Monday, September 26, 2022

As often happens in communities with a right-of-center influx of families, a local day school decided on separate classes for boys and girls starting in first grade. There was only one girl in one particular grade so she was asked to leave the school, winding up in public school. Fortunately she was “saved” by NCSY, but the revulsion at this story is but one footnote in the gender conflict. (See the current issue of Ignite, The NCSY magazine, Pesach edition 2015.)

The educational, religious, and social experiences of girls and boys in Orthodox Jewish day schools affect how children are taught about gender roles and how the lessons they learn expand or limit the children’s potential in their Jewish communities and beyond. This includes classroom instruction, books and curricula, single-sex vs. coed learning, modesty and dress codes, sex education, and Jewish rituals.

We fully understand, from a religio-sociological perspective why some schools want to separate boys and girls. The justifications for traditional single-sex education are just that—Fiddlerian TRADITION! There are arguments pro and con about single-sex education in general and certainly in Jewish schools.

However, statistically, boys are more likely to be given opportunities related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, and girls are less likely. In addition, control of all-boy classes is extremely difficult and learning is more successful for the boys when they are in classes with girls. Though it may not be as successful for girls who have all kinds of anxiety, it is definitely true that all-boy classes will have more behavioral difficulty and do not foster a meaningful learning environment in many cases. Teachers—both women and men—often marginalize girls in teaching Jewish rituals and values. These include but are not limited to calling on boys first to answer questions, assigning girls and boys specific roles in Jewish ritual, and explaining Jewish traditions and stories in terms that create mixed messages about the roles and responsibilities of Jewish boys and girls. Elana Sztokman and Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman addressed these issues in their book “Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox and Jewish Day Schools.”

Coming from a traditional background, I am conflicted by this issue. I understand and generally accept the whole range of “traditional” practices that are not strictly governed by halakha. But it is exasperating when something traditional conflicts with sound principles of pedagogy. This is also true as it affects contemporary Modern Orthodoxy in general, but that is beyond the scope of this article. It is particularly inspiring and a welcome change to see Sztokman and Gorsetman articulate why single-sex education is incorrect from an educational perspective, what the child learns from that experience, and what the implications are, and what could be done better. The bottom line is that every child, regardless of gender, should be given the opportunity to succeed.

It is not unusual to find religious women who are doctors, professors, scientists, and religious leaders. Yet while they’ve gained acceptance as professionals in their community, and in the community at large, their children often get very different messages in Jewish day schools about acceptable and unacceptable gender roles. There, rigorous training in certain subjects may be offered to boys only, while girls may find that more attention is paid to the length of their sleeves and skirts than to their questions about humash or RaMBaN.

Differential treatment of boys and girls is not unique to Jewish day schools. However, for those invested in giving their children a religious education, it should be cause for great concern. Schools can squash girls’ spiritual desires, while Jewish modesty rules send the wrong messages about sexual desire (men have it, girls don’t). Recent changes in the Orthodox world offer hope for greater gender parity.

For example, in the early childhood years in Jewish schools, there are two primary opportunities in the classroom experience where Judaism is transmitted. One is on Friday afternoon, getting ready for Shabbat; and one is morning prayers. And in both of these, there are some really stark gender issues that are taking place. Even among 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds, you have a lot of schools that will still have the boy leading the prayer service. He’ll be the hazzan, and the girls will be in charge of choosing a picture or choosing a song, or handing out the siddurim.

So, even then, they’re 3 or 4 years old, and the boys are the active leaders. The ones standing in front of the classroom leading, the ones who get to wear the tallit, and they get to make all the brachot, and everybody looks at them and says “Amen” to them. The girls are the ones helping out, or passively taking on other roles. I get it that in real life the girls won’t be leading the services, but at this age cultivating a positive feeling about being Jewish may trump the realities of adult synagogue procedure. (The truth is, except for singles’ shuls in Manhattan and Jerusalem, most women do not attend shul on Friday night.)

