By Elana Maryles Sztokman
Elana Sztokman and Hanna Kehat hold a discussion circle about American-Israel collaboration at the Kolech conference. Photo by Nurit Jacobs-Yinon
Facebook has completely transformed Orthodox feminism. I realized this yesterday at the conference of Kolech, The Religious Women’s Forum (JOFA’s sister organization in Israel) both from my own experiences and from the entire energy of the conference.
I first detected the impact of Facebook as I looked at people’s nametags and realized how many people I knew from our Facebook exchanges whom I had never met in person. I know that you’re not supposed to friend people you don’t know, but I realized that I’ve been doing it anyway. I friend people around shared ideas, related comments, a common tendency to upload the same links and photos, to get aggravated or uplifted by the same types of stories. You know, shocking stories of gender segregation or excessive demands of so-called modesty get the outrage while stories of women running for public office or standing up for women’s rights get all the shout-outs and likes. I realized at yesterday’s conference that many of my Facebook friends are actually real friends in a deep sense. We share a world-view and a spiritual journey, one that is sometimes hard to name.
This sense that internet networking has permanently altered Orthodox feminism was validated by what was undoubtedly the most energized and energizing event of the conference: the meet-up of the Facebook fadlachushiyot. (That’s pronounced fad –la- CHUSH-ee-yot). Fadlachushiyot, a Hebrew acronym for “Religious feminists who have no sense of humor”, is the self-assigned name of a member of a Facebook group started in May 2012 called, “I am a religious feminist and I also have no sense of humor”. The group, which formed as a response to a disparaging remark by Yair Lapid about how feminists have no sense of humor, today has over 4500 members and climbing, and is without question the largest and liveliest feminist forum in Israel today. Yes, you read that correctly. Religious feminists as a group are the leading feminists in Israel today, at least judged by digital footprints. Yesterday’s fadlachushiyot session that highlighted the voices of this group – the first time many members of the group ever saw each other in person – demonstrated that Orthodox feminism not only has a sense of humor, but also some real power, and has become a force to be reckoned with.
In this bustling session, one woman after another got up and told her story in less than three minutes – with a giant TED-like clock in front of her marking her time. Stories were touching, witty, and humorous, with poignant messages couched in irony -- much like the Facebook group itself. The Facebook group is a place where women share their struggles and stories, their efforts to manage their deep desire for gender equality with their real lives in the often unequal world of Orthodox Judaism. Women share exchanges with preschool teachers, rabbis and family members, conversations around family meals, and at times painful moments of isolation and loneliness. Saturday nights are particularly animated times, when the group is filled with events that happened in shul or around Shabbat lunches. And in June, when a famous Israeli journalist was found to have been a serial sexual abuser and women journalists called on victims of sexual harassment to "come out of the closet", the fadlachushiyot group exploded with stories. Hundreds of stories over the of women -- and some men -- who had been sexually abused within the Orthodox community were shared, one after the other, sometimes minutes after each other, with thousands of comments expressing support and empathy. The Facebook group became a safe haven, what Chayuta Deutsch yesterday describe as a "home," for people struggling to reconcile their desire for justice and equality with their religious lives.
More often than not, women describe the feeling that they are the lone “fadlachushit” in their Orthodox communities and families. The Facebook group, like yesterday’s conference, has given Orthodox feminists a name, and thus a certain relief from their loneliness. Like Audre Lorde who says that we must “give name to the nameless so it can be thought”, the fadlachushiyot group has given Orthodox feminist a name and thus an identity – a perfectly fitting name, in my opinion, with all its complexity, impossibility, defiance and humor – and with that name, and the tools of the Internet, Orthodox feminism has a strong, powerful community.
There were many other highlights to this wonderful conference, and I’m sure that people will be blogging about it over the coming days. Topics included single mothers by choice, sexuality, and women rabbis, and featured authors, academics, Knesset members and activists. Our own Blu Greenberg gave an update of the agunah situation and talked about the Agunah Summit that JOFA put on this past June. Speakers were all engaging and stimulating, and the atmosphere throughout the conference was electric. Kolech director Dr Hannah Kehat, conference organizer Dr. Ruti Feuchtwanger along with all our wonderful sister-activists at Kolech did a phenomenal job.
It is clear that Kolech and JOFA share a vision and mission, and our next step is to create a more comprehensive partnership between our organizations. The session that I moderated at the conference that explored avenues for collaboration and partnership was a great opportunity for many of us to think about next steps, and to figure out ways to turn our work into an international movement. More on this to come.