Feminist Lessons Learned at Jewish Summer Camp

An Introduction from Andrea Jacobs, Ma’yan’s Program Expansion Consultant:

I met Aliza at the NewCAJE conference this summer. She was just back from her summer at Ramah California and had joined her mother for lunch. When her mother, Rabbi Ruth Abusch Magder, introduced us, she told Aliza that I worked at a Jewish feminist organization. Aliza lit up and immediately said, “oh ima I have to tell you about the Jewish feminist stuff at camp this summer.” She was excited to share her experience with Jewish feminist activism and the language of prayer. After listening to her story and getting a sense of her enthusiasm, I thought the wider Ma’yan readership might be interested to hear what she had to say. I also had a vested interest in her story. Twenty years ago, I was a graduate student writing my MA thesis on the impact of male-centric prayer language on Jewish women. It was the early 90’s and including the matriarchs’ names in the Amidah was only one of the “transgressive” strategies that women were exploring to make more space for themselves. In the two decades since, prayer books for most of the non-Orthodox movements have changed to include gender-neutral G-d language as well as references to women being part of the prayer community. Many of us, myself included, may have thought the debates about prayer language were behind us. It is clear from Aliza’s story that a new generation of young women are engaged in the struggle to make the inclusion of women’s and girl’s voices and names in ritual practice the norm. Here is Aliza’s story about “self-empowerment and feminism” at Jewish camp. 

 

This summer at sleep away camp I learned a lot about self-empowerment and feminism. At camp Ramah, prayer and active Judaism are important in every element of camp life.  One Shabbat, during a period of free time, several of my friends and I, including two male friends, were lounging around talking about what the Amidah, a central prayer that allows for reflection, means to us. The Amidah is one of my favorite prayers because of the refection aspect of it; I enjoy thinking about who I am and my life. 

One of my friends talked to us about how she liked the Amidah but had problems with its sexist nature; how it failed to recognize any role the women had.  A part of the Amidah states that we should be loved by God because of our founding fathers, from whom we are descendant and who had a special connection with God. But there is no praise for the ladies who also played a big part in the kick start of Judaism, and who have also had a special connection with God. When our male friend heard this argument he immediately objected, saying that the women didn’t play a role given the time period. I felt that given where we were and who he was with, he could have kept his opinions to himself. He was saying this to girls who had spent their time showing people that women did have a role, and here he was straight up saying that the women didn’t play any role. I think that the women of the Torah did play an important part in the establishment of Judaism, especially given the circumstances that did not allow them to have opportunities to lead. The founding women were the supporters to their husbands, and the ones who raised the strong tribe of Israelites. While the argument raged around me, the intensity was overwhelming and did not fit the spirit of Shabbos from my perspective.

The argument was not only confined to Shabbat. My friend was not alone in her feelings about the Amidahs wording. This had been an ongoing problem during the summer but for me, our conversation shone the light on this issue. I began to look at my friend during morning services. She and a group of female friends made it their tradition to switch the avhot, fathers, for the imahot, mothers, during the Amidah.  They emphasized what they did by screaming the names of the imahot. At first when I noticed the intense style with which these girls were praying I felt happy for these girls and their empowerment and sass, but after thinking about how they were drawing attention to these issues I realized that there is an alternative way to highlight these issues such as advocacy and writing articles like this one.

In the time that the Torah took place, women were looked at more like objects rather than like humans. They were seen as incapable of most of the things that men did. Today however, American women have a real place in society. So why do we keep these male oriented prayers? They are outdated and frustrating to the powerful women of the twenty first century. As young feminists, I think it is our duty to raise awareness of these outdated male-oriented prayers to the teenage community. 

Our male friend argued, saying that emphasizing the addition of the imahot was against Jewish tradition and disrespectful. I believe that since the time of the Torah a lot of time has passed and traditions have evolved (take sacrifice for example). So why can’t the Amidah also be made more meaningful by including the context of modern life and by changing the wording to be more equal?

I think there are some points that our male friend made that I can agree on, and I also believe others in the camp agree with him too. Picture our camp as a spectrum from feminists to extreme traditionalists. While a group of people lean to the side of the feminists, I have found that a vast majority sway to the side of the traditionalists. I think that people who don’t have a strong, or any opinion on the matter tend to get pulled to the side of the traditionalists. Why is this? I think this is because it is what is easiest and because when people think of feminism they only see the option of intensity. The other half of the spectrum gets thought of as more diverse. For example in the prayer books we use at camp there is an alternative page which uses imahot and avhot. Depending on the leader that day imahot either does or does not get said. For the most part I have found that most of leaders don’t have much of an opinion whether they say the updated version while they are leading and I have noticed that more often than not imahot gets left out. Maybe the whole equality thing is too radical for them, or maybe we feminists are just too sassy for them. 

Since fourth grade I have been fighting for equality between the genders. The boys in my grade often don’t like me for this, but why should I care. At camp I’m not alone, there is a group of girls right up there with me expressing their displeasure with inequality. At camp I’m not only in an environment that encourages my self-empowerment but also an environment that allows me to express my opinions in new thoughtful ways. 

 

Aliza Abusch-Magder is a 13 year-old living in San Francisco. She is an eighth grade student at Brandeis Hillel Day School. Her hobbies include, singing, playing soccer, and spending time with family and friends. Aliza is passionate about her involvement in the Jewish community and has many strong Jewish women to look up to. 

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