Monthly Archives: December 2013

“Ich bin ein JOFA-nik!”

IMG_0304_smallIf I ever had a rabbi, Ruth Calderon would be her. I only ever saw Calderon once, on Youtube, as she delivered her maiden speech to the Knesset. She knows Talmud, she’s got the right values, and she’s a mesmerizing sermonizer. The perfect rabbi sans rabbinic narcissism.

I was booked into the JOFA conference anyway because I was speaking on a panel, but when I heard Ruth was coming I resolved not to miss the plenary (my kids – bless them – delayed me at the last conference). My co-panelists queried why I belonged at JOFA. I don’t go to an Orthodox shul, my closest friends and family have exited observance, and I’m sometimes gabbai of my trad-egal minyan, Segulah.

My co-panelists were making me defend my attendance (as if anyone should need a defense for being a JOFA-nik!), and I responded: I am a gabbai at Segulah in a sheitel, I am the first woman to testify before Congress in that wig, I eat only apples and (bad) chocolate out of the house, and I don’t accept honors at the minyan at which I call others up to do so. You see, a (male) rabbi gave me an anti-partnership-minyan psak and I keep to it.

As a feminist spiritual seeker, JOFA seemed a place I might feel a bit at home.

Well, it was more than a bit. For Ruth Calderon, I stood twice – when she came up to the podium and when she went down. Her words were breathtaking and she has lost none of her modesty with all the adulation.

My mind spun with Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold’s description of the Shabbat babysitter who comes to watch her brood while she and her spouse both daven with the community. I thought back a generation to when I was both breadwinner and rebbetzin. I stayed home on Shabbat nursing my babies because there was no eruv and the babysitter was hired to cover for my actual job.

As a result of the JOFA Conference, I now attend the only minhah minyan I know of in DC, at the Agudah no less, because of Leah Sarna’s speech at the opening plenary.

The vibe at the JOFA Conference was palpable, full of young people and their mothers and grandmothers. The young ones: we raised them but they raise us higher. They didn’t let us get away with last season’s false platitudes. They’re not out of the closet: they were never in it.

At lunch I invited a lone eater to join my daughter and me and she turned out to be a “mom in a sheitel in finance” like me; after meeting her I had another professional reunion I wished hadn’t taken twenty years to happen.

I sat on the floor for some conference panels because they were so packed, watched a movie about infertility and cried, and I spoke at my own panel and made others cry, but mostly laugh.

I wish the JOFA conference was longer and more often. Even if others question my credentials, I can proudly say “ich bin ein JOFA-nik!”

Posted on December 31, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

VIDEO: Ruth Calderon: A Familiar Voice, from Israel

MK Ruth CalderonMany wonderful things happened at last week’s JOFA Conference. But the highlight for me was Israeli Knesset member Ruth Calderon’s impromptu remarks about feminism and the long road to equality.

Ruth‘s schedule opened up at the last minute, so there was not a whole lot of time for us to prepare for her and, I’m assuming, for her to prepare for us.

And that’s partially why I loved her presentation so much. It focused less on the government and communal concerns and more on the day-to-day reality of being a woman in a man’s world. She talked about growing up in a traditional home where she was expected to help clear the table and do the dishes while her brothers were not. She talked about the one-woman letter-writing crusade she mounted to get the toiletry kits in business class flights geared towards women as well as men. She talked about a Knesset that still has a significantly higher percentage of members using the men’s rest room than the ladies’ room.

And perhaps most movingly she spoke about raising her children to have strong Jewish values in a secular world. And she described her surprise and delight when she realized that her daughter had absorbed the message of a Jewish life. So many of us in the room put a great deal of energy and time into affecting the communal agenda. And then, on some level, we worry about whether those same messages are heard at home and whether we have instilled in our kids the values we hold dearest.

It was touching and inspiring to hear this strong, confident, brilliant woman voice her own insecurities about the issues we all face. And it showed once again that no matter how different our worlds may look from the outside, in Israel and in the US, from the inside they may be pretty similar.

