personal power. Meanwhile, 50 percent of the population is suppressed simply because they are female.

It’s silly to pretend that there are no differences between men and women. In the Jewish mystical tradition, the female energy is one of nurturing and receiving. This energy is precisely what the people of Gaza needed — an energy that would have received the gift of a majestic coastline and nurtured it for the benefit of all.

When a society suppresses its female energy, it goes out of balance. The male energy, which values hunting and conquering, runs rampant. Instead of conquering greatness, it conquers enemies —  and any enemy will do. After Israel left Gaza, Hamas conquered its own Palestinian brothers in Fatah by slaughtering them and throwing them off rooftops. 

The story of the Middle East today is one of male energy gone berserk. As reported in a Freedom House survey, the region is characterized by a “pervasive gender-based gap in rights and freedoms in every facet of society.” Because women are so subjugated, they have no influence in the public arena. 

This absence of influence creates male-dominated, top-down societies that smother the dreams and hopes of men and women alike.     

When the female and male energies are in harmony, they become partners in a culture of creativity, building civil societies that are hardly perfect but that nurture the seeds of possibility.

When the female energy is crushed, the untamed male ego will seek unlimited power and build terror camps instead of beach resorts, tanks instead of schools, high-tech missiles instead of high-tech startups. 

To justify their pathology of violence, these dictators and warlords become experts at demonizing the other — any other — although, especially in the Middle East, the Jew or Zionist is all too often the Other of choice.

Israel, for all of its own macho culture, has succeeded in building a bustling, noisy and resilient civil society, thanks in no small part to its respect for the rights of women. In fact, if every woman in the Middle East had the same rights, freedoms and opportunities that women enjoy in Israel, we might see the beginning of a real Arab Spring.

Of course, that will never happen unless the callous thugs now running the Mideast carnival of violence give women their equal rights. But why should they? That would only mean they would risk losing their own power and have to cure their impulse for destruction.

Tragically, the biggest victims of this destruction are often the women themselves.

Take a look at the new documentary “Honor Diaries,” which chronicles the persecution of women throughout Arab and Islamic societies. It shows how the problem is much worse than simply the absence of civil rights — at its darkest, it sinks into noxious violence like death by stoning, honor killings and genital mutilation. (In Egypt, according to The New York Times, 81 percent of girls 15 to 19 have been subjected to genital mutilation.)

As if subjugating women isn’t bad enough, they also have to deal with brutalization. Activists of all stripes — liberals, conservatives, men, women, religious and secular — ought to stand up against the deliberate abuse of women, at any level, in any place, and fight it with the same passion they fight for human rights anywhere. 

In the meantime, let’s stop the delusions about an Arab Spring. As Brian Michael Jenkins of the Rand Corp. reminds us, “The democracy project engendered by the Arab Spring has run into the sand. Where strongmen do not rule, chaos and civil war reign.”

It’s not an Arab Spring that the Middle East desperately needs — it’s an Arab Women Spring.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

We can stop violence against women and girls today


Last weekend, as I listened to the reading of the Purim Megillah, I was struck by its theme of reversals: The pompous king who decrees that men should have authority in their homes ends up taking orders from his wife; the villain Haman is hanged on the very gallows he erected for the hero Mordecai. 

The reversal that resonated with me most of all was that of Queen Esther: She was a young girl ensconced in the king’s harem — a victim of what we would today call sexual slavery; and yet, with the support of a trusted uncle and adviser, she finds the courage to stand up to the king and save the Jewish people from annihilation.  

While King Ahasuerus’ harem is a thing of the ancient past, sexual abuse and violence against women continue to this day. Around the world, one in three women is likely to be a victim of rape or abuse in her lifetime. Every year, 10 million girls under the age of 18 enter into early and forced marriages. Approximately 6,000 girls every day — around 2 million each year — fall victim to female genital cutting. 

But today, as in Esther’s time, reversals are possible. Just before Purim, my congregation held an event to learn what we can do to stop violence against women in the developing world. We watched a video about a Nicaraguan woman named Teresa, who is living proof that with support, women can overcome devastating circumstances and emerge confident and powerful. 