Schools prepare the children for Shabbat by teaching them that there’s an ima of Shabbat and an abba of Shabbat. Schools have many different ways for telling the boys what it means to be the abba, the father, and what it means to be the ima. So, sometimes it’ll be that the boy is in charge of making the blessings on the wine and the girl is in charge of lighting the candles. Sometimes it’s that the boy has to practice singing while the girl has to go home and bake a cake. Children from really early on are learning that keeping Shabbat depends on what gender you are. There is a version of Shabbat that’s for boys, and there is a version of Shabbat that’s for girls. Can’t we do a better job at this?

Part II of this article will be published next week.

In most Modern Orthodox day schools, girls are permitted and/or encouraged to study Torah, yet at many schools, boys and girls have different curricula and texts for Jewish studies. That’s for elementary school. In high school, the numbers increase. TOSHBA sheets instead of actual texts are still used. (When I taught Talmud to girls at Frisch in the 70s we used a regular gemara.)

There is also the issue of the internalized gaze on the female body. Girls learn from the time they’re 5 that they are being watched and looked at. Their body, their skin, their movement, is being watched and looked at. Before they even have the tiniest hormone of puberty entering their body, before they even know what sex is, they’re already learning that men are looking at them sexually. If they are learning when they’re 5 years old that they have to cover their knees in a certain way because adult men might be looking at their knees, what exactly are they learning?

What are boys learning? When boys are learning that girls have to cover up from the time that they’re 5 because boys can’t help themselves but look at girls’ knees, what are we teaching boys about their own sexuality, about their own relationships with girls? We’re teaching them that boys can’t control themselves, that boys cannot have a normal relationship with girls, that boys only see girls as sexual objects. We are teaching that there is no other way, that this is the natural way, and that we just need to accept it. As a result of this, girls have to constantly be covering and being aware of covering; and boys have to constantly be aware of the girl as a sexual object.

Girls, on the other hand, are taught that they don’t have any sexuality at all. There is nowhere where women are taught that maybe boys should cover up too because when a woman sees a man she gets all excited and turned on and can’t control herself. That is a narrative that is just foreign to Jewish life. It doesn’t exist anywhere. There are a lot of messages that come from this, and they’re all troubling. Children are learning this from 5 years old!

Many educators are guided more by politics than pedagogy. They’re guided more by ideas about “What will people think?” than “What is really good for the child?” We saw this recently about the controversy of girls wearing tefillin. It’s caused a huge uproar throughout the Orthodox world: What does it mean that these schools are allowing a few girls to wear tefillin?

The fact is, and almost everyone agrees, that there is no real halakhic objection to girls wearing tefillin. So much of the discussion is political and fear-based. This girl comes to you. She’s a 12, 13-year-old girl, she just had her bat mitzvah, and she really wants to pray to G-d in the most sincere way possible, wearing tefillin just like the boys. That’s what she wants to do. She wants to connect with G-d. Isn’t that what we want?

So, a pedagogical response would be one which looks at this person, this child, this beautiful creature of G-d and says, let me help you on this spiritual journey. What a beautiful thing it is that you want to connect with G-d. That would be what we consider to be a beautiful, pedagogical response. You’re looking at the child and saying, wow, this is a creature of G-d trying to connect spiritually. But instead, what we’re hearing is all of this stuff about what will the neighbors think and what will people think? And, oh my G-d, we’re going to become Reform, we’re going to become Conservative—all of these considerations that really have nothing to do with pedagogy and everything to do with politics.

Still conflicted, we will conclude with Part 2 next week.

Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a Jewish educator. He has taught children, teens, and adults. He was a college professor, day school principal, and director of two central agencies for Jewish education, including our own community’s Jewish Educational Services for over a decade. He is the founder of the Sinai School, and has received many prestigious awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lifshitz College of Education in Jerusalem and The World Council on Torah Judaism. He is currently a consultant to schools, non-profit organizations, The International March of The Living, and serves as Executive Secretary of The Alisa Flatow Memorial.

By Wallace Greene

Sign up now!