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30 Days, 30 Authors: Elana Maryles Sztokman

Sunday, November 29, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.


Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning author, and leading Jewish feminist thinker, educator and activist. She specializes in gender inclusion in the Jewish world, and has worked with communities, organizations and individuals around the world on advancing gender inclusion and gender equity In August 2015, she founded The Center for Jewish Feminism to provide resources and connections among Jewish feminists around the world. Elana is also a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Council award, and the former Executive Director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. She writes and speaks all around the world about gender issues in Jewish life, in education and in Israel, and blogs at www.jewfem.com.

    

The Fight for Jewish Feminism in Israel

Tuesday, November 11, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Monday night, a group of Jewish students and professionals in their 20s gathered in the common room of the newly opened Moishe House of the Upper West Side over plates of kosher Chinese food for a discussion with JBC Network author Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman about her new book out from Sourcebooks, The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom.

Elana opened her talk with a brief description of a recent El Al flight in which the plane’s departure was delayed half an hour while passengers scrambled to accommodate a religious man assigned to the seat next to hers and insisting on another arrangement. The experience inspired an impassioned post on her blog, JewFem.com, that was quickly picked up and circulated by numerous news and media outlets including Tablet, The Telegraph, and Haaretz and launched a petition to El Al demanding an end to complacency in the harassment of female passengers by Ultra-Orthodox fliers. “If I had known that piece, out of all my writing and blogging, would be so widely forwarded, I would have never admitted that I cried,” Elana chuckled.

“All over the world, whenever religious extremism comes to power, women are always the first victims,” Elana pointed out, citing Geraldine Brooks’ Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, “and Judaism is no exception.” The most visible outcome is the high premium placed on women’s modesty—“I hate to use that word, because modesty in Judaism was originally a beautiful idea, going back to Moses: true Jewish modesty is about putting the other person first, about putting others before yourself.” What it’s evolved into, she observes, is a way of controlling and hiding women’s bodies. “In the Orthodox world today, modesty is used as a measurement. We literally measure, inch by inch, religious observance against women’s bodies.”

Elana gave examples of how women are silenced, separated, removed, and prohibited from public spaces across Israel, from radio stations to cemeteries to sidewalks. Until recently, images of women were not allowed on billboards or other public advertising in Jerusalem; female scientists, educators, and medical professionals were barred from presenting at conferences in their fields or receiving awards at official ceremonies. “The levels of patriarchy are astounding: we go from modesty, covering women up, to removing women entirely, to the removal of images of women, to removing women’s voices. This is what’s going on in Israel, and it’s becoming violent.”

Questions for Elana ranged from pragmatic (“How can men and other outside groups be better allies to the religious feminist movements?”) to rhetorical, often raising personal experiences and responses. Members of the audience were appalled at the incidents of violence against Israeli women mentioned in Elana’s talk—stories of vandalism, of rocks thrown at women and their children for their attire or for turning down a segregated street, of women physically assaulted for sitting at the front of a public bus. “So a Haredi man can touch a woman to drag her off a bus and beat her, but he can’t sit next to her?” one participant blurted out, furious with indignation.

There, Israel has seen some progress: segregated buses are down to a third of where they were three years ago, and after a driver was heavily fined by the government for the assault of a female passenger on his bus Eged employees have made a better habit of intervening when a passenger is harassed or threatened. There have been other victories for women’s civil rights in Israel over the past couple years: grassroots campaigns and initiatives have gained firm footing in Israeli society, enabling partnerships across denominational lines and placing much-needed accountability on the government and political leaders—not just the religious ones. “The story here is about the secular government, the state apparatus, supporting religious extremism. The story is not about religious extremists, but how the secular world enables them.”

Globally, Elana holds, there needs to be less tolerance—even on the lay level—for religious fanaticism. This applies to the Jewish world, both in the Diaspora and in Israel: “There is a limit to pluralism; there’s a limit to how much we can accept as ‘multiculturalism’. This is not a legitimate culture, these are not legitimate demands. It is never acceptable for there to be a space in Israel in which women are not allowed.” She shared several examples from her own upbringing, career, and family to illustrate the challenges of upholding feminist values in the Orthodox world, even in her own life. When Elana apologized for adding such personal anecdotes to the discussion, the room erupted in protest: “No, these stories are amazing,” someone called out. “This is exactly what we came to hear.”

