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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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French Jews face uncertain future

A look at some stories from a local leader

In the wake of the terror attacks at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office and the Hyper Cacher grocery store — a kosher market — I participated in a Jewish Agency mission to Paris.

Our delegation of Americans and Israelis arrived last week to show solidarity with the French Jewish community. We also sought to better understand the threat of heightened anti-Semitism in France (and, indirectly, elsewhere in Europe). We met with more than 40 French Jewish community leaders and activists, all of them open to sharing their concerns.

On January 7, Islamist terrorists murdered a dozen Charlie Hebdo staffers as retribution for the magazine’s cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. Two days later, another terrorist held a bunch of Jewish grocery shoppers hostage, killing four, which French President Francois Hollande acknowledged as an “appalling anti-Semitic act.”

 

When rabbis won’t speak about Israel

AJR panel to offer tips for starting a conversation

Ironically, what should be a unifying topic for Jews often spurs such heated discussion that rabbis tend to avoid it, said Ora Horn Prouser, executive vice president and dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

Dr. Prouser, who lives in Franklin Lakes and is married to Temple Emanuel of North Jersey’s Rabbi Joseph Prouser, said that she heard a lot over the summer from rabbis and other spiritual leaders. They said that they were “unable or not comfortable talking about Israel in their synagogues,” she reported.

“It didn’t come from a lack of love,” Dr. Horn said. “They’re deeply invested in Israel, and yet they felt they could not get into a conversation without deeply offending other parts of their community.”

 

Take the Shab-bus

‘Horizontal Shabbat elevator’ picks up congregants in North Bergen and Cliffside Park

You’ve been walking to synagogue every Shabbat for years. For decades.

Now your shul is closing. Well, “merging.” But all the services are taking place in the other partner in the merger, the synagogue that’s just a bit stronger than yours, that has been able to keep a rabbi on its payroll.

But that synagogue is five miles away.

Five miles is too far for a comfortable Shabbat morning stroll.

What are you to do?

 

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Initiative brings student nurses together with Holocaust survivors

Nursing is changing, according to Kathy Burke, the assistant dean in charge of nursing at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah.

“Nurses need to be prepared to move into the community, away from the hospital,” she said. “The community is the most important care-giving site.”

To ensure that their nurses receive this training, Ramapo provides its students with a variety of clinical experiences which “will redefine the health care of the future,” Ms. Burke said.

A new initiative — conceived by Dr. Michael Riff, director of Ramapo College’s Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and Leah Kaufman, director of JFS of North Jersey — brings Burke’s students together with Holocaust survivors.

“Taking care of the elderly, especially those with such a unique history, will double the impact of this experience” for her students, Ms. Burke said. “It’s [important] for this newer generation of nurses to talk with individuals who have experienced the Holocaust.”

 

‘You are not numbers. You have a name’

Tenafly JCC Holocaust commemoration highlights survivor from Tappan

When the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades marks Yom Hashoah this year, its ceremony will combine words from the past with the voices of youth. Indeed — in a twist of fate Holocaust survivors could not have foreseen — Jewish children will sing the same opera performed by children at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

In 1942, Holocaust survivor Ela Weissberger, who lives in Tappan, N.Y., performed the role of the cat in the children’s opera “Brundibar.” The show was staged in Terezin, Czechoslovakia, as part of an effort to convince Red Cross inspectors, visiting delegations, and the world at large that nothing improper was taking place there.

“They took them to a staged area,” Ms. Weissberger said. “They were really fooled.”

On April 16, Ms. Weissberger — the last surviving member of the original cast — will share her memories as part of the JCC’s annual Yom Hashoah commemoration.

 

Evil, hope onstage in Teaneck

Yavneh students tell the story of Berga slave camp in annual Holocaust play

Glen Rock eighth-grader Shmuel Berman took on the role of murderous SS Sgt. Erwin Metz in Yavneh Academy’s recent Holocaust play about the little-known slave-labor camp at Berga in eastern Germany, where hundreds of American prisoners of war were interned along with Holocaust victims.

What was it like to portray a real-life Nazi?

“It was hard,” Shmuel said. “I had to try to get into the character of someone who was not a good person and did terrible things to people.

“I was hoping the audience saw that Erwin Metz considered himself a ‘normal’ person, yet he lied during the court scenes, claiming that he didn’t mistreat anyone. We can learn that evil could happen anywhere; it doesn’t require an evil person.”

 
 
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