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The unorthodox Orthodoxy of JOFA

One JOFA focus: Gender issues in day school classrooms

When her daughter was in first grade, Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman said, she was in a music class.

“I was early to pick her up, so I sat in the back. The teacher had just written some notes on the board, and she took out a keyboard, and asked who wanted to play these notes. Every hand in the class was raised.

“She picked a boy. He tried and failed. She said, ‘Let’s try someone else.’ She picked another boy. He also didn’t get it. She chose five boys in a row, and none of them gets it.

“I watched my daughter. Each time the teacher called another boy, fewer girls’ hands went up. Soon they stopped. They understood the rules.

“Eventually, the teacher took out a triangle, and said, ‘I’ll chose a girl.

“The message was clear. To the boys, it was that you can handle complex music, that requires reading notes. To girls, it was that you can tinkle a triangle.

“Boys learn that if they push hard enough, they will get what they want. Girls learn that if they are sweet and quiet enough, they will get what they want.”

Dr. Sztokman, JOFA’s executive director, earned her doctorate in sociology of education from Hebrew University. Together with Dr. Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman, she wrote “Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools,” which was released last month. She will talk about the book at the JOFA conference.

Stories such as this one, from her own experiences, from Dr. Gorsetman, and from friends and colleagues, prompted the two women to write the book.

“It examines gender issues in Jewish educational institutions, especially Orthodox day schools, with implications for other educational settings,” Dr. Sztokman said. “It is about how we educate children into understanding gender; it looks at all kind of different practices in schools that teach boys and girls about social expectations of gender.”

Those issues are not unique to the Orthodox world, she said, but “it is a generation or two behind in having these conversations. The topic of gender issues in education exploded in the Western world in the early 1990s with the publication of “Gender Gaps: How Schools Shortchange Girls.”

“As a result, over the last 20 years there literally have been more than 1,000 studies of gender issues in schools and academic programs. The book propelled a whole discipline – gender in education – but none of that reached the Orthodox schools.”

She and Dr. Gorsetman compared notes about their experiences – “things like how schools teach girls to clean for Passover, and whether books have pictures of both boys and girls, and the language teachers use when they tell girls that they are sweet, orderly, caring, and boys that they are smart and brave.

“We kept a file of these stories, and after a few years we decided to conduct our own research study, a survey of teachers.” The fruits of that research are in “Educating in the Divine Image.”

“Even people who don’t see themselves as big feminist advocates – even they are startled when they are confronted with such things as the complete absence of pictures of girls in books, or as examples in math problems in math books. It is very hard for people who have daughters to get behind that,” she said.

She is fully Orthodox, Dr. Sztokman said, and she acknowledges that there are many activities forbidden to women by halachah. Still, she said, “There are many things that girls can do before they hit the brick wall. There is much room for empowerment and activity for girls before we get there. We are not anywhere close to the ‘Do Not Trespass’ sign.

“Instead of banging their heads against the wall, I would like to educate Orthodox girls to expect more, to want more, and to fight for more,” she said.

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