This Jewish Girls’ School Is Challenging The Status Quo By Including Feminism In Its Lessons

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We’re all familiar with the definition of feminism: the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. But we believe there should be a fourth strand added: religion. It is one of the most powerful institutions where patriarchy, oppression and discrimination can go unchecked due to the premise of closely held beliefs.

However, with the amount of women standing up and demanding an equal space in leadership and decision-making roles, the idea that women are less than equal in certain religions and should be treated as such starts to fall apart. The Church of England, the Latter Day Saints, Islam and even Orthodox Judaism is seeing a movement of female empowerment in a way that is in line with their beliefs and gives them an even greater voice within their faith.

In Judaism, women have been able to become ordained for a short while now, but it was only a few months ago that an American woman became the first to hold the official title of “Rabbi”, as opposed to Rabbah as other female leaders were called. The notion of feminism being present in orthodox Judaism is not so much of a juxtaposition anymore, instead it is slowly becoming more and more common amongst women of the faith.

In Israel, a Jewish school for girls is now making it their mission to include feminist studies in their curriculum because they believe it will allow an entire generation of girls to think critically about their faith in a way women have not been able to before in such a open and accepted way.

The Midrashiya Girls High School in Jerusalem was established in 2007 and has combined Jewish tradition and learning with feminist ideology. Their aim is to “nurture public and personal identity, encourage meaningful academic and community achievements, and develop a deep understanding of Judaism, Israel and the world” says a description on the website.

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The school is dedicated to female empowerment in the school’s Beit Midrash study, prayer, physical education, and community involvement. So successful is their curriculum that the Ministry of Education has asked them to develop a model that can be used in Orthodox girls’ high schools around Israel. Leaders are now turning to this school to find out how they can combine the core tenets of their faith and empower the next generation of Orthodox female leaders.

There are three main components to the curriculum: the “intellectual” through beit midrash studies; the “spiritual” through public prayer; and the “physical” through the body-soul consciousness program.The subjects cover a range of topics including Torah reading, body image, and feminist ideology. This is a huge step forward for women and girls within the Orthodox faith as for a long time there have been significant barriers stopping women from participating in public life and self-realization.

Midrashiya currently has 280 students from grade 7 through to 12, and a staff of 60. One of the advantages is that the staff are young men and women mostly in their 20s and 30s, who have grown up with feminism as a common theme throughout their lives.

What gave way to the idea of this school was Midrashiya’s parent organization, the Shalom Hartman Institute, founded more than 30 years ago by Rabbi Prof. David Hartman, which is “a research, training and enrichment center for the development of educational programs and religious leadership based on a spirit of modernity and pluralism” according to Jpost.com.

Years ago, they launched a successful boys school to translate the founding organization’s ideas into practical application. They soon realized there was a need to replicate this with a girls’ school.

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“We cannot be a truly pluralistic and egalitarian institute if we only have a school for boys. It was clear that we should also have a girls’ school,” said Hana Gilat, executive director of the Shalom Hartman Institute, to the Jpost.

“The boys’ school was founded to create a new model of what it means to be an Orthodox Jew committed to Halacha yet embracing modernity and living within the modern world and a Jewish and democratic Israel,” says Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the man who pushed for the creation of the Midrashiya and its innovative feminist approach.

“As an institute that embraces gender equality, without a girls’ school our platform was incomplete. Our mission was to create a school built from the bottom up around the challenges facing young Orthodox women in the modern world. We did not want to use a male model but rather a structure that answers the fundamental questions of these young women – their status, finding a voice in Jewish tradition and feeling good about themselves,” he continued.

The school does not have an Orthodox male rabbi, and nearly all the teachers are women who provide students with the knowledge of female role models in modern religion.

“We strive to reinforce the feeling that women have a place in tradition, as well as general society. The curriculum is centered around the beit midrash so that the girls can develop their own voice and discover what it means to be a modern Orthodox woman spiritually, morally, intellectually and physically,” Dr. Donniel said.

Within lessons, the female students are encouraged to look at everything, including religious texts and prayer, from a feminist angle. The body-soul consciousness program is said to be a ground-breaker for a school like this because it discusses a topic well-known to girls in greater society, but not necessarily addressed through religious institutions.

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“Young girls receive many conflicting messages. On the one hand, they are told they need to be beautiful, thin and smart. The body image they get from society is an unrealistic one that often leads to low self-esteem and eating disorders. On the other hand, religious young girls are told they need to be modest, hide their bodies and not speak out too loudly. These messages are extremely potent during the adolescent years when girls are developing physically and emotionally, and it can be very confusing,” said Merav Badichi, principal of the Midrashiya.

The reaction from parents has been predominantly positive as they see the value in raising both boys and girls in the knowledge of equality, especially within the parameters of their faith.

“We attend Shira Hadasha, an Orthodox egalitarian minyan, so we wanted a school that would also have an egalitarian Orthodox approach, accept women reading from the Torah and encourage their being more active in participating in Jewish life,” said Saul Singer, a dad who has a daughter in the 9th grade at Midrashiya.

“The main reason we chose to send our girls to the Midrashiya is pluralism. This was something I found important in the boys’ school, where I was free to express my opinions. I learned there that I can influence things and I live in a society where I can make a difference. The Midrashiya is open to other opinions, and the girls are allowed to develop their ideas and opinions,” said Eyal Goldstein, a graduate of the boys school himself who now has two daughters in the Midrashiya.

“In most schools, the students get material, learn and then regurgitate it for the test. At the Midrashiya, the girls get involved in the texts and their meanings. They are educated to think, get involved and make a difference,” he continued.

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While there are some within the Orthodox faith who may disagree with the inclusion of feminist principles and allowing girls to examine such fundamental tenets such as prayer and Torah reading through a feminist lens, some of the teachers expressed to reporter Yair Ettinger at Haaretz.com that they are not trying to indoctrinate the girls into feminism, rather they are equipping them with the ability to critically examine all aspects of religion from different perspectives and believe it will impact them as they move through their adult life.

The Midrashiya school is a much welcomed presence in the academic faith sector.

“This move by the ministry is a recognition of feminism and the fact that to empower religious women, you need to speak to them in the language of feminism and Jewish identity,” said Channa Pinchasi, a feminist activist and leader of the Hartman Institute’s feminist beit midrash.

Professor Alive Shalvi, one of the founders of the Israeli Women’s Network and former principal of the Orthodox feminist Pelech Girls’ High School in Jerusalem looks at the Midrashiya school as personal vindication for her own efforts. She resigned from Pelech in 1990 after teaching there for 15 years because the then-head of the religious education in the ministry told her to desist from feminist activities and from her political involvement or they would withdraw Pelech’s accreditation. She could not abandon her beliefs, so she left her role instead.

“How far we have come. I, who was spurned for my feminist views, now see these very views recognized and even funded by the Education Ministry,” she expressed to the Jpost.

It is indeed vindication, more than that, a clear indication that feminism is not the common enemy of faith as many would perhaps think. To see an Orthodox school incorporate it into the foundations of its curriculum is encouraging. Only time will tell as to how this teaching will impact society, as a generation of Orthodox young women step out of the shadows and make their mark on the world and their faith in new ways.

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