The Tenuous Balance

It’s been just about two months since we started here in our new life. It’s been a really great, if incredibly stressful experience so far. We’ve had our ups and downs – since school started, we’ve done Welcome Week, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot (almost all the way through) and we’re about to get to Simchat Torah.

One thing the holidays have done, aside from make the entire staff more stressed out than we’d prefer, is to bring my own religious observance to the forefront. As with most of this job, if we’d had more time to prepare, I think it would have been an easier transition. For instance, I had been all set to begin covering my hair more consistently, knowing that the move to New York would signify the beginning of my husband’s career as a Rabbinical student. However, working on campus brings a whole other set of considerations. There’s already an Orthodox woman on our staff, and she operates in that role – Rabbi’s wife, mother, Jewish educator – and she’s good at it. For me, as Program Director? I probably need to go in a different direction. So, I decided on wide headbands for Shabbat, for right now. It makes me more comfortable, since I had gotten so used to covering, but is less intrusive than a full-head cover. At least, to me. Hopefully the students don’t notice it too much.

The other thing I hadn’t counted on was the difference of being in a smaller place. On one hand, working at Hillel, there are lots of choices and chances for Jewish observance – but sometimes that makes it easy to just float, rather than make definitive decisions about my own observance. In fact, sometimes, professionally, I’m required to float, especially on Friday night.

So, I float a little bit less securely at the moment, but I think that, in a way this too will help me with my religious life in the future – more experience won’t hurt me, at least this kind. And I look forward to seeing what the next few months will bring!

Mentees as Mentors

As I have mentioned here before, I am privileged to be a mentor to a few phenomenal young women. (Hi ladies! I love you!)  These young women are on a mission to grow both as modern women and religious jews – and I am lucky enough to help them discuss where these coincide.

Over the past few weeks I have had some particularly powerful conversations with some of them, really delving into the issues at hand and how they play out in their lives.  Each has a different story, but the underlying message is the same: how does a young, intelligent, modern woman find a meaningful place in religious Judaism. While I hope someday to have a great answer, in the interim it leads to a lot of conversations, research, and personal growth for all of us.  The big picture of this is not the point of this post though, that is for another day – what I want to share today is about the mentorship which I have gotten myself from these ladies.

Every time they approach me with a question or to share their newest experiences and challenges, it gives me an opportunity for growth as well.  I had the joy of walking to taslich with one of these fine young women, and getting to hear about her recent trip to Israel and the effects which it had on her. As someone who in the past year or so has become Shomer Shabbat and Shomer Kashrut, she is in a particularly interesting period of growth – really trying to find meaning as she embarks on her newly religious life.  Listening to her share her experiences was very inspiring for me, and reminded me of why I have become the person I have.  It is difficlt to be a Jewish feminist in a world where that seems to mean hair covering is bad but wearing a kippah is good and mikvah is bad but leyning is good.

My relationship with these women has given me such a wonderful opportunity to talk through these issues and find comraderie.  It has shown me the value of having a balanced person to talk to about the struggles of being a religious Jewish woman in modernity.  It has given me a place to find my passion in life.  I hope to one day create a venue through which I can continue this sort of mentorship with more young women trying to find their place and to keep learning and growing myself so I can truly grasp the full spectrum of the experience, and someday the laws.

How much is enough?

Coverage that is.

Post by Melissa

I feel like I am on an ever evolving path in my religiosity (didn’t know that was a real word, awesome!) and outward expression thereof. Lately this has been affecting many aspects of my life, as well as D’s, as we reevaluate some of our choices and alter our plans to move forward. Just as Jessica and R’s plans were drastically changed with one phone call, so to did ours.  However, ours are not solid enough yet for public consumption, so you’ll have to wait to hear the details. In the interim, you get more glimpses into how this affects our lives and how it plays out in my head.

Right now, I’m facing a conundrum over how to cover my hair.  While I am comfortable in my modesty level with my clothing and have taken steps to continually express myself while being consistently tzanua, I don’t feel the same confidence in hair covering.

As I’ve mentioned countless times on this blog, I like having variety and I like covering my hair.  However I feel almost hypocritical when I leave some showing, as most of the time I fully cover and am vocal about finding it to be a meaningful experience to do so.  I don’t think tying a scarf in such a way that the last inch or so of my hair hangs out is inherently bad, I’m just not sure its consitent with tying a scarf so that none of my hair shows.  Espescially not when doing so interhchangably.

So this Shabbat, I pushed myself a little. I straightened my hair on Friday afternoon and when I got dressed for Shul on Saturday morning, I wore a scarf tied so the bottom bit hung down. I even put a fun flower pin on it.  I felt like I looked pretty, and I got a lot of compliments. Does that somehow take away from the mitzvah and modesty though? I wear scarves tyed in a pretty way and don’t think its a problem, why should this be?  Aren’t we supposed to beautify mitzvot anyway? Isn’t that why we have beautiful mezuzot, chunkiot, and Shabbat candle sticks?  Isn’t that one of the reasons for Chazanut, and even choirs?

