Monday, November 3, 2014

Kiruv above the neck

I have said this many times before--I rarely buy services magazines published under Orthodox auspices unless there's an article of interest to me.  Kiruv articles qualify, and so I actually plunked down some coin on a copy of last week's Mishpacha Magazine.  Not only was there an article on the roaring success of the Shabbos Project, but there was also a roundtable discussion on the success of kiruv.  According to the article, more Jews than ever were learning about the wonder and beauty of Torah observance through lectures, open Shabboses, and of course, the campus Chabad.  (In my day, the campus Chabad was a home for ex-frat boys who wanted cheap rent and plenty of booze.  Slap on a kippah, grow a beard, change your name to Menachem and you're good to go.)  There are plenty of people with a need, and it's easy to believe that Orthodoxy will fill that need.
However, booze, cholent and divrei Torah will only take you so far.  Getting people in the door is relatively easy.  Keeping them in the fold, however, is far more difficult.  As the article stated outright, about 150,000 Orthodox Jews are baalei teshuvah.  However, there are about 330,000 adults who were born into Orthodox families but are no longer observant.  In other words, for every person you bring in, two have left.  And that doesn't include the former BTs who bail.
So what's the problem?  If the Torah is so profound, why do our own children bail?  As Pirkei Avos states, "Any love dependent on a specific cause dies with the cause."  Let's face it--being Torah observant is capital-H HARD!  The lifestyle is expensive, the dress code both restrictive and conspicuous, and there are rules about everything from light switches on Saturday to music in the summer.  Once the bloom is off the rose, what keeps someone from saying, "See ya"?  You have to get above the neck.  And there's more to that than Midrash and Gematria.
Remember those "needs" I mentioned?  Well, if our community doesn't meet them, then the motivation to stay wears a bit thin.  Someone sold on those beautiful families around the Shabbos table may grow discouraged after years of sitting single (or being trapped with an abuser who lays tefillin every morning before coming home to scream at his wife).  If you want to emphasize community, then genuine inclusion is a necessity.  There can be no talk of "bad influences" as the BT and his or her children are rejected from schools and excluded from playdates.  For me, it was hearing that Torah study makes you a more moral person.  If we want to say that and mean it, then we have to let the Torah get above our own necks.  It must be more than skirt lengths, velvet kippot, and four hechsherim on your cookies.  We cannot condone any act of abuse, theft, or dishonesty, ever.
(To be continued...)

