A number of readers have called me out over articles where I have discussed the role of women in the Charedi community in a cavalier way. While it is true that almost every well-run institution in Stamford Hill, to quote myself, is ‘run by women who are feisty and articulate’, that doesn’t do justice to the extent to which women are completely excluded from the official institutions of the community. No matter how powerful a woman may be, and no matter how crucial a role she plays in the life and wellbeing of the kehilla, she has zero access to something as simple as a Rabbinate meeting.
I have been guilty of making light of this issue. Partly, that’s just because it’s obviously not something that affects me on a daily basis. It’s also because I don’t have any suggestions about how to change this situation. Gender segregation isn’t some incidental anomaly in Charedi life, it’s a constitutive part of what makes us who we are. Indeed, it’s one of the few things that are consistent across the disparate communities under the Charedi umbrella. There’s definitely room for tempering this system with more chivalry and, sometimes, just some basic menschlichkeit, but I don’t think that there are currently any fundamental reforms that are simultaneously possible and desirable.
What I want to do here, though, is flip the script and point out something that is generally overlooked because it doesn’t fit into the framework used by both defenders and critics of Charedi culture. The fact that women run everything that works in Stamford Hill and the fact they are completely excluded from male institutions do not stand in contradiction to each other, nor are they unrelated data points; one is a function of the other.
To explain what I mean, we need to analyse what academics call the ‘mechanisms of social control’ in the Charedi community. As I’ve written before, in a community like Stamford Hill, which is a coalition of different, occasionally warring, sects, centralised rabbinic leadership is impossible and lay leadership remains in embryo. Obviously, however, everyone knows that we are a highly conformist community. So, in the midst of this de facto anarchy, what is it that stops me from wearing a blue shirt?
A certain type of Charedi apologist would say that there’s nothing to explain: Charedim adhere to the rules because they have strong religious faith and enjoy every aspect of their lives. Of course, in this world, nothing is so simple. Ordinary Charedim making decisions about how to live their lives are subject to all sorts of constraints including, but not limited to, peer pressure, family loyalty, economic incentives, desire for approval, normalcy bias, and ideology. That’s not a criticism of Charedi society. The idea of a hierarchy-free world in which each person enjoys the freedom to pursue his or her immaculate individuality doesn’t even work in theory, let alone practice; its only real function is to serve as a totem for those who want to rearrange the existing hierarchy into one in which they have a higher place. However, the fact that every society has mechanisms of social control does not mean that every mechanism of social control is equally good, or even good at all. In the Charedi community, we have one particular mechanism that is highly dysfunctional and plays a central role in inhibiting positive developments. This mechanism, familiar in one way or another to all of us, is the phenomenon of the freelance extremist.
Being a kanui is one of the world’s greatest shortcuts to power. Without accumulating any achievements whatsoever, you can experience the thrill of bossing people around through the simple expediency of being a jerk. The more energetic members of this species insinuate themselves into school boards, where they use the ever-booming Charedi birth-rate as a weapon to humiliate desperate parents who don’t live up to whatever religious standard they invented last week. More common, however, and much easier for the typical kanui, is just to print off a few pashkevilen, record robo-calls, and fire off abusive emails and text messages. We’re all too familiar with these campaigns of vilification and, if you’ve ever lifted your head up above the parapet, there’s a good chance you have been directly on the receiving end of one. That is unless you are a woman.
For the fact is that, while constraints of taste, delicacy and honesty mean nothing to Charedi hate-merchants, one level they will simply not stoop to is to acknowledge the existence of a woman. The reason for this is very simple. Exaggerated piety is central to the self-image of any kanui, but exaggerated piety is easier said than done. Spending 90 minutes on Shacharis is hard, even if you aren’t paying attention. There is, however, one surefire way to claim unimpeachable piety that is so easy that even illiterate peasants and obese couchsurfers manage it with ease: hardcore misogyny.
Of course, from a strict moral perspective, we must deplore those who compete for virtue by dehumanising women. Their eccentric appetite for tznius has a harmful impact on our community, for instance, the success that extremists have had in pressurising Charedi print publications into airbrushing all pictures of women, regardless of how ridiculous this makes them appear. However, the extremist ideal of erasing women has also had a beneficial effect. While occupying no formal position nor following the orders of those who do, kanuim do act as informal enforcers of the status quo, acting not so much to enforce a particular agenda as to simply stifle change. The fact, however, that these renegade enforcers look upon women as an alien species allows women much greater freedom to circumvent the mass of unwritten rules that entangle male members of the Charedi community.
Let me illustrate this with a personal example. Two years ago, I joined the Senior Leadership Fellowship run by the Jewish Leadership Council’s education arm, PaJeS. My participation was noted in a small article in the Jewish Chronicle. Because the JLC includes non-orthodox movements, I then became a target of a pashkevil campaign and was put under pressure to withdraw from the course, finally having to get the blessing of Rav Avraham Gurwitz to stay on. By contrast, a Stamford Hill charity dealing with special needs has recently received a grant from the JLC itself and the usual suspects have not said a peep. The difference is very simple: the charity is run by a woman and extremists are squeamish about putting a woman’s name on a pashkevil.
There are many examples of this phenomenon going back more than a century. Soroh Schnirer, aside from her educational projects, was an educated free-thinker, fluent in secular Polish literature and a frequent attender of lectures by Neo-Orthodox Rabbis in Vienna. Exactly the kind of person, in short, that kanuim would normally have in their sights. However, when she set up her schools for ultra-orthodox girls she went under the radar. The Beis Yaakov movement only started coming under major attack from Galician fundamentalists when it came under the administrative control of men from the Agudah who made acceptable targets. In our own age, the exact same dynamic is at work when Stamford Hill’s awkward squad stick up posters with pictures of every senior figure in Interlink they can find … except for the woman who actually runs it.
Wherever you look in the Charedi community around the world, women are the movers and shakers, pushing the boundaries with relative impunity. Omer Yankelevitch is the first Charedi politician in Israel who has run outside of the Charedi political machine and is still welcome in the Bnei Brak mayoral office. In America, Ruchi Freier has become not only the first Charedi court judge but also set up Ezras Nashim, again on her own initiative. In the UK, a female-led organisation, Sh’ma Koli, has taken the lead in providing safeguarding training in schools, while the establishment are paralysed into inaction by the fear that the local kanuim will accuse them of caving into government pressure.
I’m sure that many readers will object that I’m overlooking the difficulties these women have faced in pursuit of their goals. I don’t want to minimise any of these, but the fact remains that the way our community works means that women have a much greater capacity to bypass the obstacles to positive change in our community. The question I want to leave you with is how can we leverage their superior strategic position to solve our most chronic problems?