Happy Bicentvicentdecennovennial!

By Amy Sessler Powell

On July 4, our nation once again celebrates its birthday, but most Americans would have to stop and do the math to figure out how many candles to put on the cake. This birthday has no fancy name, no bicentennial or semiquincentennial, but birthday number 239 comes after a few weeks that may be worth noting for the ages.

Rarely has a short period of time been known for so many milestones for Jewish women and for all citizens in the realm of equality. While there is much work to be done, progress of any kind reminds us that change is possible.

Thirty years ago, the first female Conservative rabbi was ordained and it was a big deal, but it has become quite ho hum to us now. I remember a family friend in my own synagogue quitting when women were counted in the minyan in 1976. She recently showed me her beautiful new tallit and I kept my mouth shut. I’m glad to see that she’s finally on board in her senior years.

Two years ago, the first group of female Orthodox rabbis received smicha from Yeshivat Maharat, but they did not take the title “rabbi” or “rabba.”  Now, the third class is changing that, taking these titles. Years from now, will this too be ho hum?

There is so much more recent news. The U.S. Treasury announced that a notable woman will be replacing Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill. They are accepting nominations on Twitter, using #TheNew10. We saw the U.S. Supreme Court approve same-sex marriage, uphold the Affordable Care Act and strike a blow to gerrymandering by allowing independent commissions to draw political maps. This bodes well for Congressional districts that truly represent their populations, a necessity for better legislation.

In the world of sports, Major League Baseball added the first female ever, Melissa Mayeux, a shortstop on the French U-18 junior national team to their international registration list, which means she will be eligible to be signed by a Major League club. Misty Copeland,  was named principal ballerina in the American Ballet Theater, making her the first African-American woman to do so in the company’s 75-year history. Our U.S. women’s soccer team will face Japan in the World Cup Final July 7.

There is plenty of bad news, plenty of things that need work. Our black churches are burning in the south just as we finally are having an important national conversation about Confederate symbols. Too many people die from gun violence. But, the events of the past few weeks should remind us that grassroots work on issues often succeeds, gains momentum. Let us be inspired by progress to take on the difficult issues facing us.

So, America, Happy Bicentvicentdecennovennial! It’s been a good year.

Amy Powell

Amy Powell

Amy Powell is the HBI Communications Director.


Overseas Report: Experiencing Orthodox Feminism at University of Cambridge

By Ranana Dine

Ranana Dine

Ranana Dine

Before I arrived here, I was warned that I might be disappointed by the state of Jewish Orthodox feminism in England. Sure, there’s JOFA UK and a small partnership minyan in London, but the great strides that have been taken recently in the U.S. just haven’t made it across the pond, I was told. There’s no Yeshivat Hadar or Drisha Institute, nor Yeshivat Maharat ordaining women to be female religious authorities in the Orthodox community. I assumed that for the six months that I would be spending in England, studying at Cambridge, I would survive in a more traditional setting, if gritting my teeth at times when I felt that women were undervalued in the Jewish community.

When I first stepped into the synagogue in Cambridge, I thought I should try and keep my feminist leanings a bit under wraps. Stay quiet for a little while; abstain from mentioning my experiences gabbaying or reading Torah. This plan worked for maybe a grand total of 24 hours, if that. My cover was quickly grown blown as I discussed Ethan Tucker’s teshuva on Egalitarian services over coffee at The Buttery, and made jokes about being the tenth person in shul for daily shacharit. My concerns about not being accepted because of my views regarding a woman’s place in the synagogue and within religious Judaism were unfounded, I quickly discovered. Even though not all my friends in the Cambridge Jewish community agree with me about whether a woman can get an aliyah or should count for a minyan, all treated my opinions with respect, understanding and a good dose of humor as well.

During my time in Cambridge, I swapped books with friends about Jewish feminism, the pages getting dog-eared as they passed through many hands and filling up with coffee stains as we argued about the merits of Susannah Heschel, Judith Plaskow, and Tova Hartman over kosher dinners and mugs of hot chocolate. Together, we read about the Belz ban on women driving; expressed our anger over the decision; and, then moved on with humor and laughter.