At 19, Teresa married an older man whom she quickly realized was violent. For the next 30 years, he raped and abused her. He molested all three of their daughters, waking them up night after night to rape them. She was terrified of what might happen if she spoke out.  She was afraid he would kill her and, even if he didn’t, she couldn’t imagine how she and her children would survive. She was financially dependent on her husband; their home and land were registered in his name. Certain she had no other options, Teresa stayed in this abusive relationship for decades. 

On the screen, we watched Teresa tell her story in Spanish with English subtitles. Not everyone in the audience could see the translation, so I stood up and read her story aloud. Halfway through, tears welled up and I began to cry. This story of abuse and sexual slavery wasn’t a parody like the Purim story — it was a real-life story, going on in our world. 

But just when it seemed that such suffering could never be overcome, Teresa began to tell us of her inspirational reversal of fate. Like Esther, Teresa found a way to take control of her life. She heard on the radio about an organization called the Association of Entrepreneurial Women of Waslala (AMEWAS), a Nicaraguan grass-roots group that seeks to reduce violence against women by educating them about their rights. She took her children to the AMEWAS shelter and, with their help, pressed charges against her husband. In 2011, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and AMEWAS helped transfer the title of their property to Teresa. Today, she and her daughters live on their land and earn a living from what they grow, free from violence and fear.

Millions of women around the world are suffering from violence like this — but it can be reversed, and it is within our power to help. This is why I am joining American Jewish World Service’s (AJWS) “We Believe” campaign to advocate for passage of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), a piece of legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last year. IVAWA would make sure that U.S. aid dollars are allocated to local groups such as AMEWAS. It would ensure that anti-violence programs also focus on increasing access to economic opportunities — including credit and property rights — so that women are not forced to stay in abusive situations because they have no way to earn a living on their own. Lastly, IVAWA would put the full force of the U.S. Department of State behind women like Teresa worldwide, by making it a top U.S. diplomatic priority to stop violence against women and girls.

 “And who knows,” Mordecai tells Esther in the Megillah, urging her to intervene on behalf of her people, “maybe it is exactly for this very moment that you are here in this place.” If we recognize that we are in our position exactly because there is something we can do to bring a little bit of redemption for people who are suffering — anything is possible. 

 We can all do something to end violence against women and girls today by asking our members of Congress to support IVAWA. We can call, e-mail, tweet and visit our representatives to tell them that we in the Jewish community care about this issue and want them to take action. 

By speaking out, we can help stop the epidemic of violence against women and girls, enabling women like Teresa to experience dramatic reversals in their lives. The potential to rise up and vanquish injustice need not remain in the realm of stories like the Book of Esther. The vulnerable can become powerful in our society today. 

American Jewish World Service launched the “We Believe” campaign to urge the U.S. government to take action to end violence against women and girls, stop early and forced marriage, and end hate crimes against LGBT people. Learn more at webelieve.ajws.org .

The International Violence Against Women Act of 2013 (IVAWA) was introduced in November 2013 by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D – Ill.). It’s the fourth time a version of this bill has been introduced since 2007. For more information, visit the Web site of Futures Without Violence, an advocacy group that has been pushing this legislation from the beginning. 


Rabbi Laura Geller is a senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

A day to learn about women’s wellness


Quick. And no using your smart phone. What is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States? If you answered breast cancer, you’re close. Indeed, breast cancer takes far too many lives each year. But it is No. 2. No. 1 is heart disease.

Ready for another one? Chia seeds: Just the latest contemporary food fad right? Nope. The so-called super seed has been around for thousands of years and was integral to both the Aztec and Mayan diets. And, according to Los Angeles-based integrative nutritionist Marlyn Diaz, ounce for ounce, they contain more Omega-3 fatty acids than salmon. “They make your hair grow and your skin glow,” she says.

Intrigued? Then you may want to attend Hadassah’s Women’s Wellness Day. The all-day program takes place Feb. 9 at UCLA Covel Commons. Although the event is expected to sell out, tickets were still available when this article went to press. Among the scheduled speakers are Dr. C. Noel Bairey Merz, director of the Barbra Streisand Women’s Health Center and the Linda Joy Pollin Women’s Heart Health Program at Cedars-Sinai; nutritionist Diaz; and Dr. Kristi Funk, co-founder of Pink Lotus Breast Center — and Angelina Jolie’s doctor.

