By Sara Marcus
On October 31st in Furst Hall, Kol Hamevaser and the YU Feminists Club hosted Orthodox activist and author Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll. The event, titled “Where Have All the Women Gone?” had Keats Jaskoll speak about her activism, and called attention to the erasure of women and girls in ultra-Orthodox media.
Keats Jaskoll is one of the founders of Chochmat Nashim, an organization dedicated to “positive change in the Jewish community.” She is also one of the hosts of the Chochmat Nashim podcast and has written for the Forward, the Jerusalem Post and the Times of Israel. Some of Chochmat Nashim’s work includes raising awareness of breast cancer in ultra-Orthodox Israeli communities and providing support for Jewish women whose husbands refuse to give them a religious divorce. They are arguably most well-known for calling out advertisers, publications, and authorities for refusing to show pictures of women, and in some cases, taking legal action against them.
Keats Jaskoll is a Modern Orthodox resident of Beit Shemesh, and has first-handedly witnessed some of the controversies and violent protests the city is infamous for. Beit Shemesh has a sizable and increasingly militant ultra-Orthodox minority, which has been steadily implementing its own modesty expectations beyond its own streets. Signs listing dress codes go up, while signs with pictures of women and girls go down.
Keats Jaskoll is at the frontlines, fighting for women and girls to be seen and heard. She and other members of Chochmat Nashim have sued Beit Shemesh multiple times for allowing illegal modesty signs to remain in the city, even getting the Israeli Supreme Court to order that signs be taken down.
The night of the YU event was an auspicious one for Keats Jaskoll, as the Beit Shemesh election was coming to a nail-biting finish. Keats Jaskoll began her speech by apologizing for being interrupted with updates, as the election was one of deep significance to her and her work. The two-term incumbent, Moshe Abutbul, who has been dogged by corruption scandals, was being challenged by Aliza Bloch. Bloch, a respected educator and religious woman, has promised to heal divisions in the factious city.
Thousands of miles away, Keats Jaskoll was interrupted when someone checking Twitter gasped. She excused herself to shout a joyful prayer of thanks when finding out that Bloch won by 533 votes. “It’s a huge, huge, massive change for my city, and it means the future of my city… This is a real-life example of [you] mattering a tremendous amount… It’s really apropos,” she said tearfully.
Keats Jaskoll came to Beit Shemesh when it was a more moderate and diverse community, only to find “very zealous” neighbors moving in. She noticed slowly but surely that “the women and girls were disappearing… from the pictures, from the publications, and my daughters were told to go to the back of the bus…” For emphasis, she handed out ads for Purim costumes, where the little butterflies and princesses had no faces. She spoke urgently of the female entrepreneurs and business owners who faced financial disadvantages because they could not advertise properly.
“It’s a turf war. We don’t want your kind here, we want our kind,” she said of the ultra-Orthodox men who spat and hurled slurs at eight-year-old girls for their allegedly immodest attire. The worst part, Keats Jaskoll added, was the elected officials (including former mayor Abutbul) and rabbinical authorities, who stood idly by as the harassers and stone-throwers grew louder and bolder.
Keats Jaskoll linked this to a larger issue of those in power being indifferent to the harassment women face with the Agunah crisis – when women’s husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce. Keats Jaskoll’s own aunt stood before a court pleading to no longer be chained to a man who fled the country to avoid paying support for their five children. “She was stuck… I decided to help her. I went to every lawyer, every activist, every member of Knesset, every person of influence I could find to help me, help her. This took years.”
Even worse is the indifference to women’s health issues, which, coupled with hypersensitivity to modesty, sometimes means life or death. The rate of breast cancer in ultra-Orthodox Israeli women is 70% lower than the general population, but their mortality rate is 30-50% higher. Women are completely unaware of the signs, and once they notice something abnormal, they are too ashamed to seek healthcare. She and the other women of Chochmat Nashim persisted in putting up health hotline signs around the city, and have received hundreds of calls from concerned women.
“This is not Judaism,” she said adamantly. She says that women are coming together and not letting these injustices stand. She pointed to Bloch and Rabbanit Adina Bar-Shalom, the self-described “Haredi feminist” daughter of Rav Ovadia Yosef, who abandoned her father’s Shas-approved candidate, Abutbol, to campaign for Bloch and form her own party.
As ultra-Orthodox women begin protesting the erasure in their own communities, the insidious sexism has already begun seeping into the religious mainstream. Keats Jaskoll showed advertisements, publications, and textbooks with no women, not even at the Shabbos table or a parenting conference. “I have an entire Megillat Esther with no Esther… The Jewish mother, the Jewish daughter, is being taken out of the Jewish family on purpose. We’re being erased. When you don’t see someone, you don’t consider someone… I see what happens when women are removed from the conversation, from the picture, literally, and the table, figuratively… this can’t be the future of Judaism,” Keats Jaskoll urged.
The audience was impressed. Some described themselves as relieved to see a religious woman speak out against sexism creeping into the Orthodox community. Doniel Weinreich, who live-streamed the event, described Keats Jaskoll as “a very inspiring and captivating speaker.”
Molly Meisels, co-president of the YU Feminists Club, who grew up in ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn, says, “As a child, I never saw people who looked like me in Jewish magazines, newspapers, or advertisements. All I saw were blurred faces and empty boxes. It saddens me today when I see my nieces desperately searching for female role models, but failing to find them. The work Shoshanna does is monumental. She is giving girls a face. She is erasing militant misogyny wherever she finds it, and is exposing Modern Orthodoxy to the part they must play in this erasure epidemic.”
David Selis, the events coordinator for Kol Hamevaser, was the one who originally reached out to Keats Jaskoll. He says that he invited her because “part of the mission of the journal and club, as I see it, is to provide a forum for addressing current philosophical and social issues within the Modern Orthodox community. Given the increasingly blurred lines between YU and the American yeshiva world, the erasure of women is an issue which should concern our community… It’s not about pictures of women in Orthodox publications, but the larger questions absolutely affect the YU student body even if they don’t necessarily realize it.”