It feels like retrograde motion. Reproductive rights thrown under the bus, democracy threatened, trans rights trampled, books banned, mass shootings erupting daily, radical inequality ignored. In our current disordered universe, the threats are acute.
I find myself yearning to bring what order I can into the space around me. “Making order,” even small-scale, feels hopeful, and also instructive in unexpected ways.
When a set of large bookshelves arrived in the office a few weeks ago, we seized the irresistible opportunity to categorize. We sorted books that were feminist classics, radical Jewish re-readings by brilliant women, biographies of the famous and the forgotten, advance copies of memoir, fiction, poetry and analysis. We looked for patterns, for order, for understanding—at least for the books.
Most of Lilith’s paper archives are now housed in the Brandeis University Special Collections library, thanks to the generosity and farsightedness of alumna Elaine Reuben. Nevertheless (and I admit this sheepishly) more items surfaced as we opened boxes of books and papers never fully unpacked after an office move a couple of years before the pandemic. Accolades from readers who’d come to Lilith programs decades ago, pitch letters from writers who went on to become famous after their launch in Lilith. Programs from conferences with highlighter circling academic papers on a range of irresistible feminist subjects we’d never have imagined exploring a generation ago.
From “ancestor worship,” those appreciations of immediate female forebears, the books move from descriptive to diagnostic, figuring out what needs correcting in Jewish life, particularly those roles that fracture along gender lines. Newer works, though, are moving from diagnoses to cures, plotting what can be done to build more just and equitable and safe and respectful Jewish environments, especially for marginalized people. One example could be the emergence of Disabilities Studies as an academic discipline. Or graphic novels and biographies exploring new ways of telling our stories using images as well as words.
Looking at the bookshelf we’d just labeled “classics,” and then at the stack of new titles beckoning, the shifts between then and now became clearer. Progress has, in fact, happened. And not by accident. The persistent labors of women have driven change.
We found evidence in those boxes. A copy of the first Shabbat Women’s Prayerbook from the Brown University Hillel Women’s Minyan created in the mid-1970s, the first siddur I’d seen in which God is referred to in female or gender-neutral terms. A shaggy, mimeographed pamphlet of resources to combat partner and family violence in Jewish homes. The bibliography of writings on Jewish women and sexuality published in the 1970s by a one-woman small feminist venture. A salient difference from those energetic previous treks toward justice is that now we have an organized response bringing Jewish organizations to the table to spur change in attitudes, behaviors and consequences.
It’s with tremendous gratitude to the SRE Network (focused on Safety, Respect and Equity) that Lilith is publishing here the first of several pieces looking frankly and fearlessly at abuses that have been directed at girls and women in Jewish settings for far too long. With SRE support, Lilith for the past year has been able to offer safe space for a small group of emerging writers to tell their stories, supporting one another in Lilith’s facilitated workshops led by gifted teachers from our trove of dedicated authors. Lilith editors then provided mentoring to help them refine their writing of gender-inflected harms.
One cohort member had been a teenager when she was groomed and seduced into a years-long affair by her rabbi; decades passed before she told her therapist, and only after the Monica Lewinsky case mirrored her own in ways she could not deny. Another writes about a young girl abused by the hands of those raising her—and condoned by those with power to have stopped it. And a Hasidic bride is married off to a serial offender whose tactic was to hold women hostage for money before he would release them with a religious divorce.
In forthcoming issues of Lilith you’ll see more: first-person stories of bias against queer and nonbinary people in congregations and Jewish classrooms; sexual misconduct in camps and youth groups dismissed or even encouraged by supervisors and leaders; Jewish workplaces that condone or ignore traumatizing behaviors from bosses both male and female that target women and non-binary employees. Then there will be more: investigation and analyses in Lilith—in print and online—reporting on what’s behind these behaviors in Jewish environments, with their stench of misogyny, racism, ableism and unchecked gender-focused harms. We’ll also bring you reporting on best practices for shaping better Jewish spaces. Congregations with an outside ombuds where congregants or employees can report their experiences? Rules setting off-limits behaviors for teachers, counselors and participants in camps, youth programs and academic settings? Stay tuned.
Lilith has always been a platform where Jewish women and girls could share personal stories of experiences in Jewish spaces, with the combined goal of supporting survivors of harm and helping create safer and more equitable Jewish communities.
In Jewish liturgy we say repeatedly how thankful we are for what will make things better, bringing peace, repairing wrongs. Sharing in this work means making order incrementally, one bookshelf at a time, one injustice at a time; it feels like a worthy goal.
— Susan Weidman Schneider