I wish I had the answers, but right now, I just have musings.  Please share your own musings and insights with me, I would love the feedback…

Tzniut and Interviews

Post by Melissa

Lately, I’ve been on a spree of professional interviews, and every time I pick out my clothing, I go through an internal debate about what to wear and how to cover my head.  So despite the conversations I’ve been engaged in on this topic elsewhere, I thought it would be interesting to hear your thoughts as well.

In the warmer months, I don’t feel so weird about my clothing choices.  Typically I will wear a knee length pencil skirt with a shell and blazer.  Before I was dressing tzanuah (modest) this was also pretty much what I would wear on summer-time interviews.  This look doesn’t becomes out of place until you are wearing it with leggings and boots and a long down coat when it is 20′F and snowing, as happened to me this past winter.

I think the more difficult part is headcovering.  As previously stated, I will not wear a sheitel, so there goes that option for blending in.  In some of the places I’m interviewing the clientèle is lower-income people and a simple tichel may look more like a “do-rag” in those settings, even if it is tied nicely.  So I have mostly taken to wear nice crocheted snoods (as seen on me in the above photo) but even that doesn’t always feel appropriate.  I feel that it is important to cover my head in a way which I am comfortable doing if offered a position, but its hard to strike a balance of what is also interview appropriate.

I also then feel the compulsion to comment on my hair covering. So towards the end of my time asking questions I will typically say something to the effect of “I cover my hair for religious reasons.  There are a variety of ways I can do this which can be discussed if you chose to hire me.”  This never fails to feel awkward, but I sometimes feel like if I don’t say it, it is as though I have avoided the pink elephant in the room.

So I ask you, my beloved readers, what do you do (or have you seen done) which is appropriate, in all meanings of the word?  What would you wear? Would you speak up about it?

I have to add, this week I interviewed with a Jewish education and outreach program which is run by a religious person, and it was so nice to know I could wear my tichel (tied in the Urban Wrap style from Style Underground) and be accepted.  Though I have interviewed with many Jewish organizations, this was the first time my interviewer (who would also be my boss) was a religious person, and it really made such a difference in my comfort level!

Reflections on a year of hair covering

Post by Melissa

If I have learned anything in the past year of full time hair covering, it is definitely that anything with elastic is amazing and variety is the spice of life. I also have found that having super fun hats for special occasions makes the attention received for having your hair covered about more than just your hair being covered, it becomes also about your extravagant hat. Sometimes going big and making a statement makes it easier to be different.

I spent the year (or-so) before my wedding building up a collection of hats and scarves and getting used to having things on my head, as I had never tolerated that well in the past.  When we first got married I wore a lot of hats which came just above my ears (think baseball cap sized, but more fun and stylish), pre-tied bandannas, and rectangular scarves tied in a simple bun.  It was not uncommon that whatever I chose would drive me crazy, and by lunchtime I would be in the stores across the street from my office searching for something else I could put on my head that day. My hat and scarf collection grew rapidly in the early months as I truly struggles with what I felt comfortable in, both for modesty reasons and physical comfort.

Come winter, I quickly discovered an additional complication.  It was difficult to cover my hair nicely and not have my ears freeze off! I was able to find a few nice hats/caps which served double purpose, and then had my sister-in-law crochet me a headband I could wear with my tichel to keep my ears and forehead warm.  The combination served me well in the colder months.  However as spring approached I was looking for something different again.  I had started to grow my hair out a bit, after having kept it chin length since cutting 9″ to donate after the wedding, and the length was getting to be difficult to get under the scarf well without a lot of bobby pins (which often give me headaches).  At this point I was introduced to a woman who sold beautifully crocheted snoods, and bought two to try out.  D and I both agreed that they looked nice, and I soon bought a few more from her as well as some more casual slouch-hats that could serve the same purpose.

Recently Jessica found a blog with videos on more fun ways to tie scarves which introduced me to my current favorite hair covering supplier – The Style Underground.  I have not only found scarves which are slip resistant because of how she makes them, but they are gorgeous to boot and Julie (the designer and owner) is a fabulous woman to interact with.  (She isn’t even aware I’m saying these great things about her, so trust me – its worth checking out!) I have recently started trying to adapt her video style inspirations to work with my shorter hair, and get so many compliments on the new way I wear my scarves most often.  I have found the Urban Wrap to be very comfortable and with much less pressure than I had anticipated, and by wrapping it so much across the head, the weight is more evenly distributed which reduces the weight being on the back of your head causing it to slip down.

