Why are People Afraid of Strong Jewish Women or: Things Learned From Watching Saved by the Bell

There’s an episode of Saved by the Bell (the original, of course) where Slater and Zack have managed to screw up with Jessie and Kelly once again, and in order to win back their love, create the "What I Should … Read More

By / June 1, 2010

There’s an episode of Saved by the Bell (the original, of course) where Slater and Zack have managed to screw up with Jessie and Kelly once again, and in order to win back their love, create the "What I Should Have Said" Theater. Basically, they re enact the moment where they said the wrong thing and replace it in the skit with the right thing. For some reason, I guess because of dimples or charm or the pathological fear of being boy friendless in high school, it works, and in the end, all is well.

I can’t even count how many times I’ve found myself wishing that "What I Should Have Said" Theater existed in the real world, most recently the other day. I’d been talking about traveling in South America with a male student and I mentioned the leadership trip I’d staffed to Ecuador for Jewish women and women of color. "Don’t you think there’s enough stuff for Jewish women?" he asked. I stumbled and hawed and re directed the conversation, but what I should have said, as a feminist and an educator and a person with a brain is, What are you so afraid of?

This year marks the 25th anniversary of women being ordained as rabbis in the Conservative movement. So if you’re over the age of 25, you might remember a time when there were no women rabbis in Conservative shuls, when women could not hold high leadership in one of the largest denominations in American Judaism. We’ve gotten awfully complacent in those 25 years. There’s been a lot of grumbling about women occupying 75% of space in Reform rabbinical schools and the amount of Jewish women taking leadership roles in camps, social justice organizations and other communal structures. The question of whether Jewish boys might be in "crisis" has spurned a lot of research and debate recently- are women taking over? Is there no space left for men in Judaism?

Fine, there seem to be ladies everywhere, but the power is still concentrated in male hands. The creation of more Jewish women’s opportunities is about helping us to demand the power that, were we a community that was actually worked towards gender equity instead of just paying lip service, would be equally distributed to begin with. There would no reason for a young Jewish man would feel threatened by the concept of Jewish women taking power, because he would have been invested in sharing it since the day he was born.

Jewish women have become a symbol of everything in the Jewish community that we’re wary of. The Conservative movement can’t even utter the word "trans gender," and it’s loathe to adapt the culture of its seminaries to actually tackle the insidious homophobia that lives there. Orthodox Judaism would rather render itself obsolete than allow learned, committed women access to power, halalling or otherwise. Still, Jewish women are everywhere. We are programmers in Hillels, but rarely executive directors. We are education rabbis, teachers, fund raisers and organizers. We’re tired of being patient, of waiting for someone to pay attention, to give us permission to live outside the box of the nice Jewish girl, for the Jewish community to stop being so freaked out by the idea of the perpetually marginalized gaining access to the front and center.

What would a Jewish community where people other than straight men had power be like? It might be better for everybody. We might stop being so afraid of each other. We might even start thinking about our history of victimization differently, and create some very real change in the world. The bad news is that none of this can happen until we all learn to move over and make space for one another, which effectively means putting some of that white skinned, heterosexual, male, upper middle class privilege (if you have it), on a shelf.

Okay, so maybe you should be afraid.

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