The Fearless Women of Passover

By Jordana Gilman

Moses gets most of the press when it comes to Passover, the epic story of freedom from slavery we are commanded to repeat every year around this time. Moses is the Prince of Egypt, the Prophet, the face of the Israelites. He gets credit for being God’s agent, for raising his staff to split the Red Sea and for leading the Israelites out of bondage.

But who gets credit for Moses?

There is a saying that “behind every great man, there is a great woman.” In this case, there’s a whole softball team of great women behind Moses. And these women had no reassuring chats with God in a burning bush, no magic rods, no plagues to back them up. These women were just fearless.

First, there were the women who gave Moses life. These were the midwives who did not follow Pharaoh’s command to put all newborn Israelite boys to death. As Rashi understands it, Pharaoh gave this command to Yoheved (Moses’ mother) and Miriam (his sister) directly, and they directly disobeyed, allowing the baby boys to live. This included Moses.

Then, there were the women who saved Moses’ life. This was Pharaoh’s own daughter, who found the floating baby Moses and recognized him as “one of the children of the Hebrews” and had compassion on him (Exodus 2: 5). She raised him as her own, knowing from day one that Moses was alive because her father’s orders were disobeyed. Then came Moses’ wife, Zipporah. In one of the Torah’s most mysterious dramas, an angel of death swallows half of Moses’ body while they are camped in the desert, and Zipporah recognizes this as a sign to circumcise her son. “So Zipporah took a sharp stone and severed her son’s foreskin and cast it to his feet” in order to save Moses’ life (Exodus 4:25). This tale of “the bridegroom of blood” is an often overlooked example of Zipporah’s bravery and quick-thinking.

Finally, after Moses has led the people of Israel on a dangerous, miraculous, and utterly exhausting chase through the desert and the sea, Miriam sees the people are in need of a pick-me-up. “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances” (Exodus 15:20). Miriam’s energy was contagious, and all the women joined in without being asked. Miriam’s selfless style of leading by example and inspiring people to action through her own enthusiasm is a model for all of us.

So this year, when you tell your children of our exodus from Egypt, don’t forget to give credit to the fearless women in the Passover story who made it possible.

And may you love life like the midwives, be brave like Yoheved, have the compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter, be quick-witted as Zipporah, and exuberant like Miriam. 

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Jordana Gilman graduated Cornell University this January and will be attending SUNY Upstate Medical University in the fall.

Finding Your Inner Esther

By Jordana Gilman

Esther does not assume her post as Queen of the Persian Empire with a passion or expectation for activism. She does her own thing in the harem, listens to the advice of her “uncle” Mordecai, pleases King Ahasuerus, asks for little, and follows directions. Unlike her predecessor Vashti, Esther seems content with a degree of passivity in her role.

Even when it is her time to step up and save the Jewish people living in the 127 provinces of the empire, ranging from India to Ethiopia, Esther devises a plan to first please the king with banquets before requesting anything of him. When Esther finally speaks up on behalf of her people, the king is eager to reverse the decree and punish the man responsible.

Perhaps the impetus for Esther’s bravery comes from Mordecai’s advice to her, “For if you will remain silent at this time, relief and salvation will come to the Jews from another source, but you and the house of your father will be lost. And who knows if it is not for just such a time that you reached this royal position” (Esther 4:14). Queen Esther breaks her silence to save herself as well as her fellow Jews.

Mordecai scares Esther into taking action, but he also reminds her that she is in the right place at the right time to make a difference for herself and for her community.

The story of Purim tells a grand tale of the Jews’ survival, but it is also a step-by-step guide to advocacy.

Step 1: Keep your friends close. Mordecai and Esther are the winning team in Shushan, but neither could do it without the help of the other. Foster your friendships and gather a circle of champions around you who will support you, advise you, inspire you, and give you a kick in the right direction when the time comes.

Step 2: Choose your battles. Find your inner Esther and be agreeable. Avoid extraneous demands. Use humor to diffuse tension instead of exacerbating it. Give people the benefit of the doubt if they misspeak or are unaware of their privilege. Allow thoughtless offensive remarks to be an opportunity for education. Make people want to help you when it’s really time for a fight.

Step 3: Make the ask. It can be difficult to address people of authority with a request. Whether you are speaking on behalf of yourself, your community, or both, feel entitled to ask for something directly (especially if you’ve done a good job with steps 1 and 2!). While Esther addresses the king humbly, she doesn’t beat around the bush when she asks for her life and the lives of her people to be spared. The clarity of her request makes it even easier for the king to grant it. A strong “ask” can mean the difference between getting what you want and getting what someone else feels like giving you.

