Monthly Archives:October 2016

Actions, Words and Gender Equality in the New Year

27 Oct 16
No Comments

In recent weeks, we’ve been confronted with shocking, insulting and derogatory footage and language against women (by a presidential candidate!), and we’ve seen an outpouring of responses every which way we turn. People of all genders are deeply disturbed and offended. In a recent New York Times editorial, Frank Bruni writes “No human being — woman or man — should be regarded as a conquest or an amusement with a will subservient to someone else’s”

And Nicholas Kristoff’s recent weekly column opens with:

Is there a double standard for women in politics?

Imagine if it were Hillary Clinton who had had five children by three husbands, who had said it was fine to refer to her daughter as a “piece of ass,” who participated in a radio conversation about oral sex in a hot tub, who rated men based on their body parts, who showed up in Playboy soft porn videos.

Imagine if 15 men had accused Clinton of assaulting or violating them, with more stepping forward each day.

Imagine if Clinton had held a Mr. Teen USA pageant and then marched unannounced into the changing area to ogle the young bodies as some were naked and, after doing the same thing at a Mr. USA pageant, marveled on a radio show at what she was allowed to get away with.

Perhaps it’s is no coincidence that these events unfolded during the Jewish High Holy Days. “The ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur are commonly known as the Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim) or the Days of Repentance. This is a time for serious introspection, a time to consider the sins of the previous year and repent before Yom Kippur.” (, Our prayer books are filled with both ancient and modern prayers, words and passages that remind us of our responsibility to perform acts of social justice. And this year, at my synagogue, Congregation Hakafa, something unexpected took place. Actions transcended beyond the words on the pages in response to the unsettling misogyny unfolding in the media. On the eve of Kol Nidre, Rabbi Bruce Elder decided to place this holy service under the leadership of women, and asked Rabbi Ali Abrams to lead the service and give a personal reflection in his place (See Rabbi Abram’s reflection on moving from “disengagement to paying attention, from reacting to listening” on the JCAST blog spot.) The honor of holding the torahs was given to all past female presidents of the congregation. And at the end of the service was another act of solidarity by members of the congregation, who generously responded to the collection of tzedakah donations for the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation ( On this eve of Kol Nidre, acts of intention against misogyny and in support of gender equality spoke louder than the words on our pages.

While acts can, at times, speak louder than words, we simply cannot deny or ignore the power of words, specifically the negative words or “ locker room talk” of any man who brags about groping or kissing women against their will, and later claims it was it just “talk” while allegations continues to surface. What does “locker room talk” have to do with sexual exploitation, the purchase of sex, and sex trafficking? Plenty! Such repugnant, disgusting, degrading talk reminds how often women are objectified in our society. Are the men who frequent and purchase sex from trafficked minors and adults the same ones who engage in “harmless” locker room talk? And what about their children? Are sons being reared to respect all genders as equals or to view women as objects to be critiqued, touched, groped and raped for a fee or for free? And are daughters being taught to view themselves as equals and respect one another as well as themselves? Can we find a silver-lining in this disturbing and unsettling language against women that promotes their sexual exploitation, including sex trafficking and the purchase of sex?

Personally, I’ve been subject to these kinds of derogatory for decades, since my early teens. It was as unsettling then as it is now. I’m ready to start talking about it in constructive ways. And I know I’m not alone. Are we ready to have these much-needed conversations in our homes, schools, places of faith and in our communities? How we think about gender equality and how we talk to each other does influence our actions. If we want to change cultural views on sexual exploitation, then we need to denounce words that objectify women and people of all genders whether we hear them inside or out of the confines of a locker room. When we don’t speak out and create positive models for our youth through our words and actions to promote respect and equality, then we are complicit. We are bystanders. On the other hand, when we stand up against words and actions that objectify any gender as dehumanizing and unacceptable, then we are one step closer to changing the way our culture views the sexual exploitation of all genders, and that includes the sex trafficking.

In closing, I highlight the unique preventative curriculum offered by Caleb Probst and the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE): Empowering Young Men to End Sexual Exploitation, A Curriculum for High School Boys “The best way to address sexual exploitation is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Young men are exposed to a culture that stigmatizes women in prostitution, yet glamorizes pimping and patronizing the sex trade. CAASE has created and implemented the first curriculum in the country specifically designed to educate young men about the harms of prostitution and to enlist them as allies in the movement to end violence against women and girls. We have reached more than 2,300 students since the curriculum launched in 2010.” I encourage you to take a look: May this New Year be filled with words and actions that promote respect and reject objectification of all genders, and move us one step closer to the change in culture we so desperately need in order to eradicate exploitation and promote gender equality.

Beth Gordon, JCAST Chicago, Steering Committee

Kol Nidre Reflections by Rabbi Alison Abrams

27 Oct 16
No Comments

I want to thank [Rabbi] Bruce [Elder] for inviting me to give a personal reflection tonight.  I say this for two reasons. The first is that it is colleagues like Bruce and congregational leadership like that of Hakafa that reminds me the ways in which our communities can be places of meaningful reflection and constructive learning.  That when there is something brewing in the world around us, we can come together- on the most solemn of evenings in our calendar- and sift through the complicated nature of our thoughts and emotions.  The second reason I opened with this thank you is to frame my words.  As a rabbi, I do not like to deliver sermons or teach Torah about issues of injustice or challenges without having some sort of positive response. A way to climb out of the difficult space we may be in and on which I may be shining a light. And, of course, there is no way to separate out my “rabbi self” and my “real person self”- rabbis are people, too, y’know.  But these words of reflection come from a more personal place. I hope they add to a larger conversation and offer insight in some way. And yet, I am not yet in a place of resolution or prescription for moving forward. I am reflecting, sifting, thinking, weighing.

