Keshet’s Story: Offering Power to the Powerless

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(1/5) “How Identity Influences the Work”

“When I went to law school I was really interested in family dynamics and social justice. Families can be so messy and complicated, and there is also a huge level of vulnerability in family structures. You really let your guard down with your family, so the possibility of harm is much greater. That was always something that drew me in. I did an internship in domestic abuse, and the organization had just gotten a grant to work with the Orthodox community. I had never thought that there was domestic abuse in the Orthodox community prior to that experience. At the time, I was the only Orthodox woman at the agency that was working with this population.

I remember that I had just gotten engaged that summer, I was 22 and young- and all my non-Jewish co-workers only had horrible encounters with Orthodox marriages. They were needlessly ‘worried’ about me- and it just went to show me that the dynamic of doing this work changes when you are also a part of the community you are working with. They had only negative experiences with Orthodox marriage as an institution, whereas I came from the community, and could understand the nuances of the circumstances in a different way.

I think there is something powerful about serving your own community and being able to contain both the beautiful and wonderful things about a religiously observant life, as well as the terrible things we were seeing in our work. It’s a more holistic view.

What has kept me in this niche field for such a long time, is that I love that I can be an Orthodox woman, working on issues that matter to other Orthodox women. I love that who I am brings a commonality into the dynamic with the women I work with, and the trust that we build is really important to me.”

(2/5) “Full-time Mom, Full-time Professional”

“What always struck me, was that for women it seemed that you are either a very focused career person, who “doesn’t prioritize your kids”- or you are a motherhood focused person, whose career gets circumvented for your kids. I grew up wanting to be a full-time mom and a full time professional, not really putting together that was impossible to do both at the same time.

Stepping into my new role as Executive Director, I am excited to change the way we look at these things. We have the opportunity to evaluate how we look at motherhood, how we look at professional work, how we look at school- to adjust these institutions to accommodate the reality of families today. I think that it’s time to think through some of the assumptions we make about what “good mothers” are, and what “real mothers” are. We need to think about our roles in different ways. A lot of us want both meaningful time with our children and fulfilling careers.

I feel really excited about this new opportunity, even though I’m not always focused on being front and center. In terms of what I bring, I feel fortunate to have a law degree, which gives me a helpful background for this work, and a unique perspective and credibility in the community. Even in more right-wing circles, being a woman with a law degree gives me a place in the Beis Din world, which is generally male-dominated. I have a lot of ideas about how we can move forward, and I try to balance being detail-oriented in the present while also thinking big picture. The most important thing I bring is that I really believe in collaborative leadership, and thinking together to create a strong cohesive team. A team where the staff is treated like ‘investors’ in the organization- which strengthens our ability to work successfully and achieve our goals together.”

(3/5) “Role Modeling for My Children”

“I do really enjoy being a hands-on mother- but of course the guilt is a part of my mothering experience, too. In the beginning of motherhood for me, I made a lot of “rules” for myself- one of them being- “to be a good mom I couldn’t travel for work.” The first time I did it, I felt so guilty and stressed out beforehand, and in the end, it was kind of amazing. I came back refreshed, my kids were totally fine, and my husband got to do fun and crazy things with them in an effort to make it special and they had a ball. I had built up this issue in my head, judging myself- and yet I learned that motherhood is more resilient and fluid. You can have warm and loving relationships with your kids regardless of exactly what the time you spend with them looks like.

I believe that God matches parents with children. There is a reason they are my kids and I am their mother. I also believe that God created me as a certain kind of person, who has certain kinds of strengths and interests, and for me to not do the things that make me feel alive- wouldn’t meet anyone’s needs. Your life can be stressful and hectic, but if you are doing what feels like your mission in life, you can work hard to be warm and patient with your kids at the end of the day, and mostly make it all work.  We have this idea that we want to create this perfectly controlled childhood environment- our children will grow up and eat vegetables because we took them to the farmers market, they will exercise because they saw you exercise – but at the end of the day if you look at the list of what society says that mothers are “supposed to do,” it’s too much for one person.

It’s hard to explain to my kids what I do. My oldest daughter knows vaguely that sometimes mommies and daddies live in different houses, so I can explain to her that what I do is help them. I think that social justice is not talked about enough in the Orthodox community. But the Torah makes it clear that we have a responsibility to others and to do reparative work in our broken world. I think my children learn that lesson from the work that I do. The first time I went to a rally against a recalcitrant husband, I was so uncomfortable; I am a peaceful person by nature and I felt like it was out of my comfort zone to be stand up in that way. But then I thought about my children, and how I would want them to grow up to be the kind of people that stand up with and for other people when they were being hurt. I had to step into that role, so that I could model those values for them .”

(4/5) “Female Leadership”

“Being the boss is an identity you have to try on and get comfortable with. I really think of it as a responsibility as opposed to thinking about it in terms of power. Everyone is different, and we can’t fully categorize men and women into separate categories. But there are a lot of studies that show that women traditionally lead in different ways- and some of the ways we lead can be more powerful than we realize. A model of leadership that is collaborative and focused on relationship building, is a different style than how we typically think about leadership but can accomplish just as much or more than the classic authoritarian model.

I believe there is so much power in relationships. If you have staff members that are committed to you and want to work with you they will work really hard for the organization, because of feelings of loyalty born out of a strong professional and to an extent, personal, relationship. If you have relationships with other agencies they won’t want to compete with you, but rather be driven to work with you in a collaborative way. Relationship building and retaining is a very important skill and is one that makes organizations stronger. At this moment we are in right now, this “Me too” world, we have an even stronger need for that kind of leadership because the way we have power in the workplace and how we wield it over others is changing.

A model of respect, relationship building, and collaboration yields better results but it also meets the needs of the cultural moment that we are in and halts problems from happening. Today, a safe and respectful work environment is critical for organizations to succeed.

As I look to the future of ORA, we are evolving towards a more collaborative model in our relationships with the women (and men) we work with. When you provide others with advice or services, it is natural to think that you should press upon the other person what is truly best for them. But I think that the trend in nonprofit work in general, that we are trying to implement, is that we acknowledge that we have information about these issues that women are struggling with, and we should impart it because knowledge is power,  but when we can structure the conversation not as, “we are the experts who will tell you what to do,” but “you are the expert in your life, your marriage, divorce, spouse and children” then we give them the space to decide what comes next.

A theme that I’ve seen over and over in literature and media is the question of, “What happens when bad things happen to you?” We all go through life dealing with complicated situations that we didn’t ask to deal with, on different levels. The issue remains, how do we go about dealing with it? For the person who can accept with agency, “this is what happened to me, no it is not what I wanted, but here is what I am doing next”– there is something so powerful about that sense of agency, choice, and control. There is so much we don’t get to control our lives, but there are pockets where we do get to decide. The more people respond to things out of their own free will and volition, the better they feel about their lives. To go through a divorce you didn’t think would happen to you is devastating. But to go through it with a sense of agency, meaning-making and purpose is liberating in itself.

At ORA, we live in the world of Plan B. No one wanted to get divorced and have their gett refused. But that is why it is even more important to be more aware of the dynamics of decision making, priorities and what remains still in your control.”

(5/5) “Gett Refusal”

“One of the biggest challenges when we talk about the impact of gett refusal, is that the impact can’t really be measured, specifically because of the way that it changes the playing field and power dynamics in a marriage. I’ve spoken to several women over the years who said, “Well there is no point in me leaving because he isn’t going to give me a gett anyway.’ Many women are staying in abusive relationships because they know that their spouse won’t let them go. I don’t even know how many women deviate from the law and accept settlements that don’t include what they are entitled to because they “want to be nice” or just want to be able to receive their gett. There are so many women who fall into poverty for decades after divorce because they didn’t receive what they were entitled to. These are women who can’t afford to send their kids to school because they can’t pay. We send women every year to food pantries before chagim, because they can’t even afford to feed their families. The financial realities of raising children frum are ever present, and so exchanging financial security that is entitled onto a woman by the law, for a gett- is a steep price. The gett is a shadow that hangs over the divorce process in the frum world.

Marriage is a vulnerable thing. Your spouse knows you better than anyone else, and they know your bad parts too. Your spouse sees you and that vulnerability can be a holy thing, but it can also be a dangerous thing if they use it to manipulate you.  

We’ve had several situations where a couple can’t agree on signing the prenup. I have told these couples together and separately, that this is the first of many decisions you have to make together. More important than the results is how you get to the decision you make.  Are you able to talk and hear what the other’s concerns and feelings are? Think of the prenup as a test run for healthy relationship skills. If you are afraid of bringing up wanting to sign the prenup, that reflects a larger issue already present in the relationship.

The Prenup has two primary pieces. It’s an arbitration agreement where you agree to go to a Beis Din to decide the issue of the gett. All you are doing is committing that if you can’t agree on the gett, you are going to go to this assigned third party to make that decision for you. The second piece enforces a halachic support obligation, where if the husband refuses the gett, he has to give his wife $150 a day in recognition of his halachic obligations to her as her husband. There’s a reciprocal version of the prenup that goes both ways, requiring the wife to give her husband $150 a day based on her halachic obligations as his wife. The idea is to create a financial deterrent to withholding the gett.

But the most important part of the halachic prenup is the cultural messages that it sends. When we sign the prenup, it sends a message that gett refusal is not ok here. Not in this house, not in this marriage, not in this neighborhood, not in this shul- the more people that do that sets the standard that gett refusal is not ok. We’ve already seen the impact of this message.

Marriage is very vulnerable, particularly when it ends. By signing the prenup, the husband has the opportunity to acknowledge that those vulnerabilities are there and a promise not to take advantage of them. You still have the rights to everything you are entitled to under the law, but you give up the right to be a jerk later. Signing the prenup means that you aren’t going to be the person that takes advantage of their spouse in this way. After all, you don’t want to be that guy.”



Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.

She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.

She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.

Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.

Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.