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Posted on December 19, 2013

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Limmud-Gate and Learning to Debate With Love

The following d’var torah was given by Lindsay Simmonds at the first UK partnership minyan in November. To find out about how (and why!) to form a partnership minyan in your own community, sign up for the Live Video Webinar on the topic of partnership minyan, to take place on December 18, 8:30 EST.

Shlomo HaMelech in Proverbs 18 states that:

יט אָח–נִפְשָׁע מִקִּרְיַת-עֹז ומדונים (וּמִדְיָנִים) כִּבְרִיחַ אַרְמוֹן. 19 A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city; and their contentions are like the bars of a castle.

Even for those of us who enjoy the flourishing of partnership minyans, and who care for the minutiae of halakhic debate and its religious significance, we ought to be aware that these minyanim are a radical departure from normative Orthodox Jewish practice in the UK.

A woman praying at the partnership minyan that was held at the 2013 JOFA conference in NYC.

A woman praying at the partnership minyan that was held at the 2013 JOFA conference in NYC.

I’m not going to dance around the politics today. I’m diving in.

I want to touch on the notion of halakhic debate, and radical thought and practice in the UK for a few moments. But most significantly, I want to think about how we manage that debate and how we do not evoke anger, fracture or G-d forbid engender hatred between Jews – but rather foster an attitude of love and even religious pleasure in the eclectic ways of being a Torah Jew.

As I am sure many of you are aware there has been significant to-ing and fro-ing in the debate over attendance at the renowned annual, pluralistic Jewish learning conference, Limmud, these last few weeks. I believe that the way in which this issue has been handled, or mishandled, might shed light on our own journey; perhaps even give us perspective for a more dignified debate.

To be sure, historical evidence proves me wrong – the great Jewish debates over the centuries have caused enormous rifts, insurmountable fractures and left many labelled outcasts or apikorsim.

But I am annoyingly optimistic, almost determinedly naive.

I believe in negotiation and reconciliation. I believe that halakhah is always contemporary – and that is the point.

So, Chief Rabbi Mirvis announces that he will attend Limmud – which, according to those of mainstream UK Orthodoxy is a good, if not belated, step in the right direction, toward klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish community. It is a step that will allow Orthodoxy to be represented and as Rabbi Chaim Brovender once said, “to speak for itself.”

He was left to make his own decision by the current Beth Din, although they do not hold the same halakhic position. As they explained:

“The London Beth Din clearly retains its doubts about the cross-communal event and is not about to give Limmud its blessing. But, critically, the dayanim have indicated that they respect the chief rabbi’s viewpoint, even if they don’t share it.”

Again, a step in the right direction – we disagree, but we do not simply tolerate your differing position, we respect it.

However, following this seemingly amiable compromise, seven weighty halakhists strongly disagreed and made their position public through a communal announcement:

“Participation in [Limmud’s] conferences, events and educational endeavours blurs the distinction between authentic Judaism and pseudo-Judaism and would bring about tragic consequences for Anglo-Jewry. As such we strongly advise any Jew whose heart has been touched by the fear of G-d, and who wishes to walk upon paths which will be viewed favourably by the Ribono shel Olam, not to participate in any activity which is under the auspices of Limmud or similar organisations.”

Care is taken to not mention the Chief Rabbi by name, or to state that going to Limmud is assur - forbidden; but there is seemingly a lack of respect, even tolerance, for the choices that other Orthodox rabbis and leading figures have made – not to mention a Chief Rabbi and his Beth Din.

This public announcement caused furor amongst the mainstream Orthodox lay leaders who responded with their own public letter of complaint:

“…we warmly welcome the Chief Rabbi’s decision to attend Limmud. It is a decision that is consistent with the best traditions of Anglo-Jewish Orthodox rabbinic leadership – namely promoting an open, approachable and inclusive Judaism while adhering to a firm halachic framework. However, we deeply regret the publication of a formal Gilui Da’at (Declaration of Opinion) by a number of Orthodox rabbis which claims that those who attend Limmud will, by implication, not be viewed favourably by God. The declaration has the potential to cause great harm to our community and appears to be rooted in tactical power play, as opposed to religious principle.”