For those of you who may not know, I work in politics for a living.  I work in the world of advocacy and campaigns and fundraising. So, in many ways, I have been sitting deep in the thick of this election cycle.  And, yet, in other ways, I have kept it at a distance. The presidential race, in particular, has me keeping quiet and disengaging in a way that is quite unusual for me.  And, because I am lucky, possessing much privilege, I can do this. I shut my screen, turn the radio down, stop looking at Facebook.

Professionally, I have been deeply aware of the hateful and even dangerous language used about various groups of people over the past year and a half. But on a personal level, I have stopped paying real attention.  I am really ashamed of this. But that does not make it any less true.  And, like most people, it took something outrageous to get me speaking. It took a blatant display of misogyny by someone who could, in just a matter of months, be sitting in the most important office in our country.

I will not recount the specifics of what has brought me to this point because I refuse to give any more air-time to the “story.” And, to be honest, I care very little about or for any one individual who speaks this way about women. What I do care about is that I have come to be living in a world where this type of speech has somehow become – if not acceptable- then accepted.

This moment is different than the moments that have come before.  Such misogyny has not always been seen as “something that happens” or something we should just resign ourselves to or try to ignore. In the past, I don’t think a sizeable part of the American population would have been willing to simply look the other way. I cannot think of a time in my life- at least not in the past 25 years- where women or their bodies could be spoken about in the national public square with such disdain and degradation and not be condemned by everyone.

I do not want to speak about political party or leanings.  Yes, what I’m saying is political. But its not partisan. It’s not even liberal or conservative or moderate or independent. What I am talking about is a level of basic respect- acknowledgement that no matter what, when I am talking about or with another person, I at least understand them to be a person- possessing a body, a mind and a spirit. I am talking about our daughters, our mothers, our sisters, our friends, our partners. Frankly, I’m talking about me.

The question that plays over and over in my mind lately is – “how did we get here?” How did we come to a moment in which societal norms and understandings seem to be- in some significant ways-in stark contrast to what they have been previously.  And I don’t know exactly. I’m sure I could explore people’s fears, anxieties and uncertainty about the world and their own lives. I could start connecting the dots and put together a narrative that would make some rational sense. But, honestly, I don’t care to. I’m not interested in making sense of what seems to be a frightening reality- that denigrating women- our bodies and our agency- is no longer taboo. It happens. Its just “locker room banter.”

Instead, I’m bringing to you, my community, that such public demonstrations of hate and degradation are an indication that we still are desperately in need of this day, this Yom Kippur.  We need to come together and talk about society’s ills and how they impact us. We also need to ask ourselves “how did we get here?” and build for ourselves a way out.

Again, I’m not fully clear how to do this. But I am considering how I can respond to internally. What do I need to be engaging with in the public space and what internal work do I need to do in order to chart a more constructive path forward.  How can the ideas and images of Yom Kippur- and indeed this whole time of year- help me do that?

And in reflecting on all this, I keep coming back to the shofar.  Not really the shofar itself but the way in which the sound of the shofar becomes meaningful.  In ancient times, the shofar was blown for many reasons- a joyous occasion, a sacred moment, a battle cry, the beginning of something, the end of something. As we know, the sounds would vary depending on what was being communicated.  No matter what the reason, though, the shofar was a call to attention.  And, even more significantly, the people needed to hear it. Today, before blowing the shofar, we say a blessing, thanking God for commanding us to hear the Shofar.  Hearing the shofar- its call to attention- is where the obligation lies.

This is where I am finding some guidance on how to be, think and act- or not act- in the current climate. I need to listen more and I need to listen more carefully. That is my obligation. Even when what I am listening to is not the powerful and beautiful sound of the shofar. Because while I want to shut off the noise- and sometimes we need to shut off the noise- I do need to be listening. I need to listen for people’s fears and unvented anger. I need to listen for the smaller ways in which whole groups of people are being treated like objects, instead of human beings.  I need to pay attention to the conversations happening around me, in the media among people I disagree with vehemently. Even those who are saying things that violate acceptable social norms- I need to listen. I will not always have the most articulate response. Oftentimes, the moment will not call for a response although there will likely be a time to say something, loudly and forcefully. But if Yom Kippur can teach me anything, it is that the work of paying attention, listening carefully and reflecting on what is happening around me is a prerequisite to responding effectively.

I realized as I put these thoughts together that much of what I will continue to say is not specifically connected to the painful language being used about women during this election season. These thoughts are insights for how I can better approach external challenges that I find deeply disturbing- that hit at the core of who I am and what I believe. And November 8th is not going to bring an end to these types of challenges. The end of an election season will certainly not be the end of misogyny, hateful speech or any of the other ugliness that is thrown into such clear relief during this time of year. So I will use this particular experience as an opportunity to transform my transgressions. To move from disengagement to paying attention. From reacting to listening.

My prayer and hope for this year is that I can listen carefully enough, that I don’t come to next year asking “how did we get here?” I know the next year will bring its own challenges, but I am setting myself up to reflect thoughtfully. To respond with strength and conviction knowing that I took my obligation to listen seriously.

Ken Yehi Ratzon.

Rabbi Alison Abrams is the Midwest Regional Director of J Street.