Reflections on the HBI Israel Brunch

June 20, 2014

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

HBI and Dr. Laura S. Schor, board member and former chair, hosted a reception in Israel on June 9 that brought together scholars, artists, authors and activists, all who have been connected to HBI over the years. Elana Sztokman, HBI author and former scholar-in-residence, wrote about her reflections after attending.

HBI changed my life. That's not drama; it's fact. I thought about it last week when Prof. Shulamit Reinharz, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI) co-director, asked the guests at the 3rd Israeli Gathering of Friends of the HBI to share one thing to which they are thankful to HBI. As I thought about it, I realized — and then shared publicly — that the list of things I have to thank HBI for grows each year. In fact, I said, HBI support completely altered the trajectory of my life.

As I waited to share my story, I soon learned that many people in that room had similar and inspiring stories. Each of the presenters offered a creative and vital contribution to our understanding of women's lives and histories, and each one had benefited from HBI support with research, dissertation support, scholar-in-residence opportunities, artist-in-residence opportunities, translation funding, and of course the publication of books.

My relationship with HBI began in 2006 when I received the Junior Research Award for a study of the identities of Orthodox men. This work grew into my first book, which HBI generously published under the title, "The Men's Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World," a title that I love, that Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman, HBI co-director, helped me formulate. HBI launched the book in 2011 and sent me on a whirlwind book tour in early 2012, thanks to the incredible generosity of former HBI board chair Dr. Laura Schor. This book won the 2012 National Jewish Book Council award in the category, Women’s Studies.

Then, HBI published my second book, co-written with my colleague Dr. Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman, titled, "Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools," which went on to win the 2013 JBC award in the category, Education and Identity. This has all been an incredible experience, propelling me into a whole new level of academic and communal engagement via research and writing. I am enormously grateful to HBI and indebted to the organization for sending me on this incredible journey, and for turning me into a writer.

We heard from Professor Margalit Shilo, author of many books and known as the "grandmother of Feminist History Studies in Israel," from Dr. Ronit Irshai, former HBI scholar-in-residence and HBI author studying feminist perspectives on fertility in Jewish law; artist Andi Arnovitz whose engaging work explores gender and religion in Israel. We also heard from Attorney Susan Weiss, whose HBI-published book, co-authored with Netty Gross-Horowitz, "Marriage and Divorce in the Jewish State," paints a stark portrait of the agunah situation in Israel from a human rights perspective; Tanya Zion Waldoks who received an HBI Research Award for her dissertation which explores the agunah situation from the perspective of identity struggles of religious feminist activists; Dr. Naomi Marmon Grumet whose groundbreaking work on Jewish women’s attitudes towards ritual immersion (mikveh) formed the basis of crucial educational work with mikveh attendants.

Other people there were involved in vital research sponsored by HBI on topics ranging from abortion and suffrage in mandatory Palestine to gender issues in the Second Intifada. I felt that each person could have spoken for hours about the work that HBI supported and where it led her career, and it would have all been fascinating.

"The women here keep saying that they are lucky, but you need to stop saying that. You're not lucky. You're smart and skilled and you're all making vital scholarly contributions." Prof. Ephraim Tabory said.

Nevertheless, several women articulated the feeling that being part of HBI, while perhaps not "lucky" is nonetheless a fortuitous event that comes with many extra benefits. "It's also about the support and encouragement, and the validation that what you're doing is important and it matters to someone," Deborah HaCohen said.

In addition to work that is centered in Israel and the United States, we heard from Jewish feminists in Mexico, Canada, the U.K. and France. "A Jewish feminist movement in France? Who knew?" Prof. Reinharz quipped.The support that HBI offers to burgeoning feminist scholars and activists has an important role in bringing these movements to life, letting women know that they are valued and supported, and that they are part of a larger movement. "We wish we could give away more money," Dr. Schor added. "We want to be doing even more."

"When I come to Israel and see all of the wonderful work you're all doing, I feel like I'm back in the real work of what Women's Studies is all about," Prof. Reinharz concluded.The brunch segued into an important two-day conference at the Yad Ben Zvi Institute titled, "Education for Girls and Processes of Modernization in Jerusalem: 1854-2014," a conference organized by Dr. Schor and inspired by her newly published HBI book, "The Best School in Jerusalem," marking the 160th anniversary of the Evelina de Rothschild School. The conference, which featured wonderful lectures, was also co-sponsored by HBI, and thus marked yet one more way that HBI continues to impact Jewish feminist scholarship around the world.