Sexism At Shul

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When one looks at most major world religions through the lens of the female, it is not long until the words sexist or sexism comes to mind. Most world religions are systematically sexist by nature, meaning that sexism is built into the fabric of the way the religion itself operates.
In the Conservative branch of Judaism, there have been many strides made toward a more egalitarian practice. The women’s movement in the US during the 1970s certainly helped to create a more open environment for women within Judaism.
In the Conservative movement, women can be ordained rabbis. By the year 1973, women counted toward making a minyan, but it wasn’t until 1983 that the Jewish Theological Seminary voted to allow women to attend seminary. While this wasn’t that long ago in comparison to other religions, this was a very radical move.
Conservative Judaism is an interesting practice. Halakah is considered binding yet evolving. I take great comfort in feeling deeply rooted to my ancestors and to the teachings of the Torah, while still knowing that there is a place for women within the practice.
Does this mean that sexism does not exist at shul? I am quite certain that sexism is still very much alive in many a Conservative shul, in a variety of forms. Personal experience has shown me that, while we have made progress, there is still room for growth.
The synagogue I attend has a wide variety of lay leaders who are all female. They serve as role models for me and for our children. Women I know who are able to lend us their talents on holidays or on Shabbat leading Shacharit or chanting Haftarah are well respected in our community. This is not to mention the ones behind the scenes who serve as Gabbaim on a regular basis.
Our program directors are equally impressive. These are the women who direct the education of our youth, from pre-school all the way through confirmation. I would be remiss not to mention the many women who are teachers at our Religious School.
I find it a bit ironic that, by definition, the word rabbi means teacher. The women who are involved and invested in the education of our children are educators. Their passion comes in doing what a good rabbi does, teaching. None of these women are ordained, so while they are technically not rabbis, they act as such.
When I walk into shul, by default, I feel respected both as a human being and as a woman. I have my foremothers to thank who have paved the way for me. I could never imagine, nor would I ever want to, my spiritual home being a place where I didn’t feel comfortable with my gender. This would seem counterproductive to the very essence of what I seek when I come to shul. I seek community. I seek furthering my knowledge of Torah and always the deepening of my personal relationship to G-d. I do not feel that this could be possible if I weren’t given room be feel dignified.
While I have never experienced systematic racism at my synagogue, sadly I must say that I have experienced at least one incident of covert sexual harassment. I will pause here to say that, as I expressed earlier, covert sexism is most likely a very real experience for many women at synagogues everywhere, despite the progress that has been made. We as a society still need to address covert sexism both inside and outside of our spiritual homes.
The incident occurred several years ago. I was standing in a pew, folding my tallit after services. Folks were leaving the sanctuary heading to the social hall for kiddish lunch. A man a few rows in front of me who could have exited his row instead chose to walk around in order to come over and say hello. As he wished me a Shabbat Shalom he pressed his entire body against mine in order to exit the row we now were both standing in. His intentions were obvious. While he did wish me a Shabbat Shalom, he did so with a smirk on his face, after having totally violated not just my personal space but my body as well. I was shocked and embarrassed.
Looking back at the incident, I wish I had had the courage at the time to have spoken out about my experience. Not doing so only serves to allow this kind of behavior to continue.
Sexism has no boundaries. Just because a space is sacred for me, of anyone for that matter, does not mean that it will be free of prejudice, harassment or even assault. This leaves me with some very mixed feelings about the subject.
In general, I am thrilled to be surrounded by a community that reflects the values I uphold with regards to women. This does not, however, ensure that I or any of my friends and colleagues will be safe from negative experiences. We need to use our voices to call out sexism when it occurs. This sort of behavior is not okay in any situation and most certainly not in a place that I consider my spiritual home. If anything like this happens again, I hope I will have the courage to speak about it, and in doing so, hope to inspire others to do the same.
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