Our Community Needs to Hear Orthodox Women Leaders

In February last year, something historic happened. At the Tzohar conference, a wide variety of American and Israeli Orthodox rabbis – including roshei yeshiva, graduates, and students from both Yeshiva University and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah – met to discuss important communal issues. Though the conference was (understandably) largely focused on Israel, sessions included “Facing Transformative Changes in Modern Orthodox Communities,” “Singles and Young Professionals: How to Connect Them and To Them,” and “Approaches Towards Different Streams of Judaism.”

What was missing? Women. Women were not invited to the conference. They did not speak or attend – except at a single panel about “Women and the Orthodox Community.” Unfortunately, this is par for the course when it comes to Modern Orthodox communal conversations.

Orthodox women are in a tricky position when it comes to leadership. Take a title, and be accused of heresy – do not take a title, and be told you are unqualified. And no matter what you do, some men will always want you excluded, and others will accommodate them.

Orthodox women are in a tricky position when it comes to leadership. Take a title, and be accused of heresy – do not take a title, and be told you are unqualified. And no matter what you do, some men will always want you excluded, and others will accommodate them.

What happened at the Tzohar conference has not happened for Modern Orthodox women leaders, who do not even have a professional organization to call our own. When women are invited to speak at all in Orthodox spaces, it is generally on issues coded as feminine. But Orthodox women leaders have much to contribute in all areas, not just niddah or agunah issues or Tanach or spirituality. Like their male counterparts, they are essential to running every part of our community’s infrastructure. When we deny them a chance to speak, we cut ourselves off from half of our potential.

The few spaces where Modern Orthodox women leaders from different parts of our community are able to meet tend to be pluralistic, not Orthodox. These spaces have different priorities and are therefore having different conversations. More importantly, that they are the primary meeting-ground instead of Orthodox spaces sends the message that different types of Orthodox women leaders are from essentially different communities, deepening our divisions instead of healing them.

What we as Orthodox women leaders need is a place to meet which is enthusiastically Orthodox, which allows us to meet on our own terms. A space to discuss communal issues beyond the narrow slate often assigned to us by others. A space where we can exercise our passion and creativity to make our community better.

Orthodox women leaders have much to contribute in all areas… they are essential to running every part of our community’s infrastructure. When we deny them a chance to speak, we cut ourselves off from half of our potential.

When various Orthodox rabbis began to post enthusiastically about the Tzohar conference last year, many women leaders pushed back. This backlash was spearheaded by Dr. Malka Simkovich, who began to organize a women’s conference to take place this past February. Unfortunately, the conference was canceled. I had strongly believed in the potential of that conference, as had many of my friends, and we decided to form a committee and organize our own conference. Thus the BINAH Conference was born.

All of the members of our committee are from different backgrounds. We disagree about many things. But we share a vision of how our community should treat women’s leadership, and it is this:

Our community needs to hear Orthodox women leaders. By this, we mean all types of Orthodox women leaders.

In refusing to define or restrict Orthodox women leaders, we free them from requirements made by and for our community’s men, who have far different opportunities and avenues. We include all women who are committed to Orthodox leadership, regardless of title, marital status, or type of leadership. There are so many women who work hard and accomplish wonderful things for our community who do not fit these restrictive norms, and they too deserve a voice.

In refusing to define or restrict Orthodox women leaders, we free them from requirements made by and for our community’s men, who have far different opportunities and avenues… There are so many women who work hard and accomplish wonderful things for our community who do not fit these restrictive norms, and they too deserve a voice.

The conference’s speakers include a member of Beit Hillel who teaches Talmud and halacha at various Israeli institutions, a sociologist who works for the OU, a former day school principal and current full-time Judaics tutor, a former NCSY director who has also worked for Stern’s Mechinah program, a former terrorism analyst for the ADL who now works as an OU-JLIC co-director, a Jewish educator who works in so many different areas of Jewish leadership that she defies categorization, and a clergy intern at an Ivy League Hillel.

We have hired this incredible group of women to speak about issues we believe are tremendously important, issues which are essential to the experience of 21st-century Modern Orthodox Jews, but are rarely discussed – for instance, money and Modern Orthodoxy; navigating non-Jews in the family; and Orthodox sex education outside of chatan and kallah classes.

The BINAH Conference will take place on Sunday, June 30, 2019 at Congregation Shaarei Tefillah of Newton Centre, MA and is open to the public. Register here: binahconference.org/events/the-binah-conference

About the Author
Tzipporah Machlah Klapper is an experienced learner and teacher of Torah. Originally from Boston, MA, she currently lives in New Jersey with her husband. This coming year she will be studying for an MA in Jewish Studies at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments