April 1, 2023

Lehavdil? Distinctiveness and Fluidity in Personal Status Change

By Sylvia Barack Fishman

One of my favorite aspects of Jewish tradition is its recognition of diverse experience. Judaism differentiates between Sabbath and weekday—lehavdil bein kodesh lekhol, and even between Sabbath and holiday levels of holiness—lehavdil bein kodesh l’kodesh. Judaism also differentiates between different kinds of personal status—single, married, engaged, etc.

Sylvia Barack Fishman

Jews, like other societal groups, create memorable ceremonies to mark an individual’s passage from one kind of personal status to another—circumcisions, bar and bat mitzvahs, mikvah immersions, weddings, divorces, mourning rituals.

Human beings do seem to benefit from ceremonies demarcating personal status. Ceremonies ratify profound transitions, whether joyous or sorrowful.  Where such a ceremony does not exist—for example the lack of a Jewish ceremony to celebrate the birth of a child—many complain about its absence.

But there is a downside to personal status categories and demarcation ceremonies. Personal experience may be much more fluid and less defined than the lehavdil categories imply.

Gendered traditions that separate men’s and women’s status in traditional Judaism, for example, have become more fluid in recent decades. Jews studying sacred texts—once a gendered role confined almost exclusively to males—now include girls and woman as well. Jewish communal and religious leadership and public prayer include females in many congregations. In these and other instances, the fluidity of the human experience rather than categorical distinctions between people is the compelling principle.

The personal status transition uppermost in my mind today is the move from full-time employment to a status of “retirement.”

My years both as the Co-Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI) and as the Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department (NEJS) at Brandeis have been years of intense privilege. I use that term not as it is commonly used today—a kind of pejorative aimed at persons obliviously enjoying unearned entitlements—but rather in its traditional Jewish understanding. The Hebrew word for privilege, z’chut, as it is used in classical Jewish texts is not just being fortunate in obtaining something of value. Z’chut also implies having responsibility for something; it is connected to the doing of good deeds as well as to receiving benefits beyond what one’s own good deeds would entitle one to.

It was a privilege to work with Prof. Shulamit Reinharz in the creation of what came to be known as the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI). I am grateful to Shula for her generosity, warmth, energy, and vision, and I treasure our work together. It makes me happy to think of HBI thriving now in the capable hands and dynamic vision of Dr. Lisa Fishbayn Joffe and an amazing staff. The wonderful Board of HBI has guided us well. Diane Troderman was our first HBI Board Chair, traveling from the Berkshires to attend weekly HBI staff meetings. Our board chairs and board members have been central to our development, including our current devoted chair, Dr. Phyllis Hammer. I look forward to seeing HBI’s new accomplishments unfold.

Similarly, from the start of my NEJS career, I have been privileged to work with colleagues who were excellent role models as well as true helpmeets, enablers and partners. I learned sociology of American Jews from the master, Prof. Marshall Sklare of blessed memory. Jonathan Sarna was NEJS departmental chair and my mentor in my critical early years. My Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies (CMJS) colleague Prof. Len Saxe generously helped me strategize logistics and scientific complexities. The current NEJS department chair, Jonathan Decter, is an exemplary scholar, administrator, and colleague. I have great confidence in him and our generations of young NEJS scholars going forward. My HBI and NEJS colleagues are an astonishingly nice, menschlech, and interesting group of people. It has been a z’chut, a privilege, to work with them.

I was privileged to work with outside colleagues on a series of compelling research projects on Jewish communal life. The first of those associations was with the American Jewish Committee’s Drs. David Singer and Steven Bayme, a relationship of more than three decades beginning with my intermarriage project, in which I analyzed interviews with 254 Jewish and non-Jewish men and women in intermarried, inmarried, and conversionary marriages. I was privileged to write articles and chapters with my cherished and much-missed Israeli colleague Charles Liebman, of blessed memory, with the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Jack Wertheimer (may he live long and prosper), and with the prolific scholar Steven M. Cohen. All my co-authors and research associates have been energetic and fearless; they don’t mind writing about challenging findings. Those relationships have added much richness and dimension to our lives. Not least, it was a privilege to work with my students, helping them find subjects that ignite their passions, helping them develop critical skills, to launch and develop their careers.

