Tuesday, December 21, 2004

How to Spend It

Sally Berkovic, author of Under My Hat, makes an excellent point about Jewish charitable giving by women in today’s Jerusalem Post:

Trends in women’s philanthropic giving were first documented in two important articles by Susan Weidman Schneider in Lilith magazine in the early 1990s.
Since women were denied access to much of public religious life, she noted “Jewish women's organizations have been in the past the shul for women.
“Philanthropy was the road to participation, but also one of the few sanctioned ways of expressing publicly the religious or spiritual impulse.”
As Orthodox women are forging a new sense of self-identity, so too their charity is becoming more discriminating and used to effect change.
Zelda Stern, a prominent Orthodox philanthropist, has written about using her money to leverage social change. Asked by a fund-raiser to contribute to an Orthodox Jewish day school, she asked to see the curriculum.
Noticing that the boys studied Talmud and the girls studied watered-down Jewish subjects, she said she could not contribute to a school that denied equal educational opportunities for boys and girls. She added that she would welcome another approach if the school’s policy changed.

In other words, Orthodox Jewish women are learning that their money talks, and that when it does, it is not likely to be gagged with a kol ishah order. Vanessa Ochs’s book Words on Fire describes a similar case in which a Jerusalem woman used her wealth to equalize the curriculum in her daughter’s school. For those who can do it, more power to them!

(The phrase “kol ishah is an abbreviation for a section in the Babylonian Talmud [Berakhot 24a] that enumerates those parts of a woman’s body considered tantamount to nudity when exposed. The assertion includes a woman’s voice together with the body parts in question and unfortunately is still used today as a basis for discouraging, if not prohibiting, religious Jewish women from singing in public, or even at the Sabbath table in their own homes when male guests are present.)

I haven’t spoken much here yet about my experiences as a member of Women of the Wall. (Don’t worry. I will.) Recently it occurred to me that there is one sure way to neutralize some of the opposition against the idea of women reading from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall. Since Jewish law in its pure state—free of extraneous considerations or ulterior motives such as social implications or power struggles—allows women to pray as a group and read from a Torah scroll, all that needs to happen is that a wealthy family with impeccable religious credentials offers a large donation in return for the opportunity to hold their daughter’s bat mitzvah service at the Western Wall, complete with a women-only prayer service and Torah reading, as more and more religious families are doing. I’d be willing to bet that the religious establishment would have difficulty refusing such an offer.

Of course there are other ethical considerations here, such as whether it is appropriate to use one’s daughter’s special occasion for this purpose. But in a case where the bat-mitzvah girl knew she could refuse and agreed anyway, I wouldn’t see a problem with it—and yes, I think that many twelve-year-old girls today are mature enough to understand the issues and make their own decision. But right now it’s only a hypothetical matter in any case.

The next item on my agenda would be enabling more women to make these donations that would effect change, or helping those who cannot make such donations yet to connect with those who can. Ms. Berkovic ends her article in the Jerusalem Post with the following byline: “The writer is author of Under My Hat (Josephs Bookstore). She would be happy to hear from anyone with a few million pounds who is looking for innovative ways to spend it.”

If you find someone like that, Ms. Berkovic, please give her my number when you’re done. I’ve got a few ideas myself.

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