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The Orthodox Women of Instagram

On social media, observant influencers are changing the conversation about everything from fashion to politics, religious texts to sexual health

by
Yoni Gutenmacher
December 06, 2022
Original images: Instagram
Clockwise from top left: Raizy Fried, Malka Chana Amichai, Sarah Guigue, Melinda Strauss, and Bari MitzmannOriginal images: Instagram
Original images: Instagram
Clockwise from top left: Raizy Fried, Malka Chana Amichai, Sarah Guigue, Melinda Strauss, and Bari MitzmannOriginal images: Instagram

The rise of internet “influencers” has hit the religious Jewish world, and nowhere has this been more visible than on Instagram. With its popularity among observant Jews, Instagram has offered Orthodox women opportunities to bypass the structures in the religious world that have often kept them out of positions of power and influence. Here, women have paved a new path to influence in their communities, thereby uprooting traditional conventions that determine who can and who can’t spread ideas in the Orthodox world.

In the past several years, a growing number of Orthodox women have come to amass significant followings on Instagram that sometimes range in the tens of thousands. Whereas Twitter has emerged as the primary social media platform for a subset of religious Jews interested in sharing Torah ideas, Instagram—with its more visually focused feed and even greater popularity—has become the main platform where Orthodox women gather to talk about Jewish life. The success of a select number of these frum women on Instagram—those with large followings who can, to some capacity, be considered influencers—has enabled them to occupy roles of tremendous influence and power in their communities as content creators, affecting the way religious Jews view everything from modest fashion to sexual health, the weekly Torah portion to dating norms, contemporary politics to halachic concepts.

According to Sarah Guigue, an Orthodox influencer with over 40,000 followers who posts under the username @hassidic.hipster.girl, this is particularly striking in communities where female representation in the media is itself a rarity. “In certain communities within the Orthodox world, they don’t even have frum women’s faces on Jewish publications, even if they are fully tznius, fully modestly dressed,” Guigue said. “What Instagram does is it enables these women who are ‘stuck’ and who are not given a face or a name in these publications … to have their own individuality and show themselves on a platform.”

While the exact demographics of Orthodox women on Instagram can be difficult to pinpoint—after all, most users on the platform do not necessarily share this sort of information and no tracking source monitors it—Guigue, from personal experience engaging with her followers and others on the platform, believes that there is a rich diversity of religious women actively using Instagram to connect with one another through posts on Jewish life. According to her, this includes women who self-identify as part of the modern Orthodox and Chabad communities, but, perhaps surprisingly, it also includes women from Yeshivish and ultra-Orthodox circles. Despite long-standing conventions in these communities that have often discouraged women from attaining positions of influence, some women in these communities have even managed to gain dozens of thousands of followers on Instagram.

Raizy Fried, an influencer with nearly 50,000 followers on Instagram, describes herself on her website as a “chassidish, Jewish homemaker.” While she posts videos of recipes and lifestyle guidance on Instagram, she also posts on a platform she runs called Inspired Living, which is “devoted to helping women run their homes more efficiently, entertain with practicality and style, and learn all the clever homemaking and organizing techniques they can get their hands on.” With a paid membership to Inspired Living, users have access to unlimited streaming of her videos on her website and on the official Raizy Fried app, in addition to other bonus content.

The prevalence of Orthodox women on Instagram has not been without controversy, especially in more traditional communities. Guigue and others noted that in certain Orthodox communities, families have been socially ostracized after it was discovered that a woman in the family has been actively posting on Instagram.

Despite that pushback, the rise of the Orthodox woman influencer seems to be on an unstoppable trajectory that will continue to have radical implications for the Orthodox world. Bari Mitzmann, an Orthodox influencer with over 36,000 followers on Instagram who often posts about mental health and modest fashion, believes that the influence of Jewish content creators on the zeitgeist of Orthodox communities can sometimes rival that of more traditional Jewish leaders, including rabbis. While the subjects of this influence can sometimes seem minor—many Orthodox influencers speak about things like recipes, clothing, and Jewish homemaking—these lifestyle topics are, of course, integral to many Orthodox Jews’ sense of Jewish identity and, inevitably, statements about Jewish values emerge in posts about these kinds of topics. But there are also dozens of Orthodox women with influence on Instagram who are directly engaging with and addressing major topics in Jewish contemporary life, influencing the way their followers think about mental health, antisemitism, Zionism, women’s health, religious observance, and many other subjects.

“The reality is there are many people in the Orthodox community who view content creators as their ‘celebrities’ and role models and inspirations,” Mitzmann said. “Some consider them their rabbis—even though it’s a woman in a blond wig, that’s their rabbi.”

