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Report Card on Sexist Education

New York —A “consultation” on sexism in Jewish education was held last February under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee in New York. Chaired by Dr. Gladys Rosen of the Committee’s Jewish Communal Affairs Department, the gathering— entitled “Portrayal of Girls and Women in the Texts and Curricula of Jewish Schools” —brought together educators, rabbis, authors and interested lay people from every point on the Jewish spectrum.

More than half the 40 discussants seemed to have come to the conference believing that there is indeed a bias against females in Jewish education, both in their portrayal in texts and in the courses offered girls. The five men at the consultation were heavily represented in the minority who didn’t see sexism as a) existing at all, or b) a problem in Jewish education.

In her opening address, Rivkah Blau, principal of Manhattan Hebrew High School for Girls (Orthodox), called for better Hebrew education— including the study of primary sources—for girls and boys. (Her school’s brochure states that “typing will be required for graduation.”)

Annette Daum of the Religious Action Department of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform) urged the adoption of non-sexist terms for God in prayers and texts, and suggested sensitivity training for Hebrew teachers to help them recognize and eliminate bias in texts and courses.

Rabbi David Resnick, director of Prozdor, the high school program at the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative), said that references to God in male terms didn’t indicate a sexist bias; it merely reflected reality: “Even very small children see that men are bigger and stronger than women.” He added that masculine terminology for God expressed not gender but “power.”

Rabbi Bruce Rachlin, principal of Bas Torah Academy (Orthodox) in Monsey, NY, said he “allows” his female staff members to be very visible to the students and to speak at assemblies. He added that he has a hard time relating “Jewishly” to women’s issues. “My biggest problem is getting the girls to take themselves seriously.”

One of the women participants responded that if the young women students had books and curricula which presented them with strong female role models they might take themselves more seriously as Jews.