And subsequently further responses to the Gilui Da’at have come out, including from Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cordozo, suggesting that:

“To a great extent, authentic Judaism consisted of a multitude of seriously competing ideas, and while simultaneously not compromising Halacha there was a full awareness among the Sages that even Halacha was open to many opinions.”

It continues:

“Real Orthodoxy has nothing to fear. It has all the vital ingredients necessary to enter the battlegrounds and show its worth. Judaism is the most astonishing and daring religion with which the world has been blessed. It has infinite courage, standing head and shoulders above everything else. It dares, and never avoids any obstacle or critique. It enjoys a good fight so that it can enrich itself. It is a protest movement against many “isms,” but above all against small-mindedness.”

This is the theme upon which I want to elaborate for two reasons.

One, because we need to be clear about the consequences of such small mindedness – from wherever it emerges and

Two, because small-mindedness seems to me to be an obsession with the past, a desperate attempt to remain in the present and a fear of what the future may hold.

Small-mindedness emerges from a lack of imagination, a lack of appreciation of “other,” and a lack of the perception that the passing of time and the hidushim (insights) – the changes it brings are a healthy and necessary part of our religious landscape.

Contradistinctively, Rosh Chodesh is about the celebration of renewal through age-old customs. It is about the recognition of the passing of time, of what we ask the future to hold; but indicative too of how the ancient moon, although it waxes and wanes remains a constant presence.

Famously, we are told, it was a particular gift to women – in recognition of both

  1. their sensitivity to the ongoing passage of time and
  2. their specific ability not to fear the future

This is highlighted in the experiences of the chet he’egel – the golden calf in which the women refused to participate; the slavery in, and the exodus from Egypt – all three of which revolved around an appreciation of time.

Moshe will return down the mountain, even if you have calculated that he is late; we will eventually leave Egypt, even if that imaginative faithful leap seems so unlikely now; and the exodus will generate a moment to sing, to express thanksgiving.

All of these events are motifs for sitting it out; for living with the ambivalence of both the desperate need for an alternative reality whilst recognizing that the creation of something new is a process.

Notably, only 2 out of the 26 lay leaders who signed that public letter were women; There has never been a female Chief Rabbi; There are no women who sit on the Beth Din. But there are plenty of women here today – taking part and being present; and plenty of men who are working together with them; perhaps a taste of things to come, but also a taste of how newness might emerge.

Yesterday’s parsha is one of the archetypal moments of fracture. Two brothers, Esau and Jacob, develop – through choice or destiny, into brothers, into nations who abhor each other. Their quest for inheritance and for blessing, disabling their ability to see each other’s needs and to recognize each other’s creative possibilities, has remained an ongoing war, an everlasting chasm.

In his introduction to the Book of Genesis, the great 19th-century scholar The Netziv suggests that the destruction of the two Temples came about because:

“The people of that generation of the Second Temple were “righteous,” “pious,” and intensely involved in Torah study. However, they were not upright in their relationships with others, either in their actions, thoughts, or speech. Therefore, because of the unwarranted hatred each had for the other, one would falsely accuse another of heresy, simply because the “other’’ religious expression, and way of respecting and showing reverence to GOD, was not in accordance with one’s own way. The one whose way was different was thereby labeled a non-believer and considered cut off from authentic Judaism, even though that person fulfilled The Torah’s Commandments.This lack of tolerance and limited acceptance of individual religious expression eventually led to murder in the first degree and to all the evils in the world. Eventually, GOD felt that punishment – the destruction of the Holy Temple – was necessary.”

