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How social media is liberating religious women

Women should be seen and heard, argues Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll

    Judge Rachel
    Judge Rachel "Ruchie" Freier, the first Chasidic Jewish woman to be elected as a civil court judge in New York State, and first Chasidic woman to serve in public office in the US (Jrathkopf, via Wikimedia Commons)

    I work on my laptop. It’s my office. My kids might say it’s my life, and last month, when it stopped working, it certainly felt like an emergency. As I work, it sits on the table beside the mail that has piled up; the paperwork that is in various stages of being ignored; and a local circular that I normally don’t allow into my home.

    Like nearly all local publications in my hometown, this one doesn’t print images of women (hence the ban). Every once in a while, though, this policy leads to a level of ridiculousness that begs to be shared. This time, it is an advert for free gynaecology emergency services… with an image of a boy holding a teddy bear. (If I couldn’t see the humour in this, the insanity of it would make me crazy.)

    My laptop fixed, I’m back online, which means back on social media — my other office. My Facebook feed provides a stark — and welcome — contrast to the circulars of the neighbourhood. There, religious women are anything but erased. In fact, they use social media to express themselves; unfettered, uncensored — and it’s fantastic.

    There is the new Facebook group of religious women who have started a grassroots effort to “put the women back in” religious publications. Their letters and articles are appearing at a furious pace in various papers and blogs. One by one, they express their dismay and pain at the absence of women like them in publications geared to them. They have come out in force, so to speak, to ask publications to alter their policies. The mini victories they see in response to their campaign keep them going strong.

    There is a gorgeous interview with Ilana Kurshan, who studied the Daf Yomi — a daily double-sided page (folio) of Talmud, for seven and a half years — and wrote a memoir on how her studies intertwined with her life. She became one with the talmudic lessons, seeing them everywhere and applying them to being a Jew and a mother in the modern era.

    I’m noticing more and more YouTube and Facebook-Live videos of women talking Torah. In these videos, they discuss the weekly Torah portion or Jewish ideas they’ve encountered, and present their thoughts to anyone who wants to hear them. People are listening.

    Also going round is a video of two women singing a popular song created from the Selichot prayers that Jews say in the time leading up to the High Holy Days. One held an infant while the other played the keyboard, as they sang and swayed, imbuing the new tune with their passion for the ancient words.

    There is Ruchie Frier, the first Chasidic Jewish woman elected as a civil court judge in New York State, who uses her position of power to call out the ills in her community, especially the horrible practice of denying girls a school, which she claims leads directly to their suicides as a result of the rejection (70 in less than a year by her count).

    There are Facebook forums, where women and men debate fundamental concepts of Judaism, and those where people come together and collaborate for change.

    There are the Jewish women of Instagram, who use the visual medium to sell products, services, style, or ideas, who raise children while building businesses and others who use their feeds to highlight Jewish women past and present as a way of directly countering the growing censorship they see.

    It’s a strange dichotomy for me. And I find myself in the middle. I live in a place where women are increasingly censored, yet I work in world where their presence is expanding.

    Social media has created an entirely new world with a tremendous reach where one can influence conversations and perceptions, challenge conventional wisdom and question traditional narratives. It enables those whose voices are rarely heard to gain an audience and find others who share similar needs or values with whom to collaborate.

    The circular is now off to be recycled for a higher purpose and the pixels on my screen glow as bright as ever — a thousand shekel repair later. Going into a new year, I pray that this is a metaphor of things to come, that the practice of hiding, censoring, and shaming will be tossed aside in favour of images, wisdom and insights of religious women who slip past barriers to be brightly seen and heard. May it be so.

    Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is a writer and activist

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