About a month ago, one of my colleagues co-opted me into inspecting several mikvaot around Jerusalem. Every year, the Council for a Beautiful Israel runs a competition among various public venues for the most aesthetic building in each category, mikvaot being one of them. And so, armed with a 10-page list of criteria, our three-women team went out to inspect a few.
As we graded the mikvaot, we noticed that access for the handicapped was high on the Council’s list. It was an eye opener. Until that day, I had never given second thought to corridor width (for wheelchair passage), steps, walkway incline, or bathroom railing. The little things that can make or break someone’s experience.
We asked the mikva attendants how many handicapped women visited and learned that there weren’t that many. Yet, I realized, it doesn’t matter. Having been born in a society such as Russia, which as a collective just doesn’t care about the handicapped, lacks any meaningful services for special children, and leaves its weakest members to their fate, the beauty of Israel for me is how far this society goes to accommodate and assist people with special needs. The way we treat people with disabilities defines our humanity.
Reading through other religious women’s online discussion of Sruli Besser’s article in Mishpacha, I thought back to those mikva inspections. Finally, we said, collectively, a religious publication, which truly reflects how so many of us feel about routine, yet completely unjustified injustices. Finally, someone gets us.
Ladies, it’s not just about us! It’s not (just) about whether we are hot when there is no air conditioning or whether the mechitza is built in a way that precludes us from hearing. More importantly, it’s about how women’s experiences impact our community from within and taint its image from without. And whoever thinks it’s not a problem, should think again.
In his well-researched biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin quoted the Rebbe as saying over 40 years ago that women’s rights would become the biggest challenge to frum Judaism in the century to come. One only needs to look around to see the Rebbe’s words come to pass. Women’s rights is the most common weapon in the hands of Orthodoxy’s detractors. At the Kotel, in Bet Shemesh, and on El Al flights, citing cases of mistreated women is the easiest and fastest route to discrediting Torah Judaism and causing chilul Hashem.
Some of the attacks leverage the discrepancy between halacha and feminist norms. I see no reason to apologize for that. Hashem’s words are eternal and we have no business or interest squaring them with some latest trend or fad. Yet most of the issues Besser brought up, and women routinely decry, are not halachic. There is no se’if in Shulchan Aruch mandating claustrophobic ezrat nashim, inferior seating, and lack of programming. They all come down to someone being insensitive and not making women’s experience a priority.
By failing to meet the needs of women in the community we are literally arming the detractors of Judaism with their best arguments! And even worse, there are no counter-arguments available, as there is really no good reason for someone to overlook or dismiss women’s basic needs.
Since founding Women For the Wall four years ago, my colleagues and I have been tirelessly advocating on behalf of the frum community. We can handle theological arguments, provide context we’re missing, and present issues from the Torah perspective. Yet we are stuck when the conversation turns to the little (sometimes petty) injustices, which make or break Jewish women’s experiences. There is just no excuse. Yet, justifiably, this is the measure of our community’s sensitivity and moral fiber in the eyes of the world.
And just try to think what goes through the mind of a woman, who feels mistreated or inconvenienced by her own community, yet defended by people far removed from the Torah. Would you judge her for being resentful, angry, or bitter?
Think about it this way. Every time, there is not enough adequate seating in an ezrat nashim, another frum woman joins a Facebook group such as “I’m also fed up with the way women are treated in Orthodoxy.” Every time a woman feels she cannot see or hear the davening, she feels greater affinity for Women of the Wall. Every time, a frum mother is exasperated by her Jewish experience, her children get the message that keeping Torah produces negativity. And Hashem will hold someone accountable for that!
Building menchleich, inclusive communities, in which we can all take pride, requires only two things – awareness and priorities. Realizing that not everyone in the community fits a single mold and making respectful treatment of every person our top priority will ensure that everyone – men, women, and children – feel welcomed and cherished.
People don’t leave places where they feel appreciated; they attract others. The surest way to keep our kids on the derech is to afford respect to their mothers. The shortest route to making a Torah lifestyle attractive to others is showcasing how incredible this experience is for all.
And we all stand to gain.