In other words, he blames these two destructions on “excessive righteousness, that is “righteous” individuals who treated others who did not exactly conform to their beliefs as heretics… a particular form of sinat chinam (baseless hatred).”

Baseless, because we as Jews believe in a good argument for the sake of heaven; and hatred, because of the ongoing and occasionally irreparable gulf that is created between ourselves.

Given that in this month of Kislev, of Hanukkah, the Hashmonaim worked for the sake of heaven and not themselves, they rejected the Greek notion of Hellenism and the worship of the body – and persisted in the worship of one G-d; I would like to suggest that we take from their example the possibility of serving G-d with passion and conviction, whilst being ever wary of those who do not hold our views nor practice our innovative rituals.

I hope that, unlike Limmud-gate, we Partnership Minyan-ers might endeavour and succeed in being a far better example of generating the age-old Jewish ideal of a good argument, whilst retaining not just our respect for, but our love of, those who disagree.

To find out about how (and why!) to form a partnership minyan in your own community, sign up for the Live Video Webinar on the topic of partnership minyan, with Dr. Tova Hartman, Dr Chaim Trachtman, and others, set to take place on December 18, 8:30 EST.

JOFA will be offering a series of sessions at Limmud UK later this month on subjects relating to gender in Jewish life. Check out the full schedule here.

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Posted on December 16, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

New, Beautiful Video! Moving Highlights of the JOFA Conference

This week’s JOFA Conference, with 1000 participants from 125 cities in seven countries, over 50 sessions on topics as diverse as mikveh, money, sexual abuse, education, LGBTQ inclusion, Women of the Wall and more was, as we wrote yesterday, a huge success. The conference, the eighth since 1997, gave participants skills and inspiration for promoting change.

We are delighted to share this great video recap from The Forward.

Do you believe feminism and Orthodoxy are compatible? Share your thoughts below!

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Posted on December 12, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Many-Flavored Wellspring That Is Orthodox Feminism

Little known fact: The JOFA Conference existed before JOFA existed. The first conference on feminism and Orthodoxy that took place in 1997 exceeded the planners’ expectations to such an extent that following the conference, the planning group of volunteers decided that what was really needed was an organization. The JOFA Conferences, the eighth one of which took place this past weekend at John Jay College, really form the engine that drives JOFA’s entire existence. And as a testament to the power of this movement, it is worth noting that this eighth conference was organized and led by some of the people who were part of that initial planning group some 16 years ago, including JOFA Board President Judy Heicklen and Conference Chair Bat Sheva Marcus.

Dr Melanie Landau and Chava Evans, both Maharat students who spoke at the JOFA conference

Dr Melanie Landau and Chava Evans, both Maharat students who spoke at the JOFA conference

The centrality of the JOFA conferences to the movement of Orthodox feminism is both strange and wonderful. It’s strange because one would think that there are other activities that are more important than a conference. But it’s wonderful because it demonstrates how much the information-sharing, community-building and overall vitality that define the JOFA conference have the power to change the world.

The JOFA conference is not a typical conference. Even for weathered conference-goers, the JOFA conference is unique in its bustling energy, in which participants are thirsting for more. To wit, during the sessions, the lobby was completely empty. Nobody wanted to miss a thing.

The conference is in some ways like a Jewish feminist smorgasbord. With some fifty sessions, over 100 speakers, and a range of topics that runs from halakhic analysis to Israeli politics to sexuality, the JOFA conference reflects the disparate nature of the feminist movement itself. Sometimes everywhere yet tenacious in their refusal to abandon or ignore any emerging cause, the conferences have been vibrant way-stations along the trajectory of the Orthodox feminist movement, even when the travelers themselves have not always known their destination. The conferences evolve as the Orthodox feminist consciousness evolves.