Hadassah has a long history of promoting women’s health. The organization’s first mission, in fact, in the early 1900s, sent two nurses to Palestine to provide pasteurized milk to new mothers and their infants. And while Hadassah’s two medical institutions are located in Jerusalem, the research undertaken there benefits women worldwide, notably the discovery of a 10 percent greater frequency of the BRCA genetic mutation (which predisposes women to breast cancer) among Ashkenazi Jewish women. 

Last year, Hadassah launched Every Beat Counts to educate women about heart disease. And February is American Heart Month, so it is fitting that Hadassah’s first major health symposium in Southern California is taking place this month.

Attendees can customize their experience by selecting from several expert-led sessions on topics including “Mindful Stress Reduction” — who doesn’t need that in go-go Los Angeles? — “Caring Options for Your Loved Ones” and “Is Your Food Aging You?” All who attend will hear from Funk, who, along with patient Jolie, brought breast health to the forefront and who will be giving the morning keynote, and Bairey Merz, the lunchtime keynote speaker.

Among other topics, Bairey Merz will talk about the different ways in which women’s and men’s heart disease manifests. 

“Women are more likely than men to have their heart attacks missed,” Bairey Merz said. “Women’s symptoms are not as typical as men’s symptoms.” But, she added, “We always have to point out the reason we think of typical symptoms is that they have been described in men. If we had started the other way around, men would be considered atypical. A lot of health care is set to a male standard.”

We all know what has been dubbed a Hollywood Heart Attack looks like. Not to make light of it, but it generally looks like this: A man is giving a speech (or eating his dinner, or shooting hoops, etc.), and then he is suddenly clutching his chest, turning red in the face and falling to the floor.

Women’s symptoms — and, to be fair, many men’s — are more subtle. So, how does a woman know when to seek medical attention?

“The standard advisement,” Bairey Merz said, “ is any symptom above the waist, above the belly button, that is not routine or otherwise explained. If you always get heartburn after eating a chili dog, it is probably heartburn. But if you wake up in the middle of the night with heartburn, it might be a heart attack.”

Bairey Merz will discuss five health habits associated with reducing heart disease. No. 5, she says, is a favorite of many: “a single serving of alcohol every day taken with a meal.”

“It’s pretty clear that anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of cardiovascular disease is related to lifestyle habits that we have some control over,” she said.

Diaz will be doling out tips as well, including her favorite super foods. The aforementioned chia seeds, raw cacao and Brazil nuts are among them. She will also talk about sugar — not eliminating it, but reducing it — and choosing better sugars. “Food companies have gotten smart,” she said. “There are over 50 names for sugar that they use. So many of us are trained to look for a couple: dextrose, sucrose — the ‘ose’-es. There are a lot of different ways it is hidden in food.”

Rest assured that Diaz will not be making a bogeyman of your latte or bagel. “It’s all about baby steps and elevation: How we can elevate our food choices?” she said. “All the small changes add up to big changes over time.” 

According to Sandi Sadikoff, president of Hadassah Southern California, “This is not an age-defined event. We are encouraging women to bring their mothers, their daughters, their nieces.

“The best-case scenario is some woman sitting out there in the audience hears something that Dr. [Bairey] Merz or Dr. Funk says, or any of our other physicians, and realizes that they have to go to their doctor because there’s a symptom they have been ignoring. We may save someone’s life that day.”

For more information on the event or to register, visit http://southerncalifornia.hadassah.org/womenswellness or call (310) 276-0036.

Israeli gov’t to fund abortions for women ages 20-33


Israeli women between the ages of 20 and 33 will be eligible to receive government-funded abortions in 2014.

The new eligibility is part of the country’s state-subsidized basket of health services for 2014, approved on Monday. Currently, the government only pays for abortions for medical reasons and for girls under 18.

Some 6,300 women between ages 20 and 33 are expected to have abortions in Israel in 2014. All the women still will be required to receive the approval of a government panel before undergoing the procedure; the panel approves nearly all cases.

The head of the health basket committee, Jonathan Halevy of Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, said the goal is eventually to raise the covered age to 40.

Contraception is not covered in the health basket.

The committee announced the approval of 83 new drugs and treatments for 2014.  The basket still must be approved by the Ministry of Health and the Cabinet.

