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When every issue is a battle, it wears you down

Orthodox feminists were hugely shocked last week, when Elana Sztokman, formerly Executive Director of America’s Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, made a momentous decision

    The week of Rosh Hashanah, Elana Sztokman, formerly Executive Director of America’s Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, announced that she was becoming a Reform rabbi.

    While her levels of observance were not changing, she wrote on her blog that the “Reform movement is the only place where I think a woman can truly be free to be a whole person.”

    The advances for women in Orthodoxy were too little, too late for her, she told The Forward newspaper. “Even though I’m so happy that women are becoming rabbis in Orthodoxy, at the same time a maharat [Orthodox clergywoman] cannot count in a minyan — even though she may be more learned than 95 percent of the congregation….”

    Twenty years of “doing battle” had left her “worn out” and “traumatised”.

    On her personal Facebook page, the comments were supportive, including from Orthodox people she had left behind. The most negative comments were from Conservative Jews who were upset she hadn’t chosen to join their denomination.

    But predictably, her decision also attracted some sniping and sneering from online commentators, who relished her move as “proof” that Orthodox feminism was a dangerous slippery slope towards Reform.

    Of course, it is nothing of the kind. Sztokman’s story is nobody’s but her own, and there is movement between and within the denominations in every direction.

    Nevertheless, as an Orthodox feminist, watching a prominent activist like Sztokman switch camps was an emotional experience. It felt like watching a caged bird fly the coop — and part of me was jealous.

    The tiredness that she expressed so eloquently is the same tiredness I feel. In my own way, I too have been fighting for a greater role in the synagogue for over 20 years.

    And let me tell you, when even the smallest issue is an ongoing, uphill battle, it wears you down.

    Every time a rabbi tells you, “Yes, it’s halachically allowed, but no, it’s 10 years too early”… Every time you hear, “Yes, it’s halachically allowed, but my Board won’t let me”… Every time you arrive at shul to discover that the women’s section isn’t open… Every time a shul Board member makes a misogynistic comment… Every time the shul acts like it’s doing you a massive favour on Simchat Torah, because they’ve given women a Torah scroll to dance with… Every time the rabbi says from the pulpit that “every Jew” is commanded to do this or that, when you know full well he only means the men… Every time you have to justify why you want to participate in your own religion… It takes it out of you.

    The irony is that Orthodoxy has moved an enormous distance even in the last five years. I never believed that I’d see Orthodox women clergy in my lifetime. Nowadays women are being ordained, with various titles, both in America and Israel. Megillah readings, Simchat Torah dancing — these are now entrenched. But they still feel like crumbs.

    By comparison, the things I was fighting for as a student, such as the right to deliver a dvar Torah in shul, were very basic. And yet, my faith, my connection to God, my certainty that Orthodoxy was worth fighting for never wavered back then. Perhaps it was easier to compartmentalise when I was younger.

    Sztokman’s answer is not everyone’s answer. It’s not my answer. And yet, to me she is a public symbol of a generation of women who have drifted away from Orthodoxy, or at least the public aspects of it.

    Most of us do not switch denominations, as she did. We remain observant, but opt out of going to shul, opt out of taking up leadership positions, opt out of the religious classes which we once led. We just slowly disappear.

    The problem is, the Orthodox community doesn’t know women like this exist, because they are, by definition, invisible.

    But you can meet them, walking to Shabbat lunch. Ask them where they went to shul that morning, and they’ll just shrug. And I know they’re there, because too many women have told me outright: We keep Kosher, we keep Shabbat, we send our kids to frum schools, but our heart really isn’t in it any more.

    Critics online can sneer all they want at the Elana Sztokmans of this world. But is this really what they want? A generation of nominally Orthodox women who are disengaged, uninspired and apathetic? Because with every silly little fight to keep women marginalised in their own communities, that’s what they’re creating.

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