Orthodox Union Riles Working Moms

By Jennifer Siegel

Published September 02, 2005, issue of September 02, 2005.
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The country’s largest Orthodox organization posted an essay on its Web site last week that sharply criticized working mothers.

“Let’s shatter the myth [of] a mother who works outside of the home,” Sara Malka Poupko Reichman wrote in an essay titled “Diary of a Professional Mother,” which was posted on the homepage of the Orthodox Union’s Web site.

“Superwoman is not ‘doing it all,’” Reichman wrote. “Someone else is raising her children and if she walks in at 5:00 p.m. and starts cooking dinner, she’s not tending to her children’s need for deeper nourishment while rushing to get the chicken on the table.”

In the essay, Reichman, who spent 10 years as a teacher in a Jewish day school before having children, wrote that her own decision to stay home was “very difficult” and “there are certainly valid reasons to work outside the home.” But she argued that “it is critical that society begin to view full-time mothering as an ideal.”

Citing a study showing that many women work, at least in part, for personal satisfaction, Reichman wrote: “Do women really have to seek a sense of esteem and self-worth outside the home? The Talmud tells us that God endowed women with intellectual abilities specifically geared to enable us to raise children wisely.”

The essay, which first appeared several years ago in the O.U.’s Jewish Action magazine, drew criticism from Orthodox bloggers on the Internet and from some Orthodox women who work.

“Um, is someone a bit defensive?” asked popular blogger Orthomom, a mother of four. “Laud yourself all you want. But when it comes to my life’s choices… please shut up.”

Others criticized the O.U.’s decision to post the article on its front page. One respondent on Orthomom’s site said, “I don’t think it’s the place of the O.U. to put an editorial like that out there without it saying in big bold letters that it is an opinion piece and not the opinion of the institution, which supposedly represents all of us.”

“I’m not sure what message this is supposed to send all the married/child-rearing women who work at the O.U.,” “Avraham” wrote on www.thebronsteins.com.

According to David Olivestone, the O.U.’s director of communications and marketing, essays chosen for Jewish Action or for the O.U.’s Web site are overseen by both professional staff and lay leaders. When asked by the Forward if the O.U. would post an essay that took up a viewpoint contrary to Reichman’s — one that praised working mothers as the ideal while questioning the benefits of staying home — Olivestone said, “That’s a ridiculous question.” Later, he stated that there is “room for divergent opinions” within Orthodoxy and that the O.U. “would happily entertain anything that is sent.”

Olivestone declined to make Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the O.U., available for comment.

The posting comes a year after Rabbi Hershel Schachter, arguably the most influential instructor at Yeshiva University’s affiliated rabbinical seminary, ruffled feathers by writing an essay arguing that women should engage less in Jewish public life, even in instances technically permissible according to Jewish law. (The piece, which focused on the growing custom of granting a woman the honor of publicly reading the marriage contract at a wedding ceremony, drew fierce criticism because of Schachter’s insistence that even a parrot or monkey would be permitted to do so.)

Blu Greenberg, founding president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, said she supported Reichman’s argument about the benefits that choosing to stay home full time can have for both mothers and children, and said that the community should develop more rituals to help validate women in that choice.

But she also criticized the essay’s disparagement of the decision to combine work and child rearing. “She does herself a disservice by bridging to her own contentment criticism and disapproval of those who make other choices,” Greenberg said. “She misses the point: The real message of feminism is about choice, so what works for her and her husband and her children is wonderful, and I affirm that, but what she doesn’t allow is that the other can also work for children and families … that is what equality is about, the ability to make a choice.”

Reichman told the Forward that although she was surprised some women felt personally attacked by her essay, she stood by her defense of full-time mothering. “I think that it needs defending on the outside and I think it needs defending for each woman,” Reichman said. “You get all these gratifications in the work place and it really is a big step that takes a lot of strength to say ‘I’m going to say home now.’”

This year, with the youngest of her three children in nursery school for a half-day, Reichman plans to go back to teaching, working from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

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