I have had friends who are just getting married, or just looking to cover their hair, or looking for a new way to cover it ask me about my process and what I found to be the best, so I shall leave you with some partign words.  I think that what works for me right now, may not be what works for you or even for me down the road.  The journey is important when taking on this mitzvah.  It is crucial to experiment and slowly build a stash of head coverings that work for you and have variety.  No matter how much you may like one look, there will be days where you just want something different, so allowing yourself to play around with different options keeps head covering a fun part of getting ready and not a mundane obligation.

Do you have insights or questions about hair covering? Please share!

Future of Women in Judaism

As mentioned on our Facebook Fan Page, I was recently asked to write a piece about the future of Judaism as it relates to women’s involvement.  I took it on in a true Melissa form and am both proud of the result and humbled at its inclusion.  To see my byline alongside Anita Diamant (Author and Found of Mayyim Hayyim) and Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz (Founder of Uri L’Tzedek) is one of the greatest honors in my life.

Since I am spending today in the car with my parents, headed to celebrate my niece’s 6th birthday I leave you with a few links to peruse in my absence.

My piece for the Future of Judaism Series at Patheos: An Ever-Evolving Judaism: Women Meeting the Needs of Community

The entire “Future of Judaism” series at Patheos.

A brief blog post about the series which acknowledged my piece from MyJewishLearning.com

I’d love to hear your feedback!

Friday Question: Do you…

We’re introducing a new segment of the blog — Friday Questions!  These will be random things which come in the blogosphere or our real lives which we want to get our readers feedback on.  If you have a question you’d like to get answers to, feel free to email Melissa (Melissa  at RedefiningRebbetzin dot com)

Our first question is inspired by a conversation Melissa had with fellow blogista, Hadassah Sabo Milner of In the Pink, today.

Do you always wear tights/nylons/socks? How do you feel about sandals in the summer or otherwise visible feet? Are there any stipulations to your feelings about these things?

MSG says (respectively): No! Love them! (I’m pretty sure Miriam wore sandals in the desert.) Very few, unless I’m in a setting where my not being in nylons will really make me feel uncomfortable for being outside the norm of the community, I’m not into them (though I do wear them for warmth in the winter, but that is a totally different question).

The women who inspire me….

Post by Melissa (Photo Copyright realphotography.com)

Into each of our lives, come people who inspire us and who we look to for advice and mentorship.  I am lucky to have had a few Rebbetzins as these people in my life, who I can only hope to emulate in some small way when my time comes.  I want to take a moment to talk about the three Rebbetzin mentors I have had to date, and the strongest lessons I have learned from them.

The first Rebbetzin who really made a positive impact on my life and serves as my mental inspiration, is Debbie.  Debbie was always happy to welcome new and familiar faces to both the synagogue and her home.  I will never forget the first time I had lunch at her home and she said the following when I asked if I could help: “This is your first time here, you are a guest.  Next time you come, don’t wait this long. Just make yourself comfortable and do what needs to be done.” Granted, it has been a few years so my recollection may have slightly changed her words, but definitely not the thought behind them.  Debbie also had four children underfoot, so having friendly visitors who could be useful was a great asset.  She was sure to find a balance between making new people feel welcomed and appreciated and treated as guests, and also making sure everything happened and people felt comfortable in her home.

The second Rebbetzin who has strongly impacted my life is Tammy (pictured happily dancing with me at my wedding).  Tammy may be the wife of a Rabbi and the mother of four wonderful teenagers, but her knowledge and wisdom goes far beyond that.  I was recently engaged in a conversation about who our Rabbi’s were, and I had to admit that honestly, mine is not anyone with smicha (Rabbinic ordination), but rather – Tammy.  She is the person I approach with my questions and the one I trust to give me a truthful and halachic answer, that is also relevant to life as a Jewish woman.  Tammy takes the time to get to know the people in her community and to find ways to get people involved.  She is always happy to help connect people to each other and the greater Jewish community.  I know that I can not attempt to count the ways in which she has enriched my life,  including and most importantly – introducing D to our synagogue’s young adult community.

Last, but certainly not least – and certainly not the last Rebbetzin who will inspire me, is Melanie.  Melanie is not only a Rebbetzin in my community, but a very dear friend.  On a regular basis she reminds me, and others, that it is but one of many hats she wears.  While her husband is a Rabbi, she too has a professional and personal life.  She is an amazing mother to her three young children, and is never afraid to get down on the floor and just be a mom.  Her children already love being Jewish and have a sense of giving and tzedakah, which is greater than many of my peers.  Melanie inspires me daily and this is but one small and very special part of that.