Letters to the editor: Judaism in Germany, cultural synergy, women in universities and puzzles


Judaism in Germany

I am a committed supporter of Conservative Judaism and have been a member of Conservative Temple Beth Am for more than 20 years (“Conservative Judaism Reborn — In Germany,” Nov. 29). I agree with Rabbi Brad Artson that the movement is not dying. Unfortunately, however, in his zeal to support Conservative/Masorti Judaism, he presented the facts about the German program unfairly. My wife, Rabbi Ruth Sohn, and I just spent a year in Berlin teaching for the seminary he raved about. It is not about to begin. It has been in existence for over a decade and ordained its first progressive rabbis in 2006 and its first progressive cantor in 2009. But those rabbis and cantors are all Reform. The Potsdam University professor Walter Homolka is also a Reform rabbi, and the Reform movement in the United States and its international arm, the World Movement for Progressive Judaism, have been instrumental in supporting Rabbi Homolka in his brilliant work to revive Progressive Judaism in Germany — of all stripes, Conservative as well as Reform. 

Rabbi Reuven Firestone, professor of medieval Judaism and Islam, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson responds:

Thanks to my friend, Rabbi Reuven Firestone, for praising our sister rabbinical program, the Abraham Geiger College, which does indeed train Reform rabbis for the European Union and has been in healthy existence for several years. But in his legitimate zeal to praise Reform Judaism, he missed that my article was announcing the establishment of the University of Potsdam’s School of Jewish Theology and the brand new Zacharias Frankel College, which will train Conservative/Masorti Rabbis and is now open for admissions.


Arguments Fail to Make the Grade

Colossal irony. Colossal narcissism. This from the guy who decries the “low moral state of our universities,” because women who go to them have fewer children than those who don’t (“Educated Women and Children,” Dec. 6). There are so many holes in this argument it’s well nigh irredeemable. And if he thinks this passes for good argument, he perhaps needs a refresher education at a premier university. In this piece, his position sounds an awful lot like, “Keep women barefoot and pregnant.” Leaving aside his polemics and easy equations about feminism and secularism, there are good moral rationales for encouraging women’s higher education today even if it means that they may have fewer children. These include feeding, housing and clothing those children in an uncertain world as well as fulfilling, perhaps, their intellectual potential.

The world always looks so flat, binary and simple to Dennis Prager. It seems to me that the world and its people are far more complex and interesting than writing like this suggests. Isn’t it time the Jewish Journal gave more voice and column inches to writers who think more unpredictably, more subtly and ultimately beyond the easy either-or facile formulas that regularly spangle these columns?

Doreen Seidler-Feller, associate clinical professor, The David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA

Dennis Prager responds:

Given that there are “so many holes” in my arguments, Doreen Seidler-Feller should have devoted at least some of her 200 words to pointing out what those holes are. Instead, she just attacks me — which, ironically, only serves to reinforce my warnings about the moral and intellectual caliber of much of contemporary university life. So, too, typical of the many professors who think only left-wing views should be expressed, she objects to the Jewish Journal publishing me.

It is beyond sad that after the Holocaust, the more years a Jewish woman (or a Jewish man, but men don’t give birth) spends at a university, the less value she places on having children. This, too, reconfirms what the university has done to the minds and values of many of its students.


Creating Cultural Synergy

It’s great that Israeli Consul General David Siegel is supporting collaboration between Jews and Latinos (“Israeli-Latino Renaissance,” Nov. 22). A perfect example of how these two communities can create cultural synergies took place this last September when the Boyle Heights garden, Proyecto Jardin, and our congregation, IKAR, co-organized a combined Aztec Harvest Festival/Sukkot ceremony. In celebrating together, we found we had much in common, including honoring geographic directions, using conch shells and shofarim to announce ritual events and calling for a sustainable lifestyle. As Siegel points out, we are all in the same boat, and our similarities augur well for more mutual ceremonies and collective action on issues such as the environment, immigration and addressing social inequities.

Alisa Schulweis Reich & Peter Reich, Los Angeles


Puzzle Praise

I started doing your crosswords, and though I have been doing crossword puzzles since I was about 11 — including The New York Times and The Washington Post — I have to tell you that the Jerusalem Post puzzle has become one of my favorites. It is a challenging and clever puzzle. I learn something every time.

