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The unorthodox Orthodoxy of JOFA

Feminist conference broadens appeal by dealing with basic life issues

 
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A women’s tefillah group welcomes a sefer Torah to its new home on Rosh Hodesh Tammuz in Teaneck’s Netivot Shalom.

It’s fair to say that although the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance — JOFA — is both feminist and big O Orthodox, small o orthodox it’s not.

Now, it’s even looking beyond feminism, as societal understandings of that word morph as well.

Devoted to working at the places where Orthodoxy and feminism overlap, JOFA’s members are well positioned to watch the world change around them as they institute some of that change themselves. “JOFA expands the spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities for women within the framework of halacha, by advocating meaningful participation and equality for women in family life, synagogues, houses of learning, and Jewish communal organizations to the full extent possible within halacha,” its mission statement reads.

It’s a tough and exhilarating balancing act.

JOFA was born out of a conference; in 1997, a group of Orthodox Jews met at the Grand Hyatt Hotel next to Grand Central Terminal to consider questions of gender and religion. The conferences, held about every three years, have grown and moved, as its founders looked for space inexpensive enough to permit younger, less financially secure participants to join them. This year, it will meet at John Jay College in Manhattan; the conference is set for this Saturday night and Sunday. JOFA conferences draw between 800 and 1,000 attendees.

As times have changed, so has JOFA’s conference, this year called Voices of Change.

“At the beginning, it was heavily women,” its president, Judy Heicklen of Teaneck, an accountant whose day job is as a managing director as Credit Suisse, said. “The last conference was about 70/30, men to women. These issues are really mattering to a lot of men, and the younger you go, the more gender balanced it is. The youngest cohort, the 20 to 30 group, is much closer to 50/50. And we have child care.”

Saturday night will be social, Ms. Heicklen said; in keeping with the voices its name invokes, the entertainment is labeled “Wine, Women and Song.” There are four performances that will run simultaneously and two time slots for each of them, so each conference-goer can see two of them. The choices include the a cappella groups from Columbia, Barnard, and Queens College; the Jewish alt rock band Girls in Trouble; Ofir Ben Shitrit, the young winner of the Israeli Voice competition; and storyteller Peninah Schramm and Sephardi musician Gerard Edery. After the professionals have finished, a kumsitz will allow the amateurs to sing, too.

The next day is the conference’s core. Fifty sessions are broken into tracks covering a range of subjects — a random sample from the schedule posted on the website includes agunah (a woman whose husband will not give her a religious divorce), social activism, changing communities, changing rituals, sexuality and body image. Those tracks are open to all; two others, for high school students and educators, are limited to members of those groups.

“One of the things we’ve focused on in this conference is that we don’t want to lecture at you, top down,” Ms. Heicklen said. “It’s about how you live your life.

“What are the real issues that affect you?”

Toward that end, one of the conference’s taglines is “It’s Not Just For Feminists Anymore.”

Not surprisingly, there has been a great deal of heat, if not much light, generated by it.

It’s really all about diversity, Ms. Heicklen said. “We thought of it as broadening our appeal. People should realize that a lot of these issues” — the changing nature of families, homosexuality, agunot, education, body image, Israel — “matter to you, even if you’re not out there marching with the feminists. These are issues that hit you in your own homes, schools, and shuls. They are things that many people are struggling with.”

“Some people got upset because it looked like we were trying to back away from the label. That is not our intent. We wanted to broaden, not back away.

“Part of it also was to stimulate the conversation about what it means to be a feminist.

“We are very proud of the F in our name. We don’t want to dismiss all the hard work of the feminists who came before us, and who continue to lead the charge. But we don’t want someone to say ‘it doesn’t speak to me,’ because we think that with the variety of sessions we offer, we speak to lots of people.”

The position of women in the Orthodox world — at least her part of it — has changed a great deal since the conferences began 16 years ago, she continued.

“We see it in terms of women’s leadership — obviously maharat is new, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah is new, and the partnership minyan is new,” she said. (Maharat is the title given to women who have been trained for leadership roles in synagogues, roles that are not unlike those filled by rabbis; Chovevei Torah is the rabbinical seminary that follows open Orthodoxy; partnership minyanim allow women to play bigger roles than is traditional in the Orthodox world. All, proponents say, are bound by the Orthodox understanding of halachah.) “Rabbis have become much more interested in women’s tefillah groups” — where women join in prayer, without men and without constituting a minyan. “It has become a safe option, where 15 years ago it was radical.”

The culture has changed, as well, Ms. Heicklen continued.

“Stern College” — Yeshiva University’s college for women — now offers a graduate program in advanced talmudic studies, and works to place its graduates in schools and synagogues as learned women,” she said. “And YU gave a woman the first Ph.D. in Talmud two years ago.

“Women saying kaddish, simchat bat, bat mitzvah — there’s been a lot of change.”

Simon Fleischer of Teaneck taught English for two years at Ma’ayanot High School there; he is now co-chair of the English department and teaches English and Jewish philosophy at SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y. He is a co-head of the conference’s educators track, in which participants will have the chance to explore questions of particular interest to them. All have to do in some way with gender.

“One of the sessions is relating to tefillah,” he said. “Another is on best practices in education that have to do with gender issues, such as teaching difficult, challenging texts; managing coed classrooms, and raising sensitivities around extracurricular activities.” Another, about finding gap-year programs in Israel, with a particular eye toward gender-related problems, is open to parents and students, as well as educators.

