On Thursday night, two Israeli scholars presented their research and two members of the Brandeis community shared their perspectives on American and Israeli Jewish feminism at an event hosted by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. The event, “Jewish Women and Religious Change in Israel and the United States: Divergence and Dialogue,” was followed by a panel discussion with the audience. 

Dr. Moria Ran Ben Hai, the HBI scholar-in-residence, spoke about the role of social media in Jewish feminism in Israel. She focused on two Facebook groups, one intended as a nondenominational safe space for Israeli Jewish feminists and one which focused on feminism within the requirements of halachah, which is Hebrew for religious law. According to a survey conducted in the first Facebook group, Jewish feminists identified the right to divorce and an expansion of women’s roles in religious leadership among the areas where they most sought improvement. Ben Hai quoted Deborah Arushes, the founder of the nondenominational group, who said that one benefit of Facebook is that it can connect women who may not otherwise be able to share their ideas and experiences. “You don’t have to go out, find a babysitter, study, do a Ph.D., travel far to ... influence reality,” Arushes said.  

Ben Hai also spoke about two Orthodox women who broke gender boundaries in Israel. In 1975, Alice Shalvi became principal of a girls’ religious high school and appointed a woman to teach Talmud, leading some parents to threaten to take their children out of the school. In 1986, Ben Hai continued, Lea Shakdiel was elected to the religious council in her town, a move that the Israeli government opposed but was ultimately upheld by the Israeli Supreme Court. 

Dr. Einat Libel-Hass, a post-doctoral fellow in Sociology at Bar-Ilan University, spoke about Israeli women in Reform and Conservative groups based on her ethnographic fieldwork conducted primarily at Beit Daniel, a Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv. The Reform movement, which was established in Israel in the 1960s, constitutes a minority of Jewish Israelis. Most are Orthodox, and rituals such as weddings are conducted according to Orthodox tradition. Libel-Hass found that some women, however, who “weren’t satisfied with the female concept of religiosity” as defined by Orthodox Judaism are drawn to Reform synagogues as a space to expand their roles in their congregations and to focus on the work of tikkun olam, or social justice. 

Reform congregations are also popular for converts, especially Filipino women who come to Israel as foreign workers, Libel-Hass said. Additionally, reform groups attract what Libel-Hass calls “religious consumers” who are mostly secular Israelis who want to celebrate major rituals like bar and bat mitzvahs with their families and members of their community. According to Libel-Hass, some of these women use the term “Reform” to describe themselves to make the concept of a non-religious Jew more understandable to others. 

There is also a generational divide among Reform women, Libel-Hass said. The “founding generation,” made up of women between 50 to 70 years old, largely grew up in Orthodox households and turned to Reform in order to be more active in their congregations. Younger women, on the other hand, mostly grew up without religious education and appreciated that being Reform allowed them to be mobile and to move from congregation to congregation, she said. 

Prof. Jonathan Sarna (NEJS) introduced Rabbi Stephanie Sanger-Miller of Brandeis Hillel and Lily Schmidt-Swartz ’20, who shared their views on American Jewish feminism. 

Sanger-Miller noted that religious feminism is sometimes seen as “stepping in” to previously inaccessible spaces and at other times seen as “staking out” new territory. Either way, Sanger-Miller said, the work is “something that is always dynamic and in relationship” to others, even when there are differences of opinion or denomination. 

Schmidt-Swartz spoke about her experience as an Orthodox feminist at Brandeis seeking to enact change within the bounds of halachah, along with her struggles engaging in secular feminist groups where some priorities, such as sexual liberation, are less relevant to her community. 

Ben Hai recently received her Ph.D. in The Land of Israel and Archaeology from Bar-Ilan University. She has also studied at the Bar-Ilan women’s seminary, taught at Pelech High School and currently teaches academic writing at the Open University of Israel, according to the HBI website.

Libel-Hass is an anthropologist and lecturer in Sociology at Ashkelon Academic College. She received her Ph.D. in Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry from Bar-Ilan University, according to her LinkedIn page.  

The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute is an academic center focused on the study of Jews and gender, according to their website. HBI offers residencies, internships, assistantships and research prizes to undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral scholars. 

Editor’s note: Lily Schmidt-Swartz is an Associate editor for the Justice. She did not contribute to or edit this article.