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Women "Having a Voice"

I really admire Orthodox institutions that address issues. Rabbis who are known to deal with hot-button topics, publications that address problems in the Orthodox community, and shuls that offer programming that is relevant and timely. I am most impressed with schools who do the same, and who are enthusiastic about addressing topics, whether in the classroom and/or through programming, that their students are grappling with living in today’s society.

Later this week, I will be speaking at SKA, Hebrew Academy of Long Beach. This is a school that isn’t afraid to bite the bullet. The administration has their finger on the pulse of their students and is attuned to the reality on the ground. They make it a priority to create top-notch programming, running workshops and bringing in speakers to address the needs of their students and the questions and topics that interest them most.

I will be sitting on panel entitled “Inspiring Voices: Women who Shape the World, Guided by Torah.” I am a teacher and a blogger who does what I can from behind my computer in Cleveland, Ohio, and yet I am sitting on a panel with two very distinguished women, Mrs. Ruchie Freier, the Hasidic NY criminal court judge, and Mrs. Sivan Rahav Meir, an Israeli TV and print journalist, author and radio and TV host. I was very happy to hear that many of the students had read my articles and found them relevant, that I represent someone who is within the system and respectfully raises her voice. Maybe my being on this panel proves that the internet is “shaping the world.”

I love how this school desires to provide role models of women who are committed to Torah and utilizing their personal strengths. Teenagers, more than anyone, need role models so that they can form the vision of the future women they want to become, and thankfully, the Orthodox world is full of amazing, powerhouse women, whether or not they work outside the house. I am happy to represent the non-super-woman example, as I am the only one on the panel who does not have a high-powered job in a secular environment, or at all!

Women having voices is a passion project of mine. I write about it, I talk about it, and here I am sitting on a panel about it. I found mine in writing, but really having a voice on a personal level means identifying your mission, speaking your truth and finding outlets to express yourself. Doing so in the framework of Torah is exactly what Hashem wants from each of us in order to fulfill our potential. This is what I will be focusing on at SKA, but I do have some other thoughts regarding the challenges of women having voices in the communal Orthodox scene.

The presumption behind the “women’s voices” concept is that men have the primary voice and that we, too, need to have a voice. Or that men have a louder voice and that we need to push for ours to be heard as well. Why don’t we ever talk about men “having a voice”? I don’t believe this is an exclusively Orthodox question.

Typically, though, when we refer to women “having a voice”, we’re talking about women having opportunities to make an impact on communal matters. To some, that means women being able to have the same opportunities in the religious sphere as men, such as having the ability to be ordained. To each woman on the religious spectrum, having a voice means something different.

In the religious/halachic sphere, I’m in the traditionally Orthodox camp. I am not a proponent of female ordination. My rabbi is my posek, but my voice is heard so that with halachic questions pertaining to me or my family, my feelings and perspectives are recognized and considered in the process.

What I want when it comes to women “having a voice” is that our insights, observations, and recommendations on any issue in the Orthodox communal world is judged based on its merit. The source and gender of who made the insight, observation and recommendation should not be relevant. I am a human and have a brain with thoughts and you are human and have a brain with thoughts.

For example, I feel it is important for women to be on boards. Did you know that there are Bais Yaakovs in this country with zero women on their boards? There are day schools with no women on their boards. There are highly educated and experienced Orthodox women in the field of education, law and finance out there who are not invited to sit on the boards of their children’s schools! (Baruch Hashem, there are women on the board of my children’s school.)

I had a conversation recently with a well-educated, professional man who, after I made the statement that I felt it was important for women to sit on boards, asked, “Why? So that they can offer a different perspective?”

What a woman brings to the table really has nothing to do with her “different perspective.” Having women contributing as board members means that the other 50% of the population is having a say. It’s a nice bonus if her binah yeseirah shines through in her analysis of the school budget or her recommendations regarding an educational program. The men don’t provide the primary perspective and then she “adds” her feminine thoughts and touches to the conversation.

In conversations about our community, in board rooms and journals and blogs, I want women to be regarded as simply people and not simply as women with a female perspective. Why should opinions and insights be colored by the gender of the person who speaks them?

Regarding shul boards, this is a bit stickier. I myself have sat on a shul board. The shul was a community type of shul with community programming. The shul I daven at now, which is also in a different city, has family programming but is much more yeshivish. The board is, as expected, all men. Regarding shul matters, the rebbetzin often serves as the mouthpiece for the needs and wants of the women to her husband. Women’s programming is created for and by women. But when there are decisions to be voted on regarding the new mechitzah, or the location of the women’s section, there are no women to vote. I find myself as the wife of a board member asking my husband to say what I want to be said at the next board meeting.

I do understand that there are norms in the yeshiva world that would warrant having a woman on a board to be untraditional and possibly even immodest. (And the culture of these male-only board meetings are a bit of a boys club.) But as a result, women’s voices aren’t formally heard or considered. This is my concern. In my case, thank goodness my husband is a board member.

My concern goes deeper in that I want young women to know that having opinions on communal matters is not something that is a “man thing” – that boards and institutions, besides chesed organizations which are traditionally female-led, are areas that frum women too can and should have a seat at the table. Again, thankfully, our mikvah board and school board do have women, but I have heard that is not the case in many cities.

In truth, I hope the argument is simply about standards of modesty and not due to any possible deep-seated attitudes about the opposite gender. But if it is about modesty, we need to think carefully about how we can make it possible for women to know that their opinion counts, their perspective is worthy, and their insights can make a difference, even if they formally don’t have a vote on the board.

Until next time,