The sessions will highlight problems and examine thorny situations; they are less likely to offer solutions. For example, the session on tefillah — prayer — will break the issue down by age groups. “In lower schools, boys might say the b’rachah” — the blessing — “on tsitsit out loud, while girls sit there silently. What do you do with that moment? Whatever you do sends a message. What do you do while boys say ‘shelo asani ishah?’” That’s the morning blessing during which men thank God for not having been made female.

“Particularly after bar- and bat-mitzvah age, what do you do? Do you structure it so girls are passive observers?” he said. “That’s a brainstorming question.

“The Orthodox community has a great consensus on certain things, such as Shabbes, but very little on others, such as women’s involvement in ritual.

“These issues are not necessarily problems for everyone. They are examples of the norms of gender identity that emerge in school.

“Schools are amazing little laboratories,” he said.

Evan Hochberg of Englewood will talk about partnership minyanim at the conference; his firsthand knowledge comes from his background as past chair of Minyan Tiferet of Englewood and Tenafly.

“To me, these minyanim are a tremendous movement. It’s people who are engaged in the Orthodox community, and committed to building communities where men and women are actively engaged in prayer,” he said.

“They have been spreading because people go to conferences like this one, or they go to a partnership minyan somewhere, and they get so excited. Then they bring that passion to their own community.

“In just about every partnership minyan, you can trace it to a particular person who went to a particular conference or other minyan.”

He defines a partnership minyan as one that “within a halachic framework tries to create space for both women and men to participate actively in the davening.”

“You take it for granted that both women and men will be involved in managing it,” he continued. “One of the really beautiful things is that if you create a framework where men and women are both encouraged to be active participants, they do become active participants.

“Men and women come on time to daven; when you hear singing, it’s coming from both men and women.” (This is not possible in many traditional Orthodox synagogues, where the principle of “kol ishah,” the ban on hearing women sing, usually is in force.)

“There is a real sense of everyone being important, of everyone’s voice being important,” he said. “Every person has a different voice, different skills, different comfort level. A real community needs to involve every person as an active participants.”

Mr. Hochberg, who is a lawyer, said that his minyan meets just every six weeks. “Each of our members belongs to a different local Orthodox synagogue,” he said. “We all love them.” Tiferet does not compete with those shuls; instead, it supplements and complements them.

Barbara Ashkenaz and Michal Smart edited the book “Kaddish: Women’s Voices,” and they will lead a panel of women discussing their experiences with the classic mourner’s prayer.

Ms. Ashkenaz is an artist and Jewish educator who lives in Stanford, Conn. The book was born out of her experiences. Her mother and her brother died within six weeks of each other; for six weeks, both were deathly ill, and then her brother, felled by an unexpected stroke, died. Her mother followed.

“It was a very difficult period,” Ms. Ashkenaz understated.

“After I started saying kaddish, I realized that there was no literature for women to fall back on about saying kaddish,” she said. “There were a lot of books about men saying it, and an article here and there, but not much.”

She decided to do it herself, working with Ms. Smart. The two women gathered almost 50 stories; the panel will present a few of them.

The stories are not political, she said; they do not focus on whether or not women should say kaddish. “I don’t think there is a political theme in grief,” Ms. Ashkenaz said. “I think these women have done it purely as an honor to their parents or relatives. I don’t think that there is an anger, that feminist bellow. I think it’s more of a sense of remembering, and doing it in a sacred space, as part of a community.

“There are many other ways to honor a parent — by learning, by doing volunteer work, but these women chose to do it in a prayer space,” she said.

Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus of Riverdale, N.Y., one of JOFA’s founding members and the conference chair, said that this conference is “aiming at a broader demographic. Some of the younger women are interested more in grassroots feminist issues, like how to balance the values of community and family, than in what I call the meta issues — women as rabbis, women having leadership roles in synagogues.”

She sees JOFA as having shifted, now, she said. “It is not only working with the whole community, but with a much broader range of issues.

“Some of that just happened organically. Some of the battles we were fighting we have won — women’s learning, women’s leadership, women in ritual roles, partnership minyanim. The question now is how to make this work in our lives.”

The keynote, she said, will be “four speakers talking about four decades. Ronnie Becher will talk about JOFA’s beginnings, 18 years ago; how we were fighting about whether a woman could hold a sefer Torah or say kaddish.” Then, she said, Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold will talk about becoming and being a maharat; Rabbi Asher Lopatin will talk about open Orthodoxy; and Leah Sarna, a college student, will talk about the future.

Yes, Dr. Marcus said, the Orthodox world is fractured, but “it’s always been like that.

“It’s like mercury; it always seems to ball up and slide away, and then re-congeal somewhere else. And then another piece will break away.

“So different parts are called different things, but it seems to me that the Orthodox world is always a moving, growing community. There is always pushback from it, every step of the way.

“But it’s always been like that. I remember, when I was a child, my father saying that everything had become so right wing.

“So it always has splintered, and it always will splinter, but you hope that the things that hold us together continue to hold us together.

“So this split — it’s not a new thing. I have been hearing about the split for 50 years.”

Information

Who: The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance

Who: Voices of Change conference

Who: December 7, beginning at 7:30 p.m.; December 8, beginning at 8

Who: John Jay College; 524 West 59th St., Manhattan — enter the New Building between 10th and 11th avenues.

Who: For performances, lectures, workshops, films, and panel discussions with leading Orthodox feminist scholars, networking opportunities, and action-oriented programming.

Who: Information is at http://www.jofa.org; registration available at the door.

 

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