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Feminism and Purim: reflections across denominations

By Alina Dain Sharon/JNS.org


Reform: Rabbi Leora Kaye

Rabbi Leora Kaye, director of programs at the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), believes there are women like Esther who don’t realize that they have power and need encouragement to be stronger than they believe they can be.

As the daughter of a director of camping and youth activities in the Reform community, Kaye grew up immersed in Jewish education. While she was initially unsure if she wanted to become a pulpit rabbi, along the way she encountered “a lot of Mordechais” who encouraged her to study in rabbinical school.

Kaye notes that the idea of feminism is a lot older than what most might believe, citing not only the Purim story, but also other biblical storylines such as those involving the midwives Shifra and Puah, who defied Pharaoh’s order to kill all newborn Jewish boys, or the daughters of Zelophehad, who fought for their right to inherit property. Though they do not represent the majority voice in the Bible, “there are strains in these stories that imply to me that even back then, there were people who thought about women’s rights,” she says.

In her own professional life, Kaye says she has faced little resistance, though “every so often someone will look at me and say, ‘Oh, you don’t look like a rabbi,’ and laugh.”

“I know I stand on the shoulders of the women who came before me,” she says.


Conservative: Rabbi Ilana Garber

Rabbi Ilana Garber says she admires Esther for using “her voice and her power to her advantage, and in strategic ways.”

“What might be interpreted as her silence—when she does not tell the king her real name and her ancestry—is actually discretion. A strong feminist knows how to use words and actions to make a difference,” Garber explains.

Garber, the associate rabbi at Beth El Temple in West Hartford, Conn., graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2005.

When she was a child in the early 1980s, Garber did not know that women could be rabbis. In fact, her male rabbi told her that women should not have equal roles in Jewish ritual practice. She changed her perspective at age 11 after meeting a female Reform rabbi who took her under her wing.

In the years that followed, Garber faced obstacles such as synagogues that only wanted to hire male rabbis or congregants who would ask while she marched holding the Torah if they should kiss the Torah or kiss her, as well as challenges in the dating world. She says it is “not easy to tell a nice Jewish boy that you are a rabbi,” going as far as lying to her now husband when they first met that she was a “community educator.”

Garber is motivated by the Purim story’s Esther to consider the figurative masks that people wear to disguise themselves, their inner needs and their desires.

“Some days I feel the need to proudly march with my feminist flag,” says Garber. “I seek to have a voice in a room full of male rabbis, or to create meaningful and engaging programs for women…But other days, I am ‘just’ a rabbi, and gender plays very little into who I am or what I do. Still, even on those days, being a feminist—someone who knows how to speak her mind and use her actions in order to achieve her goals—is my primary motivation.”


Reconstructionist: Rabbi Margot Stein

Rabbi Margot Stein, a faculty member at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC), calls the Purim story as a whole “sexist” because “the two primary women are being manipulated” for their body and beauty, and Esther herself must use “manipulation” to access power.

“Just because the book is named the Book of Esther doesn’t make it feminist, or Esther a feminist character,” says Stein, who earned a Master of Hebrew Letters and rabbinical degree from RRC in 1997.

The Purim story is about women “learning how to be active on the world stage,” says Stein, who was raised in a Conservative home, attended a synagogue with an Orthodox rabbi, and noticed how her brother received greater access to Jewish education than she did. As she came of age, she became “increasingly interested in the feminist version of Judaism.”

In the Purim story, Ahasuerus had a harem of women, which Stein views as a parallel to today’s sex trafficking. She notes the importance of organizations that fight problems like trafficking, such as T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

“I am inspired by the Purim story to continue fighting for women’s rights in all places where they’re not realized,” she says.


Orthodox: Maharat Dasi Fruchter

“What I think is most feminist about the Purim story is actually the fact that there’s collaborative leadership between a man and a woman (Mordechai and Esther),” says Maharat Dasi Fruchter—a graduate of Yeshivat Maharat and the assistant spiritual leader at Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah of Potomac, Md.

“Esther is given a lot of airtime, which in itself is a feminist thing,” Fruchter explains, though she adds that she doesn’t believe Esther’s goal was to be a feminist. Instead, the story provides a “glimpse into the narrative of a complex woman.”

Growing up modern Orthodox, Fruchter later discovered Yeshivat Maharat, the first institution to ordain women as Orthodox clergy.

While some of the school’s graduates take the title of “rabbi,” Fruchter uses “maharat”—a Hebrew acronym for manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit Toranit.

“There have definitely been times where I’ve had hateful things said to me…I see it as people who are afraid of change in various capacities,” says Fruchter. “My job is to keep doing my work.”

Fruchter points out that when she refuses to appear before the king, Vashti uses similar wording to what Joseph uses when he refuses to sleep with his Egyptian master’s wife in Genesis. Fruchter often uses the Vashti-Joseph comparison to teach young girls about sexual consent. She also uses Mordechai’s words in Esther 4:14—that Esther may have been meant for the moment—as a mantra to re-evaluate her own decisions at every moment, and how she can be “harnessing it for good.”

CAP: Top row, l to r: Rabbi Ilana Garber and Maharat Dasi Fruchter. Bottom row, l to r: Rabbi Leora Kaye and Rabbi Margot Stein.


Purim Safari Family Celebration at the Springfield JCC

SPRINGFIELD – Springfield’s community-wide Purim celebration will take place Sunday, March 12, 12:30 – 3 p.m., at the Springfield JCC, 1160 Dickinson St.

The Purim Safari will feature games, bounce house for pre-K – 4th grade, teen hang-out, jousting, balloon animals, bug-juice tasting, candy station, face painting, flying squirrel (indoor flying element), jousting, and live animals, courtesy of Springfield Museums’ “Museums On the Go! Reptiles Encounter” program.

Attendees who wear an animal-themed costume can be entered into a drawing for a family four-pack to see J-Art’s “The Little Mermaid” this May.

The cost is $5 per person or $20 per family. Kosher food will be available for sale.

For more information cotact Rabbi James Greene at (413) 739-4715 or jgreene@springfieldjcc.org.


Purim at Rodphey Sholom

HOLYOKE – Rodphey Sholom Purim services, Saturday, March 11; Services begin at 7:15 p.m., followed by the reading of the Megillah and a Purim seudah with Israeli treats created by the Ederys. Come in costume and win a prize. Guests are cordially invited.


Israeli ball field dedicated in memory of Ezra Schwartz
JGS Lifecare to honor Frank Colaccino and Jeffrey Grodsky
The Rabbis Respond

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