The beauty of this evolution, which reflects a movement willing to examine itself even as it strives to powerfully move the world, is also at times very difficult. There are so many challenges facing Orthodox feminism, many of which find expression in the conference. How does Orthodox feminism recruit supporters from within an often antagonistic environment? How do feminists deal with detractors? Which is more important, to have a “big tent” of including opposing views or a “pointed arrow” of loyalty to a particular vision? How do feminists get men on board without giving away all our power to men? Or, replace the word “men” in the previous question with “rabbis.” How do we advance systemic change when we have no official position of authority? Is it possible to make grass-roots change without changes in gender structures of leadership?

And then there are challenges within the movement itself. How can feminists be more inclusive of the “others” within the movement – whether the “other” is in terms of sexual orientation, ethnicity, socio-economic status, age, religious background, or geography? How can we as feminists support one another in different struggles while we face so many of our own battles? How can feminists around the world build networks and relationships with each other when each of us is so busy fighting for our own scarce resources and support? And how can the movement focus on moving forward when we’re still busy recruiting new members? Is it acceptable to abandon the term “feminism” on the altar of gathering new supporters? Is it okay to abandon our sisters in order to get a particular man, rabbi or reluctant ally on board?

All of these questions and more were in play as JOFA planned the conference. The complexities, the conflicts, and the confusion were all part of what makes the JOFA conference what it is. Despite or perhaps in spite of these challenges, the conference seems to have really done something, moved people. You can see some of that here, here, here, here and here. Everyone who was at the conference took back her own message for her own life, work and community. Everyone connected in his own way with the issues that resonated for him. This is how Orthodox feminism spreads, as we are all draw from a multi-flavored wellspring of ideas and inspiration, each of us going back to our corners of the universe and speaking out for change.

This is why the conferences remain such an incredible force behind all the work of JOFA. This is how change happens, one person at a time, connected to an international network of change agents who are each spreading a vision of a better world. The JOFA conferences are where we get our strength as we go on our way, when we understand that we are not alone but part of a divine mission in which we are all connected.

Posted on December 11, 2013

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Oh, how I wish I were going to the JOFA Conference!

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with conferences since the first GA I attended as a Hillel delegate while I was in graduate school nearly ten years ago. However, I have nothing but love and admiration for JOFA, so missing the conference is a very sad reality for me.

It would absolutely be the highlight of my year to be able to spend a day networking with other Orthodox Feminists, making face-to-face connections with people I’ve interacted with online, thanking the staff and board members of JOFA in person for their amazing work, and attending a variety of sessions to which I feel a strong personal tie.

As a woman saying kaddish, I would find the panel on kaddish inherently interesting and relevant to me.

As a recovered anorexic, I would find the panel on eating disorders extremely important to me.

As a woman who is pregnant with her first child, I find the session on naming ceremonies for baby girls is enticing.

As a blogger, I have much to contribute in the session on blogging

As someone who learns Halacha and Talmud, I wish I could be part of the sessions addressing assorted halachic issues and women’s learning and leadership

Agunot, Israel, education, mkvaot… I could go on and on through most of the sessions being offered, and how they resonate with me personally. Even if I was able to attend the conference, I would have had a horrible time selecting just one session in each time slot to attend!

However, I’m currently living and learning in Israel, and regardless of how much I love JOFA and this conference, it was just not feasible to fly to America for one amazing day. So I will rely on the hashtag to follow along on Twitter and this blog to read other people’s shared reactions to the experience. I will have to live vicariously through the amazing men and women who get to be there and look forward to the day when I will join them.

 Do you wish you were able to attend the JOFA conference? Well JOFA has one word for you: Livestreaming. Click here to find out how you can be at the conference from the comfort of your own living room!

Posted on December 6, 2013

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My First JOFA Conference!

conference 1

Some 1000 people from around the world are expected at the JOFA Conference this weekend. Will you be there?

I’ve never been to a JOFA conference before. For four years, all through college,  I heard from friends living in the NYC area about the amazing, paradigm-shifting discussions they’d gotten into there. I’d ask how friends of mine had met and the answer was “we had an amazing discussion at the JOFA conference.” It was apparently a huge part of the world for exactly my demographic. Unfortunately, Ithaca, NY, where I was in school, is not particularly close by, and I never had the chance to take off from school to head down just to have some conversations and meet some people.

