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September 26, 2016 / 23 Elul, 5776
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Ultra Orthodox Women Speak Up: The Dialogue Is Now Open

A Jewish woman prays beside Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem.

A Jewish woman prays beside Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem.
Photo Credit: Sharon Perry/Flash90

Religious Jews have been getting more than their usual share of negative press lately. The papers have been full of allegations of sexual abuse in ultra-orthodox communities, and religious authorities concurrent attempts to silence the victims while protecting the accused. When earlier this week, the Rabbi’s chose to focus on the “dangers of the internet” with the widely publicized Internet Asifa, the move drew the ire of many, Jewish and secular alike, as misplaced energy and resources. Prior to this, Deborah Feldman’s tell all book; “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots” spread like wildfire among blogs and papers as an exclusive, inside look into an otherwise insular world. While winning media attention in the secular world, it caused an uproar within Jewish communities who felt betrayed by her shocking and scandalous tales of abuse and oppression of women living in Hasidic communities.  These recent events compelled Chaya Kurtz to give a much needed face-lift to the public image of Hasidic women. Fed up with the negative portrayal of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community and it’s women in particular, Chaya chose to write about her fulfilling life as a religious Jew and her own sense of empowerment and independence. While her portrayal resonated with many, others pointed out that her experience did not accurately represent all Hasidic women, many of whom were not were not privileged to be born into lives where they were encouraged to make their own choices, as she was.

I didn’t choose to grow up religious. I was born into it. And by “it”; I mean an orthodox home in the Chabad sect of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. As a child I was not aware of the laws defining my life, and as a teen I would often rebel against these laws. As an adult, however I embraced these laws and the religious way of life. The good, the bad, the difficult, the easy. All of it. I consciously acknowledged the fact that this was the life I wanted to live. This is why I put on a wig the day after my wedding. I got married in May. The summer months that followed were hot and sweaty, and I really resented the fact that I had to schlep to the city in a wig when what I really wanted to do was throw my hair up into a pony and feel the cool A/C against my neck. After five years of being married, I still dislike putting on my wig and having to keep my hair covered, but it doesn’t make me feel oppressed or ugly. It’s an inconvenience but it’s the life I chose. Not all laws of religion are convenient, but you don’t live a religious lifestyle due to the convenience of it, since religion has both enjoyable and often difficult aspects to it.

I was lucky to be raised in a home where I had room to grow as an individual and see the love in Judaism. That’s my personal experience. There are many others who share that experience. And then there are those who are raised in an environment that does not nurture but rather repress. One that does not highlight the love of the law but rather the fear of breaking it. Living in a religious community there is always a struggle between balancing  communities values and your own personal values. Some communities make it more difficult. Like, a lot more difficult. Excommunication and ostracism are just two things you would possibly face if you lived in an ultra-orthodox hasidic community and wanted to do something that they did not approve of. For those people, living a religious lifestyle is not a choice but a matter of survival.

Everyone wants someone they can identify with. Someone who shares their views and can vocalize how they feel so they know they are not alone. Deborah Feldman speaks for many women who are trapped in a life they did not choose but were born into and who are ill-equipped to leave if they did decide to venture into a foreign world. Chaya Kurtz speaks for the orthodox women who are proud of the religious life they live. Who feel strong, independent, and in control of their lives and want the world to know it. They do not need the media’s pity for they are not oppressed. Both women speak the truth for in reality, there is no ONE voice that represents religious orthodox woman. Our lives are made up of a myriad of experiences, both good and bad. There is joy and pain. Triumph and struggle. You can be joyful in your service of G-d and still question the laws He commands of us.

As a religious woman, I understand that Judaism is not simply defined by all of the people that follow it. Religious communities are not exempt from sexual or monetary crimes. Unfortunately, racism, sexism homophobia, and criminality exist. Don’t protest in outrage when these failings are exposed, with claims of “chillul Hashem” (embarrassment to Judaism and G-d). It is the act of denial and sweeping it under the rug which is the actual “chillul Hashem”. Ultimately, G-d is good and loving so do not hide behind misinterpretations of his Torah, or self righteousness to excuse ugly and hateful behavior. As humans, we are all flawed but as religious Jews with the Torah to guide us, we have the means to be an understanding and compassionate people. I appreciate both Deborah and Chaya’s strength and honesty and the truth in both their voices. We all have a voice, and now there is finally the dialogue to speak and be heard.
As members of the Jewish nation we are obligated to continually strive towards perfection. The only way to continue our ascent up the ladder of spiritual refinement is to honestly address our issues as a nation and open up a dialogue about how to responsibly overcome them. This is the only way we can honor our communities as a whole from within. As we prepare to receive the Torah this Shavuos, let’s keep in mind that honest self-examination is a precedent to true spiritual achievement.

Nina Safar

About the Author: When Nina Safar is not updating recipes on Kosher in the Kitch, she enjoys playing hostess. Never having too much time in the kitchen, she likes recipes that taste great and are easy to make. Kosher in the Kitch features recipes from experienced foodies as well as experimenting cooks. You don’t have to be a chef to cook a good meal! For more great menu ideas and tasty recipes, check out www.kosherinthekitch.com for your next favorite dish. Share your get-fit tips, weight loss battles, and stay-in-shape recipes by emailing nina@kosherinthekitch.com and visiting the Kosher in the Kitch fan page on Facebook.

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