An open letter to Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York in response to his International Women’s Day message, “For Women, With Women.”
Thank you for your recent note on the occasion of International Women’s Day — and Purim — detailing the many, varied women-led and women-focused efforts supported by UJA; these are greatly appreciated. You declare yourself to be particularly committed to and passionate about women’s issues. I share your frustration with “persisting inequities,” and agree that there’s much to do to “create a world where women … feel seen, heard, and equal.” You call for continuing to fight the war for parity.
One place where parity is not found is among more traditional religious organizations. The history of many religions is “replete with stories of women silenced and stymied,” to use your words. Yet many UJA senior executives, while professing concern for women’s equality, choose to affiliate with gender-centric religious organizations, where women are segregated, denied honors, don’t count towards a quorum, etc. Supporting such practices is inconsistent with the views expressed in your note.
There’s an unwritten agreement to protect the dichotomy between personal and public, to carve out an exception for our religious lives, exempting them from scrutiny and from societal standards that apply elsewhere. Many notice this inconsistency, but most are too polite to point it out, or know that mentioning it will make no difference, will not be appreciated, and may result in their being shunned. The treatment of women in Orthodox Judaism is not considered an acceptable conversation topic, so we roll our eyes and stay discreetly silent to avoid conflict and cancellation. It’s “do what I say, not what I do” and “separate ways for separate days.”
People are defined and known by their choices. You can choose to join an Orthodox congregation and abide by its tenets, including those around gender. But once you’ve made that choice, you can’t at the same time, expect to be seen as a credible advocate for women or claim to be a leader in the fight for equality. As I see it, you can champion women’s rights, or relegate them to the balcony. You can’t do both.
How can this level of dissonance flourish? Is there some calculus used to determine that policies considered discriminatory in one context are perfectly acceptable in another? I would greatly appreciate your sharing this formula with me, because I very much want to understand how you make sense of this issue.
Modern Orthodox girls (I was one) learn to compartmentalize at an early age. The message is to be out front in the secular world, while taking a step back in the religious one; to wield agency externally, and yield it at home. Later on, integrating and finding authenticity do not come easily. Meantime, Orthodox boys observe the situation and draw their own conclusions.
Attitudes trickle down, often unconsciously, from the religious sphere, permeating the Jewish communal infrastructure. In our world, it’s clear that women will not be equal in the boardroom until they’re equal in the synagogue, and everywhere else.
I look forward to your response, and to giving this issue the airing it so deserves.