Promoting Gender Awareness in Jewish Schools
By Felicia Epstein
I have lectured over the past few years about gender awareness as part of adult education programmes and for educators in Jewish schools as part of Continuing Professional Development. I have been working with Jewish day schools in London over the past year to try and raise awareness of gender within the schools and to support teachers and parents in addressing issues related to gender within the Jewish and school context.
Background to the UK Jewish school context
The mainstream Orthodox Jewish community in the UK is traditional but the UK does not have an American equivalent to the vibrant modern orthodox community.
Most of the Jewish schools in the UK are Orthodox although not exclusively. Most of these schools are funded by the government for the non-Jewish studies aspects of the education which means that in comparison to the US parents pay very little for their children to attend a Jewish school. The money parents pay for Jewish education is a voluntary payment and parents can choose not to make these payments. This can create problems for the schools in funding the Jewish studies aspects of the curriculum but provides for children with little means to attend Jewish schools without monetary concerns. Furthermore, the number of hours focussed on Jewish education during the school day are limited compared to the Jewish education in the US in modern Orthodox schools.
The costs for publicly funded Jewish primary and secondary schools are between $1.5K to $4.5k per year. Approximately 50-75% of parents pay the voluntary contributions. For those parents choosing private education, the cost is approximately $11.5k for primary education and approximately $23.5k per year for secondary education. However, please note that there are large number of scholarships for Jewish children in private secondary schools.
As a result of the limited and voluntary fees for attendance to public Jewish schools a large percentage of Jewish students attend Jewish schools. According to an educational consultant who has done research for Partnership for Jewish Schools (PAJES) approximately 65% of Jewish children in the UK attend Jewish primary and secondary schools. If we were to include the ultra-orthodox sector that figure would be approximately 70%. With the recent opening of new Jewish primary schools it is likely that the percentage of Jewish children in Jewish primary schools will increase in the next few years.
The majority of the children who attend mainstream orthodox Jewish schools are traditional but not religiously observant and do not come from very Jewishly knowledgeable families. However, the teachers and leaders of Jewish studies are often from more strict Jewish backgrounds not reflecting a modern Orthodox perspective and the values of the children in the school.
I have used a number of mechanisms to raise gender awareness in Jewish schools. Different approaches to raising awareness will work in different schools which come with very different perspectives.
I was invited into one school to work with the student council to address issues of gender awareness. I asked the children to brainstorm about Jewish leaders. They mentioned many Bibilical male leaders and modern Israeli historical leaders. Then one of the girls suddenly asked if they could also name girls as leaders. I repeated that I had asked them to brainstorm about Jewish leaders. The girls and then the boys named female characters in the Bible and Jewish and modern Israeli history. The teacher leading the student council was interested by the fact that question concerning whether girls were included in the category of Jewish leaders.
Following on from discussions among parents in one school the following was added to a play (done as a rap song) that is part of the children’s Pessach seder raising consciousness about Miriam in the Pessach story.
Bursting on during Moses’ final rap Miriam says:
“Yo bro. Sorry to stop
the flow Mo.
But if you dis your sis that’s like sexist.
My poetry not totally Shakespearian; my name is Miriam.
And the benefits of a Jewish feminist are specialist.
If it wasn’t for the women; there’d be no singing.
So just let me intervene. Don’t let our part go unseen.
Faith in Hashem on the tambourine was quite serene … if unforeseen.
So don’t be so typical. Let’s stick to what is biblical.”
One school was encouraged to add a female perspective to their school Haggada project and to change the traditional four sons to four children. The process of getting approval for this change was a project of gender awareness raising for school teachers and leaders involved.
I have been working with teachers (through teacher training), parents and leaders to raise awareness about gender and to make concrete changes to the curriculum and to the activities in the school. For example, one school introduced a megilla club for girls to learn to recite the Megillat Esther on Purim.
How do we use the JOFA curriculum?
The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) Gender Sensitive Curriculum was developed to consider how the value of gender equality fit in with teaching in Jewish schools. JOFA wanted Jewish children to be educated with the message of being created in the image of God.
It has been exciting to use the JOFA Gender Sensitive Chumash curriculum as part of promoting gender awareness in Jewish schools since I conceived of the idea many years ago.
I have introduced the JOFA Chumash curriculum into schools to use as a supplement to the traditional Bible curriculum that is taught in schools. Some of the schools use some of the materials but are not providing feedback as to whether they were useful and what the teachers think about the materials. This will require following up with the schools to ensure that they are making effective use of the materials.
I also use the JOFA curriculum as a tool to raise that awareness initially with teachers and school leaders by bringing some of the materials and midrashim from the JOFA curriculum to our discussion. If we want our school teachers and leaders to address issues of gender awareness then we need to raise their awareness as well. This can be done by bringing texts from the curricula to show that there are different ways that we can approach a particular female figure in the Biblical text. Teachers will often have set values or ideas that they teach. By exposing them to a different viewpoints on a particular character or idea they might consider a new approach. More importantly they may realise that there are other valid approaches to consider.
The JOFA curriculum is also a springboard for a wider discussion about gender awareness within schools. It opens doors because you are providing valuable concrete materials for the teachers to use which is not threatening. This is because the materials are Biblical texts and midrashim that are within the framework of an Orthodox Jewish school. The teachers and leaders realise that raising gender awareness does not mean that we are promoting ideas and values which are foreign to Torah teaching.
I want the schools to be asking questions regarding what gender messages they are sending in their schools generally and Jewishly. These include the following:
What roles do we provide for Jewish ritual for the girls and the boys within the Jewish schools?
What gender stereotypes are prevalent in Jewish educational settings? And where do we see issues of gender in the daily school framework?
What does it mean today for girls and boys to study texts that are foreign and offensive and offend modern sensibilities?
What texts and stories do we choose to study and consider in our educational institutions and what might they teach us about ourselves, relationships, continuity, values and observances?
How do we teach and relate to women who are left out of the stories?
How do we teach about the exceptional women in the Biblical and Talmudic legacy?
What is the impact of the lay leadership on gender issues within schools?
When the School seder focusses on the four sons rather than four children, has the school considered how that affects the girls and how they see themselves in the Pessach seder?
When we neglect to discuss the essential role that the midwives, Miriam, Pharoah’s daughter and Yocheved played in the redemption of the Jewish people in Egypt, what messages are we sending the girls and boys about female Jewish leadership.
When the Friday Kabbalat Shabbat assembly depicts the Jewish family with the mother cleaning the house and preparing the chicken soup and the father studying and praying – what messages are we sending our children about gender segregated roles?
When a boy is encouraged to become a Rabbi and Jewish leader after delivering a dvar torah and a girl who gave an equally if not more erudite dvar torah on the same kabbalat Shabbat is told that her dvar torah was good – what is the message we are saying about the future Jewish leaders and scholars of Torah?
Finally, I want the teachers, parents and leaders to become more gender aware by developing more materials within the schools, developing gender policies and setting down goals for achievement of gender awareness.
Felicia Epstein is am American Jewish educator based in London. She conceived of the JOFA gender-sensitive chumash curriculum for Jewish schools and was a member of the advisory board. She has been working to introduce the curriculum and develop awareness of gender issues in Jewish schools in the UK. She lectures on biblical analysis in various institutions and is also a practicing employment lawyer and a trustee and director of the London School of Jewish Studies.