9 Issues for the 90s

As we move into and out of the U.S. elections, certain issues emerge as the chief contenders for the political energies of Jewish women, in the decade to come.

The 1990s are almost upon us. will women have an impact on Middle East politics? will we have a viable child care system? How will AIDS affect our culture? These and other questions are plaguing our legislators, and they should be plaguing us.

As Jewish feminists, we must bring our own special sensibilities and knowledge to these issues, as well as the weight of any organizations to which we belong. To make clear how we might best do that, LILITH has asked experts on these issues exactly what is happening, and how we might confront the issues.

Human Rights

It is easy for us in the United States to ignore human rights abuses against other Jews simply because so much of what is happening in places like Syria and Ethiopia doesn’t make the front pages of our newspapers. And ironically, the very publicity that might help to repair these violations against them runs the risk of endangering them further. “It is a touchy thing,” says Helen Scoville of Amnesty International.

It is also a dilemma we’ve encountered before — in the plight of Soviet Jews — but it appears that making noise has helped in the case of the Soviets. Lynn Singer of the Long Island Coalition for Soviet Jewry calls several Soviet Jewish women everyday. She suggests that concerned women “adopt” a Russian refusenik family. “Get the name of a refusenik and write to her. Even if you never get an answer, keep writing.”

Singer notes that Perestroika, as Gorbachev proscribes it, is not particularly good for the Jews, and she sees a backlash coming. “If the economic restructuring [that Gorbachev proposes] takes place, sixteen million people will be thrown out of work. What kind of backlash do you suppose there will be then?” she asks.

Publicity has not helped in countries like Ethiopia and Syria. In Syria, for example, the estimated 4,500 to 4,800 Jews are “in effect a hostage community,” says George E. Gruen, the director of Middle East Affairs for the American Jewish Committee. The horrors committed against them include interrogation in secret detention centers, torture and mutilation (four young Jewish women who tried to flee Syria were returned to their families dead in sacks), and forced marriages to non-Jews.

In Ethiopia, more than 30 Jews have been illegally detained since February 1987; many of these are believed to have been tortured.

So far our main weapon has been economic. Still, Amnesty International suggests that we might send “courteous telegrams and letters to the Ethiopian authorities” expressing our concern at the arrests and reported torture.

For more information, contact Amnesty International, 322 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10001; Long Island Committee for Soviet Jewry, I Old Country Road, Carle Place, NY 11514; American Association for Ethiopian Jewry, 2789 Oak, Highland Park, IL.

The Environment

Judaism has always put great emphasis on the land and its fruits and in this nuclear age we cannot overvalue the importance of our environment.

“We have tried to find a way to blend concern over nuclear war with images from the Bible,” says Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Project in Philadelphia. “Because Pesach is a holiday that celebrates our deliverance from the Pharoahs, we conducted a seder at a nuclear test site in the desert, in order to emphasize our wish to be delivered from this horror as well.”

“We need to raise people’s consciousness about the environment,” says Ellen Bernstein, who is organizing a Jewish environmental group in Philadelphia and has written a special haggadah to be used for Tu B’shvat (holiday of the trees) seders. By juxtaposing Torah readings with environmental readings and poetry we hope to educate Jews about the environment in which we live.”

Bernstein believes that “many of our environmental problems have to do with waste on a personal level!’ She hopes to remind Jews that Tu B’shvat, which generally falls in February, is a kind of Jewish Earth Day. “My hope is that each year we can focus on a different aspect of the environment,” she says.

Contact Bernstein at 529 Carpenter Lane, Philadelphia, 19119.


For a while, it seemed that the issue was settled. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade established that women had the right to an abortion, and as a corollary the right to control their own bodies. This was a major victory for feminism.

But times are changing. The celebrated “Baby M” Case, in which a “surrogate” mother in New Jersey decided she could not give up her birth daughter, suddenly reopened the question of reproductive rights.

In her book. Sacred Bond: The Legacy of Baby M, (New York: Times Books, 1988) Phyllis Chesler, writes that surrogacy, in fact any form of ‘coerced’ adoption (which includes most ‘normal’ adoptions), is degrading to women. She states that any adoption in which a birth mother is “counseled” to give up her child is a “forced” adoption and should therefore be outlawed; only the adoptions of children willingly abandoned by their birth mothers should be allowed.

