Book Review: Day school education

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

It’s a rare book that makes me furious. No, I’m not mad at Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman and Elana Maryles Sztokman, the authors of the excellent study “Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Day Schools” (Brandeis University Press). What’s frustrating and infuriating is the material they present, which shows just how far behind the Orthodox Jewish world is in offering equal education to women. Before those who run Reform and Conservative days schools pat themselves on the back, though, Gorsetman and Sztokman also acknowledge almost all Jewish day schools fail to offer their students gender equality education.

Gorsetman and Sztokman discuss not only how gender messages are transmitted by the education material offered in a classroom, but by the behavior of teachers, principals and others. The authors stress they are not trying to change halachah (Jewish law), or make legal decisions – or impose feminism on the Jewish world – but rather make certain all children are taught they were created in tzelem Elohim (the Divine image). Their book seeks to “paint a portrait of how gender is transmitted in day schools in order to raise awareness and impact attitudes and consciousness about gender. The goal is for the book to be a tool in the process of helping day school educators – as well as parents, educators, thinkers, researchers, lay leaders, activists and engaged members of the public – explore the gender messages being instilled, and to examine the impact of gender socializing on the emotional well-being of young members of society, as well as on [the] entire society as a whole.”

Their emphasis on the social aspect of education means that Gorsetman and Sztokman are interested in how gender socializing affects male and female students. In addition to having schools offer more support to girls who wish to explore science, technology, engineering and math, they want boys to be allowed to choose subjects – for example, art and literature – that these schools normally consider women’s subjects. When speaking of Jewish studies, the authors urge schools to offer female students more advanced studies in Talmud and other Jewish texts, while also recognizing that not every male student will want to focus on these topics. According to Gorsetman and Sztokman, the optimal idea would be to have each student study material that speaks to them, regardless of gender.

However, the majority of their discussion focuses on women’s issues. For example, they note that classroom material used in these schools features few photos of women, particularly in Jewish studies. Those who are shown are portrayed as passive or restricted to activities related to the home or kitchen. Noting that women in the Modern Orthodox world receive advanced degrees in a variety of secular subjects and work outside the home, Gorsetman and Sztokman feel this material does a disservice to young women. It also creates a disconnect between what their school teaches them and what they see in their daily lives. The authors believe that many educators are unaware the material they present shows a one-sided view of life. Their hope is to raise educators’ awareness of the problem and encourage parents to make certain day schools offer their daughters a wider variety of images and opportunities.

Perhaps the most contentious issue is that of women’s dress. Gorsetman and Sztokman note that school and educators seem to have an obsession with tzniut (modesty) and dress codes for female students that causes many of these young women to have an unhealthy relationship with their bodies. While recognizing that secular society treats women as sex objects, they believe something similar is occurring in the Orthodox world: This emphasis on women’s bodies creates the impression that the most important aspect of women’s lives is their sexuality, which is looked at as something dangerous that must be controlled. The authors believe that is far from other definitions of tzniut, which also focus on internal qualities, such as being considerate of others and performing deeds of loving-kindness. Gorsetman and Sztokman show how “schools are watching and measuring girls’ knees, arms, necks and chests, and spending inordinate amounts of time and effort moderating these body parts.” Some schools restrict the types of earrings that can be worn and forbid long nails and/or the use of nail polish. Yet, this creates a problem when – after years of having their bodies being treated as impure – these girls are old enough to marry: they are suddenly expected to switch to a different mode and become receptive of their own bodily needs and those of their husbands.

Being part of the Orthodox community limits the type of changes Gorsetman and Sztokman can offer. For this reader, they emphasize far too many times that they are not making halachic decisions, only offering what legal experts and rabbis have said. The need to stress b’tzelem Elohim (that women are also created in the image of God) – and for example, that women should be taught how to pray – will strike more liberal readers as something that should not have to be said in the 21st century. This shows, though, just how much the community needs to hear their voices. Unfortunately for Gorsetman and Sztokman, “Educating in the Divine Image” is published by a university press, rather than a Jewish one. That may greatly limit the readership for this worthy and much needed work.