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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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Reality check

Author to discuss intergenerational ‘experiment’

Katie Hafner began her professional career writing for a small newspaper in Lake Tahoe.

That didn’t last for long, though. “I worked my way up,” said Ms. Hafner, who now writes on health care for the New York Times.

A seasoned journalist, Ms. Hafner was exceptionally well prepared to chronicle an experience in her own life that she calls both an “experiment in intergenerational living” and a “disaster.” Inviting her 77-year-old mother to live with her and her teenage daughter, Zoe, in San Francisco, Ms. Hafner learned that fairy-tale imaginings are no match for emotional truths.

(In her book, Ms. Hafner calls her mother Helen. That is not her real name; her mother requested anonymity, and Ms. Hafner honored the request.)

 

Self-defense or unnecessary danger?

Armed self-defense is a value strongly supported in Jewish law, according to a statement issued last week by a local Jewish gun club, which is urging two of the largest Orthodox organizations in the country to reconsider their positions on gun control.

On July 16, the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization representing Orthodox rabbis in the United States, issued a statement recognizing the rights of private citizens to own weapons and engage in violence for self-defense, but also calling for the restriction of “easy and unregulated access to weapons and ammunition,” and denounced “recreational activities that desensitize participants … or glorify war, killing, physical violence, and weapons….”

The RCA resolution came just over a year after the Orthodox Union issued a similar resolution citing its longtime commitment to “common sense gun safety legislation” and calling on U.S. senators to pass legislation to ensure “a safer and more secure American society.”

 

She’s a project-based fellow

Tikvah Wiener tapped by Joshua Venture Group

Tikvah Wiener of Teaneck describes herself as “passionate about project-based learning.”

As head of the English department at the Frisch School in Paramus, where she taught for 13 years, Ms. Wiener brought that innovative educational approach into the high school’s curriculum and extracurricular activities. “It’s a pedagogy where students engage in solving a complex real world problem and they create different products as a result of their learning,” she said.

The products could be a multimedia presentation, or a blog displaying students’ interpretations of Shakespeare. But it also could be a class-wide effort to study the problem of snow removal and offer suggestions for improvement — a project that would include math and science as well as civics and English.

This school year, Ms. Wiener has a new job: She is chief academic officer at the Magen David High School in Brooklyn. And she has just received a prestigious — and lucrative — award to help her promote project-based learning in Jewish day schools across the country.

 

RECENTLYADDED

Meetings of very sharp minds

Larry Krule, retiring Jewish Book Council president, talks about literature and Davar

To learn more about the Jewish community in the late 1960s, you could just read “The Chosen” and “Portnoy’s Complaint.”

Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel was sharply drawn, sociologically on point, and deeply moving. Phillip Roth’s 1969 novel was brash, irreverent, shocking, and controversial.

Both were central to mid-20th-century urban Jewish self-understanding (it’s tempting to say they were seminal, but given the specifics of Portnoy’s complaint, that might not be the best choice of words).

Those two books, among others, had such a strong influence on Lawrence Krule, who read them when they were new and he was young, that eventually they led him to a ten-year presidency of the Jewish Book Council. His term is now ending; he and the council’s president, Carolyn Hessel, are retiring, and both will be honored at a gala dinner on November 18.

 

Remembering Bernie Weinflash

Community mourns visionary leader and founding patron of Shirah chorus

Some people are irreplaceable, said Matthew (Mati) Lazar, founding director and conductor of Shirah, the Community Chorus at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

“Bernie Weinflash was one of them.”

Mr. Weinflash, founding patron of the choral group now celebrating its 21st year, died on November 9 at 94.

Mr. Weinflash was born on the Lower East Side and was a veteran of World War II. Trained as an accountant and lawyer, he was a stockbroker for Oppenheimer and Co.

Shirah was one of Mr Weinflash’s proudest achievements. In a video of his talk at the choral concert that marked his 90th birthday — “Bernie always spoke at our concerts,” Mr. Lazar said — the founder mused that “by creating Shirah, I will have helped perpetuate Jewish survival.”

 

Here comes the sun

Yeshivat Noam installs solar panels

From the parking lot, all you can see is the yellow warning tape.

But the roof Yeshivat Noam in Paramus holds 1,500 solar panels.

On Friday, the panels were connected to the school’s electric wiring. When they are switched on — that is expected to happen any day now — they will provide about half the school’s electric needs.

And they will make Noam the first area Jewish day school to have gone solar.

 
 
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