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Monday, Nov. 10: Elana Maryles Sztokman at Moishe Ho(UWS)

Monday, November 10, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

TONIGHT at 7:30pm Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman will be joining the newly opened Moishe Ho(UWS) to talk about her new book, The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom. Learn, debate, and discuss about the role that women play within Judaism, in Israel and the Diaspora.

The event will be at Moishe House of the Upper West Side. Dinner from Gan Asia will be served. Please email Orly Michaeli for details!

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10 Ways You Can Promote Gender Equality in Your Local School

Friday, May 16, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman wrote about seven places where religious radicalism threatens women's well-being in Israel and ten inspiring ways that women are fighting for justice in Israel. Today, she and Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman, co-authors of Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools (The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, 2013), write about ways to promote gender equality in your local school. They have been blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Gender messages are all around us. From images in schoolbooks to images on bus ads, from conversations on the train to those on the big screen, from clothing conventions learned at school or on Fifth Avenue – everywhere we turn, we are subsumed in messages about what it means to be a “correct” or “normal” woman or man. Just this week there has been a heated debate on our Facebook feeds about whether there is room in our society for women to express anger without being dismissed for not being perky enough. Gender is everywhere.

In our research, we have been especially interested in how these gender messages get transmitted in Jewish educational institutions. Schools are big parts of our adult lives – as parents, community members, and former students ourselves. And certainly schools are a big part of our children’s lives. Events taking place in school today are likely to impact our culture for years to come For that reason, we have found it useful to examine the gender messages in schools, and to provide people with tools to ask the important questions about their educational settings.

Here are some useful questions for parents, teachers, students, lay leaders, and other interested members of the community to ask about the educational institutions around you:

1. Whose photos are on the walls? When you walk into a school (or synagogue, or JCC), take a look at the portraits hanging on the walls. Are there an equal number of men and women? If photos are male-dominated, find out why. For example, is it because only school presidents’ photos are displayed and the school has never had a female president? If that is the case, see Question 2. Take note also of the gender make-up of artwork displayed, or of historical figures displayed. If women and girls are underrepresented, start a conversation about it with the school staff and leadership.

2. Who are the lay leaders? Are women represented in lay leadership? Has your school ever had a female president? Are women encouraged to join the lay leadership – prepped in the “pipeline” for future roles as leaders?

3. What does the mission statement say about gender? Mission statements often give strong clues about the values and energies of the school leaders. If a mission statement dedicates a paragraph or more to its relationship with the State of Israel, for example, chances are this was the result of many hours of discussion on the topic, and an express commitment to the issue. Many schools, however, have little if anything written in their mission statements about commitment to gender equality. This may mean that it has never been discussed at length, or that it is not a high priority. Find out the history of your school and its commitment to this topic.

4. Who are the student leaders? Is there gender equality in student government? Do girls and boys have equal opportunities to become leaders? Flip through recent yearbooks and check for gender equality in leadership of clubs and councils. Where do boys stand out and where do girls stand out? For example, is there a place for girls in areas such as chess, the A-V club, or computers? Is there a place for boys in art, poetry, and dance? Find out what kinds of experiences students have had when they challenge gender expectations. For example, what happens when a girl wants to join the A-V club? Also, do girls’ sports get the same attention as boys’ sports – and the same funding? Try to find out from students what kinds of experiences they have had in this regard.

5. Who represents the school at public events and assemblies? In one coeducational day school, a parent was surprised to find out that the school’s model seder had only boys on stage. When she inquired about this with the principal, he told her that it wasn’t “intentional” – each class was told to select a representative, and every single class happened to choose a boy. Check to see if there is equal representation and equal opportunity in public activities.

