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Jofa and the point of no return

Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance’s Teaneck-based president talks about change

 
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From left, Pam Scheininger, Charlotte Kruman, Leah Slaten, Tamar Lindenbaum, and Pam Greenwood read from their new scroll on Rosh Chodesh Tammuz at the hachnasat Torah.

The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance has been around since 1997.

Today, both the organization and the worldview of the women who created it seem to be at a turning point.

“I feel we’ve reached the point of no return,” Jofa’s president, Judy Heicklen of Teaneck, said. “I’m not talking about the people in New Square, but in modern Orthodoxy, we’re past the point of no return with respect to women’s roles within the home, the community, the school.”

Examples abound.

The most obvious, perhaps, is the graduation of the first three women from Yeshivat Maharat. Maharat is a title that the school’s founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss, made up; the women who have earned it are spiritual leaders and halachic authorities, according to its website, although they are not given s’michah or the title of rabbi.

All three have jobs in Orthodox institutions; one of them is co-funded by a Jofa board member, Zelda Stern, and the shul, the National Synagogue of Washington.

“Graduation was beautiful,” Heicklen reported. “There was a full house. Nearly 500 people. It was such a nice showing from the community. The room was full of the feeling of making history. Everyone was conscious of the fact that this was a turning point.”

Acknowledgment of the graduation’s historic nature came from many other parts of the Jewish world as well.

“Sally Priesand was there,” Heicklen said. Priesand was the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi; her ordination was in 1972, at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cleveland. “So were Jackie Ellenson” — another Reform rabbi who made the Newsweek 50 Top Rabbis list — “and Judith Hauptman” — a rabbi with a Ph.D. in Talmud who has taught for decades at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. “It was very celebratory.” The ceremony was opened by Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, who had spent seven years as the leader of Kehilat Kesher in Tenafly and is now Maharat’s rosh yeshivah, or head of school.

“We’re so proud and pleased,” Heicklen said.

She has been very busy lately (with her volunteer work, that is. In the rest of her life, she is always busy. The mother of three children, 6, 14, and 17, Heicklen also is an accountant and a managing director at Credit Suisse).

Last week, Heicklen was on a National Council of Jewish Women-sponsored panel discussing civil marriage in Israel — a bill to permit it will be introduced into the Knesset, probably later this month. Each of the three panelists took on a different aspect of what each saw as a problem. “Jewish marriage is intimately tied with Jewish divorce, which in my view is a real tragedy in Israel,” Heicklen said. “Civil marriage would be a huge step forward. It’s not that it would help everybody — especially not in my constituency — because not everybody would chose a civil marriage.

“I agreed with the other panelists” — the Conservative movement’s Rabbi Julie Schonfeld and Susie Gelman, immediate past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington — “that the rabbanut turns people off.

“One of the questions asked of me was how I could remain allied with the Orthodox encampment. I said that we have to put pressure on the rabbanut from all directions, from inside as well as outside.”

Jofa now has a program to provide a Torah scroll, prayer books, and Bibles to women who cannot gain access to them in any other way. Heicklen foresees that the sefer Torah will be particularly useful for girls who wish to celebrate becoming b’not mitzvah in women’s prayer groups. Last week, the program was inaugurated with a hachnasat Torah — a formal welcome for a Torah scroll — as it was danced to its new home, Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, where it will rest between engagements.

There was a minyan of women (there were fewer than 10 men, so, according to Netivot Shalom’s minyan, that was acceptable). Because it was rosh chodesh, one of the women read from the new scroll.

“This gives access to the Torah to people who literally would not have access to one otherwise,” Heicklen said.

Next week, Jofa and the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Celebration will co-host a daylong summit meeting on the problems of agunot, women who are chained to their ex-husbands because those men refuse to give their onetime wives gittin, the divorce documents that men must give and women must accept in order to end a marriage.

“We are looking for a systemic solution to the agunah problem,” Heicklen said. “There are a number of solutions that have been used historically, although they have not been used for some time.” Although the halachah that supports these solutions is both technical and complex, at its core it turns on the logical if circular argument that any man who refuses his wife a get is abusive; if she had known he was abusive, she wouldn’t have married him; he hid the abusiveness at the center of his being from her. That foundational dishonesty makes the marriage entered into upon false pretenses, and therefore it should be annulled. QED.

And then, Heicklen continued, there has been and once more could be a mechanism that removes the power to grant a get from the husband to the bet din, the rabbinic court. If, the argument goes, he married her “after the laws of Moses and Israel” — he did — and if the bet din holds the power to define and enforce those laws — they do — then the court can decide to annul the marriage. The power is its, not his.

“I’m not saying that any of these methods are perfect, but they are tools,” she said. “They have been used historically. We could broaden their application — but that would require a lot of bravery. We have been very afraid of going out on a limb on some of these issues.” She hopes that will change.

Heicklen, who is 49, grew up in State College, Pa., was a camper at the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah in the Poconos, and went on to Princeton University. “I became Orthodox in college; I’ve been a feminist since the day I could breathe,” she said.

“I came to college with a strong background, very committed to kosher dining. And that’s where the Orthodox kids were.

“The learning really hooked me,” she continued. “College is a very special time, when you really don’t feel how anti-feminist Orthodoxy is. Obviously, I didn’t count in the minyan — but I was accepted as a full person by my peers.”

“People wonder how, if you are a feminist, you could ever become and remain Orthodox. I want to put in it the context of my 18-year-old self, but my 49-year-old self can answer.

