JFK’s legacy to the Orthodox world

JFK is increasingly popular in Orthodox synagogues. Women have whispered into my ear, ‘I really only come JFK.’  Inspired by JFK’s famous maxim, women understand they must ‘ask not what your synagogue can do for you — ask what you can do for your synagogue.’ And the answer seems to be, come Just For Kiddush.

The JFK movement is the logical development after years of investment in advancing women’s Torah education and promoting leadership training. While prayer is only one component of communal life, it’s rigid roles signify endemic power struggles within Orthodoxy. JFK is the inevitable result of women feeling marginalised and unheard (literally and figuratively) in the synagogue. When there are limited opportunities for women to teach, or no substantive ritual or managerial jobs for women in the Orthodox hierarchy, then JFK becomes the default position.

Unknowingly perhaps, but proponents of JFK have drawn on the work of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), a UK company part owned by the UK Government to explain the exponential JFK take-up rate. BIT argues that small ‘nudges’ will change behaviour and have developed EAST, a simple mnemonic to guide those wanting to make changes. JFK is the perfect case study.

EASY:  BIT suggests we reduce the hassle factor of taking up a service. Well, when it comes to Jewish communal service, there can be no less hassle than preparing the Kiddush. The fish balls are prepackaged, the rugelach just need to be put on a plate and pouring small glasses of grape juice is not too taxing on the female brain.

ATTRACTIVE: Some shuls rely on their Kiddush to build a reputation and a community. A guaranteed hot Kiddush with cholent and kugel can go a long way to enhancing membership. So, imagine being part of  THAT Kiddush roster –particularly, if you’re recognised and gratefully acknowledged for your efforts.

SOCIAL: Kiddush duty effectively reinforces the invisible bonds and networks of community. Simultaneously, it gives women the opportunity to have a valued place in their community, thereby creating meaning out of the mundane.

TIMELY: Nothing is more on-time than Shabbat, and a regular, friendly reminder on Thursday from the Kiddush roster leader ensures that those on duty that week will arrive on Shabbat morning, toothpicks at the ready.

Of course, there are exceptions. A small band of women religious leaders are carving out an increasingly threatened space, with their choice of title asserting authority under scrutiny and oft-times subject to ridicule.  Many men in synagogues will share the responsibility of putting out the Kiddush and clearing up afterwards.  But  these are sideline events and there is much work to be done for it’s clear that the majority of the  daughters of the current JFK club have no intention of joining – their interests becoming more focused on the burgeoning Orthodox egalitarian movement or more commonly, opting out completely.

And it’s shame, because after JFK was assassinated, all that was left was Jackie O.

About the Author
Sally Berkovic is the author of Under My Hat, short-listed for the Jewish Quarterly prize, which reflects on raising her daughters while straddling the tensions between Orthodoxy and modernity. First published in 1997, it is being reissued in the summer of 2019, with an extensive update reflecting on the changes in Orthodox women's lives over the last 20 years.
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