It was impossible not to be captivated by Leah Sarna, a senior at Yale University who spoke at the opening plenary of the JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Allliance) conference last Sunday in New York.

Sarna is not only a philosophy major at one of the most prestigious universities in the United States, she is former copresident of Young Israel House at Yale, a student organization that oversees and provides for the university’s Orthodox community. She also codirects a center for public service and social justice on campus and has participated in extensive interfaith activities with Christians and Muslims.

Beyond these roles, she is committed to attending daily Orthodox services and serves as gabbai and co-director of Minyan Urim, a Yale “partnership minyan.” These Orthodox prayer groups allow women to have ritual roles, including reading from the Torah and receiving aliyot, and leading parts of the service such as the opening hymns and kabalat Shabbat.

Sarna, citing the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that was a favorite phrase of President George W. Bush during his first term and reelection campaign in 2004, urged women at the Dec. 8 conference to aim high and “expect and demand dedication.”

“I believe that we will deliver,” she said to resounding applause.

Setting a high bar for Orthodox women of the 21st century

Leah Sarna — setting a high bar for 21st-century Orthodox women
                                                                                                                       Photo courtesy JOFA

Such an inspiring message from a member of the next generation of women resonated with me throughout the morning, as did a speech by Israeli MK Ruth Calderon, who seized the media spotlight after presenting a Gemara shiur at her inaugural speech to the Knesset and who has brought religious and secular Jews together in Torah study.

As a woman committed both to observant Judaism and feminism, I thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual stimulation and thought-provoking discussions at the 8th International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy. And it wasn’t just members of my gender who attended the event. More than a few men were present, including college students and fathers jiggling or wearing babies in carriers.

I did not grow up as an observant Jew, and I only chose to take on the restrictions that are part and parcel of Orthodox life after careful consideration of both the meaning of the rituals and the role of Jewish women in our tradition. I decided that I did not need to copy the lifestyle of men in synagogue to fulfill a religious purpose and continue to believe that women possess a higher innate sense of spirituality than men. I also reached the conclusion that Orthodox women on the whole have a much higher level of Jewish education than their liberal Jewish peers and, after spending time with observant families, saw that the husbands did their share around the house — as much as any typical man did.

Still, I chafed and continue to express displeasure at mehitzot that place women behind the men or confined to a tight space in synagogue, not to mention the reality that men expected to attend minyanim three times a day are precluded from fully being partners on the home front. That women struggle with how to manage their small children when they do want to attend shul on Shabbat. Then there is the sad reality of agunot, women who remain trapped in unwanted marriages because their husbands refuse to grant them a get, or Jewish writ of divorce.

But I have to come to realize that women also place undue stress on themselves, as evidenced by a lunchtime discussion group that focused on work/life balance, or “leaning in at work without leaning out at home.” One woman talked about the Susie Fishbein phenomenon, referring to the suburban New Jersey author of several cookbooks known for her lavish, multi-course Shabbat meals and careful attention to detail — and the resulting pressure on women who feel they cannot host guests without over-the-top menus.

So where does this leave a woman like myself, who is raising a family, works (almost) full-time out of the home, and struggles simply to keep her schedule and priorities organized in this hectic world? To me, the term Orthodox feminist can and should center around one principle: kavod habriyot, or respect for an individual’s dignity.

Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber, an Israeli Talmudic scholar who supports the development of partnership minyanim, told a packed lecture hall at the conference that kavod habriyot certainly applies to women, who comprise more than half the population. While Sperber was referring to specific ritual roles for women, I personally accept that as the underlying principle for how we should be valued.

For me, kavod habriyot means that women should receive equal pay for their work, that the Jewish community as a whole needs to support and value our multi-taking roles, and that no woman should be denied the freedom to remarry and have children because her estranged husband is the only one standing in her way between a future and a chained marriage. That men, especially those with young children, need to change diapers, take turns napping on Shabbat to give their wives a break, and know how to prepare a simple meal without using the wrong pot for a meat or dairy dish. Then we can have a lengthier conversation about women leyning or becoming religious leaders of their own congregations.

And only then will we truly feel our dignity and worth as individuals.