I grew up the daughter of a pulpit rabbi – we were Charedi, his congregation was not. I married a Satmar Chasid when I was 18. I now inhabit a hybrid identity; a woman whose roots and heritage are Charedi, who has a voice outside of the Charedi community, an education, a career, and a reputation. When I started speaking, I thought that if I only explained the problems well enough, people would listen and take action. I now know differently.
So many of those whom I hoped would understand the urgency of my message agree with me, not because they see Charedim as deserving citizens and community members, but because they love to hate the next awful thing to hit the news. And others, of whom I expected so much more, refuse to change anything because, they say, they like it that way.
Have you ever met a Chasidic man? One who speaks in heavily accented English, who wears tzitzit, has peyot and a large black yarmulka and an obvious lack of social nous? Maybe you looked at him and appreciated the shtetl-esque image, maybe you chuckled at the jokes he told as he tried to find common ground with you. Maybe you looked away in disgust at the picture he projected of unpolished, unapologetic Jew. Maybe you laughed at him or with him.
I raise this because Radio 4’s Beyond Belief recently hosted a panel discussion with three Orthodox Jewish women, including a social worker and a rebbetzin. Its premise was to counter the stereotype perpetuated by Shtisel, Unorthodox and other recent media depictions of Orthodox Jewish life. All three guests had nice London accents and none had a husband who wears a furry hat. They tried so hard to prove how different they are from those Charedim – but when one described the role of Orthodox women as ‘separate but equal’ from those of men, she sounded just like the other Charedi women I’ve heard over the years, the women she wants to assure you she is nothing like.
The line between ‘mainstream’ and ‘Charedi’ Jewry is an illusion. Many of the rabbis to the so-called mainstream community are making halachic decisions that are imbued in Charedi thinking. They may be more self-aware, and thus covert, in their intolerance, misogyny and sexism, but it is there nonetheless.
Rabbis need to be well-spoken so they can deliver entertaining sermons, but they don’t need to be feminist allies or welcoming to LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people. Sure, the odd mainstream dayan had an affair, but only with an adult woman. It was only a few months ago when Batei Din doubled down on their profoundly unhelpful attitude to women subjected to get abuse, taking the strictest possible view in interpreting halachah, ignoring commandments to pursue justice.
Do you think about how they treat their wives, or whether their sons are withdrawn from school before the legal leaving age, with their secular education ending at 15? The fun, energetic young emissaries who run our cultural events and the school trips to Gateshead and Eastern Europe are popular and are promoted in our mainstream schools. Do you question the practices, ethics or ideologies that fuel the McKiruvTM world? We all enjoy feel-good events and charismatic rabbinic couples. We all want a shul with a good children’s service and a better kiddush. If women are seen but not heard within the shul environment, that’s just too bad. Sure, we roll our eyes and sometimes even raise our eyebrows but that’s it, really. As long as no one points out where we fall short, our shiny surfaces and clean lines can be maintained. Just don’t prod at anything.
But I don’t believe this community doesn’t want more: from our leadership – lay and rabbinic – and our membership. I don’t believe we don’t want to progress and grow. I don’t believe we want to drive away so many people.
It’s not as if we don’t have examples of good practice. They should be the rule, not the exception. Chasidim make good headlines, but we risk overindulging in easy stereotypes as a way of deflecting from our own deficiencies.