Feminist rebbetzin brings mission to S.F.

Some years ago, Rivkah Lubitch's daughter Re'ut asked a question that would change her mother's life.

"Mommy, why does God hate girls?" the 6-year-old asked.

Lubitch, who considered herself a feminist, asked her daughter why she thought so.

"Because the boys say the prayer thanking God for not making them women," Re'ut replied.

"For all the feminist awareness I was trying to teach her, it hadn't changed a thing," said Lubitch. "We were facing the same problems. That was my first push into doing something."

That something has turned into a lot, as Lubitch has become an outspoken advocate for women's rights, within the Orthodox establishment in Israel. And as the wife of an Orthodox rabbi, she is raising some eyebrows.

Lubitch spoke about her work on a recent Bay Area visit, sponsored by the New Israel Fund.

Born in Manhattan, Lubitch moved to Israel with her parents when she was 9. Her husband is the rabbi of Nir Etzion, a religious moshav (cooperative village) south of Haifa. The couple has three children. Now 41, she has spent more than a decade working to advance the status of women not just in Israel but in Orthodoxy.

Lubitch's is active in Kolech, the Religious Women's Forum and the feminist organization Woman to Woman, among other groups. She is a prolific author, rewriting biblical stories from the woman's perspective. She also has completed studies to be qualified as a toetzet rabbanit, or rabbinic advocate.

There are approximately 30 such women in Israel, Lubitch estimates; they represent women in the religious courts whose husbands have not given them a get, or divorce document. Without such a document, according to Jewish law, women are considered agunot, or "chained women," and they are forbidden to remarry.

In her capacity as a toetzet rabbanit, Lubitch and her colleagues helped pass legislation stating that men who refuse to give their wives a get can be sent to jail.

Only Orthodox women who are knowledgeable in Jewish law can make the case to a rabbi, she said. "We're trying to find halachic solutions that we can try to pressure the rabbis to accept."

But as with everything she does, Lubitch is fighting an uphill battle. Many rabbis have banned her group's literature from their synagogues.

"The Orthodox establishment is very suspicious of us," she said. Of a conference that drew 1,500 religious feminist women in June, Lubitch said, "Not many rabbis from the religious establishment were willing to come and speak, to even tell us they're against us, so there's a lot of tension there."

Nevertheless, a handful of rabbis, her husband among them, are supportive of the ordination of women as Orthodox rabbis. Lubitch believes that it is only a matter of time before Orthodox women will be ordained, since there is the rare rabbi willing to teach them and confer rabbinical status.

According to Lubitch, there is nothing in Jewish law that says a woman cannot be a rabbi. "There's a problem with women studying, but we've overcome that. There's no problem with ordaining women. People just think there is."

And one area in which women have advanced significantly is in studying Torah. While Orthodox feminists in the United States may be more advanced in terms of their knowledge of ritual, in Israel, she believes, more women are studying Torah seriously.

"There are over 60 programs for girls to study Torah after high school," she said. "There are possibilities open to my daughter that I would not have dreamed that would be there for me when I was her age."

Another of Lubitch's projects is a traveling exhibit called "The Synagogue from a Woman's Point of View." She and some of her friends have taken photos of what a woman experiences in an Orthodox synagogue.

"The mechitzah (divider) is not only there to separate between the men and women, but to separate me and everything that's going on in the shul," she said. "It's putting me in the back, outside the synagogue, basically."

While Lubitch admits opposition also can come from Orthodox women themselves, who have no interest in taking a greater role in Judaism, she said, "I'm not into proselytizing. I don't like to get into arguments and don't like to talk to those who are opposed to it. Let them be. Time will change it, and if it's not them, it will be the next generation."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."