Focus on Issues: Jewish Women Look to Past to Create Agenda for Future
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Focus on Issues: Jewish Women Look to Past to Create Agenda for Future

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When Hadassah’s National Commission on Jewish Women requested a report on the future of Jewish women in 1995, no one was quite prepared for the result.

The scant 80 pages of research made a startling statement about the silence and invisibility of Jewish women, prompting the establishment of the International Research Institute on Jewish Women at Brandeis University.

Last week, the first fruits of the institute’s labors were evident, when a diverse group of Jewish women convened at Brandeis to share, to listen, to debate and to be heard.

They came from North Africa, the Middle East and Israel, Eastern and Western Europe and the Americas — all believing that it was time to incorporate the missing pieces of the Jewish women’s experience to the mosaic of Jewish life.

This was the first conference of the institute, which was established in January 1997 with a $1.5 million commitment from Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

Chaired by Barbra Streisand, the institute aims to create a reservoir of information about Jewish women all over the world, enhancing an understanding of their issues by initiating and supporting research projects, holding conferences and seminars and creating a monograph series.

With a careful scrutiny of the status of Jewish women internationally, last week’s conference began the task of setting an agenda for future research.

“A people without a past is not a people,” declared Susan Miller, a professor at Harvard University and a moderator at the conference.

“The past must be studied in its totality,” she added, as a series of speakers relayed the experience of Jewish women in their countries.

“I’m tired of being silenced, I want to be heard,” said Ruth Knafo Setton, a Moroccan-born Jew who moved to Orefield, Pa., via Israel several years ago.

Setton described the double sense of invisibility she experienced as a Sephardi-Mizrachi woman, discriminated against in Morocco for being Jewish, and in Israel and the United States for being Moroccan.

“You Moroccans aren’t good workers,” she said she was told in Israel, when applying for a job.

A similar welcome awaited her in the United States when she attended synagogue on Yom Kippur. “Go back to Africa,” the director of the synagogue advised her family. “There’s nothing for you here.”

“I felt doubly exiled,” Setton said, challenging her listeners to “look for me: I am nowhere to be found.”

As the conference progressed and various speakers took the podium, it became clear that this was a forum of discovery and recovery, an environment where long-silenced voices could finally be heard and their grievances addressed.

For Israeli women, the dilemma lay in the failure of the Promised Land to achieve the equality to which it had committed itself.

“It’s fundamentally a gendered society,” said Hanna Herzog, a sociologist at Tel Aviv University.

“How does one build a family around an agenda that’s nationally oriented?” she asked.

There were no answers to these questions or others — just the collective recognition that only by asking them can they be resolved.

For the Jews of Europe, the spirit of the past is ever-prominent, casting an indomitable shadow over the present and future.

“The community is still haunted by the past,” said Judith Frishman, a professor at Holland’s Leidan University.

No one is paying attention to the burden borne by Jewish women in their attempts to re-create a normal family life.

“We can’t go further unless we can recover from the war,” Frishman said.

Tobe Levin Freifrau von Gleichen, a lecturer at J.W. Goethe University in Germany, agreed.

“Even with the wane of anti-Semitism in Germany, the past is constantly assaulting us. The Jewish situation here means suffering, persecution and fear.”

Some of the most encouraging stories came from North America, where studies indicate that the educational gap between Jewish men and women is diminishing.

“American Jewish women’s occupations are determined by their education and number of children these days, and not by their husband’s professions,” said Riv-Ellen Prell, an anthropologist at the University of Minnesota.

“Women have doubled the pool of active Jews in the United States, and the North American Jewish community cannot exist without their participation.”

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