Ear­li­er this week, Dr. Elana Maryles Sztok­man wrote about sev­en places where reli­gious rad­i­cal­ism threat­ens wom­en’s well-being in Israel and ten inspir­ing ways that women are fight­ing for jus­tice in Israel. Today, she and Chaya Rosen­feld Gorset­man, co-authors of Edu­cat­ing in the Divine Image: Gen­der Issues in Ortho­dox Jew­ish Day Schools (The Hadas­sah-Bran­deis Insti­tute, 2013), write about ways to pro­mote gen­der equal­i­ty in your local school. They have been blog­ging here this week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Gen­der mes­sages are all around us. From images in school­books to images on bus ads, from con­ver­sa­tions on the train to those on the big screen, from cloth­ing con­ven­tions learned at school or on Fifth Avenue – every­where we turn, we are sub­sumed in mes­sages about what it means to be a cor­rect” or nor­mal” woman or man. Just this week there has been a heat­ed debate on our Face­book feeds about whether there is room in our soci­ety for women to express anger with­out being dis­missed for not being perky enough. Gen­der is everywhere.

In our research, we have been espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in how these gen­der mes­sages get trans­mit­ted in Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions. Schools are big parts of our adult lives – as par­ents, com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, and for­mer stu­dents our­selves. And cer­tain­ly schools are a big part of our children’s lives. Events tak­ing place in school today are like­ly to impact our cul­ture for years to come For that rea­son, we have found it use­ful to exam­ine the gen­der mes­sages in schools, and to pro­vide peo­ple with tools to ask the impor­tant ques­tions about their edu­ca­tion­al settings.

Here are some use­ful ques­tions for par­ents, teach­ers, stu­dents, lay lead­ers, and oth­er inter­est­ed mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty to ask about the edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions around you:

1Whose pho­tos are on the walls? When you walk into a school (or syn­a­gogue, or JCC), take a look at the por­traits hang­ing on the walls. Are there an equal num­ber of men and women? If pho­tos are male-dom­i­nat­ed, find out why. For exam­ple, is it because only school pres­i­dents’ pho­tos are dis­played and the school has nev­er had a female pres­i­dent? If that is the case, see Ques­tion 2. Take note also of the gen­der make-up of art­work dis­played, or of his­tor­i­cal fig­ures dis­played. If women and girls are under­rep­re­sent­ed, start a con­ver­sa­tion about it with the school staff and leadership.

2Who are the lay lead­ers? Are women rep­re­sent­ed in lay lead­er­ship? Has your school ever had a female pres­i­dent? Are women encour­aged to join the lay lead­er­ship – prepped in the pipeline” for future roles as leaders?

3What does the mis­sion state­ment say about gen­der? Mis­sion state­ments often give strong clues about the val­ues and ener­gies of the school lead­ers. If a mis­sion state­ment ded­i­cates a para­graph or more to its rela­tion­ship with the State of Israel, for exam­ple, chances are this was the result of many hours of dis­cus­sion on the top­ic, and an express com­mit­ment to the issue. Many schools, how­ev­er, have lit­tle if any­thing writ­ten in their mis­sion state­ments about com­mit­ment to gen­der equal­i­ty. This may mean that it has nev­er been dis­cussed at length, or that it is not a high pri­or­i­ty. Find out the his­to­ry of your school and its com­mit­ment to this topic.

4Who are the stu­dent lead­ers? Is there gen­der equal­i­ty in stu­dent gov­ern­ment? Do girls and boys have equal oppor­tu­ni­ties to become lead­ers? Flip through recent year­books and check for gen­der equal­i­ty in lead­er­ship of clubs and coun­cils. Where do boys stand out and where do girls stand out? For exam­ple, is there a place for girls in areas such as chess, the A‑V club, or com­put­ers? Is there a place for boys in art, poet­ry, and dance? Find out what kinds of expe­ri­ences stu­dents have had when they chal­lenge gen­der expec­ta­tions. For exam­ple, what hap­pens when a girl wants to join the A‑V club? Also, do girls’ sports get the same atten­tion as boys’ sports – and the same fund­ing? Try to find out from stu­dents what kinds of expe­ri­ences they have had in this regard.

5Who rep­re­sents the school at pub­lic events and assem­blies? In one coed­u­ca­tion­al day school, a par­ent was sur­prised to find out that the school’s mod­el seder had only boys on stage. When she inquired about this with the prin­ci­pal, he told her that it wasn’t inten­tion­al” – each class was told to select a rep­re­sen­ta­tive, and every sin­gle class hap­pened to choose a boy. Check to see if there is equal rep­re­sen­ta­tion and equal oppor­tu­ni­ty in pub­lic activities.