Many feminists agree with Chesler, at least in part. In the now famous “We are all unfit mothers” letter; signed by Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Nora Ephron and Meryl Streep among many others; American feminists indicated their support for Mary Beth Whitehead, the New Jersey surrogate mother.

The New Jersey Supreme Court eventually declared the Whitehead surrogacy illegal. And Chesler writes: “My involvement as an organizer in the campaign against surrogacy is over The larger campaign for women’s reproductive and custodial rights must continue.”

Contact an office of National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) near you, or contact your local National Organization for Women (NOW) for the names of organizations in your area.

“Until very recently, the mainstream Jewish organizations have done almost nothing to help people with AIDS,” says Saul Zalkin of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s first gay and lesbian synagogue. “Only now are they starting. But they must do more.”

The Jewish Board of Family and Children Services in New York has a “chicken soup brigade” to bring food to homebound AIDS victims. This organization also offers counseling to victims and their families.

“We’re fighting the myths, though,” says Zalkin. “The myths that Jews are not gay that they don’t use drugs, that they don’t get this ‘kind of disease.'”

Jewish women do participate as volunteers at many AIDS crisis centers, but, says Zalkin, those Jewish volunteers might work for their synagogue or community center AIDS groups if such groups existed. Concerned women should call their local community centers and their rabbis to talk about setting up outreach, counseling and support programs.


The good news about Jewish education is that more and more women are becoming rabbis — “an unprecedented number,” says Elaine Cohen, the acting director of the Jewish Teacher Training Program at McGill University. The bad news is that at the lower levels — in elementary and secondary schools — the quality of Jewish education is low because teachers are not given the resources or the incentives to be strong teachers.

This is the problem that all educators face; how to make teaching an attractive profession. “We need to make teaching a serious choice for people. We need to raise the status of teachers,” Cohen says, by paying teachers more, offering sabbaticals and by encouraging respect for teachers in general and Jewish teachers in particular.

In addition, she notes, we must address the question of the quality of the Jewish education we provide. “The challenge is not only to educate boy and girl children equally but to give the girls a sense of what they can do with that education!’ We also need to give or continue Jewish education for adults. “We need to have parents with a strong Jewish knowledge and identity so they can be role models for their kids,” Cohen concludes.

For more information, contact the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE), 468 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016; the Melton Institute, Jewish Theological Seminary, 3080 Broadway New York, NY 10027.

Child care

“One of the greatest misconceptions we have,” says Lois Roisman of the Jewish Fund for Justice, “is that daycare for children is a problem for poor people.” We also need to find a way to provide daycare to the middle class. “There are tremendous problems in raising children in a time of wealth. I call it affluenza. It would be nice to deal with this in a Jewish context.”

“Child care used to be considered a frill,” says May Newburger, formerly a New York State Assembly representative. “But it requires universal attention.” Child care is particularly important for Jews, Newburger claims, because more and more young Jewish families are two-career couples, and she fears that without adequate, affordable child care, these couples may put off or limit the number of children they have.

“The Jewish family has always been at the heart of Judaism,” she says. Daycare is an opportunity for people to identify Jewishly instead of waiting until the child is bar-mitzvah. “If we want to sustain the family, we have to provide aid to these young parents.”

Daycare money will need to come, in large part, from government, and Jewish women can do a lot to see that the support is provided. “It seems to me that this is an issue that requires two things,” Newburger says. “One: talk — to legislators in an election year, and two: action — support of existing centers, support of legislators who support child care.”

Contact The Jewish Child Care Association, 575 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10022.

Hunger, Poverty & the Homeless

In 1982, two Atlanta synagogues opened their doors to the homeless of that city, providing places for them to sleep. Within a few years, they were sponsoring Passover seders for the homeless.

But shelters and seders are only part of the answer, says Rona Schpeiser, assistant director of Jewish Family Services there. The community must start addressing the underlying problems of homelessness — poverty, drug addiction, joblessness. Whether or not the homeless on our streets were born and raised Jewish, we have an obligation to help them because as Jews we know what it is to be without a homeland and a home.

In an effort to help, the Jewish Fund for Justice makes grants to groups working with lower-income women. These groups may provide shelters for the homeless, continuing education, job training and even daycare to poor women who would work if only they had someone with whom to leave their children.

