I Want To Sit Downstairs24 October 2013
By Ilona Shechter, October 2013
"Granny, why can't I sit downstairs?" I always asked my Grandmother as we sat upstairs in the women's section in the shul in Muizenberg, the seaside suburb of Cape Town. Her answer was always unsatisfactory, as was the answer that my Grandpa gave me when I asked him why I couldn't have a Bar Mitzvah like my cousin Stanley, who got to chant from the Torah, sing Haftarah and lead the service. I was so jealous. All that awaited me, was a group of girls sharing a Haftarah on a Sunday night and a party afterwards! After driving my Grandparents crazy with questions, it was suggested that my parents join the burgeoning Progressive movement where I would be treated with much greater equality. And it certainly happened, with the exception of Bnei Mitzvah. Girls still didn't have that opportunity and it upset me and took me until I was 49 to attain that moment in my life, my rite of passage.
It was in California, where we now live, that I finally put on a tallit for the first time. It was one of my Grandpa's and as the garment fell about my shoulders, I felt the embrace of not just my grandfather but my Jewish heritage, culture and faith, and it was such a warm embrace and I felt as though I had earned this right to put on this garment along with every other Jew. I could never understand the restrictive stranglehold that the ultra-Orthodox held in Israel, during my year that I spent there - I still don't. I do know that as a Reform Jew, I need to fight it. With all of the strength I have as a woman, as a teacher, as a proud, passionate Jew. Judaism is my heritage and right as much as it is any man's and I deserve every privilege that this incredible faith offers, as does every Jewish woman, Orthodox, Conservative or Reform or any other stream of Judaism.
I was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and am married to an Israeli and we have 1 son. I am a teacher in a Jewish Day School where I teach Jewish Studies, Israel and Holocaust to 6th and 8th graders. I am a Museum Fellow of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a winner of the Grinspoon Steinhardt award for Excellence in Jewish Education and I am really proud of this and very humble, as I love what I do. I am also an Alum of the Yad Vashem International School of Holocaust Studies.
Gender Equality is a Jewish Value24 October 2013
By Dr. Martin Rosenberg, October 2013
Even as a child attending an Orthodox shul, I was bothered by my mother and sister having to go upstairs to separate seating. And I wondered why my coming of age in the Jewish community was a big deal, but my older sister's was not. As one who grew up in the 60s through the civil rights and the early feminist movement, I have always believed in gender equality and have focused both my personal and my professional life as a feminist art historian on this ideal. Once my spouse and I had children, we had to figure out what type and values of Judaism to which we wanted them to be exposed. The only form of Judaism we could embrace was one of absolute gender equality. We firmly believe that all the aspects of Judaism that are worth preserving and transmitting l'dor v'dor are completely compatible with complete gender equality. Jews who reject this principle need to explain why they believe only men are created bezelem Elohim (in the image of God). Whether in the United States, Israel or elsewhere, a Judaism that rejects equal participation by women is an impoverished Judaism.
Dr. Martin Rosenberg is a feminist art historian, profoundly engaged with progressive Judaism, who has focused both his personal and his professional life on issues of gender equality. In partnership with his loving spouse of 41years, Ellen Fennick, they have raised two children who embrace these values as well.
Kaddish24 October 2013
By Emma, October 2013
I grew up as a Reform Jew in London. Until I went to university, I would go to synagogue every week because my father insisted that my sister and I should. My father himself rarely attended synagogue except at festivals. To get to synagogue we had to travel by bus quite far. I got used to the service and, of course, was accustomed to women and men sitting together.
Some years later I went to Israel where I met my husband who came from a much more Orthodox background. I rarely attended synagogue in Israel because it felt alien. However I learned Hebrew from being there and therefore found the Reform services, once I was back in London, less satisfying than I had done previously.
I did not have a bat mitzvah and never learned to read from the Torah. In fact while I speak and understand Hebrew, I find reading more difficult. I was relatively unconcerned about women's role in Judaism - apart from not appreciating being separated from the men. If women wanted to be rabbis, they should, I thought, but it was not a path I sought for myself.
Much later, one aspect of the service became important for me - the reciting of Kaddish, something that some Orthodox rabbis will not allow women to perform. I had occasionally tried to recite Kaddish at the yartzeit of my father - and later my mother - if my elder brother was unable to do so. But it became essential for me following his very untimely death. For eleven months I attended a Masorti (Conservative) synagogue virtually every Shabbat and recited Kaddish for him. Reciting Kaddish has now become something I find very important.
It's a New World24 October 2013
By Marcia Cohn Spiegel, October 2013
I grew up in the 1930s when I was one of the rare girls allowed to study Hebrew, knowing that I would never read from the Torah or be on the bima of my shul.
As a grown woman in the 1970s and beyond, I became a member of various groups of women who struggled with the language of liturgy and the role of women in the synagogue. We were part of the changing society that redefined the role of women. We taught, organized, and created new ways for women to be. We wrote songs and wrote articles. We gave sermons. It was exciting not only for us but for our daughters and granddaughters.
When I visit Israel, I want to be able to function as I do at home. I do not want to be deprived of the status it took so many of us so long to achieve. There are a few places around Jerusalem where I am comfortable, but not yet at the Kotel. While I will not live long enough to see a great-granddaughter’s bat mitzveh at the Kotel, I hope my granddaughter will be able to join her daughter there.
Marcia Cohn Spiegel is a graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion School of Jewish Communal Service. Her expertise is in addressing stigmatized behaviors in the Jewish community, i.e. addiction, physical, sexual and domestic violence.
A Debt of Gratitude for the Women Who Opened the Doors24 October 2013
By Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, October 2013
When I was ordained in 1985, women rabbis were still rather rare. I was the first woman rabbi in every congregation I served in the 1980s, and in most cases I was the first and only woman rabbi in that city. I looked to the women who preceded me as my role models and gave them credit for opening the doors to full equality in congregational life through which I was honored to enter.
Now that I am working with Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ), the affiliate of lay-women of the Reform Movement, I realize that much of that credit was misplaced. To be sure, the women who were ordained in the 70s crossed that rabbinic threshold with a great deal of difficulty and, in doing so, they made it easier for me to succeed. But long before there were women rabbis, there were women in congregational life who unlocked the doors and opened them just wide enough for us to walk through.
For a hundred years, WRJ women have worked to bring women fully and equally into religious life. Each ‘first’ cracked that door open a little wider: the first woman to step onto her congregation’s bima, the first woman to lead worship in her community, the first to chant from the Torah, the first to create liturgy with a woman’s voice. They bravely ‘leaned in’ and secured a place for women in congregational life that would eventually lead to my ordination. They were stalwart advocates for women’s ordination and they did not relent until women had full access to every aspect of congregational life and leadership. We all owe them a debt of gratitude.
It is no surprise that WRJ continues its efforts to bring about full equality for women in religious life by supporting Women of the Wall, worshipping with them, advocating for their cause, and joining with WOW and others to seek a robust pluralistic Israeli society. Just as Women of Reform Judaism did not relent until women could be ordained, we will not cease our efforts until women achieve full equality in Israeli society, on and off the bima.
Rabbi Marla J. Feldman is the Executive Director of Women of Reform Judaism.