My colleagues at NEJS and HBI created a lovely, elegant—and very much appreciated–celebration to mark my change of status from full-time Brandeis employee to Emerita NEJS Professor and HBI Co-Director.

That change of status, however, falls into the category of a fluid, rather than sharply distinguished lehavdil. I look forward to continuing with both the compelling and meaningful work and the deep friendships that made my years at Brandeis such a privileged environment. I hope to continue writing about American Jewish sociology, life, culture and literature. I have already begun to spend more time painting—a lifelong passion that was largely confined to the summer months during the decades of my academic career. I expect that I will also continue teaching. This fall I’ll be initiating an adult education class for HBI and Me’ah Select: “Herstories: Changing Portrayals of Women in Jewish Literature.”

Thus, employment versus retirement status is not a lehavdil bein kodesh lekhol situation. I am not leaving my Brandeis interests behind. Instead for me (and many others) retirement is a condition of fluidity, far closer to the distinction implied by lehavdil bein kodesh l’kodesh. As Emerita, I hope to be privileged to transition from one holy space and time to another.

Sylvia Barack Fishman is the Emerita Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Judaic Studies
and the former Co-Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

HBI Thanks Founding Board Member, Janet Zolot

By Amy Powell

When Janet Zolot announced her retirement earlier this year from the HBI Board of Advisors, it was truly the end of an era for HBI. Zolot, an original board member, has been here for the entire 21-year journey. More than that, she was an integral part of HBI’s founding.

To Zolot, getting involved in Jewish women’s causes came naturally. It was part of her upbringing. Her mother was president of the Philadelphia chapter of Hadassah and her father was president of the Beth Sholom Synagogue in suburban Philadelphia, the only synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

“I grew up in a world where everyone was involved in doing things for the Jewish community,” said Zolot. “My mother was so positive about her Hadassah involvement that I went to the meetings and ended up as president of Philadelphia Hadassah with 37 groups and 10,000 people. It was quite a responsibility.”

It was during her years as National Hadassah vice-president that Hadassah formed the National Commission on American Jewish Women, an effort to find out what was known about Jewish women. Chaired by Brandeis Professor Shulamit Reinharz, who later became the HBI founding director,  the group tried to answer questions about what concerned American Jewish women, if they felt like part of the Jewish community, if their Jewish identity, Judaism or Israel was meaningful to them and how to address their concerns, strengthen their connections and bring greater Jewish meaning to women’s lives. “It was a really exciting, forward thinking time for National Hadassah,” Zolot noted. The Commission hired Brandeis Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, who later became HBI’s co-director, to oversee the research.

When the research was to be presented for the first time in public at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federation, Zolot feared that no one would be interested.

“There were 22 concurrent sessions at our time slot and I was about to have a nervous breakdown, thinking no one would come. We had a decent sized room and to my surprise, we had to start bringing in extra chairs. There were over 250 people there and it was really a thrill, just amazing,” Zolot said.

At the time, Shirley Kalb was Hadassah’s director of strategic planning, and Zolot described her as “a brilliant woman who knew everyone in the Jewish community.”  Zolot remembers sitting in Kalb’s New York office with Reinharz and discussing the results after this initial reception. They all believed that too little was known about Jewish women and so much more was needed. Reinharz suggested that they form a research institute to learn more and the result was the founding of the International Research Institute on Jewish Women, (which later changed its name to HBI) at Brandeis University in January 1997. Established with a generous grant from Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America Inc., the IRIJW represented a bold venture for both Brandeis University and Hadassah. It was a natural fit for Zolot, who had been involved from the beginning to continue with HBI, bridging gaps between the Hadassah and HBI.