6. Who leads ritual and prayer? Even in early childhood, prayer and ritual are a significant part of students’ experiences in Jewish schools. In many cases, even in kindergarten, children receive the message that the boys’ job is to lead while the girls’ job is to choose songs or distribute papers. In upper classes, gender differences in expectations around ritual are further exacerbated. In many schools, boys are expected to pray more frequently or for longer periods than girls, boys are expected to come to school earlier than girls, boys’ prayer facilities are nicer than girls’, and boys receive more attention and training in areas related to prayer. Take note of the gender messages around prayer, and find out how these messages affect students’ attitudes towards prayer – and towards gender.

7. What kinds of roles are boys and girls given around Shabbat? Another gender-laden Jewish topic is Shabbat. In many schools, the “Ima shel Shabbat” [Shabbat mother] and “Abba shel Shabbat” [Shabbat father] are fixtures from early on. In some schools, the girl is expected to bring baked goods while the boy is expected to recite the Kiddush. What are the messages around these gender-segregated demands? How do they affect families that do not fit neatly into this “standard” gender model – such as single-parent families, blended families, or single-sex families? How do girls feel knowing that they have no reason to learn to recite blessings? How do boys feel learning that the meaning of being a boy is to always lead girls?

8. What adjectives are used to describe boys and girls? Take note of how girls and boys are described in newsletters, websites, report cards, and public events. Often girls are commended for being “caring,” “kind,” or “giving,” while boys are praised for their “intelligence,” “ingenuity,” and “courage.” Take note of gendered adjectives in your school, and start a school discussion about it.

9. Whose pictures are in the newsletter and website – and what are they doing? Similarly, whose photos appear on the school’s website and other materials? And in what capacity? Are girls shown in the same kinds of active, energetic, and intelligent roles as boys? Are girls shown engaging in sports, math, science, and leadership? One camp that we worked with had almost no photos of girls on its website. But when we pointed it out to them, they took note and made changes. Today, the site shows photos of girls everywhere, including doing sports and teaching.

10. Are there men on the educational staff, and in what positions? Teaching is a female-dominated profession, which has repercussions for status and salary. What makes it worse is the inverted pyramid – that often the few men on staff are quickly advanced and promoted. It is not uncommon to see a staff meeting that is almost exclusively female, with the only man in the room constituting the boss. Do dynamics like this exist in your school setting? How do women feel about the gender make-up of the staff?

We hope these questions are helpful. For more information and insights, you can read our book, or feel free to contact us for consultation or to find out how we can help you along in this important process:

Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman is clinical associate professor of education, Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is former executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). She is the co-author, with Chaya Gorsetman, of Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools (The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, 2013), winner of the 2013 National Jewish Book Award in Education and Jewish Identity, author of The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World (Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, 2011), winner of the 2012 National Jewish Book Council Award in Women's Studies, and author of the forthcoming The War on Women in Israel: How Religious Radicalism is Stifling the Voice of a Nation(Sourcebooks, 2014).

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10 Inspiring Ways That Women Are Fighting for Justice in Israel

Wednesday, May 14, 2014 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman wrote about seven places where religious radicalism threatens women's well-being in Israel. She is the author of the forthcoming The War on Women in Israel: How Religious Radicalism is Stifling the Voice of a Nation (Sourcebooks, 2014). She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In my previous post, I described seven frightening trends of religious radicalism in Israel threatening women’s well-being and in some cases women’s lives. Despite this dire report, there have also been some inspiring actions by women’s groups and other social activists fighting for human rights and change in Israel. The most interesting developments are those that come from religious feminist groups, fighting for change from within the religious world. But the work of religious feminism is tremendously bolstered by social activist NGOs working on a variety of fields. Below are 10 examples of inspiring campaigns by Israeli NGOs to reclaim women’s rights in the face of religious threats:

1. Segregated buses. IRAC (Israel Religious Action Center) and Kolech (The Religious Women’s Forum) led a lawsuit against the Ministry of Transport, which eventually made gender segregation on buses illegal. Today, every bus has a sign saying that women can choose to sit where they want. Bus drivers comply because they know they can be fined a month’s salary if their buses are found to have segregation. Today there are less than 50 segregated lines left, down from over 150 in 2011.