Among the most followed religious Jews on the platform is Melinda Strauss, a modern Orthodox influencer based in New York with over 70,000 followers on Instagram and over 660,000 followers on TikTok. She regularly posts videos about her everyday Jewish experiences in a tone that varies from explanatory (when she is describing aspects of Jewish life to an intended general public audience) to familiar and casual (when she is speaking to those who are part of religious communities like her own). Some of her recent posts include: an explanation of why she keeps two separate beds in her guest room for halachic reasons (72,000 views), her discovery of a swastika on the side of a building in Italy (113,000 views), and a saga about kosher airline food (22,000 views).

For other Orthodox women, Instagram has inevitably become another way to talk about food. Naomi Nachman, an Australian-born Orthodox chef and food and travel writer living in New York, has garnered over 40,000 followers on her Instagram page that primarily features posts about kosher cooking and her Orthodox lifestyle.

But the significance of the Orthodox women’s Instagram community, it turns out, extends far beyond the question of who in the Orthodox world can have access to positions of influence. Orthodox women on Instagram have also been driving radical changes in the discourse happening in the Orthodox world, uprooting norms about what can and can’t be talked about, and reshaping the ways that religious Jews talk about certain sensitive topics.

Mitzmann believes that the changes in discourse that are happening in these online spaces are directly translating into changes in real life as well. “A lot of what happens on the internet then turns into what is discussed during coffee dates, at the Shabbat table, at different social events,” she said.

Many of these Orthodox influencers have amassed significant followings by speaking openly about issues that have held some degree of taboo in the community, including topics like infertility struggles, pregnancy loss, mental health, women’s sexuality, and sexual health.

Aimee Baron is the founder and executive director of I Was Supposed To Have A Baby, an organization that “utilizes social media (mainly Instagram) to support Jewish individuals and families struggling to have a baby.” She personally runs the Instagram page for the organization, which has over 14,000 followers, and answers all the direct messages herself.

In a recently posted video, Baron tells her users to be kind toward people struggling with “halachic infertility,” a term referring to the phenomenon that occurs when following the laws of niddah (family purity) inadvertently prevents a woman from getting pregnant.

“For these women, these couples, it’s not that their body is failing them,” she says in the video. “Their body is doing exactly what it needs to. It’s ovulating. It’s that Halacha is failing them.”

The kind of language Baron is using here—direct, clear, and public messages about the sometimes complicated relationship between Jewish law and fertility—is striking when considering that several years ago, even mentioning these topics was considered taboo in segments of the Orthodox world. Baron believes that her work online, along with the work of other Instagram personalities who focus on similar topics, has enabled discourse on topics once considered “off-limits” to occur more openly in the religious world.

“Infertility and pregnancy loss were topics in the Jewish community, and in the frum community—where five or 10 years ago, you could not say those words out loud at a Shabbos table,” Baron said. “Whereas in today’s day and age, it’s commonplace to see the word ‘infertility’ in a place like Mishpacha or The Jewish Press. Nobody bats an eye.”

Malka Chana Amichai, a former birth doula and prenatal yoga teacher, runs an Instagram account under the username “bohemian balabusta” that has garnered nearly 30,000 followers. As an Orthodox woman living in Israel, Amichai uses Instagram to promote positive and empowering messages about women’s sexuality and well-being. She speaks openly about female pleasure, using frank language to approach topics that have long been considered taboo in the Orthodox world.

“I try to help women understand that by owning all their femininity psychologically and physiologically, it helps a woman feel empowered, it helps them feel confident in the body that they are walking around in,” Amichai said. “The body is not just this vessel—we actually are connected to it and I think that idea spills onto the values that we choose, it spills onto our marriages, it spills onto our children.”

While the topics and perspectives that Orthodox Jewish influencers offer vary considerably, there is one opportunity that they are all providing to their users: the ability to engage in a kind of community that they might not have access to in their immediate vicinities. Lisa Septimus, a yoetzet Halacha—a woman who advises other women about the laws surrounding family purity—with a growing Instagram following, believes that this is of particular importance for adult Orthodox women who can sometimes find it hard to access consistent communal engagement.

“A lot of the men have built-in communal connection and religious connection by going to shul on Shabbat or going daily to minyan. For women, there isn’t as consistent a connection,” Septimus said. “The women who are becoming influencers are creating community for Jewish women, making women feel connected to one another, to the Jewish personality, and maybe to their religious life in general.”

Of course, the experience of Orthodox women on Instagram has not been entirely positive. Inevitably, these women sometimes face serious harassment, oversexualization, and antisemitic attacks whose significance cannot be overstated. And yet, there seems to be a shared belief among the Orthodox women on the app that their community has the opportunity to transcend all the negativity and to become a force for good.

“I do feel like in a lot of ways women are at the center of it all. When a woman is working on herself, that transforms her marriage, she can transform her relationship with her children, and so on,” Amichai said. “I feel like if we can keep creating community here through this really neat technological vessel that allows us to connect with people from all over the world, I feel like really big things can happen.”

Yoni Gutenmacher is a writer based in New York.

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