By Barbara Dobkin
As Jewish women continue to share personal accounts of sexual harassment by sociologist Steven M. Cohen and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, I am struck by how some leaders in the Jewish community resist examining the links between the personal behavior of Cohen and Steinhardt and their shared investment in Jewish continuity, defined by marriage and child-bearing. How can we, as a Jewish community, fail to interrogate the relationship between actions that degrade women and a worldview in which Jewish women are valued most for their ability to give birth to Jewish babies?
As a feminist philanthropist who has devoted decades of my life to advancing women in the Jewish community and beyond, I am troubled that some Jewish women have not only treated Cohen’s scholarship and Steinhardt’s philanthropy as above reproach, but have characterized critics of their work as undermining Jewish families. In a recent editorial, “Family is a Jewish Value. Don’t Let the Mistakes of a Few Rob Us of That Gift,” Jane Eisner, the Editor-in-Chief of the Forward, opens with, “I am trying to figure out when fertility became the enemy of feminism.”
I have yet to meet a Jewish feminist who views fertility, child-rearing, or marriage as adverse to the feminist agenda or oppositional to Jewish life. I have, however, befriended many Jewish women who, either by choice or circumstance, are unmarried or do not have children of their own. These women’s lives are as deserving of respect as any others. And yet, the gate-keepers of Jewish communal interests – people like Cohen, Steinhardt, and many others – continue to relate to unmarried or childless women as a problem.
Eisner writes, “To promote a Jewish future that puts marriage and children at its foundation is not to shun or shame those who choose another path.” But shunning and shaming is exactly what many Jewish women continue to endure – in synagogue, in the workplace, and in day-to-day social interactions – when their lives are not anchored in marriage or motherhood. At the same time, the lack of structural support for Jewish families, including affordable childcare and equitable parental leave policies, contradicts the Jewish community’s supposed dedication to family.
Melissa Langsam Braunstein poses a view that is similar to Eisner’s. In her piece, “Jewish Continuity Isn’t Sexist; It’s Necessary,” Braunstein writes, “Saying that Jews, especially non-Orthodox Jews, should consider having more children isn’t about controlling women or their fertility, so much as it is an acknowledgment of basic math. It can also be an acknowledgement that children – and family generally – are a common source of shared joy and human connection, two themes central to Jewish living.”
Of course, having children can be a source of shared joy and human connection within and outside of a Jewish context. But there are myriad ways in which joy and human connection are Jewishly expressed. When marriage and child-bearing become a crisis-oriented calculation – and are framed as the responsibility of women alone – rather than a valued choice among many, we limit our ability to create a full tapestry of Jewish experiences for everyone.
What would it look like to invest in a Jewish future that is no longer rooted in anxieties about marriage and children, but rather, focused on providing Jews of all genders with the resources and opportunities to lead richly textured, vibrant Jewish lives? How can we re-imagine Jewish continuity that focuses on creative expressions of Jewish wisdom and identity? I wonder how our collective assumptions about the inherent worth of Jewish women could shift if we develop a more expansive understanding of how Jewish women contribute to the fabric of our community?
As we begin a new Jewish year, perhaps we can embrace an ethic of generosity rather than judgment when it comes to the lives of Jewish women. The Jewish community is stronger and more dynamic when women are free to live and love as they wish.
Barbara Berman Dobkin is a Jewish feminist philanthropist. Her vision, dedication, generosity and financial commitment have contributed significantly to changing the landscape of Jewish women’s organizations and funding in both North America and Israel. Dobkin co-founded Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project and has served as the chair of The Jewish Women’s Archive and the Hadassah Foundation.