“For many years, the homeless population was primarily male and elderly,” says Sara Peller of Project Dorot in New York. “Now there is a younger female population that is homeless. What we are fighting for is accessible, safe housing with accessible services” Peller says. “Many of the homeless are that way because they have no one to advocate for them.”

Contact the Jewish Fund for Justice, 1725 K St. NW, Washington, DC 20006.

Peace in the Middle East

Before Arabs and Jews in Israel can put down their weapons, they must learn to talk to each other, to understand. That’s the philosophy of a number of politically aware and active women — both Jewish and Arab — in Israel. To this end, some activist women have set up discussion groups for Israeli and Palestinian women in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

“We find we have the same concerns,” says Chaya Shalom, a fifth generation Jewish Israeli woman who lives in Tel Aviv. “We talk about our children growing up in such a tense, war-torn place; we talk about how we reorganize our lives while our husbands are in prison or under curfew. We’ve been having these discussions since December 1987, and are finding that neither group is like the stereotype we’ve been taught about.”

Shalom believes the route to peace lies in women. “We run the daily life,” she says, and while others, like Sharon Shenhav, the director of Legal Services for Na’amat agree, they both acknowledge there are problems with this approach. “Some Palestinian women will say that their needs as women and their family’s needs comes second to the needs of the state,” says Shalom.

Still, Na’amat has found a novel approach for uniting Jewish and Palestinian women. The organization’s first activity when it enters an Arab community is to set up daycare centers. This becomes a place for women to meet when they come to drop off or pick up their kids,” Shenhav says. “It helps to form a community.”

In addition, some Israeli women have formed Women in Black, a group of activists who meet once a week, wearing black, in a public place in Jerusalem. There are sister groups in the U.S. One, the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation conducts vigils weekly with members, including Irena Klepfisz and Grace Paley.

Contact Clare Kinberg, The Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation, 163 Joralemon St. Ste. 1178, Brooklyn, NY 11201.

Coalition Building

During the 1988 New York State Democratic primary, Black-Jewish relations sank to an all-time low. New York City Mayor Ed Koch, a Jew, stated publicly that Jews and other lovers of Israel would be “crazy” to vote for Jackson, who, in 1984, referred to New York City as “Hymietown.” Could Blacks and Jews ever repair the damage?

According to Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, the key to better Black-Jewish relations is to work on common projects that will “show us how much we have in common. I’m not saying that the plight of Blacks is the same as that of Jews, but there are similarities and ways to understand. Where Blacks and Jews have worked together — on civil rights, women’s rights, human rights — the people involved have reached that understanding.”

Height urges Jewish women to “get involved in schools and on community projects where you will meet and deal with Black women. You will find that people are not exactly the way you might have thought they’d be.”

Height and the council have worked very closely with Hadassah and National Council of Jewish Women for years on a number of projects, through which Height has developed the theory that much of Black-Jewish misunderstanding comes from a religious, not cultural or racial difference.

Contact the American Jewish Committee National Inter religious Task Force on Black-Jewish Relations, 165 E. 56th Street, New York, NY 10022.

Elder Care

By the year 2020, there will be 50 million Americans over the age of 65. Because women have a longer life-span than men, more than half of those people will be female. What can be done to address their needs?

Vivian Erlich, executive director of Project Dorot, an organization created to link young adults and the urban elderly, says: “There has been increased funding for emergency support, but for people who have no emergency need, there is nothing. What legislators don’t understand — or don’t act upon — is that for the elderly life is a series of emergencies.” Take food preparation, for example. Many of the elderly are well enough to live alone, but not well enough to shop and cook for themselves. “So far, there is no food delivery program that works.”

But the problems go further “Human beings are more than just individuals needing medical support,” Erlich says. “We need to find a way to reach them emotionally, to draw them into the community.” One of her special projects: conference calls in which elders can take part in discussions with others — young and old — in their community. To do this, young people must be made aware of their responsibility. Senator Sam Nunn is considering giving college students course credits to be volunteers to the elderly; some organizations are considering paying their volunteers a nominal fee to make the work more appealing.

On the positive side, Erlich notes that young Jewish families have recently been taking an interest in the problems of the elderly. “A lot of parents want to expose their children to social issues and this is one way to start.”

Contact the Jewish Association of Services for the Aged, 40 W. 68th St., New York, NY 10023; Project Dorot, 262 W 91st St., New York, NY 10024.