Not ironically, all of these women are well educated in Judaism and have social work backgrounds.   Each of them shines a light on what it means to be an educated lay leader and an observant Conservative woman.  If I can take just one thing from each of them, it would be their welcoming spirits and eagerness to meet new people.  They truly will always be a part of me and I cannot thank them for that enough.

Modesty & Real Beauty

Two conversations I had this past Saturday evening reminded me of some of the troubles I have with the concept of modesty. The first, a side conversation as part of a longer conversation on working to create women’s space in an environment of traditional, gendered Judaism, a friend told me that sometimes what the community holds to be the standards and what actually happens when she wears certain outfits are two different things, so she moderates what she wears more strictly in her current community than she would in other communities. It’s not that she finds them telling her that she’s dressed inappropriately, but rather she gets unwanted attention from immature eyes, and would rather not experience that. Later that evening, after my husband and I viewed the movie “Juno” on TV, he was trying to Google pictures of Jennifer Garner and Ellen Page to show me how he thought they looked alike, and had the events in Juno been real, he bet that they could have passed a child produced by Ms. Page as Ms. Garner’s child. Just a good old flight of fancy, but what it produced were a shocking number of pictures of Ms. Garner in her underwear, something R had not been expecting.

As we are all aware, sex sells, so it shouldn’t have been too surprising. However, R felt it was disturbing, since it seemed like another way to objectify these beautiful women – show me a still image of her in a string bikini rather than let me get to know her on a personal level. There’s another part of my brain though that says, hang on, but shouldn’t women be proud of their bodies? Isn’t there something powerful about having women be proud of what they look like and not being afraid to show that off? Clearly, not just the Jennifer Garner’s of the world, but for instance, the recent Campaign for Real Beauty by Dove, proves that the world does need more models of women taking pride in their bodies.

Maybe this seems a little weird given the topic of modesty, to be discussing a campaign in which women are in their underwear. The point though, is that women should take pride in their bodies, and that can take many forms. In my opinion, most of those ways are modest, dressing in a way that takes pride in your body without being showy or over sexualized. Dressing with pride with a style that looks good for you, rather than for the opposite sex or some other reason. It can be tough – but it seems to me, worth it.

There’s another aspect of the Dove campaign – sometimes it’s about changing the ways in which we identify things. As the picture above says – wrinkled? or wonderful? This can be true about sexualization as well – is it beautiful? or sexy? I also wonder if our focus on modesty sometimes makes things sexual that aren’t – the proverbial ankle in Victorian times. Rather than being over-sexualized, maybe most of society has made nothing sexual – until it is. So we reclaim that space, but we have to be proud as well. A careful, careful balancing act.

Maharat and Rabba from an Inside Perspective

One of the great things about the Tikkun Leil Shavuot in our community is that in each time slot there are at least two and sometimes as many as six classes going on at once. One of the offerings in the second time slot (around 1:30 a.m.) was about the Maharat program from someone who is in it. Full disclosure: I know her and knew she was in the program, but somehow, hearing what she said in a public forum was really interesting as well.

She started with an explanation of the situation – basically, that although Rabbi Weiss had conferred the title of Maharat over a year ago to Sara Hurwitz without too much fuss, the change of the title to Rabba a few months ago caused the most amazing tumult in the Orthodox Jewish community. Rabba is one of the feminized titles of Rabbi that have been thrown around in the last few years (also including Rabbanit, but that is usually used as Rebbetzin in Hebrew), and they thought that the relatively simple change of title would better allow what she does to be recognized by the outside world.

It soon became clear that the matter of title matters a lot. While she was still doing the same job as before, a lot of people reacted very badly to the R-A-B-B letters. So, what to do? As it stands at the moment, Rabbi Weiss rescinded the change of name and promised he wouldn’t do it again, while the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest body of Orthodox Rabbis in America, recognized the importance of formal participation of women in the life of synagogues.

There were a number of things that I thought were particularly interesting.

  • Ms. Hurwitz has said that she thinks that women and men should have different titles because they have different roles, especially in the Orthodox community. That being said, the differences in what they do don’t make them better or worse, just different. Women clearly bring things to these roles that men don’t.
  • The women in the Maharat program that started after Sara was conferred have been following all of this clearly. As of right now, no one knows exactly what they’ll be called when they graduate, but they are really enjoying the program. One of the main differences between the Maharat program and other programs, such as the Drisha program that R attended previously, is that this program is a professional program – the women learn about a funeral, and then do a funeral practicum. Fascinating.
  • The issue of title isn’t a little thing. Being able to have one single title is important, but things are still developing. Hopefully, especially when there’s more than one graduate of the program, the issue of title and all those things will be easier to deal with. This is important to the women themselves, but also to those girls out there who are looking at what’s happening with an eye to their own futures.

I am really looking forward to seeing how things continue to develop in the coming years.