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.


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















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.


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



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)

Egypt ranks last in Arab world’s women’s rights

This story originally ran on themedialine.org.

Just about every woman in Egypt has experienced some form of sexual harassment. The country also has high rates of violence and genital mutilation, according to a new study on women in the Arab world by the Thomson-Reuters Foundation. All of that makes Egypt the worst place for women among the 22 member-nations of the Arab League.

“Women who fought during the revolution (against autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak) shoulder-to-shoulder with men, have then been put back in their home and often subjected to violence to shut them up,” Monique Villa, CEO of the Thomson-Reuters Foundation told The Media Line.

The report was based on a survey of more than 330 experts on gender issues in all Arab League countries. It asked detailed questions on violence against women, reproductive rights, and attitudes towards women’s roles in the economy and society.

The experts found a pervasive climate of violence and instability in Egypt, along with rates of over 90 percent for genital mutilation.

Women living in Egypt today say almost everyone has a story about sexual harassment.

“Sexual harassment, a struggling economy, and the ongoing political instability are making life particularly hard for women here,” Kimberly Adams, a freelance journalist based in Egypt told The Media Line. “Even those not active in the political sphere feel the impact of the often violent protests, curfews, and the sharp rise in prices, especially for food and fuel, that especially impact the poor.”

Women also have little say in the Egyptian political system. In 2010, there were 65 women elected and one appointed to the parliament, bringing the total of women in parliament to 13 percent. The following year the percentage of women in parliament shrunk to nine.

“A lot of people blame the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists who came into power,” Safaa Abdoun, an Egyptian journalist told The Media Line. “But actually the liberal parties are equally to blame. In parliamentary elections in 2011, the liberal parties did not have many women candidates, while the Muslim Brotherhood actually had more women candidates.”

Villa points to the global problem of women who are assaulted and afraid to come forward. “You have a problem because women don't report crime. Only 15% of women in the UK who are raped go to the police, so imagine in Egypt how difficult because this brings dishonor to the family. We try to compare situations between countries but there is no data on the scale of violence against women in the world,” Villa said.

Egypt was the only Arab country to rank below Iraq.

“Since the American led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the situation of women has deteriorated to a point which is really alarming,” Villa said.

Next is the country that has become famous for not allowing women to drive, go to the gym, or do almost anything without a male guardian – Saudi Arabia; closely followed by Syria, where a civil war has left some 120,000 people dead, and more than a million have fled the country. Then comes Yemen, where reports of child marriages have recently gained international attention.

“Of the top five worst countries, three of went through the Arab spring,” Villa said. “There was a lot of terror after the revolutions there.”

The good news came from the Comoros, an island nation off the coast of Africa. The experts said that not only do women there have access to birth control, but in the case of divorce, women are often awarded the property.

Also good places for women are Oman, Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar and Tunisia.

Villa said she hopes the fact that women participated in the revolution in Egypt will pave the way for a change in Egyptian attitudes toward women.

“The fact that women have participated in the revolution and have found their voice, especially in the most disadvantaged circles, is very important because it plants seeds for the future,” she said. “But nevertheless today, they are reduced to quasi-silence by the violence around them.”

Karnit Flug, first female Bank of Israel chief, eyeing economic inequality

Andromeda Hill is a beachfront complex of luxury apartments connected by tree-lined pathways that features such amenities as a spa and business center. Five minutes down the road is Ajami, a low-income neighborhood profiled in the 2009 film of the same name that remains one of this city’s poorer districts.

Such gaps in income have been of mounting concern to Israelis and are high on the agenda of Karnit Flug, the newly appointed governor of the Bank of Israel and the first woman to hold the post.

In two recent presentations, Flug has drawn attention to income inequality in Israel and its potentially adverse impact on social cohesion.

“Our ability to continue existing as a society that is both multifaceted and socially cohesive depends, among other things, on how employment develops in Arab society in the next few years,” Flug said at a government conference on Israel’s minorities last month. “If we know how to maximize the potential for increased growth and how to reduce the gaps, we will all — Jews and Arabs — be able to enjoy the fruits of this process.”

The Occupy protests that swept the world in 2011, decrying the exploitation of the “99 percent,” demonstrated that Israel is not alone among developed countries in facing large inequities in wealth distribution. But among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Israel ranked 30th in terms of wealth inequality.

A 2011 report from the OECD found that in 2008, Israel’s top 10 percent of earners earned 13 times more than the bottom tenth. The report recommended “creating more and better jobs that offer good career prospects and a real chance for people to escape poverty.”

