First I sulked. Then I marched, and marveled. I sulked because, as a feminist, I would have hoped that someone involved in planning the Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 21 might have considered Jewish women who would not travel to the nation’s capital on Shabbat and perhaps postponed the event for a day. (Few observant women have anonymous rabbis to offer Shabbat dispensations, as Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner do.) True, a small number of women managed to fly a day early and spend Shabbat at someone’s home. For most, however, the logistics, difficult enough to begin with, were just too mind-boggling to contemplate. “Why are we the only minority nobody is thinking about?” I complained.
Then I learned about the march in New York and other cities around the world, and the complaints eased. Just as well: let the message stream from all quarters; the impact be global. Because I live on the Upper East Side, it made no sense to participate in the organized Upper West Side walk of thousands that moved along Broadway toward Fifth Avenue. Instead, after services that Shabbat morning, another congregant and I walked from our synagogue in the East 80s, down Park Avenue to Trump Tower near 57th Street and Fifth. Along the way we met women coming and going. “It’s total gridlock,” one called out exuberantly, “isn’t that wonderful?” It was wonderful. As we got close, we melded into the marching mobs. Pink hats were everywhere. Signs proclaimed “We the People” or “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” and other slogans.
When we found a building ledge to rest on for a moment, a woman about our age joined us and said, “I feel secure seeing you here.” That was understandable. She had come alone and although there were plenty of other grandmothers like us around, the vast majority of the marchers were young people: mothers with children; teenagers; young adults; and women — and men — in their 30s and 40s. That woman may have felt a little overwhelmed. Yet the makeup of the crowd was the glory of the day. The march belonged to the young; they were deeply engaged, incensed at the president’s attitude toward women, toward refugees, toward healthcare. Their engagement is not a passing fancy. As White House outrages mount — disputes with Mexico, anti-immigration decrees, “alternative facts” — young voices continue to be heard. These people are involved in today’s battles much as previous generations were involved in civil rights, the Vietnam War or second-wave feminism.
Their voices matter and they won’t back down. I had the same feeling a week earlier in a much different setting, when I attended the ninth international conference of JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance). Although I’m a committed member of the Conservative movement, I have been to every JOFA conference from the group’s beginnings — they are now held every three years — and written about every one of them. It’s been fascinating to follow the unfolding of feminism within Orthodoxy. At times I felt these women were reinventing the wheel, rehashing rabbinic sources we in the Conservative community had uncovered as we sought to expand women’s religious rights, yet ignoring our scholarship and struggles. More recently I’ve recognized the fact that to establish legitimacy within their community they needed to pursue their own paths, even if, in the end, their conclusions overlapped with ours.
I remember the first conference 20 years ago. My overall impression then was of married women, many of them mothers with babies whom they nursed while listening — some for the first time — to talk of women’s prayer groups or marriage equality or new rituals. I remember over the years attending obsessive sessions on women’s hair coverings and searching for sessions on women’s Torah study. I remember a preponderance of male rabbis and the women standing as the men entered the room, grateful for whatever support these authorities offered.
And now, at this year’s conference, young women, and a good representation of young men, predominated. The babies of the early days have grown up and taken over. The topic that stood out above all others concerned women’s leadership, with several sessions devoted to women rabbis. More than 20 women in the Orthodox movement now have rabbinic ordination or are studying for the rabbinate. Their title is still open for discussion: only one has accepted the term “rabbi”; others use variations of it, such as “rabba,” or “maharat.” Yet all are members of the Orthodox clergy, with widespread rabbinic responsibilities. Other themes this year included homosexuality, interfaith conversations and sexual abuse. Orthodoxy needs to confront the outside world head-on, this conference made clear, and these women are showing the way, with full confidence in their knowledge and themselves.
In religious life as in politics, young women are on the march. In our worrisome times, that is a cause for much hope.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” Her new biography of Golda Meir will be published in the fall.