Chloe Ross, West Hollywood


correction

 

In “Moving and Shaking” (Dec. 6), it should have stated that Michelle Hirschhorn is currently a sophomore at Shalhevet.

Educated women and children


On the Jewish Web site The Tablet, Michelle Goldberg, a senior contributing editor to The Nation, recently wrote: “In the United States, women tend to have fewer children the more education they have — those with advanced degrees have only 1.67 children each. Jewish women are better educated than the population at large, which is why their birthrates are even lower …”

This statistic provides yet another illustration of the low moral state of our universities. Just think: The more formal education a woman has, the fewer children she will desire. 

For those who care about Jewish or American survival, this should be, to put it mildly, disconcerting. If Jewish and other American women don’t reproduce, the populations of Jews and Americans will decline. And in the case of Jews, this is particularly problematic.

The question that needs to be addressed is, why? Why do the best-educated women have the fewest children?

Here are three explanations:

The first — and, I believe, most important — reason that women who attend graduate school have fewer children than other women is that the longer women (and men) stay in academic life, the longer they are exposed to values that denigrate the family in favor of career.

One can argue until the proverbial cows come home that feminism never pushed career over marriage and family, that it only wanted women to have a choice. But that argument is dishonest. Feminism greatly valued career above marriage and family. The result is that in our post-feminist (post-1970s) world, for a girl or woman of any age to say that she would like to be, or that she is, or that she was a full-time wife and mother takes courage. Among well-educated women, a woman accrues more prestige being in sales at Nordstrom than she does as a “homemaker.” The very word conjures up nightmarish images to most women with graduate degrees.

The more time a young woman spends at university, especially at a prestigious one, the more she is indoctrinated into believing that what really matters is career. Test it: Ask a young woman who attends a prestigious university — especially a Jewish woman who is not Orthodox — what she most wants in life, and it is quite likely that she will respond “a good career.”

Let’s be honest. If you asked a female in her junior year at Yale, “What do you most want in life?” and she responded, “To find a good man to marry and then make a family with him,” you would be shocked.

In fact, you would probably have to look for an explanation. And that explanation would likely be that she is a religious Christian or an Orthodox Jew.

Which brings us to a second reason for the extremely low birthrate among well-educated women — secularism.

The widely offered explanation for why fertility rates drop is affluence. As countries get wealthier, the thinking goes, the birth rate drops.

There is some truth to this, but there is a better explanation: secularism. As societies become more secular, the fertility rate drops. 

This is easy to demonstrate. Wealthy Orthodox Jews, wealthy devout Roman Catholics, wealthy Mormons and wealthy Evangelicals have a lot of kids. Meanwhile, wealthy secular people have the fewest children.

While secularism is good for government, it is a dead end for the individual and society. It is a moral dead end. Without God, good and evil are purely matters of opinion. And it is an existential dead end. If there is no God, life is objectively pointless. We live, we die, there is no reason we are here, and there is nothing when we leave.

So what do people do with that view of life? Some devote their lives to secular religions such as feminism, socialism, environmentalism or egalitarianism. And many simply decide — quite rationally — that in the incredibly brief time they are alive, they will enjoy themselves as much as possible. Hedonism is the most rational response to secularism. 

In such a world, children are often regarded as disruptive to whatever pleasures life affords. With a bunch of kids at home, it is hard to take many trips, and hard to see a movie or dine out whenever you want. 

In the age of birth control and of almost unlimited lifestyle options, one needs good reasons to have more than one — or even one — child. Religion has always provided such reasons: God wants you to be fruitful; it is vitally important to hand down one’s faith; the family is the locus of a religious life, etc.

A third and final reason is age. By the time a woman is finished with graduate school, she is likely to be close to 30 years old. And after all that work, she understandably wants to begin putting her education to good use — you can’t waste a doctorate or a master’s degree. So she further defers marriage. And even if she does marry, she defers having children. By the time she is ready to make a family, she may feel that she is too old to have more than 1.67 children.

American Jewry reveres graduate degrees. But this reverence comes at a steep price. The longer young women (and men) stay at the university (especially in the social sciences), the more secular they are likely to become, the more alienated from Israel they are likely to become (there is no mainstream institution as anti-Israel as the university), and the less likely they are to have more than one child.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012)

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