Flug agrees. Israel’s high income inequality, she says, is a function of low educational attainment and high unemployment among Israel’s poorest communities — Arabs and haredi Orthodox Jews. The explosion of Israel’s high-tech sector in the mid-1980s created many jobs for highly educated employees but left behind the poor and unskilled.

“Inequality in disposable income distribution rose until 2006 before stabilizing at a very high level,” Flug said last week in a presentation at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel.

Growing the job market while maintaining a social safety net have been twin goals for Flug, who holds a doctorate in economics from Columbia University. After a four-year stint at the International Monetary Fund, Flug joined the Bank of Israel in 1988 and became its deputy governor in 2011, serving under the well-regarded Stanley Fischer, who departed earlier this year.

After a lengthy selection process in which Flug was passed over multiple times, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed her to the bank’s top post in October.

Flug has served on government committees on the defense budget, market competitiveness and the National Insurance Institute. She also served on the Trajtenberg Committee, which was tasked with formulating a response to widespread protests in 2011 over the rising cost of living.

The protests were partly a reaction to nearly a decade of privatization and cuts in public benefits. Founded on socialist values, Israel in its early years had a strong safety net and lionized the collectivist ideals of the kibbutz movement. But in the mid-1980s, Israel began to embrace free-market policies and privatize key state-owned companies. The outbreak of the second intifada by the Palestinians led to an economic crisis that prompted the government to cut entitlement spending.

The 2011 demonstrations called on the government to restore the safety net. In its report, the Trajtenberg Committee recommended various measures, including raising the capital gains tax, increasing government aid for housing and free early childhood education.

In her presentation at the Taub Center, Flug recommended against direct government transfer payments to poor citizens, but she is in favor of Israel’s negative income tax, which provides a tax credit to low wage earners. Flug believes the measure incentivizes work.

As governor, Flug’s ability to implement such policies is limited. Like the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, the Bank of Israel’s function is to set the country’s monetary policy. Taxes, subsidies and incentives for job creation are determined by the Israeli government.

But Flug could still have an impact. Jack Habib, director of the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, a think tank that researches poverty in Israel, said Flug could advocate for reforms that bolster Israel’s minorities.

“There’s a lot more attention paid to social issues, social inequality, poverty and disadvantaged groups,” Habib said. The Bank of Israel plays “an important role in putting these issues on the agenda of the government.”

Calendar: November 2-8



In honor of Rosh Chodesh, a holiday dedicated to women, tonight’s performance is dedicated to the women who make us laugh. Hilarious, poignant and risqué, these comedians make up the SheBREWS — eight fabulous female comics who dominate the L.A. Jewish comedy scene. Ladies participating include Wendy Hammers, Annie Korzen, Nikki Levy and Rena Strobler, to name a few. Come for the wine, cheese and comedy queens. But most importantly, come for the dessert buffet. Sat. 7:30 p.m. $18. Wilshire Boulevard Temple Irmas Campus, 11661 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (424) 208-8932. SUN | NOV 3


It’s the third annual chance to network, learn and make a difference. Keynote speakers include Sandra Fluke, an L.A.-based attorney and social justice advocate, and Cheryl Saban, a writer, psychologist and U.N. representative. With panel discussions, workshops and a screening of the documentary “As Seen Through These Eyes,” women will be both celebrated and challenged. Sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles’ Reshet: Jewish Women’s Network, Hadassah Southern California, NA’AMAT USA and Women’s International Zionist Organization Los Angeles. Sun. 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. $72 (general admission), $54 (seniors, 70 and older; women clergy), $20 (students). UCLA Covel Commons, 200 De Neve Drive, Los Angeles. (855) 850-1818. ” target=”_blank”>jewishla.org.


“I have a motto that if something isn’t blatantly impossible, there must be a way of doing it.” For Nicholas Winton, living by his motto meant the rescue of 669 Czech and Slovak children just before the outbreak of World War II. Join Beth Chayim Chadashim for an important screening commemorating Kristallnacht. In this historical documentary, producers Matej Minac and Patrik Pass tell what for 50 years was untold: the story of one man’s courage, and how infinite his impact promises to be. A continental breakfast follows the program. Sun. 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. $18. Laemmle Royal, 11253 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles. (310) 478-3836. ” target=”_blank”>yeshivahightech.org.