2. Women’s faces on Jerusalem streets. The campaign of an NGO called “Jerusalemites” to hang faces of women around the city forced businesses to change their policy of showing women’s faces on billboards in Jerusalem. Even the Jerusalem municipality has restored women’s faces to many of their printed materials, such as this year’s brochure for the Jerusalem marathon which showed women’s faces for the first time in several years.

3. Gender segregation on the streets. Another IRAC lawsuit is pending against the Netanya Hevra Kadisha on behalf of a woman who was excluded from delivering a eulogy at a funeral.

4. Rock throwing in Beit Shemesh. Beit Shemesh resident Nili Phillip is leading a class-action suit against the municipality of Beit Shemesh to hold them accountable for the fact that women are being hurt by rock throwing Haredi men. It is up to the municipality, they argue, to take down signs saying women cannot be on certain streets and to protect women. The lawsuit is pending.

5. Women’s voices on the radio. Kolech and IRAC are in the midst of a 100 million NIS ($30 million U.S.) lawsuit against the broadcasting authorities to protest the practice of the Kol Berama radio station to exclude women’s speaking and singing voices. Kol Berama is at risk of losing its license. The lawsuit may also pave the way for similar actions in other areas.

6. Civil marriage and divorce in Israel. Several organizations are pushing for civil marriage and divorce in Israel—including The Center for Women’s Justice, New Family, Hiddush, and Be Free Israel, among others. The Masorti Movement is also pushing to have non-Orthodox marriages recognized as valid. Public sentiment is undoubtedly increasing in support of this movement and the possibilities are encouraging.

7. Women as directors of rabbinical courts. ICAR is also promoting a bill to change the current law that says that the executive director of the Rabbinical Courts—an administrative position, not a rabbinic one—has to be an ordained rabbi, meaning an Orthodox rabbi. This excludes women as well as non-Orthodox Jews. Changing this law would open up at least one position of authority to women.

8. Challenging the abortion panels. MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) is spearheading legislation to make the abortion panels obsolete.

9. Challenging the rabbinical courts’ jurisdiction over conversion. The Center for Women’s Justice is awaiting a decision on their appeal to the High Court of Justice challenging the right of the rabbinical court to overturn conversions.

10. Reform in the “services” of the Religious Ministry. The Religious Ministry has responded to public pressure by beginning to institute reforms in the way the clerks of the Religious Ministry relate to the public, including allowing for some free market competition by allowing people to choose which city to register for marriage in. Although these proposed reforms contain some problematic elements as well (such as a proposal to make it an arrestable offense for non-Orthodox rabbis to perform weddings!), the fact that there is any proposed reform on the table points to the impact of social pressure and the fact that this entire issue is arguably in the midst of major transition.

There is still much work to be done in Israel to protect women’s basic rights and to curtail the onslaught of radical religious ideas, but the work of these wonderful NGOs, especially the work of religious feminist groups, leaves me inspired.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is former executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). She is the co-author, with Chaya Gorsetman, of Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools (The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, 2013), winner of the 2013 National Jewish Book Award in Education and Jewish Identity, author of The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World (Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, 2011), winner of the 2012 National Jewish Book Council Award in Women's Studies, and author of the forthcoming The War on Women in Israel: How Religious Radicalism is Stifling the Voice of a Nation (Sourcebooks, 2014).

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7 Places Where Religious Radicalism Threatens Women’s Well-Being in Israel

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 | Permalink

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is former executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). She is the author of the forthcoming The War on Women in Israel: How Religious Radicalism is Stifling the Voice of a Nation (Sourcebooks, 2014). She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Women being arrested for praying out loud at the Western Wall – it’s a story so shocking that it has managed to make headlines around the world. But the Western Wall is just one piece of a larger picture of religion and gender in Israel today. In fact, the threat to women’s well-being in Israel today, which comes from an increasingly radical religious power structure, finds expression in many areas. On public streets, on buses, in the government, in the army, in the courts, and in hospitals, women’s bodies are the objects of public scrutiny, debate and even violence.

