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The Battle Over Gender and Jewish Life

February 24, 2014 – 10:35 am5 Comments

By Elana Sztokman:

jewish gender2One day several years ago, I walked into my year-7 Jewish Studies class with a shofar in hand. It was a few days before Rosh Hashana and it seemed like a great idea to engage students in the holiday practices by giving them all a chance to hold, feel, and try to blow a shofar on their own. When I walked into the class, however, I was in for a shock. As soon as the shofar got passed to a girl, some of the boys in the class began yelling. “She can’t touch that!” they asserted. “Girls are not allowed to touch a shofar!” It took me a good half of the lesson to reason with them and explain to the class, even though almost all of them are not religious (not even the boys arguing with me) that there is nothing wrong with girls and women touching or holding a shofar.  Since they had never in their lives actually seen a woman blow shofar, they simply assumed that such a thing was expressly forbidden, at all times and under all circumstances. Gender exclusion from Jewish ritual became the assumed correct norm, regardless of their own practice. So what was meant to be a fun and innocuous lesson for the New Year ended up being a battle to help some students unlearn everything they had been taught about gender and Jewish life.

We are all filled with assumptions – conscious or otherwise – about correct gender behavior. Ideas about how women/girls and men/boys are meant to act are transmitted from the earliest of ages. Abundant research over the past 20 years has shown that people talk differently to boys and to girls. We tend to applaud boys for being innovative and adventurous while we praise girls for being sweet, caring and helpful. We abide boys boisterousness under the catch-all motto that “boys will be boys” while we castigate girls for much of the same acts. In schools, these practices are exacerbated. In class, boys are called on more often than girls; boys are given more response time than girls; teachers look at their watches more when girls are talking; boys are allowed to interrupt more, including interrupting the teacher and interrupting girls; boys dominate small group work, science labs, computer rooms, chess clubs, and more.  It’s as if schools unintentionally promote two different models of an ideal graduate, one for boys and one for girls. Certainly no school would ever say that out loud, but we all know the power of the hidden curriculum. Sometimes the unintended messages are the most powerful of all.

These practices have long-term impact on how men and women perceive themselves. They affect career trajectories in STEM(science, technology engineering and maths), as well as how women perceive their own abilities and potential. Research on how we attribute success – when boys succeed we often say they were smart and deserving while when girls succeed we often say that they were lucky or ‘merely’ worked hard – has an impact on how people cope with challenges and failures. Socialized this way, girls who fail will often say, “I’m useless; put me down a class”, while boys who fail will often say, “That must be a mistake; let me try again.” How teachers cope with students’ failures can also have a powerful influence on women’s later choices in life and marriage. When students get answers wrong, for example, teachers will often give boys a chance to try again, while with girls they often tell the girls the correct answer, a practice that creates something called “learned helplessness”, in which people feel powerless to change their own lives. Learned helplessness is a leading factor into why abused women often stay in abusive marriages. The learned helplessness that they acquire in classrooms can teach women that they are powerless to create the lives and relationships that they need and deserve.

Despite the preponderance of research on gender issues in schools, little of this understanding has seeped into Jewish schools. Few if any Jewish schools around the world have conducted professional development programs on these gender issues. There are few if any programs in Jewish schools to encourage girls in STEM subjects, or to encourage boys in dance, art, and developing affect.  This, of course, is a great shame.

There’s more. The gender issues that have plagued the wider educational systems in the Western world are only some of the ways in which gender finds expression in Jewish schools. There are also additional gender issues that are uniquely troubling in Jewish environments. For example, the way Jewish ritual and prayer are transmitted in schools can be particularly gendered. The shofar story is one tiny little example. Consider, for example, how prayer is conducted in schools. From the kinder years and on, many schools have the practice of making boys the leaders and making girls the enablers. Oftentimes boys sing, perform and have voice while girls choose songs and hand out books. This continues through upper school, where boys read from the Torah, organize services, lead and perform. Despite the popularity of tefilla groups around the Jewish world where girls learn to read from the Torah and lead services, many Jewish schools rarely if ever provide girls with regular opportunities to be engaged in this way.  Similarly, practices such as Shabbat are often taught in extremely gendered ways. When my daughter was in prep, the school put on a play about Shabbat in which all the girls cleaned and all the boys went to work – “And then it was Shabbat”, they sang, as if to say that there is no Shabbat unless everyone knows their gender place. When it comes to Judaism, schools once again have two separate messages about what it means to be a good Jew, one message for girls and one message for boys. As if to say, there is a correct Jewish man and a correct Jewish woman, and never the twain shall meet.

My colleague, Dr. Chaya Gorsetman – an education professor at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University in New York City – and I spent a decade researching these issues and collecting a wide range of qualitative and quantitative data on school practices around gender. We conducted surveys, interviews and observations with 173 Jewish educators from around the world. We also analyzed school books, class décor, mission statements, and more. We also explored school policies on issues such as single-sex versus coeducation, dress codes, sex ed, leadership structures, and more. Our work is comprehensive, and very exciting.

The results of all this research, I’m proud to say was published in October by the Hadassah Brandeis Institute, in October. Our book,Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools, just won the National Jewish Book Council Award in Education and Identity. That tells us that we are on to something.

If you are a parent, educator, student, former student, or simply an engaged and interested member of the Jewish community, I encourage you to continue this conversation about gender. I believe it is one of the most important topics facing our generation, and demands our attention.

Dr Elana Maryles Sztokman is a leading feminist writer, thinker and activist. The former Executive Director of JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance), she is the author of the award-winning book The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World (Hadassah Brandeis Institute, 2012), and co-author, with Dr Chaya Gorsetman of the award-winning book,Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools (Hadassah Brandeis Institute, 2013).