He’s not on trial, but it’s a testimony you won’t want to miss. The famous and celebrated lawyer and Harvard Law School professor discusses and signs his new book, “Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law.” Radio talk-show host Bill Handel (KFI-AM 640) leads a conversation with Dershowitz, whose clients include Patty Hearst, Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson. Sun. 4 p.m. $45. AJU Familian Campus,15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 476-9777. TUE | NOV 5


If you thought the two are mutually exclusive, you’re wrong. No matter where you are in your love life — which can also mean being not quite anywhere — this provocative discussion on sex and spirituality will get you the insight that online dating commercials don’t. Journal blogger Ilana Angel  moderates a panel that includes Rabbi Ed Feinstein, sex therapist Dr. Limor Blockman, dating coach David Wygant and Hollywood Jew Danielle Berrin. Hors d’oeuvres included. Cash bar. Tickets must be purchased in advance. Tue. 7 p.m. $25.  Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel, 11461 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 368-1661. WED | NOV 6


We are what we eat, but what does what we eat say about who we are? Kehillat Israel presents a panel discussion on choosing foods that reflect your values. Learn about the ethical challenges involved in food choices and how Jewish values can inform how you decide to grub. Panelists include Rabbi Jonathan Klein, executive director of CLUE-LA; Becca Bodenstein, director of Jewish life at New Community Jewish High School; Sarah Newman, manager for the social action campaign of the film “Food, Inc.”; and Sue Miller, founder of ethical eating programs at Leo Baeck Temple. Devorah Brous, urban agriculture enthusiast and founder/director of Netiya, moderates. Wed. 7 p.m. Free. Kehillat Israel, 16019 W. Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades. (310) 459-2328.

Ex-mayor Filner pleads guilty in sexual harassment case

Former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner plead guilty in a sexual harassment case brought against him by three women.

Filner was charged on Tuesday in San Diego County Superior Court with a felony count of “false imprisonment by violence, fraud, menace and deceit,” and two misdemeanor counts of battery.

The victims were identified as Jane Does 1, 2 and 3.

Filner, 71, who is Jewish, resigned in August after the San Diego City Council unanimously approved a deal under which Filner agreed to leave office by Aug. 30 in exchange for the city agreeing to pay his legal expenses in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by his former aide.

Some 19 women publicly accused Filner of acting inappropriately and sexually harassing them. He apologized to the city and the women who accused him of misconduct.

Filner was San Diego’s first Democratic mayor in two decades; he was formerly a 10-term congressman.

Which of these American Apparel models is not like the other?

American Apparel, the clothing company best known for ads featuring scantily clad young women, may be taking things in a new direction.

Yoel Weisshaus, a 32-year-old student at New Jersey’s Bergen Community College who was raised in Brooklyn as a Satmar Chasid, was featured this week American Apparel’s tumblr page with peyos (earlocks), a flowing beard, and traditional Chasidic fur hat.

The garments were supplied by American Apparel itself, not a typical source of Chasidic garb. Weisshaus explained that he just wore whatever fit on the day of the photo shoot. But he brought the shtreimel himself.

There is no evidence that American Apparel plans to produce a line of shtreimels, although they would certainly make a striking accompaniment to a gold lame bodysuit. (It would also go well with their signature shade of black nail polish, which is called Chassid.)

The photo shoot is not Weisshaus’s first brush with the media: He’s been featured in the New York Post and CBS News for his determined campaign to sue the Port Authority over bus fare increases. Which might explain why American Apparel described him as a “peasant with chutzpah.”

“Me having chutzpah, that is a quote from the Port Authority itself,” he told JTA. “I am a peasant because we are all peasants, here in Amerikeh. Here, we work harder than we live!”

Weisshaus said that his Satmar family, which still resides in Williamsburg, had no problem with him appearing as a model. “If they had a problem,” he said, “it’s with the other models, not me.”

Women of the Wall, shielded by police, raises Torah scroll and blows shofar

Women of the Wall blew a shofar at the back of the Western Wall Plaza and raised a Torah scroll at the plaza’s gate under a heavy police barricade.

The police shielded the the estimated 300 women and their male supporters on Wednesday morning at the back of the plaza, facing the wall but distant from it, during Women of the Wall’s monthly Rosh Chodesh service.

As many as six layers of fencing, a 15-foot buffer zone and two lines of police separated the group from a crowd of mostly haredi Orthodox protesters who blew whistles, screamed and chanted insults. In the men’s section of the plaza, a man chanted prayers and psalms into a megaphone, disrupting the women’s monthly Rosh Chodesh service.

As in recent months, thousands of mostly haredi Orthodox girls and young women packed the plaza adjacent to the wall and prayed quietly during the morning.

Women of the Wall has not been allowed to bring a Torah scroll into their monthly service, but before entering the plaza, the group sang together as one woman held a scroll aloft at the plaza’s gate.

By the time Anat Hoffman, the group’s chairwoman, blew the shofar at the end of the service, most of the protesters had dispersed.

