Unless we are personally exposed to something or hear about it first hand, it is entirely possible that we never know of its existence or prevalence. This is true for sexual assault, unusual illnesses, and even things that happen in our neighbors’ homes.

Most people forget this, however.

Every time I write about breast cancer in the Haredi sector, I get two kinds of responses. One is thanking me for getting the word out to a population that needs to hear it. I get this from survivors of breast cancer – or the families of those who did not survive, from doctors who see women unaware they are ill, healthcare professionals who ask me for advice on reaching their local Haredi communities in order to increase women’s  screening compliance, and people asking if they can translate my words into other languages for their home communities.

The other set of responses I get are from people accusing me of inaccuracy, of tarnishing an entire sector, of making things sound worse than they really are. I am told that I exaggerate, that I say things that aren’t true, and that I clearly have an agenda.

Well, I do.

My agenda is fighting a phenomenon where women’s health is endangered because of a culture of silence. A culture where women are absent from health pamphlets or billboards. A culture where women’s names aren’t written and breast cancer is called “the women’s disease.”

I have been told that this culture does not exist, that what I am saying is simply not true. Some People pass my articles around for the sake of tearing them apart, indignant that I have said things that are so patently false.

But my friends, you are wrong.  The society of which I speak is not Anglo Haredim in Har Nof, or Ramat Bet Shemesh. It is not one of English-speaking Haredim from Western societies at all. That population values – or at least tolerates – openness and secular education — certainly when it comes to health. It is also not the community of Israeli Haredim who are worldly and aware of, if not involved in, current events.  I am not speaking of the homes where Haredi magazines such as Mishpacha and Bina can be found.

I am speaking of a community where the only publication allowed for consumption is  Yated Neeman, in which no woman’s image, or even first name is printed.

I am speaking of communities where girls do not know the names for their body parts. Where 12-year-old girls are not told about menstruation until they find blood on themselves, and then only in hushed tones, as though it is something to be ashamed of.

I am speaking of communities where sex is learned of for the first time right before one’s wedding, after a life of not being allowed to even speak with someone of the opposite sex.

I am speaking of communities where women’s bodies are necessarily hidden, lest men sin.

I am speaking of communities where women live in poverty, and caring for themselves and their health — beyond whatever caring is done for their families — is a luxury, or at least, at the bottom of their list.

That YOU aren’t familiar with  this community, that you have never experienced life there, or met its members, does not mean it that it is not real. Whether you believe it or not, the phenomenon exists and persists.

If you don’t want me writing about it, if you think I’m airing dirty laundry, or sharing a concern that doesn’t belong in the greater public sphere, or you don’t want the details in the pixels of The Times of Israel, then think what you yourself can do to help eliminate the problem.

Can you help by putting pamphlets in your mikveh? Can you talk about how important this is? Can you help combat the rabbis who prevented self-screening pamphlets from being placed in the mikveh in order to ensure that nobody’s ‘mikveh night’ was “ruined” in the event that a woman found a lump? Can you help change the culture of erasing women in your local circulars and magazines? Can you protest the notion that women and girls cannot be seen in print?

Perhaps you think this is not related. But it is. All of it.

Making the names of body parts taboo and not printing a woman’s name  is part and parcel of a culture that erases women and tells them the exact parameters of their place.

These are the women I write about. These are the girls without a champion. They are the reason I write this story.

The next time someone tells you that what I write about the Beit Din isn’t true…

or that women aren’t really being erased…

or that the death rate from breast cancer isn’t really higher in the Haredi community (for a number of factors)…

do me a favor?

Don’t tell me.

I’ve got too much work to do.

 

To help us raise awareness in these communities, click here.

Originally printed in The Jerusalem Post, In Jerusalem, March 25, 2016

For as long as the mitzvah of Taharat Hamishpacha has been practiced, it has been the purview of women. A woman counts her monthly cycle, anticipates it, recognizes that it has begun, and separates from her husband until she has counted seven “clean days,” and immerses in a mikve.

