Deborah Klapper
Deborah Klapper
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How we talk and act — Modern Orthodoxy’s hidden curriculum – 3

Orthodox Judaism IS gendered, but each sex should still be treated with equal respect

This is the third of a series of essays on the topic of “hidden curriculum” in the Modern Orthodox community. “Hidden curriculum” is an education term describing the unintentional and unexamined messages that students get from everything in a school except the classroom teaching. In my first two essays I addressed the language of teaching Torah and the physical set-up of prayer spaces.

Youth director to young parent: “It’s really not okay for fathers to drop off their children at childcare and go daven, if the mother is not in shul too.”

The parent: “Why?”

“Because when a child needs attention, I can’t get the father out of shul — he needs to daven. I need there to be a parent present who can leave shul easily.”

This conversation took place recently at a Modern Orthodox shul with many young families and small children.

It is not my intention to discuss halachic issues here, although someone should examine the halachic assumptions and decisions implicit in this interchange. I am writing about messaging and communal attitudes. And the communal attitude and the message here deserve discussion. First, and most important, in the event that children have (temporarily or permanently) only one adult in their lives, it is a vital role of the community to make certain that the children and the adult receive every kind of assistance in our power. Certainly it is not acceptable to turn those children away from childcare because only their father is available to care for them. Second, the assumption that the mother’s tefila is disposable is likely to translate into a message to the girls that they don’t have to daven. That should not be an acceptable message to be transmitted in our shuls to our children during davening. A kinder, more productive, and more accurate message to parents would be something like “if your child is in childcare and needs you, we will send someone into shul to get you.” Then families can work out for themselves, within what is possible for them, who should be present and interruptible.

More suggestions for how we can send better messages to our communities and our children:

Announcements about men should be made about men. Many of the activities of davening are gendered. We’re Orthodox, and that’s what we believe in. However, that does not have to mean that our announcements send toxic and inaccurate messages about gender. For example, many people like to replace “men” with “people,” even when the people being mentioned have to be male. This is problematic. When you are speaking of a minyan, and you say “We need 2 more people”  or “We need 2 more,” the message is that women are not notable for their presence or absence and/or are not people. When you mean “men,” say so. Likewise when giving instructions in shul. That’s “Men should line up with their arba minim (lulav and etrog) around the bimah. Women should stand in their places.” Not “Everyone please line up for hakafot” on Simchat Torah. (If you sense that I’m hoping that kind of announcement will sensitize everyone to the amount of time we expect women to stand and do nothing while men do something, you’re not wrong. The assumption that women will be “on hold” while men “do stuff” also sends an unpleasant message about gender and value. Surely we can find a better way.

Make sure that women can participate in aspects of shul that don’t have to be gendered. There are many small ways in which women are left out in shul, even when the activity is not supposed to be gendered. For example, when you announce that it’s time to give names to the gabbai for a prayer for the sick or the deceased, announce that someone will stand by the mechitza to collect names from the women. Then make sure it happens. Women have sick and dead relatives at exactly the same rate as men do. The common assumption that every woman has an adult man to whom she can entrust this information is both false and cruel. We stood at Sinai and were instructed not to oppress widows and orphans. Remember?

If you are the rabbi, and you greet the men on your way into and out of shul and when you walk around in shul, then find a time to walk through crowds of women and greet them, too. The men speak to you naturally and automatically every week. If women have to make an effort, then most of them won’t. Then the first time you see them face to face will be in a pastoral crisis. That’s not good pastoral care. (Unless your wife is being paid a salary by the shul to do pastoral care, she is not a replacement for you. You need to do this yourself.) If women and men are both supposed to come to you with their questions and problems, then women and men both need to be comfortable talking to you. That sort of comfort comes from a personal relationship that develops through repeated interaction.

Jewish institutions should treat all of their employees with respect. Everyone involved in a shul, school, camp or other Jewish organization should address all adults by respectful titles, men and women, Jew and non-Jew. (What message do we teach our children when the Jewish secretary is “Miss Cohen”, but the gentile janitor is “Jack”?) Many Jewish organizations have staff lists that look like this: “Rabbi Cohen, Rabbi Levi, Sarah, and Rivkah.” With that list you have communicated that men are more grown up, more competent, and more deserving of respect than women. Giving people the dignity of titles is easy and free. Why don’t we do it?

Jewish institutions should be fair and sensible in their employment practices. Many Orthodox institutions have by-laws or traditions requiring certain jobs to be done by Orthodox rabbis, not because there is anything rabbinic about the position, but because there was a fear that someday the job might be given to someone who wasn’t Orthodox, which would change the nature of the institution. These jobs include teaching and leadership positions in schools, camps, and sometimes shuls. When this requirement for Orthodox smicha is combined with an unwillingness to grant women Orthodox smicha (or an unwillingness to accept women’s ordination as Orthodox), the result is a dearth of women in leadership and teaching positions in those institutions. The message to our children, which was not the original intent of the requirement, is that women are not fit leaders and/or that women don’t learn and teach Torah. A side effect is that in communities where there are many such positions it is very difficult for a learned woman to get a job serving the Jewish community, while a man with the same skills and talents has a much easier time, even though the jobs in question are not rabbinic and not gendered. Let’s remove the word “rabbi” from our by-laws and job descriptions for all jobs that do not absolutely require it, and send ourselves and our children the message that women lead and teach. (For more on women’s employment and talmud Torah, please see my open letter to the OU from February 2017.)

Jewish institutions should make events and davening fully accessible to young parents. It is a rare shul where events and tefila are accompanied by adequate childcare so that both parents of young children can fully attend. Where there are adequate funds, I would encourage Jewish institutions of all kinds to provide childcare for any event that could attract adults between the ages of 20 and 50. With reference specifically to childcare for shul attendance, it is very often the case that childcare begins 45 minutes or more after shul begins and/or ends before shul does. Where there is no money for childcare, shuls try to facilitate parents’ attendance with an early and a late minyan, but the early minyan usually ends 45 minutes or more after the late minyan begins. Either way, the message here is clear — women (and it almost always is the women) don’t come to shul until very late, and that is normative and acceptable. If shul started every Shabbat with 3 men and 50 women present, the shul leadership would see that as a crisis and do something about it. But we have (if we’re lucky) 50 men and 3 women at the beginning of shul every week, and the community not only accepts it, but encourages it with childcare policies and davening times. Let’s arrange davening times and childcare so that it is possible for both parents to fully attend, and then make women welcome and see if they come.

I hope that I have given you food for thought and discussion. Please share this document with your rabbis, your teachers, and your colleagues. Talk about what messages you want to send and how to send them. Then implement those ideas, see if they work, and try again. We can improve our education and messaging if we choose, but it won’t happen by chance. It is my hope and prayer that this conversation will help the Jewish People to learn Torah and serve Hashem in a unified way. Not as “men” and “women,” but as a community.

About the Author
Deborah Klapper holds an AB from Harvard University and a Scholars' Circle certificate from Drisha Institute. She lives, learns, and teaches in Sharon, MA.
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