Below are seven places where women’s bodily well-being has been threatened in Israel over the past several years because of growing religious radicalism:

1. Public buses. Twenty years ago, there was no such thing as official gender-segregated buses in Israel. The first segregated line was established in 1997 between Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, as an experimental Egged pilot to appease haredi leaders threatening to boycott Egged. In 2001, after years of pressure, Egged added another route from Ashdod as well, and stores along the gender-segregated route were pressured to change their displays, remove mannequins, avoid the central bus station to avoid ‘immodest’ signs, and play only certain radio stations. Each year more gender-segregated lines were added – 11 in 2005, 30 in 2006, by January 2011, there were 128 lines. By 2011, there were over 150 lines. And the more lines there were, the more violence against women rose, from one reported violent incident in 2004 to a Transport Ministry report that showed bullying and threats of violence on 5% of all buses.

2. Public spaces. Signs have been erected on public streets in Beit Shemesh, Jerusalem, and other cities, demanding that women walk on the other side of the street. Signs excluding women have been erected in many other public locations around the country, including cemeteries, health clinics, post offices, libraries, and even public universities. University gyms have asked women to leave at the request of religious male students, women singers have been asked not to sing in cities including the avowedly secular Modi'in. In some cases, this is accompanied by violence: women in Beit Shemesh have been beaten and have had rocks thrown at them and acid poured on them by haredi thugs for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

3. Municipalities. Gender-segregated municipal events have been held all around the country, including Rechovot, Safed, Jerusalem, Petach Tikva, and more. Women have been disinvited from performing, including singers being asked to leave the stage or having their microphones shut off and dancers who have been forced to wear shawl-like dresses to cover their dancing costumes. Some municipalities have published materials without any photos of women, including the brochure for the Jerusalem marathon.

4. Media. The Kol Berama radio station not only refuses to air women’s singing, but also refused to allow women to be presenters, announcers or news readers, and would not let women callers speak. The Cnaan advertising company, which places ads on public buses, does not allow women’s faces to appear on the sides of buses in Jerusalem and certain other places. Similarly, companies and organizations ranging from Honigman to organ donation created special no-women ads for Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Beit Shemesh and elsewhere

5. The Knesset and government offices. Women were disinvited from singing in the Knesset choir. The health ministry and education ministries have held all-male events – and in one case a leading female medical researcher was barred from walking on stage to accept a prestigious award from the health ministry because women were barred from the event. The Education Ministry also ran a separate ad campaign for Jerusalem and Bnei Brak in which women’s faces did not appear on billboards.

6. The IDF. As pressure mounts to induct haredi soldiers, the IDF is under pressure to keep women hidden from certain places to make the army “comfortable” for haredi men. This includes plans to build an all-male training camp. According to reports, women have been removed as instructors following complaints from religious soldiers, other soldiers refused to take orders from their female infantry instructors, discussions were being held about limiting the roles of women in tanks and armory, in the Intelligence Corps, women were asked to teach only while standing behind a desk, and more.

7. Rabbinical courts. There is arguably no place in Israel where women’s rights are more systemically trounced upon in the name of religion than the rabbinical courts. The current system for marriage and divorce leaves all Jewish women in Israel, regardless of religiousness, lifestyle, or volition, completely at the discretion of the ultra-Orthodox state-backed rabbinical courts. This situation has been chronicled by many great activists, and there are some band-aid solutions in place. But the fundamental situation in which haredi judges can ruin women’s lives according to their own constantly radicalizing perceptions of women remains in place. And this situation makes Israel a scary place for Jewish women to get married.

In my next post (Part 2), I will share 12 remarkable ways that women are fighting back and reclaiming power over body integrity and basic human rights in Israel.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is the co-author, with Chaya Gorsetman, of Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools (The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, 2013), winner of the 2013 National Jewish Book Award in Education and Jewish Identity, author of The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World (Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, 2011), winner of the 2012 National Jewish Book Council Award in Women's Studies.

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