 

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5 Comments »

  • Mandi Katz says:

    I like this piece but I am frustrated by the lack of acknowledgement of a Jewish world beyond Orthodoxy.

    Of course the Orthodox world has to navigate its own way on its own terms and rules, but on gender issues it can learn from progressive Judaism where the cultural norms are very different.

    I wold be interested if the author’s study also looked at progressive or cross communal Jewish schools and whether the outcomes were the same there.

  • Elana says:

    Mandi —

    I appreciate your comment and the work that non-Orthodox communities do on gender. Our research is about Orthodox schools, and that is a conversation that has value in and of itself. I addressed the reasons why in a recent column at the Forward http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/192955/orthodox-feminists-are-not-conservatives-in-disgui/? I would also add that we have been getting feedback from non-Orthodox educators who say that their schools have not resolved all the gender problems either….

    best,
    elana

  • Kim Meltzer says:

    “Girls are not allowed to touch a shofar!” It took me a good half of the lesson to reason with them and explain to the class, even though almost all of them are not religious (not even the boys arguing with me) : It’s definitely true that people who know the least are the most strident in their approach to halachah. However, lack of knowledge is something that nettles like a burr, and generally men and women would like to learn more. Sometimes they can’t because of the pressures of their life in other realms; such as childcare and work, etc.
    Abundant research over the past 20 years has shown that people talk differently to boys and to girls. With boys we are patient, and accept antics (if apparent) patiently while we wait for them to behave appropriately. With girls, we take sitting (if they are) for granted, and constantly comment on their clothing. Girls are generally not chosen to speak, and if they are, and don’t have the answer at the forefront, they lose their chance. Boys are generally given much more time to think, make jokes, and still get more time to talk.

    We tend to applaud boys for being innovative and adventurous while we praise girls for being sweet, caring and helpful. We abide boys boisterousness under the catch-all motto that “boys will be boys” while we castigate girls for much of the same acts. This is true, some adults believe they that girls are supposed to be “beyond childhood”, and act as mini-teachers and mothers to the full extent of that responsibility. Some girls naturally like this kind of behavior, and desire to act in that role. Indeed, historically, as children play, some (boys and girls) act as part-time child-minders out of their own volition, and enjoy this activity. I know of little boys who enjoy getting toddlers and a bit older going in a game of tag, or hide-and-seek, and enjoy the younger children. This is their activity, and not one put upon them.

    Boys are given more response time than girls (love this) ; teachers look at their watches more when girls are talking (they can’t stand waiting for a girl to think perhaps in their mind, the girl is thinking on-task, anyway, and they should move on to a boy who will have something more interesting to say); boys are allowed to interrupt more, including interrupting the teacher and interrupting girls” This is such an interesting phenomenon. If a girl interrupts, she is being defiant and provocative. She is not trying to brainstorm and be a part of the class, but rather she is calling attention to herself to get “sexual attention” perhaps.” ; boys dominate small group work (yes, so true. Girls in a mixed group depending on her nature, will tend to be overlooked and given the hated job of secretary (my handwriting is terrible so you do it.” say the boys), science labs, computer rooms, chess clubs, and more. “good point”

     It’s as if schools unintentionally promote two different models of an ideal graduate, one for boys and one for girls. Certainly no school would ever say that out loud, but we all know the power of the hidden curriculum. Sometimes the unintended messages are the most powerful of all. !!!!! Good point.

    – “when boys succeed we often say they were smart and deserving while when girls succeed we often say that they were lucky or ‘merely’ worked hard – has an impact on how people cope with challenges and failures”. This is a great paper.

    “When students get answers wrong, for example, teachers will often give boys a chance to try again, while with girls they often tell the girls the correct answer, a practice that creates something called “learned helplessness”, in which people feel powerless to change their own lives. Learned helplessness is a leading factor into why abused women often stay in abusive marriages. The learned helplessness that they acquire in classrooms can teach women that they are powerless to create the lives and relationships that they need and deserve.” This is so true.

    For example, the way Jewish ritual and prayer are transmitted in schools can be particularly gendered.

    have the practice of making boys the leaders and making girls the enablers. Oftentimes boys sing, perform and have voice while girls choose songs and hand out books. This continues through upper school, where boys read from the Torah, organize services, lead and perform. Despite the popularity of groups around the Jewish world where girls learn to read from the Torah and lead services, many Jewish schools rarely if ever provide girls with regular opportunities to be engaged in this way.
    the school put on a play about Shabbat in which all the girls cleaned and all the boys went to work – “And then it was Shabbat”, they sang, as if to say that there is no Shabbat unless everyone knows their gender place.
    Definitely this needs to be changed in order for Judaism to thrive and become a stronghold for up and coming Jews, rather than some estranged cousin of a religion.

  • Joe in Australia says:

    This sort of thing isn’t a problem at single-gender schools, although I suppose they may have problems of their own.

  • Kim says:

    Imagine a group of people moving a piano. They need to have a plan, they need to decide on a route, they need to think about the width of doors, and the angle of the tilt. There are so many factors to getting that piano into that truck–so many mini-discussions with all the men. Communication is paramount, and so is compromise and agreement. They cannot do this job without working as a team. Child-rearing is like this as well. Ultimately the parents have the final say, but generally they are living within a community of some sort, with people who have some similarities. Everyone has to utilize the resources given to them to patch together some kind of plan. When a divorce is in the picture, this becomes even more difficult then before, as parents have more to overcome to agree, and some use the children’s education or whatever as revenge against the other parent. This is another issue, but there are a lot of parents out there who have this issue. “I wanted to send A to girl school, but her Dad won’t hear of it.” etc.
    or put in whatever issue.

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