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September 3, 2014 / 8 Elul, 5774
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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.

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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18 Responses to “Ultra Orthodox Women Speak Up: The Dialogue Is Now Open”

  1. Abe Aronowski says:

    Nice thought.

    While were on the topic of Ms Feldman and the OTD movement, may I ask why there hasn't been any outcry in response to Footsteps, the "OTD Finishing school" supported by UJA, among other Jewish organizations, who this week had as guest lecturer, Dr. Marlene Winell, who specializes in deprogramming cult members. She was obviously invited to Footsteps to help deprogram Hasidism, I don't think too many Moonies show up at Footsteps.

    A Youtube search of her name tells you what Dr. Marlene Winell is all about and how her mind works, offering steps to move away from religion. See for yourselves.

    Good step towards Jewish unity, UJA.

    Happy Shavuot, UJA.

  2. Abe Aronowski says:

    Nice thought.

    While were on the topic of Ms Feldman and the OTD movement, may I ask why there hasn't been any outcry in response to Footsteps, the "OTD Finishing school" supported by UJA, among other Jewish organizations, who this week had as guest lecturer, Dr. Marlene Winell, who specializes in deprogramming cult members. She was obviously invited to Footsteps to help deprogram Hasidim. I don't think too many Moonies show up at Footsteps.

    A Youtube search of her talks tells you what Dr. Marlene Winell is all about and how her mind works, offering steps to move away from religion. See for yourselves.

    Good step towards Jewish unity, UJA. Is UJA playing dumb, or are they just dumb in regard to the goings on at Footsteps, while acccepting donations from people of all branches of Judaism?

    Happy Shavuot, UJA.

  3. Adel Berman says:

    :) you're a great writer and such a special woman.. mwahh

  4. DeDe Jacobs Komisar says:

    Thanks so much for this! Great response.

  5. Rc Fowler says:

    The author didn't have to wear a wig–she foolishly and ignorantly choose to do so.

    There is no Biblical proscription which requires a woman to hide her hair after she is married–but rather this comes from the corrupt rabbinate!

  6. Chabad is yoytzer min haklal, even though, when I did the Zev Brenner show with him years ago, the one on domestic violence, a chabad woman who had just gotten married called in, and said her husband's rebbe told him to take what he wants if she doesn't give it to him. Chabad is open to technology and education for women. When I wanted to go to college, I had to fight for it, and find a way to pay for it. My parents did not approve, neither did the rebbe in my seminary, Avigdor Miller, who essentially put me in cherem and would not allow other students to speak to me. When I went to get a divorce from a batterer, they said I was the shanda…and I found that out 30 years later, in another state, from a woman who lived next door to my mother in Brooklyn. So I love this Chabad Chaya and now this Chabad woman above, who think they are chassidim from a chassidic background, when they know absolutely nothing about the reality of living in Eastern European style chassidus. Please. This isn't fruit salad. these are people's lives. stop mixing apples and oranges. I have been fighting this stuff for 52 years (yeah, I am older than that), and this is the first time that this has cracked through to secular media, and I am glad. Time for Ohel to stand up to the "rabbis" who have tied their hands for decades and prevented them from going into classrooms to give the standard classes in child self-protection as mandated in the public school system. And it's time for teachers to stand up and demand, that as mandated reporters, they are not interested in obstructing justice and going to jail because a bunch of guys in beards don't want them to call the cops on their buddies.

  7. 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”.

    amen sister

  8. Abe Aronowski says:

    "corrupt rabbinate"

    So in your eyes Orthodox Rabbis are all corrupt? Like all people whose name is Fowler and have blue eyes are corrupt.

    I hope you dont talk like that in front of your kids. If you do, youll be the one encouraging them to find solace with the Maharajas Maharishis in India. Will you be happy then?

    I can assure you that folowers of the corrupt rabbinate get tossed into nursing homes with a card sent once a year, much less often (hardly ever) than those who are enlightened like yourself. Be realistic and prepared. Old values are old values. New values are new values.

  9. Abe Aronowski says:

    "corrupt rabbinate"

    So in your eyes Orthodox Rabbis are all corrupt? Like all people whose name is Fowler and have blue eyes are corrupt.

    I hope you dont talk like that in front of your kids. If you do, youll be the one encouraging them to find solace with the Maharajas Maharishis in India. Will you be happy then?

    I can assure you that followers of the "corrupt rabbinate" get tossed into nursing homes with a card sent once a year, much less often (hardly ever) than those who are enlightened like yourself. Be realistic and prepared. Old values are old values. New values are new values.

  10. Tell it like it is, Jeanette. The victims – abused women and children – need honest and informed voices like yours.

  11. Ilbert Phillips says:

    Here is another story by an Orthodox Jewish woman.

  12. Eitan Levy says:

    The religion that the author follows is called Judaism, which follows both the written and oral torah, thus, RABBINIC JUDAISM. According to Jewish law a married woman needs to cover her hair. In the particular community this woman lives in the custom is to do so with a wig. She chooses to be a Jew, and SAYS IN THE ARTICLE that this is a choice. So, what's your problem?

  13. Eitan Levy says:

    Yet another take. More nuanced…

  14. Daniel David Moskovich says:

    The most horrible thing, for me, is the way that "Chaya" was attacked with lashon hara- exactly what frum people are supposed not to do. That was the "counter-argument". Dug-up things (all irrelevant BTW) about Chaya's past, background, etc., leading to a "the mouth that ate pork should not speak words of Torah" conclusion, which was then cheered by idiot readers. Hashem yerachem.

  15. Rc Fowler says:

    Eitan Levy

    What are the Biblical scripture[s[ which proscribe a married woman cover her hair?

  16. Rc Fowler says:

    Mr. Levy did not respond–because there are no Biblical proscriptions which require a married woman to cover her hair in public.

    Its corrupt rabbinic Judaism which requires this nonsense!

  17. Ashira Leah says:

    Rc Fowler Bamidbar 5:18 – The kohen shall have the woman stand before G-d and uncover (pharah) the head of the woman
    This was said to humiliate her, however, it probably would not humiliate her if it was merely tradition. It seems it was most likely law.

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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” […]

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