“Academia had not been part of my life after college and I found it extremely stimulating, Shula had a magical touch, Sylvia brought her unique interests and capabilities and the meetings were always an intellectually stimulating experience. We felt that we were accomplishing something worthwhile.” Zolot said.

Some of the early programs included learning more about Jewish women from Arab lands. The research was presented at the Hadassah National Convention, then replicated in communities through Hadassah chapters. Other programs on Queen Esther and on Jewish fertility issues were researched at HBI and shared through Hadassah.

HBI Director Lisa Fishbayn Joffe said of Zolot, “We are so grateful for the enormous impact she has had on HBI.  She was part of the initial group at Hadassah that initiated Voices for Change and generated the vision and resources for HBI.  In my new role, I often meet women from Hadassah groups around New England who tell me about the excitement of working with Jane on this. She has also been a supporter of many of our innovative programs including the program to bring Scholars in Residence from the former Soviet Union, that has now created a steady pipeline of applicants. Her enormous wisdom will be missed.”

Leslie Gaffin, the current liaison with Hadassah on the HBI Board, said, “Jane has been a pillar of support and knowledge for HBI.  I want to thank her for all the help she gave me as I assumed a board position. Her wise counsel and depth of understanding always led to creative solutions. She was certainly a great role model for me and I am sure for many others. I wish her good health and satisfaction in all her future endeavors.”

Zolot said she felt so proud of the feature story that appeared in Hadassah Magazine, HBI, A Pioneer in Gender Studies, on the 20th anniversary of HBI that she began to consider her retirement. “Now that we have passed our 20th year I feel that it’s time for me to retire from the HBI Board. I was present at creation when Shula, Shirley Kalb z’l and I met in Shirley’s office. I was skeptical but between Shula’s enthusiasm and Shirley’s determination I was swept up in the momentum that proceeded nonstop. It’s been an enriching experience to have been part of the years of innovation and growth and I wish for continued success in the future.”

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI.

For the Women’s Studies Association, the BDS Vote Was Over Before It Began

By Janet Freedman –

This blog is published in partnership with The Sisterhood and is a follow up to an earlier blog posted by Janet Freedman in Fresh Ideas from HBI. –

The results of the vote on the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) resolution put forth by the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) came over email this past Friday. Of those voting, 88.4 percent or 653 people approved the BDS resolution; 86 opposed. Thirty five percent of the NWSA membership voted. As a longtime member of NWSA, who has observed the organizing strategies that led to the vote, I knew its passage was a foregone conclusion.

The NWSA resolution calls for the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” of economic, military and cultural entities and projects sponsored by the State of Israel. The leadership of the NWSA (without consultation with the association’s Jewish Caucus) sponsored official sessions in which speakers presented only one perspective in the BDS debate. These include a 2014 plenary on Israel/Palestine in which no Israeli was asked to speak and after which attendees who had heard a litany of remarks against Israel were asked to stand in support of “freedom and justice for/in Palestine.”

I have long been involved in the NWSA, and for a time served as chair of its Jewish Caucus. My commitment to working as a Jewish feminist includes directing the Women’s Studies program and co-directing the Center for Jewish Culture at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth where I worked for twenty-five years before joining the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. While I can convey my progressive politics in Jewish groups, increasingly, I do not feel I can express my Jewish voice within the progressive community, including NWSA which has been one of my homes for many years. With just a few gaps, I have returned to conference after conference since the late 1970s because I want to engage in “difficult dialogues,”  the theme of not one but two recent conferences.

Since the NWSA had not offered occasions to present a legitimate discussion on pros and cons of the resolution, I felt it was important for me to accept an opportunity to speak at this year’s conference for five minutes on a BDS roundtable sponsored by the Jewish Caucus entitled “‘Two Jews, Three Opinions’: A Critical Query of the Boycott/Divestment/Sanction Movement Against the Israeli Occupation” which offered a singular opportunity to present divergent viewpoints on the resolution. One other woman spoke against the resolution and two spoke in favor.