“The value of Orthodoxy as a whole is the strong community, the intellectual rigor, the value system. For me, it works in so many ways. The only part that doesn’t work is the gender part.

“But I can work to make a difference.

“How do I live with a bifurcated brain? The real question is how do you keep all the things that are rich and vibrant and fulfilling, and deal with the parts that reject me as a full member of the community?

“That’s why I’m president of an advocacy organization. I want to preserve the parts that are terrific, and I want to make the rest of it better.”

She is hopeful that such change is possible.

“It’s two steps forward, one step back, but that’s still moving forward. There is an inevitability about it now. There will be progress.

Does she think that everyone in the modern Orthodox world would define the changes she cherishes as progress?

“No,” she said, after a pause. “No.

“I don’t think that everyone would say that all the changes moves forward, but I don’t think anyone would say that none of them are. It may be a woman saying kaddish for a loved one. For many people, that is less threatening than a woman as president of a shul, even though one has a religious connotation and the other one does not.

“I think the areas in which there is most agreement are about certain life cycle issues, like celebrating a girl’s bat mitzvah, or some marking of a baby girl’s birth. To someone who is not Orthodox I know that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but the movement that has been made on these issues in the last 50 years, that is a watershed.

“Fifty years ago, a modern Orthodox girl would not have celebrated her bat mitzvah with anything more than maybe a Kiddush in shul, but now, even outside the modern Orthodox world, girls are commemorating bat mitzvahs in a different way.

“The other place there has been tremendous progress, every modern Orthodox person would agree, is in women’s learning. There are places now where girls can expand their Jewish knowledge in ways that did not exist before. There are certainly modern Orthodox men who would say, ‘Ordain women? Yeecchhh. Phew! It is against our mesorah [tradition]!’ but should their daughter have a bat mizvah and give a d’var Torah in shul? ‘Of course she should!’”

“If we look back even over my life when, there is so much change. Progress is very slow, but the vibrancy of Orthodox life is something you can’t find anyplace else.

“The future of Jewish life is Orthodox.”

 
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Laughing with Joan

I made Joan Rivers laugh.

Of course she made me laugh, like she did to millions of others through her decades-long, often unfiltered, and ever-funny career, but yes, I made Joan Rivers laugh.

At the time, I was working at the celebrity-obsessed New York Post, and as the features writer for its women’s section, I had reason to ring up the raspy-voiced, Brooklyn-born blonde for a quickie. I had to grab a quote for some story that I was writing. As I recall, the conversation had turned to food, a favorite subject of the Jewish woman on my end of the phone, and, apparently, of that Jewish woman on the other end as well. Joan told me that she just adored the creamed spinach served at the legendary Brooklyn restaurant, Peter Luger’s — a must-have accompaniment to its famous and robust steaks. Joan told me she would dine there with a hairdresser-to-the-stars, the late Kenneth Battelle. (She kept her physique petite with this practice: She never ate anything after 3 p.m. If she did find herself dining with someone, she popped Altoids to keep her mouth busy.)

 

Cookin’ it up!

Tales of a Teaneck kitchen prodigy

How did 12-year-old Eitan Bernath of Teaneck come to be on the Food Network’s popular cooking show “Chopped”?

“He’s always been curious and he likes science,” said his mother, Sabrina Bernath. “He thinks it’s cool to mix flavors and watch things rise. He also likes to make people happy,” she added, pointing out that he had just brought his friends a freshly baked batch of cinnabuns.

For Eitan, a student at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, cooking is more than just a hobby. Struggling for the right word, the fledgling chef — whose website, cookwithchefeitan.com, will launch this week — described his relationship with the culinary arts as a “passion.”

 

Killed in the name of God

Fair Lawn scholar studies medieval Jewish child martyrs

“Jews rejected child sacrifice 3,500 years ago,” read the headline in ads signed by Elie Wiesel and placed in newspapers around the world by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s Our World organization. “Now it’s Hamas’ turn.”

But that may be stretching the truth.

In the 12th century — not even a thousand years ago, making it recent by the standards of Jewish history — Jews boasted of making martyrs of their children, deliberately killing them rather than allowing them to be converted to Christianity.

It was an era in which Jews were besieged by Christian mobs demanding their conversion or death, a horror recalled by the radical jihadist army of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and its massacres of non-Muslims.

 

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As rockets fell on Israel, the North Jersey Jewish community made a grand show of support through rallies and donations, but some local rabbis decided to show their support even more strongly, by putting boots on the ground.

Earlier in the summer, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin led a large group of congregants and friends to Israel, and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey sent a mission as well. Local rabbis and laypeople, too, have been going on their own.

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For Eitan, a student at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, cooking is more than just a hobby. Struggling for the right word, the fledgling chef — whose website, cookwithchefeitan.com, will launch this week — described his relationship with the culinary arts as a “passion.”

 

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They describe people whose motivations are recognizable to us, although their actions might not be; they place those characters in a world whose governance is constantly under discussion. They look at power and powerlessness, at prayer and action, at faith and strategy; they are written in language that is supple and nuanced. They are multifaceted and evoke strong emotion.

And many of us know simply what we’ve known since childhood or from listening to haftarah readings. We know little vignettes of Hannah praying silently for a son, of Samuel in the Temple, of David fighting Goliath, of David and Jonathan devising a pact of safety together. But many of us have not read them as adults, through an academic lens or even through adult eyes.

 
 
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