Friday, May 22, 2009

Jewish Gender Rights

היום שלשה וארבעים יומים שהם ששה שבועות ויום אחד לעמר
Today is the forty-third day of the omer - six weeks and one day
חסד שבמלכת

A day of loving kindness in a week of majesty

I've never considered myself an activist. Yes, there are issues I feel strongly about, but I've always been one who is more likely to compromise in the hope that things will move forward rather than pick a fight that could destroy the foundation of what I'm trying to build. Yet lately, I've found one place where compromise doesn't work for me -- the role of women in Jewish ritual practice.

When I was a girl growing up in the Conservative Movement I didn't have much of a problem with the limited roles I had in Judaism. It wasn't like I was stuck up in the balcony of my synagogue--we didn't even have a mechitzah, a separation of seating between men and women. The truth is that most of the boys I knew didn't participate in services much either--that was left to the adults. All I really wanted was an aliyah, to be called up to the Torah.

I didn't feel the barriers at the many USY--United Synagogue Youth--events I attended. No, I had nothing to do with leading services, but I didn't have those skills anyway. I sang and danced and discussed and argued with everyone--any gender-based ritual differences either went over my head or I just took them for granted. On my USY Israel Pilgrimage trip when I stood up for my right to change out of my skirt into shorts after my Shabbat morning prayers at the Kotel--the Western Wall, it never occured to me to make it a gender issue--how come the boys could wear shorts but not me.

In my adulthood I moved away from much of Jewish religious practice, but still found myself in a male oriented work world. At NBC in the late 1970s/early 1980s, I was one of a handful of women working in the videotape department, and one of an even fewer pool of women who were post-production editors. Actually, the latter group at the time was just two--my friend Dorene and myself. I dealt with a lot of mostly good-natured ribbing even as it was borderline misogynist. For the most part, I took it with a smile and then gave back as good as I got :)

I enter my elder years (gulp/sigh) once again involved in my Jewish practice--the rituals a key component to the spiritual realm I seek. It turns out that much of what I do now, the parts of the practice I'm drawn to, are acts that I had no entry to during the years of my youth based solely on my gender. And I cannot accept anyone telling me these rituals are off limits to me. When I enter as a guest into a community that still follows the customs of separation, I am respectful of their practice. But it pains me to know that the Jewish community that nurtured me as a child--a girl child--has not moved on from that time and does not welcome me in my heart-felt practice as an adult women.

I am lucky to belong to a community the embraces egalitarian principals. I'd like to think that the majority of the Conservatively affiliated synagogues do the same. But it is time for the USCJ to take a stand, to make egalitarianism in Jewish ritual an important part of what defines us as Conservative Jews. Making that stand can only strengthen the movement. Failing to make the stand, I believe, will contribute to the erosion of what was once a pillar of American Judaism.

Very sad......

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