6. Who leads rit­u­al and prayer? Even in ear­ly child­hood, prayer and rit­u­al are a sig­nif­i­cant part of stu­dents’ expe­ri­ences in Jew­ish schools. In many cas­es, even in kinder­garten, chil­dren receive the mes­sage that the boys’ job is to lead while the girls’ job is to choose songs or dis­trib­ute papers. In upper class­es, gen­der dif­fer­ences in expec­ta­tions around rit­u­al are fur­ther exac­er­bat­ed. In many schools, boys are expect­ed to pray more fre­quent­ly or for longer peri­ods than girls, boys are expect­ed to come to school ear­li­er than girls, boys’ prayer facil­i­ties are nicer than girls’, and boys receive more atten­tion and train­ing in areas relat­ed to prayer. Take note of the gen­der mes­sages around prayer, and find out how these mes­sages affect stu­dents’ atti­tudes towards prayer – and towards gender.

7. What kinds of roles are boys and girls giv­en around Shab­bat? Anoth­er gen­der-laden Jew­ish top­ic is Shab­bat. In many schools, the Ima shel Shab­bat” [Shab­bat moth­er] and Abba shel Shab­bat” [Shab­bat father] are fix­tures from ear­ly on. In some schools, the girl is expect­ed to bring baked goods while the boy is expect­ed to recite the Kid­dush. What are the mes­sages around these gen­der-seg­re­gat­ed demands? How do they affect fam­i­lies that do not fit neat­ly into this stan­dard” gen­der mod­el – such as sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies, blend­ed fam­i­lies, or sin­gle-sex fam­i­lies? How do girls feel know­ing that they have no rea­son to learn to recite bless­ings? How do boys feel learn­ing that the mean­ing of being a boy is to always lead girls?

8What adjec­tives are used to describe boys and girls? Take note of how girls and boys are described in newslet­ters, web­sites, report cards, and pub­lic events. Often girls are com­mend­ed for being car­ing,” kind,” or giv­ing,” while boys are praised for their intel­li­gence,” inge­nu­ity,” and courage.” Take note of gen­dered adjec­tives in your school, and start a school dis­cus­sion about it. 

9. Whose pic­tures are in the newslet­ter and web­site – and what are they doing? Sim­i­lar­ly, whose pho­tos appear on the school’s web­site and oth­er mate­ri­als? And in what capac­i­ty? Are girls shown in the same kinds of active, ener­getic, and intel­li­gent roles as boys? Are girls shown engag­ing in sports, math, sci­ence, and lead­er­ship? One camp that we worked with had almost no pho­tos of girls on its web­site. But when we point­ed it out to them, they took note and made changes. Today, the site shows pho­tos of girls every­where, includ­ing doing sports and teaching.

10Are there men on the edu­ca­tion­al staff, and in what posi­tions? Teach­ing is a female-dom­i­nat­ed pro­fes­sion, which has reper­cus­sions for sta­tus and salary. What makes it worse is the invert­ed pyra­mid – that often the few men on staff are quick­ly advanced and pro­mot­ed. It is not uncom­mon to see a staff meet­ing that is almost exclu­sive­ly female, with the only man in the room con­sti­tut­ing the boss. Do dynam­ics like this exist in your school set­ting? How do women feel about the gen­der make-up of the staff?

We hope these ques­tions are help­ful. For more infor­ma­tion and insights, you can read our book, or feel free to con­tact us for con­sul­ta­tion or to find out how we can help you along in this impor­tant process:

Chaya Rosen­feld Gorset­man is clin­i­cal asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of edu­ca­tion, Stern Col­lege for Women, Yeshi­va University.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztok­man is for­mer exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Jew­ish Ortho­dox Fem­i­nist Alliance (JOFA). She is the co-author, with Chaya Gorset­man, of Edu­cat­ing in the Divine Image: Gen­der Issues in Ortho­dox Jew­ish Day Schools (The Hadas­sah-Bran­deis Insti­tute, 2013), win­ner of the 2013 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award in Edu­ca­tion and Jew­ish Iden­ti­ty, author of The Men’s Sec­tion: Ortho­dox Jew­ish Men in an Egal­i­tar­i­an World (Hadas­sah-Bran­deis Insti­tute, 2011), win­ner of the 2012 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Coun­cil Award in Wom­en’s Stud­ies, and author of the forth­com­ing The War on Women in Israel: How Reli­gious Rad­i­cal­ism is Sti­fling the Voice of a Nation(Source­books, 2014).

Relat­ed Content:

Dr. Elana Sztok­man is a Jew­ish fem­i­nist anthro­pol­o­gist, edu­ca­tor, activist, and author, and two-time win­ner of the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Coun­cil Award. Her most recent book is When Rab­bis Abuse: Pow­er, Gen­der, and Sta­tus in the Dynam­ics of Sex­u­al Abuse in Jew­ish Cul­ture (Lioness Books, 2022).