Editor of Hadassah womens book to examine new roles in talk here

The greatest challenge facing Jewish women today is "balancing work and home, and creating families," said Carol Diament, the New York-based director of Hadassah's National Jewish Education Department.

A writer, editor, public speaker and the first and only woman to have earned a Ph.D. in Jewish studies from Yeshiva University, Diament has a well-informed perspective on women's issues. She is also editor of the recently published Hadassah compendium, "Jewish Women Living the Challenge."

For the book, which Diament will discuss at 7:45 p.m. Thursday at Berkeley's Congregation Beth Israel, she pored through a decade's worth of publications by the National Jewish Education Department before selecting 25 for inclusion in the comprehensive work.

"Many of our contributors observe that gender roles have changed dramatically over the past few decades — and so, we believe, must Judaism," she writes in the foreword with National Jewish Education chair Barbara Spack.

"Why did we choose to re-examine the status of women in the family, the synagogue, and the Jewish community?" the foreword continues. "Because problems in all of these spheres of Jewish life remain unresolved, despite the attainments of recent years."

The book's five sections — "Self," "Family and Home," "Women and the Workplace," "Social Action" and "Spirituality" — are designed to stimulate not only thought, but also action. Tailored specially for Hadassah study groups, the book presents articles on each topic and follows these with "programming ideas": suggestions for activities in the home, for special-interest and study groups, at meetings and annual events.

These addenda also tie the articles' themes to specific passages of the Torah and other Jewish writings, and offer recommended reading lists.

Though Diament's upcoming West Coast trip originated as a vacation so that she and her husband could visit with their 22-year-old son, who is working on a doctorate at U.C. Berkeley, she soon found herself transforming it into a book publicity tour that will first take her to Savannah, Ga., then to Charleston, S.C., and Southern California. This type of outreach is a first for Hadassah and Diament, who will be speaking as a guest of the Northern Pacific Coast Region of Hadassah.

Talking by phone from her Westchester, N.Y., home, she said, "It's an experiment for us really. I'm on the road, so to speak, getting our study groups to buy and make use of the book."

Hadassah has 400 study groups in the United States. With more than 350,000 members — 40,000 of them active — Hadassah is "the largest Jewish organization, the largest Zionist organization, and the largest women's organization in the world," Diament said.

And while many young-adult Jewish women are not unlike their non-Jewish friends in wishing to establish careers before their social lives, they do carry additional, unique responsibilities, said Diament.

"You're finding a lot of women who are marrying later, or not marrying at all."

This trend, along with intermarriage, "is for Jews particularly problematic, because we are a minority. We're only 2 percent of the population in the United States, only 11 million the world over."

Another problem, she said, is "the tremendous competition between male and female [Jews]." Diament says many Jewish men harbor a palpable "ethnic dislike" for Jewish women. This is epitomized by the negative "JAP" (Jewish American Princess) stereotype, she said.

"One woman told me, `I work very hard; I got 750 [out of a perfect score of 800] on my Scholastic Aptitude Test. But no matter what I do and how much I achieve I'm still a JAP.'"

Such prejudice also comes into play in "the issue of women's spirituality," added Diament, referring to Jewish women's traditional role as wives, childbearers and back-of-the-synagogue members of the Orthodoxy.

"Women are struggling with these issues," she said. "I think the general women's movement brought about role problems, and the spirituality issue is major."

Diament, who belongs to a Conservative congregation, said her own daughter is grappling with this. An accomplished medical doctor and assistant professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Diament's daughter is married, has four children and chose to belong to an Orthodox synagogue.

"She told me she is not happy behind the mechitzah [synagogue divider separating the sexes]…but she wants a holy community, a community of Shabbat observers" for her children. "She's willing to sacrifice her needs for her children — and maybe she has an outlet in her work.

"But it's too bad we have to make that choice."

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.