This is not to say that at points in my six-month stay in England my feminist instincts were not troubled. Coming from a college in the U.S. where I am expected to layn and lead services regularly, I have found myself missing the chance to read directly from the Torah and play a role in synagogue ritual. Over Shavuot and Passover, I did not get to layn Megillat Ruth and Shir HaShirim, two books I have taken much pleasure in reading for others over the last few years. Although there is a vibrant egalitarian service on Friday nights (which I must honestly admit I did not regularly attend in favor of praying with the traditional Orthodox service), opportunities for women to read Torah and lead services during the week and on Shabbat mornings were limited. At times, the conversation regarding women’s issues in Judaism took on a less than pleasant tone – like when I was told by someone who attends shul far less frequently than I do that women cannot call for access to leadership roles without expecting to take on the other “masculine” mitzvot, like coming to shul regularly. And, I vividly remember the parting of a large group of black-clad Haredi men as my friend and I walked by them in London over Passover, as if we bore some contagious disease.

But, overall my experience in England as a Jewish feminist has been quite different than what I expected when I arrived. I’ve been impressed with people’s knowledge and caring. I’ve felt respected, acknowledged and appreciated while in services, even if I cannot count for the minyan itself. I was given the chance to study Talmud in both female only and mixed settings without anyone batting an eyelid. I’ve enjoyed the humor people bring to this important subject, that matches their thoughtfulness and desire to learn more. My friends, here, are quick to point out that not all of English Jewry is like the community in Cambridge and that the Jewish community in this small college town is more knowledgeable and thoughtful on this subject than in other parts of the UK. Although this may very well be true, I cannot help but think that the Cambridge community must, in some small way, be representative of larger trends in English Jewry.

When I arrived in England, I learned quickly that I could not hide my feminist instincts, even for a short while. At the same time, I also learned that I had no need to. The conversations about women’s place in Orthodox Judaism are happening here too, and cannot be avoided. I am glad to report that in Cambridge, at least, just like in Jewish college communities in the U.S., the conversation is taking place with grace, respect, knowledge and quite a healthy amount of humor.

Ranana Dine is a former HBI intern and a rising senior at Williams College. She recently spent a semester abroad at the University of Cambridge.

On Bonna Haberman

By Shulamit S. Magnus

Bonna Haberman created and ran Women of the Wall (WOW) for years and remained active in our core mission literally, to the day she died.

Bonna Haberman

Bonna Haberman

The idea for a religiously diverse group of Jewish women to pray together in a group service with Torah reading, came from Rivka Haut, z’l, an Orthodox Talmud scholar from Brooklyn. She was in Jerusalem in December 1988, along with about 1,000 other women for the first International Conference of Jewish Feminists when she suggested the idea. You can read about the background and experience of participants in the book Rivka co-edited with another founder of WOW, Phyllis Chesler: Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site.

Bonna, who lived in Jerusalem, asked herself why it took women coming from the Diaspora to have and execute this idea, when the Kotel, as she said, is in our backyard. Bonna being Bonna, then launched Women of the Wall as an Israeli group, going regularly, on various days of the week, when the Torah is read and days it is not. I was in Israel that year (1988-89). I was at the planning meeting for the first women’s tefilla at the Kotel, with Rivka Haut, and I read Torah there that first incredible time. I was a member of WOW during that first year with Bonna.

We experienced appalling violence for months. Haredi men charged through the mehitsa to attack us, even attempted to overturn the table with the Sefer Torah, an unimaginable sacrilege. Bonna, then hugely pregnant, caught the Sefer Torah against her belly lest, God forbid, it fall to the ground. When the police stopped men from coming through to attack us, Haredi women turned on us with stunning violence, sending several of us to the hospital.

In that year, the Ministry of Religion issued rulings criminalizing a woman’s voice in the Kotel precincts, and having a Sefer Torah. We risked fines and imprisonment. We sued before the Supreme Court of Israel. By this time, an international group of supporters, called the International Committee for Women of the Wall, Inc. (ICWOW), had formed. That group raised consciousness abroad about the cause. They raised funds. We commissioned and purchased a Sefer Torah for the women of Jerusalem and, in order to gain standing in the Supreme Court case, brought the Sefer Torah to Jerusalem, inaugurated it in festivities (details, in Chesler and Haut, eds.), and then brought it to the Kotel area, where we were blocked from bringing it to the Wall.

Bonna led the many years-long dealings with lawyers, commissions and court hearings, while continuing to lead tefillot, group prayers and the Torah readings at a nearby archeological site.