I used my time to demonstrate how the “Frequently Asked Questions” appended to the resolution and intended to allay concerns about its content instead provided the very reasons that it should be rejected.

The FAQ responding to apprehensions about whether the BDS resolution could be seen as anti-Semitic was addressed with this rejoinder: “(W)hat is really anti-Semitic is the attempt to identify all Jews with a philosophy that many find abhorrent to the traditions of social justice and universality that Judaism enshrines.” I observed that such presumptive, condescending language reprises the ancient appeal to the “good” Jew, in this case one who sides with those who see Israel as a demonic entity. The tactic of seeking out the exceptional ones in a despised group is one that has long been used to reinforce despicable racism and anti-Semitism.

I also spoke against the egregious assault on academic freedom found in the explication in the FAQs of activities that would violate the boycott. Not only would a seminar talk in partnership with or sponsored by an Israeli institution not be allowed, but even telephone conversations are subject to the boycott. “By itself, a phone conversation with an Israeli academic does not constitute a violation of the boycott. However, institutional partnership is subject to boycott; therefore we urge academics, in exercising their own academic freedom, to refuse all collaboration with complicit institutions and their official representative.”

As the conference proceeded I became aware that the content of the resolution before the organization was irrelevant to most members. In fact, almost everyone with whom I spoke had not even read the resolution. In retrospect, I realize that support for both Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and dignity and the encouragement of exchanges that respect all those involved are not goals of this resolution.

So what did I learn? I learned what I need to keep relearning:

The zeal with which many come to their position on BDS is often in contrast with an awareness of history or a respect for the accuracy of information brought to their advocacy.

  • The BDS movement is not aimed at resolving differences. Supporters at the conference excoriated Israel, including statements from some that Israel should not be allowed to exist. Palestinians were valorized and any criticism of egregious misdeeds on their part excused as a necessary response to Israeli aggression.
  • While professing the challenging of interlacing systems of oppression that must be addressed together, anti-Semitism is frequently unseen or excluded. The Jewish invisibility and anti-Semitism within NWSA that led to the formation of a Jewish Caucus in the 1980s continues to exist. In response to this, fewer Jewish women have sustained their commitment to the organization and there is a paucity of sessions on the varied histories, lives, issues and activism of Jewish women.
  • The voices of Jews and others whose positions are rooted in the right of Israel to exist as a state have been silenced. Following my remarks at the BDS round table, there was just one comment from the audience validating some of my points, but I received many private expressions of support and appreciation for my “courage.” Several people told me it would be damaging to their careers to openly express opposition to the resolution.

I have more work to do to resist trying to ingratiate myself with the left. Through many years of involvement in progressive politics I have observed in myself and others the struggle to be aligned with positions taken by other left-learning colleagues. Even with the experience I have had within NWSA, I initially thought, as have other, mostly Jewish, opponents to the excessive rhetoric of  BDS resolutions in other organizations, that there could  be an “acceptable” resolution that would acknowledge the multiple dimensions of the Palestine/Israel conflict. I need to disabuse myself and discourage others from seeking affirmation from those who, in reality, do not respect me and to relinquish the idea that it makes sense to invest time in trying to gain their approval by efforts to reshape resolutions intended to delegitimize Israel.

The BDS movement directs our energy away from ways to find a peaceful solution that respects the humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians. It oversimplifies to the point of gross inaccuracies.

I described myself to the NWSA round table audience as a “progressive, feminist, pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace Jew.” Having a thorough, thoughtful exchange of what each of those words mean to me and others might have been the basis for a constructive dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that has not occurred. Despite the passage of the BDS resolution I still want that dialogue and intend to continue to seek solutions to this struggle based upon deep reflection rather than simplistic, formulaic sound bites.

FreedmanDr. Janet Freedman is a Resident Scholar at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center, a member of the Academic Advisory Committee of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and the author of Reclaiming the Feminist Vision: Consciousness Raising and Small Group Practice (McFarland, 2014).


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.


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