Monday, July 7, 2014

On the Hobby Lobby decision, contraception, and personal responsibility

OK, I really wanted to weigh in on this earlier, but life has prevented blogging!  I have moved out of Builder's house!  (Happy dance, happy dance.)
This Hobby Lobby case has raised strong opinions, and since I have friends who range from very liberal to very conservative, I have heard them all.  I also caught what Justice Ginsberg had to say in her dissent, and I happen to agree.  Supreme Court decisions have had far-reaching consequences, and when they have curtailed individual rights in favor of some other cause (see Dred Scott or Korematsu--which are now taught as examples of the Supreme Court being on the wrong side of history, and proof of a more bigoted time), they usually are overturned by a more enlightened court, or never brought up outside of a college-level constitutional law class.
Now, here's the thing.  CONTRACEPTION IS NOT ABORTION!  Contra comes from the Latin for "against."  Meaning, that contraceptives prevent pregnancy.  Contraceptives by their very nature cannot cause abortion because the woman using the device was never pregnant.  If you're not pregnant, you don't have an abortion.  End of story.  (Any comments which refer to abortion will be deleted.)
Now, let's discuss personal responsibility.
Once we get past the issue of "but, but--think of all the poor baybeez you're killing" (see what I said above--if you use a contraceptive device, you did not create a baby, therefore you did not terminate one), the next comment is "women should take responsibility for their actions."  Loosely translated--if you dumb sluts would just keep your legs closed, you wouldn't have to worry about pregnancy.  (the thought process of the Rush Limbaughs of the world.)
Let's deconstruct this, shall we?
How many contraceptive users are married?  Should married couples completely abstain from sex until the wife reaches menopause?  How many men would agree to that?  What happens if a married couple can't get access to birth control?
I'll tell you what happens.  Journey with me to the hamlet of Kiryas Joel, in upstate New York.  Kiryas Joel is a Satmar Hasidic enclave.  Birth control is unheard of, and most couples who marry are too young to drink at their own weddings.  That translates to a lot of fertile years, and a lot of children.  Kiryas Joel is number one in the country for two demographics--it has the most children per capita of any town in the US.  And it has the most residents per capita living below the poverty line.  So, who supports all these precious little babies?  Why, you and I do, of course!  These "responsible" citizens may not use birth control, but they sure don't have a problem with collecting welfare.
So, where's the responsibility?  All these couples are very religious and very married.  Holding hands out of wedlock, much less sex out of wedlock, is unheard of.  So, by most measures, they are "responsible."  However, they have more children than they can afford, which to me is very irresponsible.  An IUD is about $400 and lasts ten years, assuming it's not rejected.  Try even getting halfway through a single pregnancy on $400.  Can't be done.
Now let's consider a Hobby Lobby employee making $8/hour.  If she and her husband have a child they can't afford, they have to go on welfare (I guarantee you she has no job protection if she takes maternity leave).  Isn't that more "irresponsible" than implanting an IUD?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A partner in hope

This is the story of a young woman with no family.  A naive girl, duped into marriage to an older man.  A young woman who endured years of abuse, then fled with her children.  To this day, she is embroiled in a custody fight, her husband menaces her, and she is just trying to obtain her Get.
No, it's not my story.  The young woman in question is fellow Brooklyn resident Rivky Stein.

Her story resonates with me, and also gives me hope.  Her Facebook page has close to 8,000 "Likes," and she's gotten a great deal of support from both anonymous donors and ORA.  
But as hopeful as I am, her story also makes me sad.  For all her supporters, there are many voices online (and perhaps in person) who would rather silence her.  Those who call her "unstable" or "crazy", or those who claim that she is playing the domestic violence card to win in court.  (Just read the comments.)  Those who claim her husband is a sweet, charming man who has been blindsided by a drama queen looking for a payoff.  
Let me say this: Having gone through a similar experience, I believe her.  Both the video and the documents she posted to her page make her husband sound like a more extreme version of Builder.  Moreover, since she was not legally married to Yoel Weiss, she can not put in any claims against his property or assets.  In other words, she gains nothing by lying.  She got an order of protection, which in Kings County is all but impossible.  That alone adds weight to her allegations.  
Rivky, this is for you.  You are in my thoughts and prayers, and I hope you receive your Get soon.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

School's Out! Some thoughts on the year of yeshiva.