When I served as a JOFA fellow on Cornell’s campus in 2010-2011, I felt like I was representing an organization of which I’d only seen a tiny little bit. The people I met through the fellowship, including the staff at JOFA, the speakers who came for the training session, and the scholars whose work I read on the JOFA website, kept referring to the personalities and works of other people, many of whom they’d heard from or met at the JOFA conference. Other fellows had become inspired by attending the conference in past years and that was what drove them to participate on their own campuses as leaders. I loved being isolated away at Cornell and I loved being Jewish and feminist there, (which you can hear more about by attending the college campus networking group during lunch at this year’s conference!) but now that I’ve graduated I’m excited to be part of a larger conversation. I’m finally going to make it to a JOFA conference!

So if you see me at the conference, come say hi! Let’s talk about the topics we’re hearing about at the conference, or let’s talk about other things! I’m so excited for all the things we’ll learn together!

Approximately 1000 people from around the world are expected to be at the 8th International JOFA Conference, Dec 7-8 at John Jay College, NYC. Will you be there?

Posted on December 5, 2013

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JOFA 2013: The Ultimate Conference for Orthodox Jewish Feminists

Come see Ofir Ben Shitrit!

Come see Ofir Ben Shitrit!

We’re getting really excited about the JOFA conference, less than a week away! The 8th International JOFA Conference, set for December 7-8 at John Jay College in New York City, will be full of hot-button issues and interesting speakers from around the world.

Topics to look forward to are: unconventional families, LGBT inclusion, new mikveh rituals, eating disorders, educating for sexuality, gender segregation in Israel, raising feminist boys, Women of the Wall, “slut-shaming”  in the Orthodox community, and the emergence of new Orthodox feminist communities around the world, including the newly formed JOFA UK.

Our goal is for participants to leave not only with new information and resources on these vital issues, but also with inspiration and vigor in order to promote social change in their own communities.

Some of the speakers we’re most excited about are: Rori Picker-Neiss, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Gabrielle Birkner, Rabbi Daniel Sperber, Susan Weiss, Dr. Ronit Irshai, Dr. Melanie Landau, Blu Greenberg, Dr. Rachel Levmore, and more. The conference includes speakers from the US, Canada, UK, Israel, and Australia. You can see the whole program here.

Notice also that we are using fun new technology to enable you to build your own program online in advance. Please let us know how you like this and how it affects your conference experience.

Since the first JOFA conference, in 1997, which paved the way for a new movement to change the way Orthodox women and men experience Jewish life, every conference has been a watershed event, instigating important transformation within the Jewish community – from equal educational opportunities to sexual abuse to women clergy and more.

“This JOFA conference is different from past conferences because the world has changed so much over the past few years, and it’s time for Orthodoxy to address these new realities,” said conference coordinator Bat Sheva Marcus. “We are looking at new rituals, new family structures, and new communities, and we are particularly interested in reaching the younger women in our community and addressing the issues that are foremost concerns for them.”

Other innovations in this conference include a special Educators Track for day school educators, a teen track with a poetry slam, live-streaming and live-tweeting, and a Saturday night musical program including Ofir Ben Shitrit, “Girls in Trouble,” an indie band with midrashic themes, a cappella singing groups S’madar from Barnard and Tizmoret from Queens College, and Peninnah Schram’s acclaimed storytelling.  There will also be opportunities for networking, with lunchtime affinity tables.

If you have any comments or questions, please contact us anytime.

Hope to see you there!

To register for the 8th International JOFA conference, December 7-8 at John Jay College, go to

Watch this great studio performance by Alicia Jo Rabins of “Girls In Trouble:”

Watch Ofir Ben-Shitrit on Israel’s The Voice:

Posted on December 3, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy