Battling Sexism in Jewish Schools
As the “People of the Book,” Jews are expected both to revere scholarship in others, and to engage in lifelong learning ourselves. Yet for thousands of years, Jewish study was closed off to girls and women. Much formal, highly valued learning was denied Jewish women — sometimes by religious opinion or tradition, sometimes because family priorities dictated that only sons would study, sometimes by the subtle message that even secular study for women was somehow fraught with peril, as if too much education would detract from our “ornamental” purpose in life. Females rarely learned Hebrew—the key to Jewish study—except enough to chant the requisite blessings.
Today, while most Jewish education on the elementary through high school level is open to females, more parents enroll sons in Jewish schools than daughters. Perhaps this is because some Hebrew training is needed for the Bar Mitzvah that most Jewish parents feel is mandatory regardless of how assimilated they are, while Bat Mitzvah (which would require the same training if it were considered an equally important ritual event) is clearly still seen by many parents as a celebration of choice. One father is quoted in the Long Island Jewish World as saying:
“Joining a Temple is expensive, but if I had a son instead of daughters, I would have felt obligated to send my son to Hebrew school…. My daughters like Yiddish school and that’s enough for me.”
There are many varieties of religious education, each with its own bias and its own problems around gender equality in a Jewish context. There are strictly Orthodox yeshivas (all-day schools), which may have complete separation of the sexes into different schools or totally segregated classes. Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements also operate Hebrew day schools, all-day schools covering both a Judaic studies and a secular curriculum, with varying commitments to redressing traditional inequalities between the sexes. These differences depend less on the denominational affiliation of the school than on the personality and consciousness of the director and the staff.
Then there are many kinds of supplemental Jewish schools, meeting after public school hours or on weekends.
Unfortunately, despite the wide range of options available to parents who want to give their children a Jewish education, all the choices are flawed to one degree or another by sexist stereotyping of girls and women.
Discrimination against our daughters still goes on in Jewish education today, much of it in the “hidden curriculum”— that set of messages transmitted through the pictures in the classroom, the teachers’ attitudes toward girls and boys, the way material is presented in school texts and storybooks. Amid the talk of grants for innovative Jewish educational programs, experimental materials in the Hebrew classroom, new curricula that will turn students on to Jewish learning, this inherent sexism continues—even in what passes in the 80’s as enlightened curriculum taught in an egalitarian atmosphere.
Our daughters—and our sons—are still learning that Jewish history has been the history of Jewish men only, that the only leaders in the Jewish community then and now are men, and that there are inherent differences between girls and boys that justify the indefinite perpetuation of these abuses.
The only hope of encouraging more Jewish schools to eliminate the sexism that exists at present, and to prepare programs that will present girls as well as boys with a positive image of women’s many roles in Judaism, is for parents and concerned lay people and professionals to bring into Jewish education their feminist perspective on raising free children.
How to Monitor Your Child’s School
Changing the atmosphere begins with having information about what you’d ideally like to see in the classroom, and about where the reality fails to match these ideals. Observe in the school whenever possible, and ask the children questions about what goes on there, not just about the classroom work itself.
• Is the faculty co-ed? Or are all the teachers women and the administrators men? Some schools say they can only afford to hire women, for whom the laughable salary is considered (by the school’s administration, at least) to be pin money, and whose part-time schedule suits their family life just fine. An Orthodox day school administrator admitted to a questioning parent: “Of course the teachers are all women. What man could live on these salaries, after all?”
One faculty structure, at a Conservative Hebrew day school, had one male, at the top and women in all other positions. This situation is, alas, hardly unique. According to a 1979 report by the American Association for Jewish Education, less than 10% of principals or chief administrators are women. Women are paid less for the same or comparable work, and promoted much less frequently than men. Women teachers may need to have a more positive sense of themselves—and certainly need to achieve pay equality—before they can convey positive images of womanhood to students.
• Is there a dress code that discriminates against girls—i.e., skirts always, or on Erev Shabbat? No girl can function comfortably in the playground in a skirt. There is also a message transmitted when girls are required to wear skirts each day: that they are to make themselves into objects, that they are to dress in a way that makes them (and the boys) conscious of their roles and their gender, in what should be a genderless situation. One teacher, protesting the situation in a Hebrew day school with just such a dress code for the girls, commented: “No matter how young they are, it doesn’t take long before boys in the playground will tease a girl about seeing her underpants.”
Jewish schools can always fall back on a Torah rationale for keeping males and females from cross-dressing. But one day school, asked to defend its anti-culotte regulation on these grounds, replied that “culottes aren’t boys’ clothing but we still don’t allow them for girls. Skirts are just our school uniform. Even some non-religious private schools require uniforms, so just think of it that way.”
• Is there unnecessary segregation of the sexes? In one school even class lists were separated according to gender—not even the names could touch! The underlying reality—and the lists were a clue—was that the social life of the students was also rigidly stratified by sex even in the primary grades even the seating arrangements at non-religious functions were by girls’ tables and boys’ tables.
• What pictures are on the wall? In one school, the corridors were lined with emotional blown-up photographs of Israeli scenes: men praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, soldiers in uniform at prayer, the shofar being blown by an old man with a tallit (prayer shawl) covering his head, men dancing with the Torahs on Simchat Torah. Not one picture showed a woman. The message was that women were—and should be—invisible in Jewish life; not heard, and not even seen!
• What hidden curriculum is presented by the images in textbooks and storybooks? According to a 1975 study prepared by the reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington:
“Most women are portrayed as housewives, while men are seen as doctors, judges, builders, etc. All temple activities are male-dominated with rabbis, presidents, and members of the Boards of Trustees pictured as men. Men carry the Torah, read from the Torah, etc. Men play the more important roles while women, if they are portrayed as active in synagogue life at all, serve in the Sisterhood and are shown as part of the congregation at worship, or opening the Ark, at best.
“Males are always shown as brighter and more active than females. In too many instances, the majority of main characters are male. Bible stories, history books and Hebrew books neglect the role of women, both historically and in story material.”
An even more pernicious example is the attractively illustrated Sh’ma series of storybooks published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. One, entitled About Learning, shows 133 males and only 24 females; worse, however, than this numerical imbalance is where the women and girls appear in the book.
In the sections “Torah is for Learning,” “A Leader is for Teaching,” and others, the illustrations show men teaching, holding the Torah, being wise; most of those learning are boys and men. But as soon as we get to the section “A Heart is for Caring” we have pictures of girls and women. A mother bends to minister to her little daughter. Another woman kneels in supplication. Worse, the Biblical tale used to illustrate the concept is the one where King Solomon decides who is the real mother of a disputed baby. We finally have a section (though stereotyped) where females are shown, and the story told is of competitiveness and manipulation, in a situation that had to be resolved by a wise male.
Though the book was originally published in 1971, it is still widely distributed and read, its alluring artwork making it even more damaging than some of the tackier sexist Jewish children’s stories on the market. This series looks as good as the best secular children’s books, and therefore may be taken more seriously by children than some of the other storybooks that sensitive parents would reject outright.
Dr. Gladys Rosen, convenor of a “consultation” on the portrayal of girls and women in school materials at the American Jewish Committee in 1978, writes:
In most study materials, the men have “the most highly prized characteristics such as intelligence, initiative and emotional strength while women have been defined in socio-biological terms with their functions largely limited to the home and family life.”
The texts that most schools use have few if any portrayals of girls and women in active roles in Jewish life. Jewish history, for example, is taught as the history of Jewish men. The few women who’ve had a role in shaping that history can be counted on one hand. And can be named by even fewer students.
As an exercise, a teacher in a Hebrew High School classroom asked her students, all of whom had had several years of after-school Hebrew school using standard texts, to name ten famous Jewish men and women. No one could name more than three women. With the exception of Gol-da Meir there was absolutely no sense of what roles women had played in Jewish life.
• Try to evaluate individual teachers on the staff both by sitting in the classroom when possible and by talking with them. Some may not support the institutionalized sexism of the Jewish schools. In one very gender-conscious Orthodox yeshiva, for instance, the male gym teacher insisted that girls participate in the same sports activities as boys (though of course the two sexes didn’t play together at gym, and the boys did take up the lion’s share of the gym space when sharing was necessary!). Another feminist reports:
“I went into a meeting with my son’s new sixth grade Hebrew day school teacher very suspicious. He looked like a very traditional young man, and I figured that he must be giving the students the party line on roles for men and women in the Bible and in Judaism. (I feel strongly that a limited view of women is as bad for my son to learn as my daughter.)
“Responding to a question, he said, ‘We stop and discuss the prayers we’re saying. For example, when we come to the prayer that the boys say each morning, thanking God for not having made them woman, I have told them that some people have interpreted that to mean that Jewish law has divided things up so that men are responsible for some rituals and women for others, or that certain mitzvot are reserved for women and others for men. I tell them that I don’t interpret the prayers that way, but that they were written in a time when people did believe that men and women had very different roles to play in Jewish life.'”
Tactics and Strategies for change
Armed with the results of your own observations, point out what you’ve seen to other parents, in the hope of enlisting some of them as allies. Parents seem to divide roughly into two camps—those who know the traditional sources and have a good Jewish education, but not much knowledge about the harm that sexism can do both to girls and to boys; and those who know about the dangers of limiting their daughters’ (and sons’) options but who have only limited Jewish backgrounds themselves and are therefore uneasy about rocking the Jewish boat.
Remember that a school supported largely by Jewish community funds—usually through the local Jewish Federation — will be much more likely to respond to parental pressure for change than will a “private” Hebrew school, whose principal is also often the principal fundraiser. In the private schools, the principal’s accountability is chiefly to the few wealthy donors who support the school (or, in the case of after-school schools, the synagogue). A community-supported school resembles a public school in that the parents have some voice in how things ought to be run. There may even be an “elected” school board which oversees educational policy, as opposed to a Board of Trustees, which, in effect, owns the school.
Here are some things a parent or parents’ group can do:
• Try to make sure that the parents association holds at least two open meetings each year, rather than handling all business through “class mothers,” or “liaison officers” who filter any suggestions and problems through to the administration. Open meetings, with agendas announced in advance, but with open microphone time, allow for some free discussion of the issues concerning gender roles in the school. At least in an open forum you’re assured that the protests of the concerned parents won’t get lost in the “liaison pipeline” that works in many schools to keep information away from the top leadership.
• Put forth the name of a local expert on non-sexist childrearing as a possible speaker at a PTA meeting. In the discussion period following the speaker’s talk, make sure that someone asks about and records the suggestions and comments on how non-sexist practices can be brought into the classroom. (Be prepared to be that “plant” in the audience asking for these suggestions.) Take notes and follow up.
• Try to identify those teachers who might support your vision of a more nearly egalitarian school. They might be very receptive to having parents present them with hard-to-find material, or welcome any other parental input. (See resource box for where to order some of these.)
Teachers can sensitize students to understand the bias that has left them with such gaps in their knowledge. Annette Daum, a master teacher herself, has designed a course to create such sensitization (see box); even grammar exercises can be used as lessons in the limits of gender-linked associations. The course, “Male and Female in Religion” has two goals for its first session:
1) to have the students examine the school curriculum to see how educational material presents the roles of men and women; and
2) to have the students recommend methods of avoiding role stereotyping in the religious school curriculum.
Students draw pictures and write descriptions of the “Jewish mother” and the “Jewish father,” so that they see where their own biases are.
They go on to explore Biblical stereotyping of men and women, and to rewrite some inaccurate, but commonly accepted English translations of Biblical Hebrew so as to restore them to their original and more egalitarian meaning.
One session is devoted to Jewish ritual, and the students are encouraged to write new ceremonies—for example, to celebrate the naming of a newborn daughter. Another focuses on Passover and the need to explore and expand upon the role of women in the Exodus story: Miriam, Jocheved, Zipporah, the midwives.
Daum’s course includes a session on women in Jewish history, particularly emphasizing the contribution of American Jewish women from Revolutionary times to the present. Some of the names on her list: Ernestine Rose, Rebecca Gratz and Hannah Solomon. Sometimes just looking for information on these women is a shock—there’s almost nothing on any women in standard Jewish reference books.
As their consciousness is raised through an understanding of the paucity of information about women in Jewish history, students begin to look at the language in which the history and liturgy were written—and who was writing them —and the class prepares a nonsexist service for the entire religious school. Daum says that “the language of prayer, especially language about God, is the most difficult to deal with. Students had difficulty understanding the problem until I substituted ‘She’ for ‘He’ in every prayer.”
One particularly useful aspect of the course is that it teaches the students to evaluate educational materials for themselves. With this approach, even negative or limiting portrayals of women can be useful: correcting them becomes a good learning device.
• Get the teachers to let you bring into the classroom men and women from the community—women rabbis, cantors, and experts in various fields of Judaica; men who are engaged in non-traditional pursuits (e.g., have a man who’s a good cook come in and share his favorite holiday recipes, or a man who’s a weaver show how he makes a tallit). Your hidden agenda, of course, is to have the children see these figures as role models, shaking loose the images implanted on their retinas by the rigidly defined men’s and women’s tasks pictured in most books and Jewish posters.
• Fight the dress code. A Conservative Hebrew day school was attempting to formulate a new dress code for the children, in which girls would be required to wear skirts at all times, not for religious but allegedly for aesthetic reasons. A group of parents met with the rabbi in charge of the school, and listed the reasons they opposed the change. Once the school administration was willing to discuss the issue, the parents (fathers as well as mothers) argued their case so strongly that the dress code was completely changed. Now it encourages “dressing especially nicely” for Erev Shabbat.
In the process of waging their battle, some of the parents learned a lesson that they could apply to other school situations as well: that religion is sometimes the handmaiden for the policies that the school’s administrator wanted to employ anyway, with no awareness of his own hypocrisy.
• Change the bulletin boards. In one school—despite walls with posters showing Mommy at home in an apron with Dvoreleh and David and the dog, Daddy going off to work with a briefcase —one single parent head-of-household got the school to recognize the fact that more than 75% of its students came from families other than the four-member one up on the wall.
She suggested the children bring in and post their own family pictures. The children felt much more comfortable seeing photographs on the wall of their own families at various Jewish celebrations—at weddings, in a Succah, holding a fresh-baked challah, etc. The children were better able to feel comfortable that Judaism was for them too, not just for the Dick-and-Jane style of nuclear family.
• Bring in a list (or some samples) of nonsexist books for Jewish children (see resource box). Suggest that some of these books be ordered for the annual book fair —most schools hold these in conjunction with Jewish Book Month in November. Protest to the librarian about any book your child brings home from Hebrew school that is especially limiting in its representation of girls and women. Better yet is to shore up the library’s holdings by’making a gift to the library of a nonsexist book (or poster) in honor of your child’s birthday, or in commemoration of any other event. Offer the librarian a copy of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations’ guidelines for authors (see box) so that she can have some tools with which to evaluate new books.
• Car-pooling or just transporting the children to Hebrew school is a killer for many parents and especially mothers, upon whom the burden usually falls. Point out to the school that there will not always be a large pool of unemployed mothers who can be called upon to chauffeur. Suggest van service, paid for by the parents who use it.
Teaching your Children to make Changes
Of course if the weight of these suggestions come from home and not from the school—and especially if there seems to be little support for addressing issues of equality in the classroom—you might want to discuss with your child the risks involved in trying to make change her/ himself.
Speaking out, or even asking questions about equality, may earn short-term disapproval, or may get your child labelled a “troublemaker.” One young woman in an Orthodox high school for girls was warned by a teacher not to be outspoken, or the rabbis who directed the school would see her as “a bad match” and withhold introductions to eligible young men. Obviously, cases this extreme are not common.
If queries and even protests about the portrayal of women in the school setting are backed by some information, the student is likely to be respected for her interest, especially if the teacher is a woman, which, as we know, is usually the case.
Our sons as well as our daughters need to be encouraged to speak out when they recognize that a certain course, or textbook, or picture shows a limited and incorrect view of Jewish women. It may be harder for them because they see themselves as primarily unaffected by such sexism, and they may be subject to disapprobation or scorn from boys less sensitive to the issues. But this is a marvelous opportunity for them to experience first hand the feeling of speaking out against another’s oppression. It also helps them to see their own roles—as males—in the light of traditional male privilege.
Here are some questions you might ask of your child (depending on her/his age) that might also emerge in the classroom: What might women’s lives have been like in the particular period being studied? (For example, how might Jewish women have reacted to the Enlightenment? What were circumstances like for women’s education during the Golden Age of the Jews in Spain?) Even if the history teacher doesn’t know the answers when the students bring up questions like these in class, asking is a useful consciousness-raiser in itself.
In classes on Jewish religious practices, ask why traditional liturgy blesses our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and not always our mothers Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca and Leah. Why have females been excluded from the minyan [worshippers’ quorum], from Torah reading, and from other important aspects of ritual celebration? (This could get the students into an interesting discussion about role definitions for men and women.)
Girls might want to see what happens if they wear a kippah (head covering) at prayers, or a tallit (if the post-Bar Mitzvah boys do in that school) — the girls could both discover what it feels like to wear these garments, if they never have, and see the school’s reaction and that of the other students.
Questions that might be asked about —and in—ethics classes could focus occasionally on the new understanding of equality that the women’s movement has given us as Jewish women. Just as we try to live our lives as Jews by having Jewish values inform every aspect of our lives— business dealings, treating our neighbors well, and so on—ask how we can bring feminist values of equality into a Jewish setting.
For a majority of students, the hours spent in an afternoon Hebrew school or in Sunday school constitute their only Jewish learning experience. Therefore, what happens there is crucial to the formation of their attitudes—and, for girls, their self-image, too. Moreover, many families rely on the Jewish school to carry the burden of (or the responsibility for) establishing the child’s Jewish identity. Since there is often little countervailing Jewish reality .at home, Jewish schools must be especially careful not to exclude any child, regardless of gender, from any aspect of Jewish life.
We don’t want to raise a generation of Jews who see that in the outside world men and women are advancing—albeit slowly—toward more nearly equal opportunities while the Judaism they’re exposed to in Hebrew school shows a community making little or no commitment to gender justice.
The consequence may be that young Jewish women will see opportunities for themselves in the secular world, but few in Jewish life (with the exception of the role models provided by women rabbis in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements). Having learned well the lesson that Judaism is a men’s club, they may vote with their feet, and choose not to identify with Judaism as adults.
This is not to suggest that the community as a whole hasn’t made some progress toward equalizing female and male roles, especially in the last decade, but that what goes on in the classroom has often failed to transmit any sense of that changing reality to students. It’s the rare school that exposes its students to the new books, rituals, non-sexist liturgies and historical studies of Jewish women that Jewish feminist activists have created.
With premature optimism, some of us thought that the gains made by women in the Jewish religious and communal spheres in the 1970’s would travel by osmosis into all areas of Jewish life. We hoped that the real changes women worked to bring about — the entry of women into the Reform rabbinate, the equalizing of aliyah and minyan in Conservative synagogues, the advance of Orthodox women into certain non-traditional communal roles—would automatically slow and arrest the sexism that had crept into so many areas of our lives as Jews.
We were wrong.
It turns out that we are going to have to continue the struggle for equality into the next generation, and monitor very closely the ways in which our sons and daughters are being taught to be Jews. Unless we are vigilant, and willing to use the tools the feminist movement has given us for making change, our daughters may have to fight the same battles again. Our challenge as parents and concerned educators is to build on what we already know about how positive change can be made, eliminating sexism from Jewish education and creating instead a Jewish model for teaching gender justice.
—by Susan Weidman Schneider
Where to Find Support
There are educators who lead in-service consciousness-raising groups for teachers and parents to help them understand the issues, and to help them use the materials they have to sensitize the students. For further information:
250 W. 57th St.
New York, NY 10019
Union of American Hebrew
838 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY 10021
(Also from this address you can order the UAHC Guidelines for Authors, which suggests ways of eliminating gender bias in texts and storybooks, and “Male and Female in Religion,” a course outline.)
Speakers Bureau/Feminist Task Force Coalition on
Alternatives in Jewish Education
468 Park Ave. So., Room 904
New York, NY 10016
To inform yourself about films you could suggest to the school or order for a parents’ group, see “An evaluative guide to media materials for use in Jewish schools, camps, youth groups” available from:
Jewish Media Service
Jewish Welfare Board
15 East 26 St.
New York, NY 10010
Out of the Conservative movement comes a periodical with excellent reviews of books and curricula relevant to Jewish educators—and, by extension, to parents:
The Melton Center Newsletter
Jewish Theological Seminary
New York NY 10025
Aside from keeping your eyes open for new (and, hopefully, egalitarian) Jewish books and films for your children, you can connect with a network of Jewish educators and other professionals to keep yourself (and by extension your child’s school) informed of new programs,, texts, and curricula.
Workbooks published by Alternatives in Jewish Education, 3945 S. Oneida St., Denver CO 80237 tend to have an egalitarian (and non-denominational) approach to many aspects of Jewish life, including life-cycle events that involve children and some of the more painful transitions in life such as divorce and death. You are pretty safe with almost any of the books and mini-courses on their list. For suggestions of questions to ask of your child’s school, and an extensive . checklist to identify and eliminate sex stereotyping in the classroom, Dr. Carol Poll, sex desegregation specialist, has compiled the Sex Equity Resource Guide published by the New York City public schools. It’s available from:
Sex Desegregation Program
Board of Education
110 Livingston St.
Brooklyn NY 11201
TABS: Aids for Ending Sexism
744 Carroll St.
Brooklyn NY 11215
This booklet has helpful suggestions about educational sexism in general that can be applied to Jewish schools. For adults guiding young children beyond stereotypes: Equal Play, a quarterly resource magazine from,
Women’s Action Alliance
370 Lexington Ave.
New York NY 10017