Bringing Torah into the lives of Jewish people has been one of my core values for as long as I can remember. Although Jofa, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which I have been proud to lead since 2019, is not a traditional “outreach” movement, I often think that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, ob”m, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, would have appreciated our work advocating for increased Torah learning, leadership opportunities, and avodat Hashem (service of God) for girls and women. (It is worth noting that the Rebbe preferred not to use the terms “outreach” or “kiruv,” because they erroneously indicate that people may be close to or far from Judaism, when in fact the Torah belongs to all of us.)
My belief is based on personal experience. When I was 9 years old, my family discovered Orthodoxy — and almost overnight, we began to follow the teachings of the Rebbe. We attended our local Chabad shul, and over the years I spent many Shabbatot (sabbaths) in Crown Heights, in Brooklyn, New York.
It was fairly common for me to attend the Rebbe’s afternoon farbrengens (sermons or lectures) at Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights. I participated in N’shei Chabad conventions, where the Rebbe addressed all-women audiences. At overnight camp, Camp Emunah, we gathered to listen to the Rebbe’s voice piped in over the dining room loudspeaker, as he dedicated his remarks to, and in honor of, children.
But my most memorable experiences involved waiting patiently on Sunday mornings to receive a blessing and a dollar from the Rebbe, as was famously the custom when he was alive.
On those Sundays, every visitor could request to have their interaction with the Rebbe captured on film. It took me years to finally signal that I wanted my photo taken, and this is the only one I have. The very next day, Rabbi Schneerson suffered a devastating stroke. I believe that the day my photo was taken was the last day he greeted visitors at 770 while disseminating blessings and dollars.
While those dollars remain in my childhood home, to this day, this treasured photo retains a special space near my Shabbat candles. It’s a memento of a distant part of my life — but an indelible one that will always remain part of who I am.
This piece isn’t a referendum on the Rebbe, his teachings, or his followers. Rather, it is to express that I never felt diminished as a person — at any age — due to my gender. On the contrary, any time I had an additional request for the Rebbe, he took the time to listen and respond with an additional blessing, and an additional dollar.
As a general rule, the Lubavitcher Rebbe advocated to empower women, to make sure that they received an education, and to inspire them to use their strengths and talents for the greater good. There is also no doubt in my mind that he would have spoken forcefully and decisively over the growing and disturbing trend of distorting or erasing images of girls and women from Orthodox Jewish publications. In fact, he was always a proponent of including pictures of girls, along with boys, in publications. In the early 1980s, the Rebbe founded “Tzivos Hashem” (the Army of Hashem), the movement’s youth organization. This included publishing a children’s magazine called The Moshiach Times.
Adele Bachman designed the inaugural cover, with boys and girls holding placards that spelled out Ahavas Yisrael (loving your fellow Jew). Others who were involved with the magazine’s publication were unsure about the inclusion of girls, but every time they asked the Rebbe for advice, he directed them to include pictures of girls on the cover and throughout the magazine equally, which he rooted in the biblical commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
My love for photographs — the older the better — is just one of the reasons that the increasing trend of erasing, blurring, omitting, and replacing women in pictures in ultra-Orthodox publications and Israeli neighborhood advertisements is so deeply offensive. Furthermore, when it is done in the name of a warped and weaponized interpretation of religion, it becomes that much more damaging to ourselves, our families, and our communities. This draconian shaming is best described as a power move, and an attempt for men to exercise control over women.
To be sure, we first noticed this practice in Israel, but over time, the damaging trend has crept to North American shores, more recently in publications and organizational campaigns that also cater to the Modern Orthodox community.
Today, if the photo mob had their way, not only would The Moshiach Times children’s magazine look radically different, but I, and countless women like me, would never have had our picture taken with the Rebbe.
Indeed, if more thoughtful rabbis had the courage and moral will to weigh in and denounce the practice of erasing half of our population — a practice rooted in entirely un-Jewish and non-halakhic rationale — the tides would turn to stem this alarming trend.
We know that public outrage is an important tactic, as is targeting the purse strings. If companies looking to advertise refuse to capitulate to the demands of newspapers and journals by declining to remove pictures of women from their ads, then those newspapers and circulars will be the ones to lose out. Similarly, newspapers and journals can refuse to accept ads that intentionally exclude girls and women.
Finally, we know our own power and influence. We can and will continue to share our photos — and the stories that go with them — because we too play an important part in creating a vibrant and equitable Orthodox community. And that can only happen when we are all represented.