Following the service, Hoffman said in a statement, “We will not forget that the Torah is exiled from the Western Wall, due to the discriminatory misuse of power by Rabbi [Shmuel] Rabinowitz,” the rabbi of the Western Wall.

Women of the Wall gathers at the beginning of each Jewish month for a women’s Rosh Chodesh prayer service at the wall. Members had been arrested in the past for wearing prayer shawls due to a law forbidding any practice that falls outside of the wall’s “local custom.”In April, a judge determined that the group’s activities did not contravene the law. Since then, none of the women has been arrested.

Last month, the women were barricaded in the plaza’s corner, far from the wall and next to a public restroom.

At Western Wall, showdown between two women’s groups

On the morning of July 8, at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Av, the Western Wall plaza was a cacophonous mess.

Women of the Wall, the activist group that holds women’s prayer services each month at the site known as the Kotel, loudly sang festive prayers at a spot far from the wall itself. Police had barricaded them there, ostensibly for their own protection. A few feet away, a group of haredi Orthodox boys shouted at them, called them Nazis, blew whistles, waved signs and raised a primal scream. A few threw eggs.

But the biggest group on hand that morning was a crowd of some 5,00o to 7,000 young women standing silently in the women’s prayer area, far from the brouhaha and inaudible and invisible from where Women of the Wall were praying. Filling the women’s section and spilling out into the wider plaza, the girls each prayed on their own. When they were done, they left without raising their voices.

“Our goal is to give voice to the hundreds of thousands of women who call the Kotel their spiritual home,” said Leah Aharoni, a founder of the group, called Women for the Wall, which helped organize the Orthodox women’s prayer. “They have a voice. They’re not subjugated, ignorant women.”

Founded less than three months ago, Women for the Wall has emerged as the public face of the traditionalists vying to maintain the status quo at the Western Wall, where rules mandate separation of the sexes and restrict the ability of women to lead public prayer groups. Women for the Wall was able to bring a critical mass of women to the site that far outnumbered the several hundred people who showed up with Women of the Wall, and the traditionalist group was able to physically block the renegade group from approaching the Kotel itself.

Women for the Wall performs a tricky balancing act between defending traditionalist values and using the language of women’s empowerment to oppose the objectives of a Jewish feminist group while presenting itself as an advocate for women’s rights.

In a community in which male rabbis often are the primary spokespeople, Aharoni hopes to galvanize Orthodox women to speak for themselves. But the success of the monthly prayer gatherings depends in large part on the endorsement and encouragement of those same rabbis.

The debate between the two women’s groups “is not a discussion between rabbis and women,” Aharoni says. “It is a conversation between women and women.”

Aharoni hardly fits the profile of what one might expect of an activist opposed to the expansion of women’s rights at the Kotel. Formerly a member of the liberal Orthodox Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a New York congregation led by Rabbi Avi Weiss, Aharoni, a mother of six, has participated in women’s prayer groups and runs a company that fosters female entrepreneurship.

Her issue is not Jewish feminism, but decorum.

“This site has 1,700 years of tradition,” Aharoni said of the Western Wall. “It’s unthinkable for a small group to upset the tradition against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of worshipers. It doesn’t happen in the Vatican, in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, in Mecca or in Westminster Abbey. And it cannot happen here, either.”

As if to underscore that theirs is the majority view, Women for the Wall have joined in efforts to bring thousands of girls to the wall each Rosh Chodesh, when Women of the Wall gather to hold their service marking the beginning of the Hebrew month.

But Women for the Wall says it is not the primary catalyst for these shows of force. That distinction belongs to the haredi Orthodox leaders who have endorsed the initiative and asked Orthodox girls’ schools to send their students.

In May, thousands of girls filled the women’s section of the plaza and much of its larger back section. In July, they packed the women’s section again. Numbers were down significantly in June — a drop-off attributed variously to final exams at the girls’ seminaries and police allegedly blocking women from entering the plaza.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told JTA that the barriers set up in June were meant to ensure only that Women of the Wall exited the space safely, not to block worshippers.

Barring a court ruling or legislative change, the monthly race between the groups is likely to continue each Rosh Chodesh (the next one falls on Aug. 7). And though the two groups do occupy some common ground — both sides reject violence and support women’s activism — both are choosing to continue the fight, with one side singing and the other silent.

“I think they’re trailblazing,” Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman said of Women for the Wall. “They’re women supporting the rabbis, but they’re expressing their opinions in the public square. We have our struggle and they have theirs, and God bless.”

Do men and women matter?