Immersion in a mikve is the culmination of the tahara/purity process. A mikve can be an open body of water or, as it is in modern times, a collection of rain and tap water in a designated space.  In whatever form the mikve took, it has always been a sacred space for women where they connected with themselves, with their hopes for their family, and with God.

Jewish sources that mention an escort for the woman immersing cite two reasons. The first is safety; mikvaot have only recently been housed in warm buildings with good lighting and safe access. The second is to ensure that all of the immersing woman’s hair is covered by the mikve waters. Note, however, that the Shulchan Aruch provides for a woman who is immersing alone: she can put on a hairnet of some kind to ensure that all hair, together with her body is encompassed by the mikve waters. In both cases, the attendant is present to assist the immersing woman, not to check her.  The attendant – who can be a girl of 12 and a day, is meant to assist the woman with whatever she needs, if she chooses, not to tell the woman what she needs to do. This distinction is critical and at the crux of the storm surrounding mikve.

Today, unless visiting an open body of water, every mikvah visit includes having a woman present- a balanit or attendant. The job has expanded, however, to where the balanit now gives guidance, and ensures that the woman’s immersion is “kosher.” Especially as non-observant women are forced to go to the mikveh as a prerequisite to getting married in Israel, the attendant’s role has become more of a ‘checker’ by asking questions about a woman’s preparations, examining her body for possible impediments to the water — and have become more intrusive as Haredi elements took over the service. What started as a way to help women perform their mitzvah as they saw fit has turned into an overbearing obstacle that is alienating women from the mitzvah and even from Judaism.

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For the first time in years, I’m free of a war that I’ve waged for someone else. A war that never subsided, that always was there. That affected everything I did. Everywhere I went. I constantly sought allies I could recruit to my cause. Every day that passed I felt like a failure. Every time I again met defeat, I raged at the injustice. And at my helplessness.

Last week we won the final battle: the certificate of divorce we had been fighting for. After nearly 20 years since asking, this woman whom I have battled for, raged for, ached for, is completely free.

And today another “chained” woman, an aguna, received her divorce after being long denied by her husband, a man who had her followed and accused her of being a ‘rebellious wife’ in order to strip her of her rights. She was photographed getting into a car with a man. This enabled the court to declare her an unfit wife. But she was permitted to stay in his home as a maid. If she left she would forfeit her right to custody of her children. In order to obtain her divorce she gave up nearly everything.

This is the reality for Orthodox women in 5776/2016. And yet, if you listen to the shouting of some mainstream Orthodox rabbis, it is the women and girls who are responsible for denigrating orthodoxy. It is the women who threaten the future of Torah Judaism.

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Originally published in the In Jerusalem section of The Jerusalem Post January 1, 2016

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A 48-year-old woman goes to see a breast surgeon. She has four lumps in her breasts, a large ulcerated mass and cancer that has spread to her lymph nodes. She says she had not come in earlier because it didn’t seem so important.

A 36-year-old woman sees her dermatologist for an irritated nipple. The doctor palpates a tumor the size of a golf ball and immediately sends her to a breast surgeon. The patient returns to the dermatologist a month later for the same condition. The doctor, shocked to see that she has not had surgery, asks if she had seen the surgeon. The woman says she was concerned about the level of kashrut at the hospital to which she was sent and, upon her rabbi’s advice, was waiting to have surgery at another hospital with stricter kashrut. She dies not long after.

A mother of seven is fully aware that she has a gene that makes it very likely she will contract the cancer that killed her mother and sister. She knows that if she has her breasts and reproductive organs removed, it could save her life. But she refuses. Not because she wants more children, not because she is afraid of surgery, but because she is afraid that if the neighbors find out, it will ruin her daughters’ chances for a shidduch. After failing to convince her that she could have the surgery with no one knowing, her doctor puts her in touch with a woman who has had the surgery and reconstruction undetected by her community. She finally agrees.

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