A Jewish Feminist Bids Farewell

June 30, 2017

By Shulamit Reinharz

HBI celebrates our 20th anniversary this year and recognizes the vision and leadership of our founding director Professor Shulamit Reinharz retiring today Be a part of our future by making a donation to the HBI.

On June 17, 2017, I turned 71 years old.

The women's movement taught me to state my age with pride.

Just after my birthday, I addressed the HBI Gilda Slifka Summer interns whose average age is about 21, a gap of two generations. When I retire today, Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, SJD, who represents the generation filling this gap, will become my successor as director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

What do these generational differences mean? To me, it means that something I created 20 years ago continues to be relevant to women and men 50 years younger than me. That is a great realization.

It was more than 20 years ago at a session of the General Assembly of Jewish Federations that I held aloft a copy of the book, "Voices for Change," which emerged from Hadassah's inspired idea to create a National Commission on American Jewish Women. As chair of the commission, I marshalled a team that produced "Voices," an overview of the sum total of research-based knowledge then available about Jewish women. I pronounced the book "too thin." It was clear to me that we knew very little and that we needed a research institute to carry out the work. Now, 20 years later, the young interns have come to spend their summer with us because they, too, have concluded that there is so much more to do.<

The women's movement taught me to state an accomplishment proudly.

Recently I had lunch with two of the wonderful women who fund our programs at the HBI. These meetings reminded me of something else I learned in these 20 years — Im Eyn Kemach, Eyn Torah, which means, "without flour, there's no Torah learning." In other words, we need financial resources to do our work. We have to make what we do intelligible and interesting to those people who are able to help us financially. If not, things will come to a grinding halt.

The women's movement taught me to talk about money when you need it, and to give it away if you have it.

A few weeks ago, we read the portion Beha'alotecha, which begins with instructions from God to Moses to Aaron concerning the Levites, relevant only to male Levites, although it does not state this in the Bible.

The women's movement taught me to be concerned about male-only dialogues and to look for women's voices.

One of the instructions in that Torah portion concerns the period during which a Levite could serve the Cohanim or priests — between the ages 25 and 50. This is the only passage in the Bible that mentions retirement, a concept relevant to this day. Although I was delighted to discover this progressive idea, I was concerned about the hidden, silent "Mrs. Levy." Did she get to stop working at age 50? How many of our ideas, even progressive ones, ignore the presence and needs of women?

As I think back, I take pride in the various ways our work paved the way for intellectual, spiritual, artistic and practical advances. By publishing books, funding translations, editing a new journal, offering research awards and establishing HBI Conversations in 13 cities, we have offered "Kemach" and "Torah." By providing residencies for HBI scholars from around the world, and particularly from Israel, we helped dramatically improve feminist professors' chances for employment and promotion in Israeli academia. At the same time, we had a major impact on defining the field of Jewish gender studies as a serious field of inquiry.

The HBI flourishes because of the hundreds of marvelous people who participate in our numerous programs. So many of them came forward in my final weeks to tell me the impact that the HBI had on their research and careers. But, the feeling is reciprocal. I flourished personally because of my opportunity to meet, know and be inspired by three generations of scholars still breaking new ground. There is always more to be done.

This, too, I learned from the women's movement and in particular, from the Jewish women's movement.

Thank you to everyone I've come to know through the HBI. I leave it in very good hands.

Shulamit ReinharzShulamit Reinharz is the founding director of HBI.