For the past year, against my wishes, the Things have been at Small Modox Girls School.  Court-ordered attendance.  True, I could have kept on homeschooling them had I stayed with Builder.  But that would have meant putting up with his abuse.  And he probably would have forced them into school anyway.
To my mind, school serves two purposes--keeping kids safe while their parents work (I'm still looking for a job), and giving them an education.  Let's see how they did on those two areas.
Safety: Here I would have to give the school a very low mark.  The building they were in is old and decrepit, and has some issues.  During Thing 1's siddur play, there was no heat in the auditorium--in January.  During one of the coldest winters I've ever experienced.  It was so cold that we all had to keep our coats on.  Additionally, their school bus managed to lose Thing 1 twice--once when she was with her little sister.  I couldn't reach the school and wound up calling the police.  They almost called in an Amber Alert when a neighbor found the girls.  Since that day, I have not trusted the afternoon bus, and pick up the girls myself.  I was also less than impressed with their attitude towards Builder.  Despite the fact that we have a standing custody order and visitation schedule, Builder was free to "visit" the girls on campus whenever he wanted.  He also took Thing 2 out of school one day, and no one notified me.  I found out from Thing 2.  At the beginning of the year, I informed the menahel and the preschool director that I had an order of protection against Builder.  They ignored me.  ACS also got on their case about the "visits," but the school allowed them to continue.
Education: Here, I'm not sure if I can give a fair assessment, since the school made both girls repeat.  (Thing 1 needed work on her Hebrew, and there was no space in Thing 2's grade.)  I'm not really sure that Thing 2 learned anything, but I'll give them a pass--it is preschool, after all.  Thing 1 was really more of the evidence.  Her writing and spelling improved, so I will give them that.  (This may have come down to a difference in philosophy.  I don't believe in encouraging independent writing for kids who can barely read--they have to rely on phonetic spelling and get into sloppy habits.  Thing 1 did copywork with me, but no spelling tests or anything.)  Her mathematical ability not only stagnated, but regressed.  The work she was bringing home for math was the sort she did two years before she started.  Thing 1 informed me that she did not do math every day in class.  For reading, the school seemed to rely heavily on memorization and whole language--despite the fact that whole language techniques have been discredited.  Thing 1 also told me that one of her teachers could not spell "Wednesday," and had to look it up.  Not surprisingly, the school has lost its accreditation with the Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges (it ran out in 2011, and as of the website, has not been renewed.)
As for the Hebrew, I had two main issues.  Thing 1's reading and vocabulary are not much better than they were at the beginning of the year (so, why did she repeat?), and all the homework assumes that the parents are proficient enough in Hebrew.  The materials I used when homeschooling at least allowed translation.  While I understand that immersion is the way to go, what do I do when I'm faced with a worksheet written entirely in Hebrew script that I have to interpret so Thing 1 can complete it?  So far, I'm still in the range of my limited ability, but what happens when I'm faced with a page of Rashi?  At the end of the year, Thing 1 brought home all her workbooks.  Most of her English workbooks were two-thirds empty.  One of her Hebrew workbooks had another child's name written on it.  Thing 1 told us that the books had been distributed when she was out sick, and she never received her own.  She had to share with another student.  I can understand these shortages in an underfunded public school where there are 40 kids to a class and there aren't even enough desks for everyone (I attended such a school for a year), but in a $10,000-per-year-per-child private school?  The least they can supply is TEXTBOOKS!
My final issue is summer homework.  What sadist thought this up?  Summer is supposed to be a time to decompress after a year of school.  However, on top of attending camp (again, court-ordered), Thing 1 has to complete packets of worksheets in English, math and Hebrew, play a computer game that locked her out within hours of the end of school, keep a journal, and write five "reader responses" to ten books.  I understand the reading and the journal.  However, most of the worksheets amount to raw busywork.  Thing 1 can complete three of them in about 30 seconds.  Also, most kids either do them at the beginning of the summer just to get them over with, or in the last week or two before school starts because they've been putting them off.  This means the effect on "summer brain drain" is negligible.  It makes the school look more rigorous than it is.
Bottom line--I wasn't that impressed with yeshiva education going in.  After a year of experiencing it, I'm even less so.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Feminism--A short history

Recently, the Yeshivat Maharat graduated its latest class.  Congratulations to the graduates.  Semicha, whether or not one receives the title of "rabbi," is a challenge and requires a great deal of study and hard work.  I know these women will be an asset to the Jewish community as a whole.
And, of course, we now have to deal with opinions.
Rabbi Harry Maryles is against the whole business of ordaining women.  I'm not sure what "serara" means, or why it's a problem that a woman rabbi will be on the other side of the mechitza from him.  (My rabbi is always on the other side of the mechitza from me--live with it!)  However, he stated that all this ordaining women "nonsense" stems from feminism, a movement that should be discounted because it dates back only to the 1970s, unlike the longstanding traditions of Judaism.  OK, history buff hackles officially raised.
I'm not about to get into a cyber shouting match with the man.  However, I will use a tool that I used with my own kids--a timeline.  This will show that not only does feminism date back quite a while, but that women's interests have been used and misused to meet other goals in society.

