Time to dial up the anger

Tamara Isaacs

I was chatting recently to a colleague at work about his experiences of racism in the workplace.  It was a shocking conversation because he identified comments and behaviours that I recognise but had not understood as discrimination and exclusion.  Then he told me how hard he found it to talk about, because he has been successful in this environment by dialing down his feelings about this treatment.  Bringing these feelings into the light took courage and was exhausting.  He asked about my experiences as a woman and as a Jew, and I had little to share.  He felt I was dialing it down as a form of self preservation.  He may be right.

I tried to conjure up the feelings he described of exclusion and prejudice and I found it not in my working life but in my community life.  When I was 17 I wrote an article to my synagogue magazine saying that I was ashamed of my community.  My family belonged to a synagogue which, somewhat eccentrically, allowed a girl to have a bat mitzvah that was exactly the same as for a boy, including being called up and reading from the Torah.  But after that as a woman you could play no part in leading the service or participating on the bimah.  I can feel my anger today at this discrimination and injustice exactly as I felt it then.  My letter did lead to some change. But for most of our synagogues over 30 years later the position is much worse than it was for me then.

We live our lives in the modern world and give our daughters the same education as our sons, we work in organisations where we expect women to take their place at the top table, in a country with laws on equality of treatment.  Yet we attend celebrations for boys and girls entering their teenage years that are fundamentally different.  We tolerate, no we celebrate, when a community turns to a young girl and says firmly "we do not expect the same of you as the young boys in this community, we do not expect you to learn as much, to participate as much or to lead, that is for your brother but not for you."  At the party we will hear about this girl who attends a great school, is academically gifted, musically accomplished, captain of sports teams, and we applaud.  But forget it, the damage is done, and at the most impressionable age.  You look at the leadership of our communities and wonder where the women are. I can tell you. At 12 years old you told them to leave it to the men.

But it's worse. Communities have convinced themselves that it is alright to behave in this way in the name of tradition.  But stop pretending. It is not halacha, it is misogyny.  When I see men gathering on the bimah without any women, I see men who are holding on to the only place left where they can exclude women without breaking the law.  Other rules and customs of their religion they are happy to adapt a bit, but this one they hang on to.  And it makes me angry in the same way it did when I was 17.

So my only conclusion is that women are dialing down that feeling. It is just too exhausting to feel that anger and really do something about it. Well I think it's time. Bring that anger into the light and explain it to men the way my colleague explained racism to me. As a community we have let our daughters down, and it's time to dial it up, listen and take action.