Inside the insular Jewish community where school headmistress Malka Leifer allegedly preyed on girls
Mother-of-eight Malka Leifer looked like the perfect school principal until she was accused of being a sexual predator. This is the Australian Story of three sisters’ battle to bring their alleged abuser to justice amid the Adass Israel community in Melbourne that encouraged silence.
By: Sharon Berger (March 16, 2018)
I HAD MY GREATEST revelation about Judaism while studying Arabic in Cairo. I was in the middle of my master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford. Part of the course requirement was spending the summer learning a language. So a few classmates and I spent the summer eating ful, falafel and koshari and studying Arabic at the British Council in the Egyptian capital.
It was my first time in the Middle East outside of Israel and the scale of this bustling city of millions was different to anything I had ever experienced. There were people everywhere, including communities living in the cemeteries.
I made an effort to attend synagogue in both Cairo and Alexandria. It was sad to see what had once been flourishing communities reduced to shells of their former selves. There were no rabbis, no one who could lead services and no Hebrew-Arabic siddurim, which meant services had more of a social than religious emphasis.
Walking back from synagogue one afternoon I realised that there were many religious Muslim women who, according to their tradition, were modestly dressed. As this was the ‘90s, that included wearing trousers and sometimes a loosely-tied head scarf over their hair. According to their religious leaders (all male), this was acceptable and the women were devout practitioners of Islam.
Our religious leaders (all male) had come to a different interpretation of what modest, or tznius, entailed. In addition there is a Biblical injunction that women cannot wear men’s clothing, so frum Orthodox women do not wear trousers or shorts even if they are loose fitting and designed for women.
Seeing these “frum” Muslim women wearing trousers made me feel that the religious norms we accept are rather arbitrary and often interpreted through the lenses of men, if not man-made. This has been reinforced over the years as the male interpretation of modesty has become more extreme in both Islam and Judaism.
Today women in Cairo routinely wear hijab or niqab, while young Orthodox girls in Beit Shemesh in Israel face verbal and physical abuse for wearing sleeves that stop at the elbows.
I don’t mean to diminish the enormous wisdom and knowledge of our sages but I find it hard to accept that all this wisdom, including how women should dress and act, was all interpreted, stored and passed down to men, giving women no say in matters which directly affect them. Talk about disempowering.
These feelings were recently reinforced while watching a video from Israeli TV, in which Orthodox Rabbi Dov Halbertal, former head of the Office of the Chief Rabbi, publicly defended a Haredi magazine’s decision to blur the image of women in the Holocaust.
Rabbi Halbertal claimed it was done to “protect” the women and their image. I was angered at the idea that a man, no matter how learned, could be making such a presumptuous opinion about me and all of my gender, particularly those who had suffered so deeply in the Holocaust and whose identity was now being erased – in their “honour”.
This sentiment is not new for Rabbi Halbertal, who previously said “there is no greater value for Haredi women than modesty,” in justifying opposition to a campaign to raise awareness for breast cancer screening in the Haredi city of Bnei Brak. So without discussing the idea that saving a life should trump the needs of modesty, I think it’s important to recognise the increasingly damaging effects of such attitudes, which are not isolated to one or two rabbis.
Targeted advertising campaigns to the Haredi community in Israel have been the norm for many years, with advertisers attempting to show respect for community norms. However, as increased stringencies become more commonplace, women have literally been erased.
Last year, Ikea in Israel printed an entire catalogue with no women in it, in deference to Haredi norms. If that wasn’t bad enough, government-funded institutions like health funds routinely show only male images in Haredi areas, effectively rendering 50 per cent of the population invisible, even though the women pay taxes and are users of these health funds.
Last year, Ikea in Israel printed an entire catalogue with no women in it, in deference to Haredi norms. If that wasn’t bad enough, government-funded institutions like health funds routinely show only male images in Haredi areas.
In Israel this campaign is not just about printed images but also extends to women dancing and singing in public, with Haredim refusing to attend ceremonies where these events occur. As the Haredim continue to grow demographically and politically, these exceptions become the new norm.
The separation and marginalisation of women manifests itself in increasingly extreme outcomes. Haredi soldiers refuse to stay on a base with women, there are separate sidewalks for men and women in Haredi areas and the list grows. This effort to remove women from the public image has huge ramifications for our daughters and ourselves, actively diminishing our role models and possibilities.
By controlling and marginalising women, organised religion continues to play a role that today seems antiquated to me. For this reason I have found a new home in the Masorti community where prayer and opportunities are open to all and not divided on gender lines. And nobody cares what I wear.
Yet after moving back to Sydney – and 11 years later – I am surprised how often I continue to feel marginalised at community events. More often than not an entire evening will have all male speakers, or at best a token female moderator. Organisers either don’t notice or don’t care that 50 per cent of the audience has no public representation. It makes me feel invisible, irrelevant and angry.
While this is nothing on the scale of what is happening in Israel, it’s hugely detrimental to both the men and women in the audience and the community in general.
Photo: Ikea’s Israeli catalogue for Haredim did not show any images of females
Is Vice President Mike Pence delusional when he thinks Jesus is talking to him? Is a Georgia senator’s proposed law (in response to FFRF victories) to allow public school teachers to pray with students constitutional?
Ari Hershkowitz grew up in an insular Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, and was featured in the award-winning Netflix documentary “One of Us.” He spoke to us about the toxicity of religious indoctrination, the horrific abuse he suffered as a child, his descent into drug addiction, and finally, his emergence from the darkness of religion into liberation, enlightenment, and personal success with the help of organizations like FootstepsOrg.org.
“a person’s faith, or lack thereof, is often so important that it affects physical, as well as spiritual, well-being.”
How a loss of faith can manifest itself in the mind and body Ray has been a psychologist for more than 30 years and founded Recovering From Religion, an organization that connects nonbelievers with therapists and each other. According to Ray, it generally takes depressed deconverts two to three years for their health to bounce back.
By Etty Ausch, starring in the Netflix Documentary One Of Us:
Before my engagement, I never heard of the word “sex.” Just before I was married off, I attended bridal classes where I learned the basic mechanics of sex. I felt confused and terrified, and the wedding night brought me no reassurance, since my husband had also learned nothing but the utilitarian mechanics of sex.
What’s fueling the growing phenomenon in Israel of datlashim – the Hebrew acronym for formerly religious Jews? And how big is it in real numbers? Based on surveys conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Chotam religious lobbying organization found that, among the National Religious public, only 46% of those who defined themselves as religious in 2002 remained so 10 years later.
Excellent article from imamother.com:
People going through religious struggles or an off-the-derech journey are often confronted by well-meaning individuals who make useless and even offensive comments. I did a little survey of my OTD friends and here are the worst offenders, in no particular order: 1. Oh, you’re off the derech? You must meet my Rabbi.
From the moderators of the Off the Derech Facebook group, a new social media outlet with the following description:
Why do people go off the derech? How can we bring frum and frei together? Well, just join the conversation and have a virtual coffee in our OTD FYI group.
And, FYI, the group is called OTD FYI.
Interesting linksHere are some interesting links for you! Enjoy your stay :)
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