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Mysterious Feminist Group Sends New Year Message: ‘sexism is a Sin’

A series of mysterious advertisements and a card put out by a group describing itself only as “Jewish Women Watching” has the New York Jewish world — including its feminist organizations — perplexed.

The card — hand-addressed and sent on Sept. 11 with a Brooklyn postmark and no return address — bears a picture of a suffragette-era woman carrying flags that say “Happy New Year” in Hebrew and English.

On the inside, the card says “Insure your place in the Book of Life” and lists responses to statements about not including women on panels and boards, taking a stand on women’s issues or offering child care.

One such statement says, “I would have liked to include a woman on that panel, but there just wasn’t anyone with enough stature.”

“This year,” says the response, “choose a woman keynote speaker.”

At the bottom, in large letters are the words: “Sexism is a sin.”

The advertisements, which appeared in the Sept. 10 editions of the New York Jewish Week and the Forward, a New York-based national Jewish newspaper, are similar but bear only one statement and response: the Forward’s commands the reader to “stop alienating women and recognize that women’s issues are community issues” and the Jewish Week’s urges readers to choose a woman keynote speaker.”

Neither the advertisements nor the card offer any contact information or names.

A source at the Forward said the quarter-page advertisement, which cost $820, was placed anonymously and paid for with a cashier’s check.

It is not clear how many people received the card, which was sent to several Jewish journalists in the New York area.

Spokeswomen of New York-based Jewish feminist organizations, such as Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization, Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project of the JCC on the Upper West Side and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance said they did not know anything about the effort.

However, one anonymous source familiar with the Jewish feminist world said the initiative was being launched by a small group of New York women who wish to remain anonymous and are not interested in speaking to the media.

She said the group was targeting major Jewish organizations, but spokespersons at the United Jewish Communities, the American Jewish Congress and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said they did not know of anyone in their groups receiving the card.

Bethamie Horowitz, co-author of a 1997 study on the role of women on the boards of major Jewish organizations, said she had not heard of the Jewish Women Watching initiative, but after hearing the description of the card and advertisements likened it to the Guerrilla Girls.

The Guerrilla Girls are a group of anonymous women artists, writers, performers, film makers and arts professionals who fight discrimination by producing posters and printed materials that “expose sexism and racism in the art world and the culture at large,” according to information on the group’s Web site.

“I think there’s a lot of frustration. Our research says there’s been progress on boards, but the feeling on the street is that women are under-represented,” said Horowitz, who is a senior scholar at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.

The study found that women made up 25 percent of the boards of 45 Jewish organizations.

“It’s kind of amusing and is the right message,” she added, but questioned whether the secret campaign would ultimately make any difference.

Susan Weidman Schneider, the editor of Lilith magazine, said the idea was “interesting” and would be “great if it raised consciousness,” but also took issue with the anonymity.

“Things that come anonymously don’t necessarily have the same impact and aren’t always taken as seriously” as ones that are signed. People motivated to act “won’t necessarily know where to turn,” said Weidman Schneider, noting that her feminist magazine maintains a talent bank of women experts.

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