As a mom of twin toddlers about 10 years ago, I was desperate for childcare. Call it preschool, nursery school, daycare or old-fashioned babysitting, it was impossible to come by when we were looking. Every place had long waitlists. I was told by more than one place that I should have put our family on the list for childcare before I gave birth. (An absolute no-go from my position, due to Jewish traditions.) Then I heard about the possibility of spots at a local Chabad preschool.
I am a feminist and, while really invested in Jewish life, I’m on the liberal, egalitarian part of our tradition. I hadn’t even looked at Chabad as an option. I am still amazed by how we were welcomed there and how much help the preschool teachers and other families gave us. Older kids from other families even helped walk my 2-year-olds up and down the stairs to the school when I couldn’t manage. It was a gift when I truly needed a break.
At first, my twins could only manage preschool in the mornings, so I couldn’t get back to work. It allowed me three hours at a time on my own and I used it get long overdue medical support for myself or for one twin at a time. I accomplished basic household needs like grocery shopping or changing bedding. Sometimes, I got to rest. My twins didn’t sleep through the night until they were four-and-a-half years old. Eventually, the kids stayed longer hours at preschool and I worked a little, but it was a challenging time.
While in this sleepless, liminal state, I met Jewish women I’d never encountered before. Moms with more than 10 kids, for instance – a situation I’d scarcely considered before my kids went to this preschool. While some of my extended family made negative comments about my encounters with this pocket of traditional Jewish observance, I marveled, realizing that some parents raised big families with skill and love. Other families struggled with only a child or two. Large families were not inherently “bad” nor small families “good.” I learned many things from these experienced parents. They did not judge us. They helped whenever they could. Their kindnesses were a blessing.
Winnipeg, our city, is crisscrossed by train tracks. It wasn’t uncommon to be stuck at a train crossing going to preschool. I joked about this with a mom who was very involved in the Lubavitch community and had a big family. My twins loved trains, so we unrolled the car windows to hear the horn and the bells and trains rattling on the tracks and enjoyed the moment. She smiled and said she too enjoyed the unexpected wait at train crossings. She used the time to pray. She had a pocket-sized book of tehillim (psalms) and another siddur (prayer book) that she kept in the minivan specifically for occasions like this.
I was flummoxed, impressed by her piety but surprised. This woman, who was so incredibly busy, also invited my family to her kids’ huge birthday parties. She found time at train crossings to pray? Wow.
Afterwards, if her older kids sought me out at a Shabbat dinner or community event, I made room at the table, tried to treat them like I would treat my kids. Her mentorship and thoughtfulness made a deep impression.
I’ve been reminded of this because, lately, Haredi and Modern Orthodox women have been in my social media feed. In recent years, some Haredi publications have stopped using women’s faces or bodies in their photos and advertisements. I follow Chochmat Nashim, an organization that fights to keep images of observant women’s and girls’ images in traditional Jewish publications, so that Jewish women can see themselves in the world around them.
I also read about agunot (chained women), whose husbands will not grant them a get (a Jewish divorce) so that they can remarry. In some cases, these women wait years, are forced to pay large sums of money, or give up custody rights to their children so they can be granted a divorce. Since they observe Jewish law, a secular or civil divorce isn’t enough, and they can’t remarry in their communities without a get. One of the only ways they get “seen” is through loud protests held by other Orthodox women, who stand as allies, trying to bring attention to the situation. Sometimes, this public shaming is the only chance they have to receive a get. Imagine what this allyship means if it is one’s only recourse to escape domestic violence or to be free to remarry.
Another example: a concert was held in London, a special Orthodox women’s-only concert, designed so that Jewish women could sing and other women could attend. (In these parts of the Jewish community, it’s considered alluring and inappropriate for men to hear women sing. This is a way for talented women to perform and other women to enjoy their amazing gifts.) Despite all their precautions, there were rabbis who said that attending this women-only event would be forbidden. Guess what? Women went anyway. The event was sold out.
For me, “seeing” the strong moms of big families as mentors and friends was an eye-opener. They taught me so much, both about their everyday lives and how they viewed Judaism, orthodoxy and Hasidism. Despite a truly overwhelming load of parenting, work, religious and household obligation, they modeled for me how to find time for things that are important. Whether it is helping a kid with learning disabilities or praying at train crossings, they make time for what matters to them.
To some extent, these are all the same women. The ones whose images are banned from publications, who might suffer because they are denied a Jewish divorce, or who might be kept from attending even a women-only concert of religiously acceptable music – they are also perhaps the same mentors who model good parenting, find room for prayer and care for others’ children as their own.
Regardless of our level of religious observance, Jewish women deserve to be seen, loved and treated with respect. This may seem obvious, but it still isn’t happening.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.