Recently, my wife and I spent a wonderful Sunday attending a conference sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
It was a long day that began with a 9 a.m. plenary and lasted until 5:30, when the sixth session concluded. It was chock full of presentations on, for example, women’s Torah learning, ordination and leadership roles, agunah, conversion, mental illness, sexual abuse and Women of the Wall. And that’s just what was offered in the first of the six equally diverse time slots.
This wasn’t the first JOFA conference we attended. Nineteen years ago we spent Presidents Weekend at the Second International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, sponsored by JOFA, Drisha, Ohr Torah/Midreshet Lindenbaum, (the late and lamented) Edah and the Women’s Tefillah Network. (Historical aside: the First International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, held the year before, was not sponsored by JOFA because it was that conference that led to JOFA’s creation.)
I was quite moved by the 1998 conference and wrote an article about it called “An Orthodox Jewish Feminist.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t get it published — not even in the Jewish Standard (with a different editor). Rereading it this year, I found some interesting comparisons and contrasts between then and now.
For example, while nine speakers made presentations at both conferences, by 2017 one of the female speakers sported the title of rav and another of rabbi. Sadly, a number of 1998 speakers have gone to their eternal reward. In this regard I note principally, but not exclusively, the serious loss of Rivkah Houpt, Belda Kaufman Lindenbaum, Shaindy Rudoff, Honey Rackman, and especially R. Emanuel Rackman, who I referred to in my unpublished article as “the grand elder statesman of Modern Orthodoxy.” Our community deeply misses them.
Others have changed roles. Blu Greenberg, who as president of JOFA chaired the earlier conference, now bears the title of founding president. She was acclaimed at the opening plenary as the dreamer who “laid the groundwork for the Orthodox feminist movement,” lauded as someone “whose moral leadership, tenacity and gentle chutzpah have shattered the traditional limits for women and created undreamed of possibilities,” and honored with the presentation of a scholarly Festschrift. (In addition to all of Blu’s wonderful contributions to Orthodox feminism, she was my babysitter back in our early Far Rockaway years, and I’m honored that we’ve remained friends ever since.)
Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, a speaker at the closing plenary on “Feminism as Tikkun Olam” 19 years ago, now is president of JOFA. And other earlier presenters, like R. Yitz Greenberg and Esther Krauss, were simply attendees this time, sitting in the audience among many who most likely had no idea how important to the Orthodox feminist movement their neighbor was.
Some of the sessions this year focused on topics that simply weren’t on anyone’s agenda in 1998, primarily Yael Ukeles’ and R. David Bigman’s very personal exploration of “When Plan B Becomes Awesome: Jewish Single Motherhood by Choice.” And two other sessions discussed Orthodoxy from a 21st-century vantage point — Drs. Sylvia Barack Fishman’s and Jerome Chanes’s academic yet engaging and impressionistic analysis of “Somewhere A Place for Us? Personal, Societal, and Institutional Changes for Orthodox Women in America and Israel,” and an exciting SRO discussion among Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, Dena Weiss, R. Shmuel Hain, and R. Ethan Tucker on “Blurred Boundaries: Post Orthodoxy.”
Ordination was a major topic at the conference in many ways. Thirteen women with some type of ordination and title (rabbi, rabba, maharat etc.) were listed as speakers. There also were wonderful presentations on women rabbis (a delightful neologism), both in a stirring presentation at the plenary by Rabbi Lila Kagedan, the first woman to use the title rabbi as a member of the clergy in a Modern Orthodox synagogue, and an eye-opening scholarly session on “Past as Prologue: Ordaining Women Rabbis and Their Discontents” led by Dr. Pamela Nadell and R. Dr. Zev Eleff. (21st century aside: Dr. Eleff was one of five virtual friends I finally was able to meet and chat with in person at the conference.)
But even more touching than the speakers and presentations was the unscripted and moving moment during the plenary, when one speaker asked all the women in the room who had ordination or were studying for the rabbinate to stand. More than 20 women stood to thunderous applause.
In light of the recent unfair, poorly thought out, and unnecessary paper issued by a seven-man rabbinical panel declaring women rabbis beyond the pale in Orthodoxy, and giving an at best lukewarm endorsement of yo’atzot halacha, it was heartwarming to hear R. Herzl Hefter, the founder and rosh beit midrash of the Har’el Beit Midrash in Jerusalem, gently correct someone who asked about his ordination of women. “I don’t ordain women,” he said. “I ordain people.”
And one personal note. At these types of conferences I always loved meeting friends I hadn’t seen for a long time. That didn’t seem to be the case for me at this one — until the lunch break, when I saw a female friend I had known in college. We were having a lovely chat when another female friend, this one from high school, joined us. Then the high school friend, who obviously knew the college one, turned and asked her with some surprise: “How do you know Joseph?” I jumped in and answered: “I know you the same way. I went out with both of you!” Ah, to feel young again. (My wife of almost 47 years and my children approved this story.)
I began my earlier essay by noting that at Jewish gatherings where participants introduce themselves, “I would often describe myself, with a certain existential loneliness, as an Orthodox Jewish feminist.” I wrote, though, that after that first conference, “I will continue to describe myself as an Orthodox Jewish feminist. But now I won’t feel so alone.”
In 2017, however, I know that not only am I not alone, but I also am part of a movement that is growing larger and stronger and having a positive impact on the lives of thousands of women — and men — by expanding the role of Orthodox women in ritual, Torah learning, and leadership roles. It’s a brave new world we’re living in, and I pray it will even be braver for our children and grandchildren.