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Empowerment of women (and men?) in the Orthodox community

For those who are following this story, an e-mail that I got from Laura Freiman last Friday.
To All Safe Space Participants:


As a result of the discussions, many wonderful ideas were generated. We do not intend for all of these ideas to remain as only ideas; but rather, to find ways to implement at least some of them. Though we cannot guarantee that all of these ideas will come to fruition, we plan to take the following list to various shuls and support organizations on the Upper West Side and discuss ways to empower the synagogues and the community to implement them.


Ideas Generated from the SAFE SPACES Program:
  1. Monthly Safe Spaces Discussion Groups on Various Mental Health Topics
  2. Regular Guest Speakers on Various Mental Health Topics
  3. Mental Health Referral Lists Available at All Shuls and Shul Websites (This is already being implemented!)
  4. Regular Orientation to Jewish New York Seminars for Newcomers to the West Side
  5. Weekly Host Families/Singles for Shabbat Meals
  6. Dating Support Groups and/or Hotline
  7. Women Group Activities/Empowerment Seminars
  8. Male Group Activities
  9. Upper West Side Mental Health Professionals Meetings/Collaboration
Have a Good Shabbos!

Laura Freiman, LCSW
Clinical Director
Social and Organizational Leadership Training
Yeshiva University's Center for the Jewish Future
212-960-5400 Ext. 6170
Ideas 1, 2, and 3 seem the most crucial and are of the greatest interest to me, as someone who wants to raise awareness of mental health issues everywhere, including within the Orthodox Jewish community. I support them wholeheartedly and would be happy to contribute time and energy to helping make them happen.

Ideas 4, 5, and 6 seem like fine ideas, but they don't particularly speak to me. I don't think I would have, or would, utilize them. I am very uncomfortable accepting these sort of hospitality invitations, even if the alternative is eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at home alone for one or both Shabbat meals. (It doesn't happen too often these days, but these was a time when it happened a lot. And maybe peanut butter and jelly is a bit of an exageration. I often bought fancy feta cheese sandwiches or got some sort of chickeny take-out thing.)

Idea 9, I'm not sure about. What would they meet about? What would they talk about? What would they collaborate on? Would confidentiality be assured? I wouldn't want people to be afraid of, for example, their therapist talking to their boyfriend's therapist behind their back. I would we wary of anything that has the potential to make people afraid of therapy. The Orthodox Upper West Side community is already incestuous enough as it is, with people dating their friends' exes and worse.

Ideas 7 and 8: I am very interested in why people want sex-segregated activities in an Orthodox Jewish community. I'm not being facetious--I really am interested. Is it because with all of the pressure to wed (at least according to the New York Sun), there is no more room for women-only and men-only activities? Do women not do things with their women friends, and men not do things with their men friends, because they see that as a lost opportunity to date and "meet someone"? What's morning minyan at OZ if not a male group activity? Is the fact that the women's group activities are combined with empowerment seminars, but the men's are not, because men already feel empowered? (There was a time when I would have thought it insane to question the empowerment of men, but lately, I've realized that it's probably pretty damn confusing to be a man these days, much as it can be to be a woman.) What would we be empowering women to do?

These questions are the exact intersection of so many things that interest me--gender issues, mental health issues, and the wild and wacky world of Orthodox Jewry. (The last interests me the least, although the intersection of all three interests me greatly.)

More questions: What does it mean to be an accomplished, professional woman in your 20s or 30s, living in a community where the popular wisdom is that men are looking for women who excel at cooking and cleaning? I have been told that women are inherently more suited to housework (sweeping, laundry, dish-doing) than men, that women naturally enjoy cooking more than men, and all manner of related poppycock. What does it mean to be reaping the benefits of the feminist movement(s) but to live in a community where being known as a "feminist" can quash your dating life before it takes off? (There are apparently still people around who think that feminist means lesbian. Go figure.) Nevermind the way that Orthodox Judaism can drive you, as a woman, right into the ground in other ways if you aren't vigilant, what with rabbinic assumptions about women and a halachic system created by men, from an exclusively male perspective. (Once in awhile they stopped to consider the point of view of women, but that seems to have been the exception, not the norm.)

I think that's it. Any answers you have would be appreciated. I think it would be great to meet to discuss these issues, so that's my Idea 10 for the list--discuss gender issues in the Orthodox community on the Upper West Side. (Not sure it would go anywhere or do anything, but it would definitely interest me.)

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