And who knows? Perhaps you have reached your position for just such a time as this.

Jordana Gilman Portrait
Jordana Gilman graduated Cornell University this January and will be attending SUNY Upstate Medical University in the fall.

Children’s Author Laurel Snyder Shares Her Favorite Book for Kids

Author Laurel SnyderLaurel Snyder is the author, most recently, of Seven Stories Up, a middle-grade novel set in 1937 Baltimore. Her last picture book, The Longest Night: A Passover Story, was awarded the Sydney Taylor Book Award. She shares her favorite children’s book, which she would love to see donated as part of the NLI:

The Ballet Shoes book cover

“There are so many books I’ve loved and reread over the years. But the book most deeply embedded in my brain is Ballet Shoes, by Noel Streatfield. It’s the unlikely story of three orphans collected by an eccentric archaeologist, then raised by his niece and her governess, and forced onto the stage as professional dancers.

I don’t know exactly what I love about it so much. It’s got bits of humor, and some moments that really capture what it’s like to be a kid. But maybe the best thing is that it makes history dazzle. The frocks and cakes and borders in the old house. I love books that really give readers a sense of the past.”

All it takes is a $7 donation to bring joy to a child in need through the gift of books like this one recommended by Laurel Snyder. Show some love in the final days of the month and donate to JWI’s National Library Initiative February Book Drive.

Lisa Eisen’s Favorite Children’s Book

Lisa Eisen

Jewish Women International’s National Library Initiative transforms rooms in domestic violence shelters into children’s libraries – creating both brand-new educational resources and safe havens for kids escaping violent homes.

Lisa Eisen, National Director of the Schusterman Family Foundation and 2013 JWI Woman to Watch, tells us the book she loves most and would like to see donated:

Harold and the Purple Crayon book cover“My favorite children’s book is Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson, because it is about discovery and imagination. The story speaks to the possibility of creating a world of your own and fulfilling your own vision. I love the simplicity and the power of the way this message is delivered by Harold and his crayon.”

All it takes is a $7 donation to bring joy to a child in need through the gift of books. Show some love and donate to JWI’s National Library Initiative February Book Drive.

 

Financial Planning for Life After 50

By Deborah Rosenbloom, JWI

Money and aging are two topics many of us would rather not think about,  but our Life$avings® workshop last night on strategies to make money last through retirement reminded me of the importance of facing facts: I am getting older, and at some point both my husband and I will stop earning our income. Then what? How can we be sure that we’ll be able to afford our lives? Most of the women in the room had the same question: Then what? What are the best ways to plan for retirement? What do we do if we simply haven’t been saving enough money and need to “catch up”? What are some ways to plan ahead?
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When our guest speaker Talya Bock, a Financial Advisor at Merrill Lynch, asked everyone to call out what they thought about when hearing the word retirement, answers included lack of income, fixed budget and freedom – to start a business, pursue hobbies, travel and more. Talya assured us that by stepping into that scary place and being willing to think about and plan for retirement, we would all feel freer. Then she proceeded to share some practical strategies, and I know I’ll be talking to my financial planner about them.

This was the first of two free financial empowerment events for women over 50 in the Washington, DC area. The second will be Thursday, March 6th, 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. at a private home in Bethesda, Md., and is still open for registration.

Battling Sexual Assault on Campus From the Ground Up

By Jordana Gilman

As a third year resident advisor (RA) at Cornell University, I was asked to help with a special part of new RA training at the beginning of the year called “Behind Closed Doors,” a program that simulates difficult situations and asks new RAs to deal with them as if they were the real thing. My assignment was to sit in an empty dorm room and explain to the new RA, over the course of about 25 minutes, that I had been sexually assaulted. I was given a script, and the health center’s victim advocate sat in the room with me to facilitate a debrief after each RA tackled this tough conversation.

Although this was a simulation and I was merely playing a part, the experience wore on me as I performed this scenario over and over again. I heard myself saying, “I feel so alone,” or “I’m not really sure what happened,” and “I didn’t say yes, but I didn’t really say no either.” My acting debut became less of an act as I embodied my part and came face to face with my own blurry consent conversations.

The rest of RA training passed, with Orientation Week and the first few days of school. Then, as I was standing in Rosh Hashanah services, I felt a nagging inside me rather than the usual joy that the new year brings. I made an appointment with the victim advocate after my apples and honey nosh.

