Tackling the Challenges of Leaning In as an Orthodox Woman

31 Mar 2016

Can Orthodox women lean in?

Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz believes they can.

The phrase “Lean In” was popularized by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her book of the same name. “The time is long overdue to encourage more women to dream the possible dream,” she wrote. For Sandberg, leaning is the call for women to devote more time and energy in the workplace and rise to leadership positions to help other women along with maintaining a healthy family life.

Perhaps there is no better woman to discuss leaning in for Jewish women than Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz. Schwartz is a mother of five, who holds a Ph.D. in history from Princeton, and serves as the director of general studies at the Frisch School in New Jersey and the rebbetzin of Mt. Sinai Jewish Center in Washington Heights. Schwartz spoke to a packed auditorium at the Orthodox Union’s headquarters on March 22 as a speaker for the Orthodox Union’s Women’s Affinity Group.

Throughout the course of her hour-long lecture, Schwartz stressed that both aspects—a productive family life and meaningful work—are important to Orthodox women. “Because we have such a deep sense of value and respect for the family, and the role of women in the family—and as Torah observant women we have an appreciation for the contributions women make in the greater societal realm,” she explained.

Though Orthodox women face different challenges than their secular counterparts.

“Just look at the November issue of a magazine and read how they prepare for Thanksgiving; it’s one meal, eaten once,” she said. “On Sukkot I do that four times and a week later another four times—and if it’s a three day yomtov I do it six times followed by another six times a week later.”

Compounding the difficulties of leaning in for Orthodox woman is family size, since Orthodox families are typically larger than non-religious households.

“More than simply four, six, eight or more children to care for—those are more years of incoherent sleep and days of kindergarten. That many more years of teenage hood,” she noted.

Schwartz’s message was that for the Orthodox women, given the strong values placed on both work and home life, there is no single way to lean in, but leaning in to both family and work are equally valuable.

“As Torah observant women, we must address our own profound ambivalence and communal ambivalence regarding women’s contributions within the family, within the workplace, within roles of leadership,” Schwartz emphasized.

Schwartz issued a call for unity between Jewish women, whether they focus on the family or their occupation.

“There’s nothing in it for us to think only my choices are right and everyone else is wrong. That is a toxic culture among women and we must build a healthy supportive culture among us instead,” she stated. “We must acknowledge the deep value at home with family and the deep value in women’s contribution in the broader world, to be able to understand how different women balance those values.”

These different roles, she concluded, are vital pieces to creating a whole, vibrant and healthy Jewish community.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.