With the nation riveted to the political turmoil in Washington, Jewish women at a conference in Woodbury were told that the Jewish community’s clout depended on their involvement on the political stage.
"Political activism is necessary for the preservation of Jewish freedoms and institutions, and for the safety and security of Israel," said Betty Ehrenberg, executive director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs. "Jews have reached a point of privilege in society because they have fought in the political arena and made their voices heard."
Speaking this month to more than 400 participants at the fifth annual Long Island Jewish Women’s Forum at the Woodbury Jewish Center, Ehrenberg lamented the poor voting record of young people.
"They are not as faithful about voting or even registering to vote," she said. "Several years ago the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York did a study that revealed 50 percent of Jews under 35 were not registered to vote. … If you don’t vote, elected officials do not care what you think."
Ehrenberg said the Jewish community cannot rest on its laurels.
"Israel’s security needs are still great and many urgent issues still face us: an increase of anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union, the Iranian rush to develop nuclear weaponry and the role Russia is playing in it. All of this is reason for the Jewish community to remain vigilant and politically involved," she said.
The conference each year attracts women from all branches of Judaism, something that Mimi Mehlman, rebbetzin of the Lido Beach Synagogue, said she found impressive.
"It’s amazing to see 400 women from different religious backgrounds who have come together to learn," she said.
Among those in attendance was Marion Lande, a dental hygienist from Roslyn, who said she took the day off to attend the event with members of her Hadassah chapter.
"I’ve come to all five conferences," she said. "It’s a great way for Jewish women to get together. It gets your mind expanded."
Sylvia Herman of Long Beach said she closed her retail store, Gem Mill Inc., in the diamond district of Manhattan, to join other members of Jewish Women International.
"This is one of the busiest [shopping] days of the year, but I’m here," she said. "I think this forum is of major importance to Long Island. We come together as one people and we respect each other."
Among those who conducted workshops at the conference was Sylvia Barack Fishman, who discussed an analysis she conducted of how Jewish women are portrayed on the screen, its impact on viewers and ways to promote a healthier diversity of images.
Fishman, assistant professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University, argued that audiences ascribe certain characteristics to Jews based upon what they have seen on television, in films, literature and popular culture.
"Having ‘learned’ that this is what Jews are like, they ‘see’ Jews acting according to these characteristics in real life and the media," she said.
But, Fishman maintained, these portrayals "produce and perpetuate stereotypical perceptions. … The ways in which Jewish women and men are imagined on film echo European anti-Semitic stereotypes."
Fishman discussed from her research a focus group on stereotyping in which some participants suggested that Jews were sometimes philanthropic, while others said they viewed Jews as being "obsessed with money" and insisting that they "always have an angle."
"If Jews are philanthropic, it is because they think they will get something out of it," these participants said.
"This conviction that Jews are stingy has a long ancestry in European anti-Semitic images of the Jews as usurious moneylender, immortalized in the character of Shakespeare’s Shylock," Fishman said.
When Jewish women see such negative stereotypes of themselves, she said, "their self-esteem is damaged. They may reject aspects of their Jewish identity in order to feel good about themselves."
And Jewish men see Jewish women "through the aura of media portrayals. Jewish men may see Jewish women as unappealing because they have learned from the media to interpret Jewish femaleness as unappealing."
In her keynote speech to the conference, which was coordinated by UJA-Federation, Ehrenberg said she would like synagogues to conduct voter registration campaigns. She also suggested that rabbis, synagogue presidents and social action chairmen speak out about the need to vote. In addition, she said synagogues should host their local officials, Congress members and senators.
"I’m always shocked by the number of congressmen and senators who make decisions that affect the survival of Israel who never have never been to the region to see the facts on the ground," Ehrenberg said.
"At the same time," she said, "there are an increasing number of Jewish men and women in Congress and the Senate who provide examples to our children that you can be true to your principles and your Judaism."
Phyllis Finkelstein of Massapequa Park and a member of the National Council of Jewish Women, said she found that those who attended the conferences were "brilliant, very smart women who come to learn about Judaism. I think that’s super."
Another participant, Bobbe Meisner of Massapequa Park, said she found the sessions "stimulating" and those in attendance "educated, intelligent women."
Deborah Gorin of Lido Beach, president of the Tzipora chapter of Hadassah, echoed that view, saying: "It makes me proud to be a Jewish woman and proud of this group."