Opinion | An Empowered Orthodox Life - World Jewish Congress

Opinion | An Empowered Orthodox Life

Ella Messler
Ella Messler
Social Media Coordinator, Jewish on Campus
Opinion | An Empowered Orthodox Life

Julia Haart, the CEO of Elite World Group, stars in the new reality show "My Unorthodox Life." The show documents her life after leaving the Orthodox Jewish community. (Courtesy of Netflix)

This past year, Netflix brought the life of fashion-designer, feminist, and ex-Hasid Julia Haart to the comfort of people’s homes with the release of My Unorthodox Life.

Julia is everything a modern woman could hope to be: independent, powerful, and admirable. She is the co-owner and CEO of Elite World Group and a leader in making the fashion industry safer for marginalized models. Julia is shown as a cultural ideal for women who have managed to shake off the “oppressive" chains of Orthodox Judaism. She makes no apologies for her actions or beliefs, and lives an empowered feminist life.

Unfortunately, My Unorthodox Life contains an underlying perspective of hostility towards the observant Jewish community, sending the message that Orthodox Judaism is to be avoided at all costs. Julia tends to focus on the restrictive aspects of Judaism, defining her life in the Hasidic community as one where women weren’t “allowed to run, to dance, to sing, to ride a bicycle, to play sports, [they weren’t] allowed to do anything.” This fixation on the negative suggests to the viewer that the defining feature of Orthodox Judaism is restriction, which is entirely false. It sends the message to non-Jewish viewers that the Orthodox Jewish community is a repressive space, that an observant Jewish life is a detestable and unacceptable lifestyle, and that a Jewish life can never be fulfilling.

This outlook is incredibly dangerous, especially in a world in which Jewish culture and the Jewish population are often marginalized and antisemitism is on the rise. 

The average viewer would conclude that any modern Jewish person would choose a secular lifestyle over a Jewish one; Julia wants her son to receive an education “to ensure he is a full-functioning member of this world,” implying that there is a false separation between secular education and living a Jewish life. She claims that “before 2013, [she] did not exist,” sending the message that her life, and by extension the lives of all other Orthodox Jewish women in that community, are worthless. This perspective creates the expectation that we, Jewish women, must sacrifice our religious and cultural life to be taken seriously, and to “exist,” we cannot be observant Jews. If we don’t make this sacrifice, we are invisible.

While Julia is not inherently wrong when she discusses the restrictions on women in the Hasidic community, her perspective leaves out the positive aspects of Jewish culture, including meaningful rituals, customs, theology, and practice. The problem lies not with Julia herself, but with the choice made by the show’s creators and others in the media to portray her perspective alone. Jewish women deserve representation that fully encompasses their experience, not a representation that prods and picks at their identity.

While the world may embrace Julia’s perspective as progressive and empowering, in reality, it actively hurts Jewish women. We are forced to sacrifice our religious and cultural identities in order to be seen by the secular world. We are forced to be “Julias” even if we don’t want to be.

However, a change seems to be on the horizon. In an age of growing social media presence, religious Jewish women are creating representation for themselves. In particular, TikTok allows Orthodox women to present their daily lives in a way that is not censored or regulated. Women like Tzofia Frieden, the co-founder of Jewish on Campus, are working to change the way Jewish women are viewed by the public. Tzofia first started her TikTok account as a way to answer questions about her lifestyle, making the point that “every woman needs to feel freedom in their own way” by showing what freedom looks like to her. As she shoots her videos, Tzofia asks herself, “How can I tell young women that I’ve found so much empowerment and joy and light in these mitzvot [commandments], and how can I help them find the same?”

For young Jewish women, including my friends and me, Tzofia has shown us that we are allowed to choose, despite what social norms and the media may tell us.  

The marginalization religious Jewish women are faced with and the sacrifices that they are forced to make clearly does not stop with My Unorthodox Life. The solution to this problem is clear; a better and fuller representation of Jewish women in media that does not demand the loss of either their feminine or Jewish identities. A representation like Tzofia Frieden. A representation that allows Jewish women to bring their whole selves to the table, without setting aside any of their intersectional identities. A representation that for the first time ever would allow Jewish women to be entirely and completely themselves.

In October 2021, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and Jewish on Campus (JOC) announced a joint partnership to amplify the voices and strengthen the actions of college students who identify antisemitic occurrences at their schools. The two organizations will provide support to Jewish student communities internationally, which expands the Jewish on Campus network as well as WJC’s relationships with Jewish student communities.