1791 (those numbers are not transposed--I mean the 18th century): Mary Wollstonecraft publishes the Declaration of the Rights of Women in France.

1848: Seneca Falls conference on women's suffrage in New York, USA

1851: At the Women's Convention in Akron, OH, USA, Sojourner Truth delivers her "Ain't I a Woman" speech, arguing that women are not always treated like ladies, can handle the same work as men, and deserve the right to vote.

1869: In an attempt to entice female pioneers, Wyoming becomes the first United States territory to offer women the right to vote

1878: Amendment introduced to grant women suffrage in the United States (failed)

1890s: Women's Christian Temperance Movement aligns with suffrage movement; liquor interests attempt to keep women's suffrage quashed.

1902: The newly formed Commonwealth of Australia grants suffrage to non-aboriginal women.

1909: The Uprising of the Twenty Thousand, the largest labor strike in history, shuts down garment manufacturing in New York City for about a year.  Local suffragists tried to invade the labor movement, then abandoned it when their Republican interests clashed with that of the laborers.

1917: In an effort to keep girls from leaving Judaism, seamstress Sarah Schnirer opens the first Bais Yaakov girls' school.  The schools, which taught Judaism and halacha, would become key institutions in the Orthodox Jewish world.

1919: 18th Amendment passes, beginning Prohibition.  Temperance laws are now longer an issue.

1920: The 19th Amendment passes in the United States by one vote, granting suffrage to all Caucasian women.  (Women of color still had to deal with anti-suffrage laws based in racism).

1941-1945: During World War II, American women are encouraged to perform men's jobs in factories, then relinquish those jobs to returning veterans.

1949: Simone de Beauvoir publishes The Second Sex, considered the manifesto of Second Wave feminism.

1953: First issue of Playboy magazine, famous for its centerfolds of scantily-clad women, is published.

1963: Betty Friedan publishes The Feminine Mystique.  It describes "the problem with no name," as a number of college-educated women had been discouraged from working and encouraged to be homemakers in the suburbs.

1964: Title VII barred discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of gender or race.

1968: Protesters gathered at the Miss America pageant.  Although no bras were burnt, several items of lingerie were discarded in a "Freedom Trashcan."  The event, however, gave rise to the term "bra-burning."

1973: Roe vs. Wade states that laws banning abortion interfere with the physician's right to privacy.  However, laws regulating abortion are still permitted and enforced.

1979: Equal Rights amendment fails.

1985: Tracey Thurman successfully sued the city of Torrington, CT, for failure to offer equal protection under the 14th Amendment.  Her estranged husband, Charles "Buck" Thurman ndearly beat her to death while the local police watched and did nothing.

1991: South Carolina became the last US state to make marital rape illegal.  However, it is still damn near impossible to enforce existing laws

2009: Sara Hurwitz becomes the first woman ordained as an Orthodox Maharat.  The next year, the title would be changed to "Rabba," making her the first woman t receive semicha.

2010: "No-fault divorce" is the law in all 50 states.

Feminism is not new, not restricted to the 1970s, and not superfluous.  It affects Judaism just as any trend in the wider culture does.  Hopefully Orthodoxy will be big enough to offer these ladies a seat at the table, as well as those who may follow.

Monday, May 12, 2014

My experience with white privilege

For the past twelve weeks, I have been a student in a job-training program for women.  Graduation day is looming, and I'm going to miss it.
However, I think that I come off as a bit of a shill.  White, Jewish, under 40, native-born, and college-educated, I have to admit that I'm one of the few in the class to hit all those markers.  However, this doesn't bother me in the slightest.  When I was a kid, I went to school in Baldwin Hills.  For those readers unfamiliar with Los Angeles, Baldwin Hills is an upper-middle-class neighborhood in LA.  An upper-middle-class black neighborhood.  I was the poor white kid from the broken home with the crazy, alcoholic father, and most of my classmates were black kids with intact families whose parents were professionals and drove BMWs.  (It was the 80s--decade  of greed and status symbols.)  It was like living in the movie White Man's Burden.  Naturally, given the demographic of the school, we learned a lot more than the usual Martin Luther King and George Washington Carver and Civil Rights Movement during Black History Month.  In fact, it took me years to realize that suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony was Caucasian.
Fast forward to today.  I consider myself fairly colorblind, with the upbringing I had.  However, there were a couple of instances where I'm not so sure.
First of all, we had to create PowerPoint presentations for businesses we might like to start.  When I put in pictures, I included a rather adorable one of Thing 1 (since my business was a forest kindergarten for city kids, it was relevant).  My classmate saw the presentation, and asked me if the school was only for white people.  I quickly added another picture, this one featuring two black kids.  It hadn't even occurred to me that my classmates might not see themselves or their children in my presentation.
The other was a little more amusing.  We were planning an end-of-course potluck party, and being something of a queen of the deep-fry, I offer up some of my homemade fried chicken.  It's one of my comfort foods, and I've been told that it's quite good by people who are not related to me.  One of my classmates told me, "Now, you know we're all black women, and we'll know good fried chicken.  It had better be good."  I looked around at my cohort.  (We were divided into three cohorts for this program)  These were women I had been in class with for twelve weeks, and the cohort had only a little bit of change.  I realized, after going to class with this group for three months, that I was the only white person in the room!  I hadn't really thought about it.  To me, they were just my classmates, and race had never really been a factor.  But that is also a form of privilege in itself.  To go through life not having to think about race.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Blurring lines

CN: Strong language, references to sex acts
Last summer, a fun little romp of a song was all over the radio.  (I didn't hear it until the fall, since I keep my radio tuned to classic rock.)  The song was by Robin Thicke, T.I., and Pharrell, and was called "Blurred Lines."
Since I only listen to classic rock (on the radio at least--my Spotify playlists can be described as eclectic at a minimum, crossing both genres and centuries), I'm not sure if this song is even still being played.  Between the plagiarized melody and the creepy lyrics, I was happy to hear it a couple of times, roll my eyes, say "Yuck" and move on.
However, this song still has something of a shelf life.  According to this rather patronizing article, this song is still being played and still pissing us off.  Apparently, a campus pub was playing the song, a student complained that it was offensive, and the school took action, barring the song from the pub.  
For those of you who spent 2013 under a rock, here is the video:

For those of you not distracted by bright red hashtags and oversized dice, the message is pretty obvious.  The "blurred line" in question is between consensual and non-consensual sex.  Because any girl who goes to a club and dances with a guy after a drink or two wants to sleep with him.
Some have criticized the reaction as being overblown, including Cathy Young, whose article I linked to above.  But give a listen.  Really give a listen.  Besides "I know you want it," which has almost become a cliché in rape culture, the song talks about "I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two" and "Do it like it hurt."  That sounds degrading on a good day.  But for me, the innocent opening lyrics really frame this.  "If you can't hear what I'm trying to say/...Maybe I'm going deaf."  Yes, you are.  A dance does not equal a proposition.  Even Internet music critic Todd in the Shadows said the song had a "rapey" vibe to it.  All three artists have deflected criticism by saying how much they respect women.  After all, they're married men!  And as we all know, married men never rape women...oh wait a minute.
Now, we do have a First Amendment, and artists should be free to express themselves as they please.  But it takes a discerning audience to distinguish good art from bad.  And I draw a very not blurry line at songs that degrade women, call them "animals"  and think that it's OK to "smack your ass and pull your hair like that."