The Supreme Court ruled on our case in 2003, stating that in principle, our demands were legal. It cited political considerations and gave the government one year to prepare an alternate site, another nearby archeological site, Robinson’s Arch, to be able to accommodate prayer services. If that were not done within that time frame, the Court said we had every right to be at the Kotel in the manner we wished

The Government did not make Robinson’s suitable within that time frame. In any case, WOW, and ICWOW, resolutely rejected any suggestion of an alternate site and continued to insist on the same full religious expression at the Kotel that men have enjoyed since 1967. We continued to hold women’s services at the Kotel, departing to Robinson’s Arch for a number of years in order to read Torah, but never accepting the legitimacy of that arrangement and continuing to press for the rights we call “t-4″: women’s group tefilla (prayer) with voice, tallit, tefillin, and Torah.

In 2013, after women had been detained by police for donning talitot at the Kotel, claiming this disturbed the peace and violated custom, WOW won a stunning victory in the District Court of Judge Moshe Sobel. Sobel ruled sweepingly, on the basis of the 2003 Supreme Court ruling and on evidence presented in Court that Jewish women praying in our manner in no way disturbs the peace. He ruled that it was the protesters against us who did that while overwhelming evidence established that we, like other worshipers, only of the male variety, were just praying. But Sobel also ruled that, after a quarter of a century, our minhag, custom, was as much a part of the custom of the place as any other, and that we violated no custom, either. He said explicitly that all we seek to do there, t4, is legal and not to be barred.

From that point on, the police, who had been harassing us at the behest of the rabbinical administrator of the Kotel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, started protecting us instead. It was a remarkable turnaround and testimony to the rule of law. Bonna was in Moshe Sobel’s court the day he heard the case; she participated in parsing the ruling that swiftly came, and in acting on it, by continuing to participate in women’s tefilla at the Kotel.

Rabbi Rabinowitz, however, issued a nohal, a pronouncement, stating that no one can bring a Torah scroll to the Kotel. Since he also refuses to allow women to use any of the dozens of Torah scrolls held on the men’s side, this effectively bars Jewish women from reading Torah at the Wall, a restriction we have gotten around several times, including most recently when I organized a service to pray for Bonna’s health and we got a Torah scroll in, and read from it at the Kotel.  (See the details on our Facebook page. However, we cannot do this easily, in the open, because it is a violation of the court rulings on this matter.

Bonna has been an active member of Original Women of the Wall (OWOW), established by original founders of Women of the Wall in Oct., 2013, when the current leadership of WOW made a decision we are challenging.  WOW is negotiating with the Government, along with the Reform and Conservative movements, to ban women’s tefilla at the Kotel and turn the Kotel officially into a synagogue under Haredi control– a status it does not now and never has had– in return for official recognition of those movements and preparation of Robinson’s Arch as a grand new plaza for egalitarian tefilla. Recognition of religious pluralism and proliferation of prayer sites and styles are worthy goals, which some of us may support individually, but absolutely not at the cost of giving up the whole purpose of Women at the Wall and the historic gains we have made.

Bonna was adamantly opposed to this and resolutely continued to support and promote our original goals. She participated in every step of our challenge to the scheme to give up women’s inclusive, pluralistic tefilla at the Kotel. She wrote about it, published about it, spoke about it, and strategized actively with us, coming to planning meetings even when weak from her illness and its treatment, in typical Bonna heroic manner; speaking with our lawyers, consulting with us, here in Israel, and in North America, who run OWOW. Bonna was utterly committed to egalitarianism in all aspects of life and in religion in particular, yet like all of us in OWOW, she understood the importance of and need for women’s tefilla, that is, of the need for feminism, as well as egalitarianism, in Judaism.

She was enormously buoyed by our tefilla at the Kotel, with Torah reading, in her honor just last week. This is what she wrote to me after I emailed that we had succeeded in getting a Torah in, and reading from it at the Kotel:

“Shulamit! OWOW!! Words cannot express how grateful I am to you all for this tefilla. I learned of your success when I returned from the hospital in the early eve after a grueling day. You made my heart soar! Much love and brakha -B”

Shulamit S. Magnus

Shulamit S. Magnus

Shulamit S. Magnus is Professor of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College, author of four books,including the winner of a National Jewish Book Award and Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Translation Award for her two-volume translation and critical edition of Pauline Wengeroff, Memoirs of a Grandmother (Stanford University Press, 2010, 2014). She was a founder of Women the Wall and is now living in Israel.

Value Us, Don’t Discriminate

By Yarden Fanta-Vagenshtein


I am proud to be an Ethiopian-Israeli black woman, yet I am angry and disappointed at what is going on with Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Israel is my home and I owe my life to Israel and the Jews around the world who enabled me to be airlifted, in 1985, from the Sudan desert by the Israeli Air Force.

