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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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