Most Americans do not realize that, as large as the issue of same-sex marriage is (and it is very large), there is an even larger issue at stake in the same-sex marriage debate.

That issue is whether gender matters: Do male and female, man and woman, matter?

In the brief span of about 40 years, a war against the male-female distinction has been waged. And it has been largely successful. 

This was unforeseen and unforeseeable. Had anyone living in 1975 (or, for that matter, anywhere in the Western world for the previous 2,000 years) been told that Western societies would one day seek to erase the most basic and important innate distinction between human beings — the man-woman distinction; that the best educated would deny that men and women were different in any meaningful way; and that the two sexes would be regarded as completely interchangeable — that person would have thought he or she was talking to a madman.

Yet, that is what has happened at the social equivalent of the speed of light.

It began with modern feminism, a movement that has influenced vast numbers of men and women born after World War II. It was the movement’s goal of women’s equality that led to its denial of innate male-female differences. First, feminists feared than any acknowledgement of male-female differences would lead back to male-female roles. Second, they increasingly tended to equate “equal” with “same.”

Feminism convinced a generation of men and women, especially those attending college and graduate school, that (to cite one well-known example) the only reason boys play with trucks and girls play with dolls and tea sets is due to a sexist upbringing. Without sexist assumptions about boys’ and girls’ alleged differences, boys would just as happily play with dolls and tea sets and girls would just as happily play with trucks. 

That this was nonsense didn’t matter. When that is all you hear from your teachers and read in your textbooks, you begin to believe it. It was believed, for example, by a major intellect, Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University and Secretary of the Treasury under President Bill Clinton. He told a story about “giving his daughter two trucks as an effort at gender-neutral parenting. The girl soon began referring to one of the trucks as ‘daddy truck’ and the other as ‘baby truck.’ ”

The next societal force working to erase the significance of the sexes was the gay rights movement. The very premise of the movement is that the only thing that matters in sexual relations is that consenting adults engage in it. Whether men and women make love to one another or to members of their own sex makes no difference. Gender doesn’t matter.

And if gender doesn’t matter, then it doesn’t matter with regard to parents: It makes no difference whether children have two mothers, two fathers or a mother and a father. Schools such as New York’s progressive Rodeph Sholom Day School, in 2001, even banned any celebration of Mother’s Day or Father’s Day among its elementary school students.

Catholic Charities, the nation’s oldest ongoing adoption services, were forced out of the adoption business in states like Massachusetts and Illinois — because they placed children for adoption only with a married man and woman. Progressives consider such a sentiment — that, all things being equal, it is better for a child to have a mother and a father — as bigoted and absurd. Since the sexes aren’t different, a mother provides nothing that two fathers can’t provide, and a father provides nothing that two mothers can’t provide. 

Young people in America and elsewhere are increasingly experiencing the results of this denial of male-female significance. 

• Harvard University appointed its first permanent director of bisexual, gay, lesbian, transgender and queer student life. The individual, Vanidy Bailey, has asked that he/she never be referred to as he or she, or as male or female. Harvard has agreed.

• Each year, more and more American high schools elect girls as homecoming kings and boys as homecoming queens. Students have been taught to regard restricting kings to males or queens to females as discrimination.

• When you sign up for the new social networking site, Google Plus, you are asked to identify your gender. Three choices are offered: Male, Female, Other. The same holds true on applications to American universities such as New York University.

• The left-wing French government announced that in the future no government-issued document will be allowed to use the words “mother” or “father.” Only “parent” will be allowed.

• In Rhode Island, at least one school district canceled its father-daughter dance after the ACLU threatened to sue the district for gender discrimination. Only parent-child events, not father-daughter dances or mother-son ballgames, will be allowed.

• More and more schools now feature cross-dressing days for all their students.

• In Sweden, some parents now send their children to at least one school that does not refer to children as either a boy or a girl. 

Same-sex marriage is both the culmination of this erasing of male-female significance and its most powerful expression: Society has declared that marrying someone of the same sex is no different from marrying someone of the other sex.

The Torah went out of its way to assert the monumental importance of gender distinctions. When God created the first human beings, the Torah tells us, “Male and female He created them.” Only of humans does the creation story make this statement; gender distinctions don’t matter among animals except with regard to procreation. And the Torah prohibits men from wearing women’s clothing and women from wearing that which represents manhood. But how many Jews really care what the Torah says? Like the American Constitution, the progressive regards it as a deeply flawed text written by deeply flawed sexist, homophobic and racist men. 

In negating the man-woman distinction, we are bequeathing to our children a Brave New World. Time will tell whether they will thank us. I don’t think they will.