Members of Israel’s fervently Orthodox haredi community live in a complex society, where despite the demands to have large families and support the religious studies of men, women are striving to find their voice.
“We have to take the haredi community on its own terms,” said Tanya Farber, who lived among the haredim for 15 years both in the United States and Israel.
Farber, Judaic studies coordinator at the Pre-Collegiate Learning Center in East Brunswick, spoke before and after the showing of the Israeli documentary Haredim: The Rabbi’s Daughter and the Midwife, on Jan. 5 at the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth.
The 2009 film follows two trailblazing haredi women who defy the usual expectations of their insular communities.
Adina Bar-Shalom, the eldest daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef — spiritual leader of the Sephardi haredi Shas Party — founded the first college for fervently Orthodox Jews, which has opened options to women normally consigned to domestic roles and manual labor, and men who lack alternatives to a life of study and welfare payments.
Rachel Chalkowski, a legendary Jerusalem midwife, dispenses medical and contraceptive advice among haredi families and founded a charity that helps needy families with financial support.
Farber, who became Orthodox at age 15 and studied at a yeshiva in Israel, said, “Whatever you see here in America is even more extreme in Israel.”
Farber, who still works in Brooklyn on weekends with developmentally challenged women and girls, said fervently Orthodox men in the United States are more likely to work rather than spend their days studying Torah.
Israeli haredim have far less interaction with non-haredi Jews and with non-Jews than do their American counterparts and tend to have larger families.
“Culturally, I think there is an idea that we must start again,” she explained. “I think it’s a response to the decimation of the Jewish population in Europe.”
At yeshiva she recalled being taught that there were gender-defined roles, with men being the intellectuals and women being nurturers who support their husbands and sons in Torah study.
“But it was not meant to be degrading,” explained Farber. Instead, as “God-like” nurturers, women are valued for helping create great leaders of the Jewish community.
While she considers Chalkowski and Bar-Shalom “feminists,” she warned that such a label would be “unkosher” in their community and would likely doom their efforts.
Leslie Fishbein, a member of the temple’s film committee and a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University, told the gathering that the film brought to light issues of women’s empowerment.
Among these are whether the devoutly religious, particularly the community’s leaders, consider gender roles changeable or whether they view them as “God-given” and irreversible. Similarly, do women view men as “patriarchal oppressors” or as husbands and fathers?
“A lot of women in our own country fought for women’s empowerment in the suffrage movement,” said Fishbein, who asked the audience to consider whether these women were attempting to start a movement within Orthodoxy or “buttress it.”