What better time than Valentines Day to discuss matters of sex. Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue is hitting the newsstands, and this year it is celebrating that greatest (and she’s Jewish!) swimsuit model of all, Barbie, who is turning 55 – though she doesn’t look a day over 19. S.I and Barbie have shared so much over the years, particularly the accusations that they send young girls unhealthy messages about body image.

Gender issues have also moved front and center in the world of Jewish education in recent weeks. Some high-profile Orthodox day schools have announced that girls would be allowed to wear tefillin. This has hit the Orthodox world by storm. Orthodoxy has tended to follow the liberal movements by about a generation on women’s issues, including the institution of Bat Mitzvah, educational equality and some liturgical reform, and now, we are on the cusp of an Orthodox female rabbinate.

But we so-called “egalitarian” Jews should never get smug about these things. Not only do few of our post-bat mitzvah girls wear tefillin, relatively few of our boys do. At least the girls know that they can — and many of my 7th graders tried them on at our World Wide Wrap two weeks ago. Tefillin are by custom worn on the “weak” arm, but nothing projects “girl power” more than the sight of girls feeling empowered to be full participants in Jewish ritual — which means that they are full participants in our collective Jewish destiny AND fully empowered to make the Jewish and moral choices that will impact their lives from here on.

While my shul, like many others, is admittedly weak on tefillin, we are also not really promoting egalitarianism on a number of other levels. We’ve had just two female presidents to this point — though our record of female presidents of Sisterhood has been remarkably good. While women wear tallitot increasingly here (and all the bat mitzvah girls do), the majority still see it as less important for women to wear than for men. We insist on kippot in the sanctuary even for non-Jewish men. But not for Jewish women. It’s just a longstanding custom we’ve never bothered to review. We probably should.

But our greatest lapse is in not paying enough attention to gender stereotyping in education at Jewish schools. Tablet e-zine ran a fascinating piece this week on gender issues, entitled, “Talmud for Boys, Challah-Making for Girls.” You can access the article and podcast here. It’s based on a new book by Elana SztokmanEducating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools, co-written with Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman. It was a recent winner of a National Jewish Book Award.

Sztokman offers a moving and compelling case study regarding her daughter’s Shabbat experience at school:

My husband actually wrote an article about this in The Journal of Jewish Educational Leadership a couple of years ago around my daughters, when my youngest daughter was in kindergarten, and we had this experience where they invited the parents to have this Shabbat party to celebrate, you know, with the children what Shabbat means. And the way the teacher then did it is she called up all the boys and all their fathers to come, and they all stood there in the front and they were leading the blessings and they were singing.

 

And so my daughter, at the time, she wanted to make the blessing too, she wanted to say kiddush, and she was the only girl who got up there and wanted to do kiddush with the boys. And suddenly, these other mothers started mocking her. Just like, “Oh, your daughter wants to be one of the boys also.” And my daughter of course heard that and quickly sat down.

 

And so all these boys were sitting there and they’re making Kiddush and they’re having a great time. And then it was time for the girls to get up. And the teacher said like this: she said, “And now, the men, they are all coming back from shul, from synagogue, and they come inside, and they see their pretty daughters and their beautiful wives and the beautiful table that is set so beautifully. And they say to themselves, ‘I am so happy, I wish my life will be like this every Shabbat.’ “Like that. This is the story that my husband wrote about, because actually he went to this; I didn’t even go.

 

Right, so what the kids are learning is that the boys’ job, the boys’ and men’s job is to do stuff, to pray to God, to go out there into the world, to be active, vocal members of society; and the girls’ job is to look prettyYou know, my dress is as pretty as the table! The table is set, just like my body is! You know, they’re picking up these messages from really early on, and it is so dominant.

 

And effectively what we’re saying is that there is no such thing as a gender-neutral Shabbat.We are not teaching that there is a Shabbat that belongs to everyone. We are saying that in order to keep Shabbat, you have to first enter your gender script. You have to first figure out, which side am I on? Am I on the girls’ side or on the boys’ side? And then I can figure out what Shabbat is.

And that’s what kids are picking up. That’s what we’re teaching, and that’s what kids are picking up.

The Tablet podcast made me wonder what questions we should be asking of all our Jewish institutions, including our day schools, nursery schools and Hebrew Schools. (Scroll down in the Tablet piece and you’ll see how it sheds disturbing light on the impact of increasingly strict dress codes on body image.)

One of the first things I did as rabbi was stop the practice of giving bat mitzvah girls candlesticks and bar mitzvah boys bibles. Now my Sisterhood gives bibles to both and our Men’s Club gives them all Kiddush cups. Before that we were signaling to girls that that for them, reading is not fundamental.

At a time when the most prestigious Orthodox schools are becoming more sensitive to gender issues, the non-Orthodox can be no less. We need to look for models, people like like Tova Hartman, who founded an egalitarian, Orthodox congregation in Jerusalem that has become a model for exploring the “feminine side of prayer.” Jewish communities need to engage in the often uncomfortable exercise of talking truthfully about gender. Not just within the Orthodox community, but for all of us. We all have a stake in it, and our communities can be all the richer for our having this dialogue.

In the meantime, parents need to be asking questions regarding the Jewish upbringing of their girls — both in school and at home. Here are some questions parents can ask educators:

In what ways, if any, do you distinguish between boy and girl students during study and ritual?

Are girls in your school encouraged to experiment with wearing a kippah, t’fillin and tallit? Do they have female role models on staff who wear them?

In what ways if any have you embraced liturgical modifications to reflect an egalitarian approach? Is inclusive prayer language, including the imahot (matriarchs), an option for children praying in your school? 

Do you have a plan in place for supporting a child who is gender nonconforming?

Does your dress code insist on equal expectations of modesty for boys and girls? Is equal attention paid to addressing the dress of boys and girls in practice at school?

Do the children meet both male and female clergy at school?

I’ve seen progress along these lines locally. But what’s more important is not what I am seeing, but that parents are looking, mindful of the impact of gender stereotyping on girls and boys.

And it’s not just about the kids’ future; it’s about our world’s. We don’t need to summon Tevye, Golda or Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, to know that the age of patrimony is long gone. We need all the girl power we can muster to help get the world out of our current morass. It can’t happen if half the population is valued only for having a body as pretty as the kitchen table.

For while we know that gender bias stunts psychological, educational and social growth, we also need to remember that it suppresses spiritual growth too. The ultimate victim of our outmoded patriarchal religiosity is God herself.

When God is perceived as being beyond gender, boys and girls alike can participate equally in a spiritual quest that transcends boundaries, confounds predispositions and overwhelms arbitrary restrictions — an empowering, lifelong religious quest that can truly set them free.