Living and studying in Brooklyn at the Feinberg Center—the Chosen People Ministries graduate studies program sponsored by the Talbot School of Theology—afforded me many opportunities to observe, and sometimes participate in, the lives of religious Jewish women. After all, who else shops for clothes, groceries, and gets their nails done in the middle of the day? I chuckle at the bits and pieces of conversation I overheard: “I’m good, Baruch HaShem, you Rivki?,” or “My husband says I shouldn’t spend so much money on things we only buy for the guests,” or “Shayna that skirt looks too boxy, I think you should go for an A-line….”
When a baby girl is brought into the world, she is introduced to the community by a public naming ceremony, while a boy has the rite of circumcision on the eighth day. From that time on, the little girl is taught how to be an exceptional homemaker and mother. Young girls are also taught to read and understand Hebrew, Jewish history, and classic Jewish religious literature. The traditional Jewish woman wears modest, feminine clothes, and married women will often wear wigs or scarves over their hair. These vary based on style, observance, and socio-economic level.
Marriages are usually arranged by a Shadchan (matchmaker) and by mutual agreement of the parents. By the time a young woman is eighteen or so, she is married, and usually children come shortly thereafter. It is not uncommon for a woman to have school-age children by the time she is thirty, and sometimes by her early forties, she is already a grandmother! With this emphasis on family and childrearing, it can be difficult for women in these communities who marry late, who have difficulty conceiving, who experience divorce, become widowed, or who feel like they don’t fit the mold and expectations of their communities. Sometimes these mothers have children with disabilities, and like many other American families, they struggle in the same ways.
What are the implications for Jewish evangelism? Jewish women are well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures, as it is considered their special domain. Considerable emphasis is also placed on the Talmud, but extra-biblical texts are studied more by men. This is an unintended blessing, as religious women can draw closer to the Scriptures than their husbands, fathers, and sons!
Also, women are excused from “time dependent commandments,” which means that they do not have to run off to the synagogue at an exact time to pray in a prescribed way. Women are more likely to have a personal relationship with God as they sing and encourage their hearts through the Psalms and as they go about their day caring for children and keeping a kosher home. These religious Jewish women hold the future in their hands. According to the most recent surveys of the Jewish community, especially by the Pew organization, the high birth rate among traditional Jewish families means that in one or two generations Orthodox Jewish people will make up one third of the Jewish population!1 These women are raising the next generation of the Jewish people. How appropriate that our Feinberg Center is located in the heart of Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn.
Please pray for these precious women. Also, it seems that there is a new movement within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community as some women are beginning to work outside the home and are also asking for a greater role in synagogue life. This is causing some tension within the ultra-religious Jewish community. It is our hope that these trends might be used by God to inspire religious Jewish women to go even further by starting to consider the possibility that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.