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The Lilith Blog

May 13, 2020 by

On Unorthodox: The Hasidim Are Not An Anomaly

Not long ago, I saw a young woman in Hasidic garb on the plaza outside Lincoln Center. She was sitting at the top of the steps with a cup and a cardboard sign, her long skirt spread around her. She wore a look of abject shame, her eyes trained on the ground.  

I pictured her as I watched the recent series Unorthodox. Television is aspirational, director Maria Schrader said in an accompanying documentary. Aspirational stories have a simple shape—the heroine escapes a monster and finds her way to freedom. At the end of Unorthodox, Esty fingers a compass given to her as a gift and smiles.

When my memoir about leaving Hasidic life first came out, it was held up as a banner in a number of secret online groups of Hasidic rebels. I am a Texan who joined the Hasidim as an idealistic teen and a lesbian, but no matter—some among them saw in my book something of themselves. Most of them had grown up in schools that denied them secular knowledge yet claimed to be accredited and drew government funds. They could be barely literate, and as culturally ignorant as a new immigrant. The group is sadly marked with addiction, depression, suicide. They share information, hold successes up and cheer one another—who learned to read, who got into college, who got to see their children. 

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April 17, 2018 by

Clues to Making Change

  • Listen when people talk about their experiences. Believe them.
  • Use the power of the bima. Make your dvar torah/newsletter/sermon about #MeToo, sexual harassment, supporting women. “Is it sad to me that women have to use men’s voices to promote their own? Yes, but that’s going to be effective,” said Rabbi Rachel Ain of New York’s Sutton Place Synagogue, during the webinar “#MeToo From the Pulpit: A Rabbi’s Role in Creating Safe, Respectful Synagogue Communities.”
  • Talk about—and model—proper behavior. “We need to openly talk about gender dynamics on the bima, in newsletters and in board meetings,” said Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu. “Comments about a woman rabbi’s body and clothing are never appropriate. Rabbis on the bima or officiating at a lifecycle event are not there to be objectified. They are there to do their job and offhand comments like these, though they are often meant as compliments, only serve to undermine the stature of the rabbi. It causes women to feel diminished.”
  • Find and use liturgy that emphasizes the sacredness of speaking out. “We need to look at how our tradition perpetuates imbalances of power,” said Rabbi Mira Beth Wasserman of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, a panelist at “Revealing #MeToo As #WeToo in Jewish Communal Life.” “We don’t talk about the language of upstanding and rebuke that exists in the text. People need to hear their rabbis talking about speaking out.”
  • Use money to make change. Don’t ask people to do the work of change for free, said Wasserman. All Jewish organizations should also be investing in sexual harassment trainings, as well as follow-up, and, Wasserman suggested, creating a fund to support those who are pursuing cases against their abusers.
  • Place affected people at the center of change-making. “It’s those who have experienced sexual harassment and abuse who should be deciding how resources get allocated,” said Shifra Bronznick, founder of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, at the “WeToo” event. 

— C.D.

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