Are we doing enough?

Images of women are steadily being erased in Jewish educational resources. (courtesy)

Recently, I purchased flashcards of the most common Hebrew words in the Torah to help support the ongoing Torah study taking place in our home. As I flipped through them, I quickly realized they didn’t include a single photo of a woman. While there were pictures of boys, fathers, men in various roles and even duplicates – offering an image of a Chassidish man or of a Litvak one –  every image representing a woman or girl was a stick figure. Even the card representing “to give birth” showed a picture of a male doctor holding a baby. Needless to say, I was unnerved.

I am not alone in being angry by the pervasive erasure of women. Thankfully, there are organizations and efforts combating this disturbing new trend in Orthodox communities. This damaging practice began in the Haredi community, but now the erasure of women is creeping into traditionally Modern Orthodox publications and learning experiences. 

As Haredi communities become ever more restrictive in their interpretation of modesty some Orthodox women have spoken out against this non-halakhic innovation. Jofa (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) publishes the Jofa Journal, scholarly publications filled with Torah, images, book reviews and other accomplishments by women. Chochmat Nashim provides resources to show how these efforts are new and not part of our history. They have created a photo bank of Orthodox women, allowing our images to be seen and promoting its usage among advertisers. The Layers Project and Unorthoboxed are combating the erasure of women by creating magazines that include our pictures while addressing issues of concerns among women in our community and challenging stereotypes about Orthodox women.

But are these organizations and magazines enough to combat this dangerous trend? 

Let’s return to those flashcards. Orthodox educational resources draw from an admittedly limited pool. Curricula, textbooks, and worksheets are shared among Modern Orthodox and more yeshivish schools. “Limudei Kodesh” subjects in Modern Orthodox day school classrooms  are often staffed by right-of-center rabbis, as there are more of them working as classroom educators. The end result is a general reliance on Haredi materials and approaches to teaching – which can be at odds with Modern Orthodox cultural sensitivities. 

What is the point of speaking against the erasure of women if our children’s educational systems are complicit in promoting it? 

It is well known that Modern Orthodox families do not produce many classroom educators.  Instead our children are encouraged to take on more lucrative professional roles. Perhaps it is because of the rising costs of college tuition or that our lifestyle demands a higher income. The fact remains, day schools don’t properly compensate Jewish educators. The result is a reliance on yeshiva-educated right-of-center educators teaching our children. Their teaching methodologies, hashkafa, and values become ingrained into our students through implicit and overt means. For example, girls may be discouraged from participating in performing arts because of different standards of tzniut and many schools do not offer the same extracurricular activities for girls as they do for boys. Boys may be consciously or subconsciously privileged over girls in Torah learning. Finally, when a woman who is a Torah scholar enters a classroom, it is rare for the Rebbe to require the students to stand up to honor her Torah knowledge in the same way as if a man entered the room. To be sure there are educators who make the extra effort to educate in a way that is consistent with Modern Orthodox norms – but there are too many who are unable or unwilling to do so,   

Modern Orthodox communities must do a serious introspection about our Jewish education system and how to best emulate the values we hold. Our leaders and community members must encourage prioritizing Jewish education, valuing teachers, diverse methodologies, and to my original point, collateral materials that represent the diversity of our community and reflect  the values to which we want to adhere: gender equity, inclusivity, racial diversity, acceptance of differently abled learners, and love of all Jews, to name a few.

If we wish to be consistent with our children in all of their formal and informal learning environments, we must invest in creating the educational spaces and tools – that support these views. As Marshall McLuhan famously stated, “the medium is the message”. We need educational resources, classrooms, and teachers who exemplify the Judaism we wish to convey and truly walk the walk. Instead of outsourcing our children’s education we need to create the educational resources and infrastructure our communities deserve.

About the Author
Karolyn Benger is a student at Yeshivah Maharat (2026). Previously, she was the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Phoenix and served as the Executive Director of the Jewish Interest Free Loan in Atlanta. She is a graduate of Emory University with a degree in Political Science and a specialization in the Middle East where she studied Arab and Islamist opposition groups in Egypt. Karolyn has taught at Emory University, Georgia Tech, and Emerson College. Her love of Judaism, combined with her love of teaching and social justice, led her to join Maharat. You can find her writings in the Arizona Republic, eJewish Philanthropy, Blue Avocado, The Times of Israel, and Bina. Karolyn is a board member of the Arizona Interfaith Movement, serving as the Vice President of Education. She also serves on the Jewish Advisory Board for the Phoenix Police Department, was a member of the Valley Interfaith Project’s 3rd Monseigneur Ryle Public Policy Faith Leader Institute and a mentor in the Women’s Leadership Institute.
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