By the time Yom Kippur rolled around, I was feeling empowered. The victim advocate had given me the vocabulary I needed to understand my experience, and I had the confidence to own my choices. Months before, when I had a sexual encounter that didn’t feel right and didn’t come with consent, my friends jumped to conclusions. Their accusations that I had been assaulted, although not directed at me, hurt me deeply. I felt that something had gone awry, but I didn’t feel assaulted. The victim advocate (which, by the way, is a free, confidential, walk-in service) listened to my story and offered ways for me to look at it. I left feeling clean and light, free of the shame I had endured for months because my friends told me I had been assaulted and I didn’t do anything about it.

While I have been able to learn from this and move forward, I am well aware that many conversations in the victim advocate’s office don’t have the same sunny outcome. The more I open up about this topic, the more I realize just how many people have experienced sexual encounters that leave them feeling violated, used, or assaulted.

On the bright side, Cornell University (and many others!) are taking great strides. Cornell recently revamped its sexual assault policy in a proactive effort to support victims. There are a number of social media campaigns being spearheaded by students, most notably the Every1 Campaign, a creative and interactive online project that generates conversations about consent. Countless attempts have been made to change campus culture and increase bystander intervention, such as the Cayuga’s Watchers program, a student-run, independent, not-for-profit organization established to curb issues associated with high-risk drinking at Cornell University using non-confrontational bystander intervention techniques. Blue light phones and shuttles to and from the libraries abound. Students, administrators, and law enforcement are working together on all sides of this issue to protect students and reduce sexual assault at Cornell.

So what’s happening? We know how a consent conversation should go. We know there are options for getting home safely and we know that the policies have our backs. We’re highly educated, motivated and, though I can’t speak for everyone, we make good life decisions.

So how did I end up having non-consensual unprotected sex, and why did it take me nine months to talk to a professional about it?

I wish I had the answer to this question, and I wish I could take that answer and implant it on a chip in people’s brains so they can learn from my experiences. I wish that the convincing, eye-catching social media campaigns could jump out of the computer as I sit down on the bed with someone and remind me of everything I already know. I wish that the wise words on flyers in the dorm bathroom stalls didn’t fade into the background after the third time I sat down to pee.

I do not have a cure-all for sexual assault on college campuses, but I have an idea about where we can start. Let me preface this by saying I do not think that people who have had traumatizing sexual experiences should discuss them before they are ready. But I think we need to talk about rape and sexual assault, in person, face to face, with boys and girls, students and adults, in a serious and supportive way. We can’t rely on hypothetical, feel-good online campaigns or administrative policies to change decisions in the bedroom.

It will never be comfortable, but broaching these topics directly with friends of all genders and sexualities is an important step in preventing it. This is not solely a women’s issue or a straight issue or a young issue. It doesn’t matter if you wrote the book on safe and healthy sex or if you’re a virgin or if you’re in a committed relationship. Sexual assault can happen and we have the power to talk about it openly and honestly.

Since I am no expert in this field, I can only speak from my own experience. I can report that as I have opened up more about what happened to me, friends around me have started to open up too – about experiences they’re unsure about, nights they can’t remember, regrets or fears they have. I have been able to suggest that they go speak to the victim advocate, or merely tell them, from the bottom of my heart, that it is not their fault.

I think the scariest thing about sexual assault on campus is the feeling that you are alone; that there’s no one to talk to, no one who can really understand what happened (because you might not even understand yourself), no one who can be there unconditionally, without judgment. That feeling exists at the point of giving (or not giving) consent as well. There is no one there to help you with your decision or remind you of all the smart things that the Internet tells you about empowerment and healthy conversations. I believe that talking about sexual assault will address this feeling of isolation and prepare people for difficult conversations in the real world in real time.

On the most basic level, I hope that opening up about this on a blog will not be in vain, and will encourage people who read it to be more open to having these types of conversations, to speak up when someone makes a rape joke, and to be sensitive to the unseen struggles of others.

Lynn Schusterman’s Favorite Children’s Book

JWI’s National Library Initiative transforms rooms in domestic violence shelters into children’s libraries – creating both brand-new Lynn Schustermaneducational resources and safe havens for kids escaping violent homes.

Lynn Schusterman, founder and chair of the Schusterman Family Foundation, tells JWI her favorite children’s book that she would love to see donated:

Love You Forever by Robert MunschLove You Forever by Robert Munsch is my favorite book, and I cannot read it without crying. Not only does the story describe the special relationship between a parent or grandparent and child, it also explores the power of unconditional love in enhancing  our lives and making the world a kinder, happier place.”

All it takes is a $7 donation to bring joy to a child in need through the gift of books. Show some love and donate to JWI’s National Library Initiative February Book Drive.