Orthodox American Jews Launch Campaign to Showcase Female Torah Scholars

The women's group has already raised nearly $6,000 dollars in a fundraising effort aimed at showcasing unsung female Jewish figures.

NEW YORK – The same week that the spiritual leader of Israel’s Shas party banned women from attending college, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance kicked off a fundraising effort, publishing a poster highlighting the contribution of female Torah scholars. On June 29, just three days into the Kickstarter campaign, the organization has already surpassed its $5,000 fundraising goal. As of Sunday night, the total was at $5,832.

During the autumn holiday of Sukkot, countless Jews sit in sukkahs surrounded by laminated posters of “holy visitors,” which decorate the walls of the temporary structures. Those visitors are always male, usually famous Orthodox rabbis past and present.

The goal of the new JOFA project is to answer the question asked in the Kickstarter campaign video by Michelle Bentsman, one of the artists involved: “Where are the uncelebrated, unsung Jewish women that have taught us throughout history?”

Six of those women, all activists on behalf of Jewish education for women — Nechama Leibowitz, Henrietta Szold, Ray Frank, Flora Sassoon, Bessie Gotsfeld and Sarah Schenirer — are depicted on the poster, created by Bentsman and five other young female Jewish artists.

Benstman, 24, researched and drew Rachel “Ray” Frank, who in many ways was the first “maharat.” Frank, a Jewish educator in California in the late 19th century, was critical of the Jewish leaders of her time and ended up famously preaching from a synagogue pulpit in Spokane, Washington, on Rosh Hashana in 1890. That launched her career as the first woman to regularly deliver sermons and officiate at synagogue services, though she was never ordained.

Bentsman, who is an artist and documentary researcher based in Manhattan, said that Frank “was someone I had never heard about before, and I was struck by her charisma and power.”

“There are so many pictures of male rabbis hung on the walls [of sukkahs], there’s a lot of emphasis on their garb, a certain honoring and clout and impressiveness in the look of the male,” said Bentsman, in an interview. “There is a sense of the rebbe look being iconic and the female scholar sort of swept under the rug. The way that we think of the Jewish female a lot of the time is in terms of lack – these are the things she can’t do, and there could be so much more positive language about the things women scholars have done, or Jewish females in general, instead of focusing on the things we can’t do.”

Bentsman, who describes herself as observant but non-denominational rather than Orthodox, like most of the other participating artists was an Arts Fellow at the midtown Manhattan women’s learning center Drisha when the idea for the poster was first raised.

Stu Halpern, 30, who works as an educational administrator at Yeshiva University and as a consultant to Drisha who helps them develop programs for young adults, came up with the concept.

Looking at the rebbe posters on the walls of many friends’ sukkahs, Halpern said, “It struck me that, as someone who went to modern-Orthodox schools, the posters of Haredi gaons didn’t resonate for me, and I also noticed the obvious gender disparity. I thought this would be a cool idea. I thought it would be so great to have a poster that children of any gender could connect with, especially women, who are traditionally underrepresented in such things.”

The goal was to include female scholars who are no longer alive and for it to be “apolitical and celebratory,” said Halpern, who is Orthodox.

JOFA’s is not the first poster to try to bring notable Jewish women into the sukkah. The Jewish women’s organization Ma’yan published a collage-like poster in 2001, featuring the names of seven Jewish Biblical heroines, which sold more than 500 copies, said the group's executive director Eve Landau.

JOFA first expected to print 500 of its new poster. But since the Kickstarter campaign has proved more successful than they anticipated, with 151 backers pledging $5,832 at press time, they may print 1,000 or more, said Aaron Steinberg, the organization’s associate executive director.

Few of them, it seems safe to say, will end up on the walls of Haredi sukkahs. In Haredi communities it has become the norm for women’s pictures to be blurred out of news photos and girls’ faces from advertisements. Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, told Haaretz, “From the perspective of a more traditional corner of the Jewish world, I would say that if some feel the need to display the contributions of Jewish women, some of those women’s words, rather than their visages, would be both more appropriate and more meaningful.”

For those who occupy a more modern part of the Jewish world, the JOFA poster may be a welcome new sukkah accessory. “We want to get the message out that there are women Torah scholars who we want to celebrate just as much as male scholars,” said JOFA’s Steinberg.

“Reintroducing the history of what Jewish women have already done shows that women are capable of having great influence in creating positive change,” said Bentsman. “It’s worth highlighting as often as possible.”