A league of their own

Jerusalem Masorti women get together for an egalitarian day of study.

Some 260 women from all over Israel, ranging in age from 16 to over 80, joined together for the 10th Anniversary National Masorti Women's Study Day, which took place at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem on June 19. Centered on the theme "Our Bodies Ourselves: Jewish Women Explore Wellness," the study day, with 24 classes in Hebrew, English, Spanish and Russian, explored such issues as life-cycle events, pain and wellness, body image, healthy food and the environment, the mikve and taking care of our bodies in Jewish law, as well as hevruta Talmud study on active wellness. This year for the first time, a group of 11 Russian-speaking women came from Kesher, a group founded in the former Soviet Union for Jewish consciousness raising and empowerment of women through the study of Jewish texts, which is now continuing among Russian immigrant women in Israel. The symposium was conceived and organized by the Women's League for Masorti Judaism in joint cooperation with the Schechter Institute, the Masorti Movement in Israel and the Jewish Federations of Orlando and Chicago. Its success has spawned three annual regional women's symposia - in the north, south and center of the country - and women's Rosh Hodesh learning sessions in many Masorti congregations around the country. From its inception in 2000, the day has been organized by Jerusalemite Diane Friedgut, who made aliya from Massachusetts in 1983 with her husband and five children, and has been a liaison to the Women's League for the past 16 years. For Friedgut, the symposium has literally become part of her family. For years now, three generations of Friedgut women - she, her daughters and granddaughters - have all been actively involved in the planning of the day, as well as participating in the classes and discussions. The day opened with Shaharit (morning prayers) on the Schechter lawn. Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelboim reminded the women that just as Mount Sinai was an internal, personal revelation experienced by the people of Israel as one, so is the Masorti Women's Study Day, where all remarks are translated into all the languages so all can experience them alike. To emphasize the common language theme, Rabbi Judith Edelman-Green led a rendition of the song "Oseh Shalom," accompanied by sign language. Prof. Alice Shalvi, former rector and president of the Schechter Institute and now chairperson of its executive board, who is also one of the symposium organizers, delivered opening remarks. The 83-year-old Shalvi, who was once principal of the Pelech School in Jerusalem (a progressive high school for religious girls) and was one of the founders of the Israel Women's Network (the country's major advocacy group on women's issues), also drew upon the revelation at Sinai. "When the children of Sarah were about to receive the Torah, they declared: 'We shall do and obey' - a strange order of words, since normally one has to hear the command before performing it. But there are some actions that we must perform before we learn the logic behind them, and this is the case with our health," she said. After prayers, the participants broke up into groups to attend the various classes. In Jerusalem attended the class on "The Mikve for the Modern Woman." Led by Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz, author the book Taking the Plunge, the class had an overflow group of some 40 women, ranging from brides-to-be to grandmothers. Some of the women had never even seen a mikve, and some were regular users. Some came with negative attitudes, seeing the mikve as a way to oppress and control women, while others saw it as a beautiful release and a protection for women. "It is possible to see the mikve in many different ways, and each person has to find her own meaning," Berkowitz stated. "The novelty of the Conservative Movement is the new language used about the mikve. No longer purity and impurity but holiness. Not taharat hamishpaha (family purity) but kedushat hamishpaha (family holiness). I personally find the mikve a total sensory experience of transformation, renewal and hope," she said. The success of the women's symposia has given rise to complaints from men as to why they are excluded. And it has given rise to the question Is a woman's study day still relevant in the age of egalitarianism and in an egalitarian movement? Shalvi believes it is. "The rationale for this day lies in the old Jewish tradition of exclusion of women from Torah study," she explains. This led to an assumption that women do not need Torah study. But since the advent of women's liberation and feminism, women have sought equality, and Jewish women have sought this in Jewish studies," she says. "Even today, many women feel that they are not as knowledgeable as men and are reluctant to study with men," Shalvi continues. "Studying with other women is reassuring. Also, over the years I have found that when men are present, women tend not to speak out. So there is still inequality in self-perception and self-confidence between men and women. And with respect to this year's topic, which concerns issues related to the body that are specific to women, they just feel much more comfortable discussing these things without men." Shalvi adds that having the symposium only for women gives them the chance to be taught by women teachers who can serve as role models. "It is very important for the self-image of women to see that women have reached such high levels of knowledge." For Friedgut, it is because "women share a lot of things because of their gender. This day is a chance to delve into the texts with other women and be enlightened about how our heritage looks at women, while sharing our own experiences as women. The classes provide an opportunity to express inner feelings that could not be expressed in a mixed group. Being with women changes the dynamics of the discussions. In addition, the day has a special aura. Women look forward to it all year. It has brought me close to hundreds of women from all over the country. I feel that we are creating a sense of community through the Jewish study," she says. Friedgut also points to the exciting range of languages. "We have had these four languages from day one. We felt that immigrant women want to study on a high level in their own language. They want to feel a part of Am Yisrael. There are Russian women who come who do not know a word of Hebrew. But they appreciate the fact that they are participating in a day for all Israeli women and not one created only for them. They come up and kiss my hand. They are so grateful to be able to be here," she says. And what do participants think? Elisheva Lahav is a member of the Masorti Congregation Ramat Zion in French Hill. "This is my second time attending the study day. I came last year after having debated for years whether to attend. I am not a traditional feminist, and I thought this would not be for me. But I was very pleasantly surprised. Many of the topics would not be of interest to my husband or many other men. But I found them very interesting. Now I plan to come as often as possible." Ayelet Kon, 24, from Ginot Shomron, is one of Friedgut's granddaughters and has been helping her grandmother from the start in organizing the study days. "What is nice is that there are so many young women involved. Even in a situation of equality and egalitarianism, we have to give women space. It always gives me goosebumps to be with the women at these study days and to see what they can create when given the freedom to do so."