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Mysterious Feminists Make Noise for Purim, and Some Aren’t Amused

They’re back. A mysterious group of Jewish feminists that last fall circulated provocative Rosh Hashanah cards and advertisements in the New York area has resurfaced for Purim.

Jewish Women Watching, a group that does not identify its members and leaves only an e-mail address — jewishwomenwatching@hotmail.com — as contact information, is mailing to Jewish agencies groggers that say “drown out sexism,” along with a card protesting sexism.

A JTA e-mail query requesting more information was not answered.

Last year women — wearing masks — picketed outside the UJA-Federation of Greater New York to protest a lack of female speakers at a major event.

The current Jewish Women Watching’s card, which notes “a few reasons to make noise,” plays on the Purim theme by stating that the biblical figure Esther, “spoke on behalf of the entire Jewish people,” while only one woman has delivered a “State of World Jewry Address” at the 92nd Street Y, a Jewish institution on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Furthermore, alleges the card, “Vashti’s not the only woman who had to strip to keep her job. Even in the Jewish world three out of four women endure sexual harassment in the workplace.” Vashti was the one who refused to come to King Ahaseverus when he demanded.

It is not clear where the group got its figures on sexual harassment.

The card also asserts that few women fill top executive positions at national Jewish organizations and fewer than 50 women sit on the combined boards of the Anti-Defamation League and the United Jewish Communities, the Jewish community’s central fund-raising and social service agency.

According to a list provided by the ADL, 48 of its more than 240 board members around the country are women. At the UJC, 35 of the 137 members of the newly created national board of trustees are women.

A 1997 study commissioned by Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project of the JCC on the Upper West Side found that women made up 25 percent of the boards of 45 major Jewish organizations.

Susan Weidman Schneider, the editor of the feminist Jewish magazine Lilith, praised the Purim card for its wit, and said that while she has “some thoughts about who it might be,” she would not speculate about the group’s identity.

Eve Landau, director of Ma’yan, said she also did not know who was behind Jewish Women Watching, but was pleased to see the group is still active. Landau said she did not find their anonymous approach problematic.

“In some ways, I think that certain positions are expected from certain people and then it’s very easy to discount them, so I think the anonymity is in part what is creating the buzz in the community.”

However, Abraham Foxman, the national director of the ADL, said he believes that an anonymous group “has no value.” He also said his group is making an effort to bring more women into leadership roles, and said that one reason the ADL has so few women board members is because in the past women were encouraged to take leadership roles in B’nai B’rith Women, which a few years ago parted ways with B’nai B’rith and changed its name to Jewish Women International.

Gail Hyman, the UJC’s vice president of marketing and public affairs, said she had not yet seen Jewish Women Watching’s card criticizing her organization, but upon hearing about it said the anonymous group has “an interesting approach” and the issues it raises are “important.”

In building its new board, the UJC made a “very special effort” to increase representation of women, said Hyman.

“This is an improvement over where we were and we’re working toward greater participation,” she added. “This isn’t the end of the story, it’s the beginning of the story.”

Some observers compare Jewish Women Watching to the Guerrilla Girls, a group of anonymous women artists, writers, performers, film makers and arts professionals who produce posters and printed materials that “expose sexism and racism in the art world and the culture at large,” according to the Guerrilla Girls’ Web site.

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