As Ethiopian Jews, our ancestors dreamt of going to the “Promised Land of the Jews” for 2,500 years. To get there, we crossed the desert on foot, sacrificing our lives to be with our fellow Jews in the Holy Land.

Yet, now in Israel, we find ourselves in a different fight. In the Ethiopian village, we knew whom we were fighting against. And, we had solutions. We could insulate ourselves as a community. Our family could work on our own fields; use our own Jewish community blacksmiths, weavers and potters. If our neighbors didn’t like us, we could live in a Jewish village.

In Israel, we are all in the same region, but we, the 135,000 Ethiopians in Israel, are a different color. It seems that a difference in color is what makes it different for Ethiopian Jews to live in certain places, get certain jobs or ride a bus proudly without stares.

We feel surrounded by injustice and discrimination. Like a pressure cooker under a rug, it burst out in an aggressive protest last month, triggered by an event caught in the lens of the camera where an innocent Ethiopian soldier in uniform, serving his country, was beaten brutally by Israeli police officers. How could this happen?

What is most painful for me is that the young generation of Ethiopians, born and raised in Israel, educated and serving in the Army like everybody else, needs to go through this unacceptable discrimination.

These young people are assets who can empower Israel to deal with its many challenges, but instead young Ethiopian Israelis are waging their own war of survival. Instead of using young people as a driving force for the State of Israel, young Ethiopian Israelis are fighting for basic justice. This kind of discrimination should not happen in any country, but certainly not in Israel, a state that was created by and for the Jewish people.

Yarden Fanta-Vagenshtein is a Research Associate at HBI and Senior Research Associate at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, Brandeis University. Her research areas are cross-culturalism, gender, immigration, knowledge and cognition in context. 

We are Responsible for Each Other

By Shulamit Reinharz

HBI Director Shulamit Reinharz accepted an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters on May 31 from Hebrew College. Here are her acceptance remarks:

 Several years ago, I had the privilege of meeting and speaking with the Dalai Lama. At one point he asked me, “Shula, the Jewish people were exiled from their homeland 2,000 years ago, yet they never have forgotten where they came from. My people were exiled from Tibet in 1950 and I fear most of them have already forgotten their origins. How were the Jews able to remember?”

I took a deep breath and answered, “Your Holiness, our secret is that we don’t have a Dalai Lama. Instead, each Jew is responsible for all the other Jews.”

For me, the operative word here is responsible. In my opinion, an important yet typically unstated aspect of an honorary degree is to confer responsibility upon its recipient. Receiving this honor from Hebrew College led me to think about another familiar message about responsibility: “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

This famous saying from Pirkei Avot led me to the question, “Which tasks have I begun that I am responsible to continue?” Here is my one-and-one-half minute answer.

First, I feel responsible to follow the suggestion of Natan Sharansky who said that we should never ask someone to make aliyah, but rather we should make Israel so wonderful that Jews will want to flock there. Through the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, we have created countless opportunities for researchers, activists and artists to work in Israel.

What else? I feel responsible to remember what Blu Greenberg said when I asked her if there would ever be a female orthodox rabbi. She said, “Where there is a will, there is a halachic way.” Anything is possible. I have devoted much of my energy to understanding Jewish women and gender relations in history and to advancing the options for women in Judaism. I am committed to continuing this work for women in general.

And what other task do I need to continue? I remember what my father – a Holocaust survivor – told me, when I asked him shortly before he died, “What is the most important thing you want me to remember about the Holocaust?” He responded, “Remember that there are good people in the world.” What he was referring to was the fact that for each person who survived – as he and my mother did – there was at least one good person who helped. In their case, there were many good people who risked their lives to save my parents. I view it as my responsibility to write a book about my father, sharing this message. And I have started.

And what’s the final item on my current to-do list? Both my mother and father received graduate degrees in Hebrew language and literature. Their love of the Hebrew language is something they passed on to me. As my friend and chavruta partner, Chabad Shaliach Peretz Chein told me, “If Hebrew withers, we will lose touch with the Torah, and it will be difficult to sustain ourselves as the Jewish people.” I have tried hard to master the language, to give my children a Hebrew education, and through various initiatives to encourage American Jews to learn Hebrew.

So, I thank Hebrew College, and particularly its president, Rabbi Danny Lehman and the Hebrew College board, for this honor with its implicit message – I may have taken the first steps, but my work is not done. Todah rabah.

shula2015Shulamit Reinharz, founder and director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, is the Jacob Potofsky Professor of Sociology and director of the Women’s Studies Research Center.