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Girls Just Wanna Be ‘Frum’

Girls Just Wanna Be ‘Frum’

Gary Rosenblatt is The NY Jewish Week's editor at large.

Emily Shapiro Katz says that for young American women studying in Modern Orthodox yeshivot in Israel post-high school, unlike for their male counterparts, “intellectual rigor and religious fervor” don’t really mix. While many of the young men aspire to become proficient in Talmud studies, “many of the girls come to Israel with their ultimate goal to stop wearing pants” and only wear long skirts, observed Shapiro Katz, 31, who was both a student and teacher in several Modern Orthodox yeshivot for American women in Jerusalem.

The primary goal of the Judaic studies teachers was to make the young women more observant, Shapiro Katz told a workshop on “The Year In Israel: Expanding Horizons or Narrowing Scope?” at the JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) conference here Feb. 11. And the students themselves were far more interested in laws pertaining to the trappings of modesty — covering one’s hair when married, skirt lengths, wearing pants, etc. — than in the academic pursuit of Talmud study. More than 40 people attended the session, almost all female and about half high school students, no doubt eager to hear more about a rite of passage that has become increasingly common in Modern Orthodox circles: attending a yeshiva in Israel full-time for a year, and sometimes two, before starting college in the U.S.The phenomenon of young men arriving in Israel and becoming rapidly and intensely observant, known as “flipping out,” has been much discussed in the Orthodox community in recent years, with some students giving up planned spaces in Ivy League colleges for yeshiva life on return to the U.S. But what of the girls?

Shapiro Katz offered a cautionary tale for a Modern Orthodox community that may believe that it has made more progress in terms of gender equality than it actually has. A graduate of Stern College, Shapiro Katz studied at Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Talmud program and later taught at Midreshet Moriah, Machon Gold and several other learning programs for visiting American young women. The teaching experience she described was of young women wanting to be told how to act, particularly from the young rabbis who taught them rather than from the women instructors. The female students “preferred Mussar to Gemara, shmooze to chavruta and psak to debate,” she said, using “yeshiva” terms to describe how students sought the less thorough forms of academic inquiry and were more interested in answers than questions. As for showing more respect for the male teachers who were rabbis, rather than the female instructors of the same age who were addressed by their first names, Shapiro Katz spoke of a “religious/erotic fusion” — with the girls often having innocent “crushes” on the rabbis, who were only a few years older than them, a situation heightened by the fact that the students were separated from boys their own age.

The female students said they wanted more men as teachers, prompting one woman teacher to despair that “these girls only trust male knowledge,” Shapiro Katz recalled.An engaging speaker and careful listener whose presentation conveyed a clear gift for teaching as well as a frustration with the way things are, Shapiro Katz described her six years of personal experience in Israel as a student and later an instructor, and the research she conducted at Hebrew University’s senior educators program on the tensions female faculty members felt between their personal beliefs and what they taught. All of which led her to conclude that “any practices construed as feminist are considered dangerous” in even the most enlightened of Israeli yeshivot for American young women. These schools are considered examples of “women’s progress” in that they are devoted to rigorous Talmud study, as well as other Judaic subjects. But Shapiro Katz asserted that the atmosphere and administrative aspirations of these schools “raise questions” about the compatibility of feminism and Orthodoxy. Shapiro Katz cited, and had the conference workshop participants discuss, a number of direct quotes culled from interviews she conducted with seven female instructors between the ages of 25 and 33 at several women’s yeshivot. All of them expressed the sense that they had no one with whom to discuss issues of inner conflict between teaching both tzniyut, or modesty, and independent thinking, and between religious practice and personal empowerment.

“I never imagined how afraid these girls have been of feminism,” one of the women instructors told Shapiro Katz, adding: “I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that if the girls were to perceive me as a feminist or if I would ever introduce myself as a feminist … many of them would not take my class. I would immediately become pasul (disallowed). I would immediately become disqualified in their eyes as somebody who could possibly take halacha (Jewish law) seriously.”

While some of the women teachers may have worn pants in their private lives or participated in women’s Megillah reading, they said they never discussed such things with their students. Shapiro Katz also noted that being single was a distinct disadvantage for a woman teacher, becoming the object of pity of many of the students who are at an age when they worry about whether they themselves will marry. “At some level they’re thinking,‘I don’t want to be like her,’ even if she is my total role model,” one teacher told Shapiro Katz for her study. Several young women who attended Modern Orthodox study programs in Jerusalem in the last several years took issue with Shapiro Katz’s views, saying perhaps the best known institution in Israel for women’s Talmud study, Midreshet Lindenbaum, was a clear exception, and that several new schools founded recently are catering to more intellectually curious and open-minded students.Emily Steinberger, a student at Columbia University who last year attended Midreshet Lindenbaum, said the students she knew were very serious about their learning and about growing spiritually and that is why they chose the program.

She also said the women faculty members were treated with great respect.“I was in awe of these women who were so learned and so qualified,” she said, adding: “We had as much respect for them” as for their rabbinic counterparts. After four years of teaching in several Israeli programs for American young women, Shapiro Katz, who has since married, returned to the U.S. and is now on the faculty of an adult education program of a large Reform temple in San Francisco.“I’m a pluralist educator now and I feel liberated, but I no longer have influence over the Orthodox world,” she said, which saddens her. “I wear pants so I’m pasul.”What the Orthodox community needs, said Shapiro Katz, is to create new yeshivot in Israel that are “proudly feminist” so that girls will no longer point out that they attend one of the existing yeshivot and then qualify the remark with “but I’m not a feminist,” as she says is common now. “We need places where the teachers can be themselves” and where the students can be themselves. Until parents speak up, primarily through their checkbooks — as in not sending their children to programs that do not espouse their values — the situation will remain as it is, she said.

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