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.
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.
Often, when I take a moment to remind myself what I’m grateful for, I think about my grandmothers. My life is so much different than theirs were – although in some ways still very much the same. I cannot help but stop in awe at the opportunities that I have that they probably would have loved to have.
I especially think about my paternal grandmother, Beatrice Maryles Fink, z”l, who was a woman ahead of her time. She was one of a handful of Orthodox Jewish women who, in the 1930s, studied at Hunter College on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and received bachelors’ degrees. A few years ago, a friend of mine told me that her mother was part of that group as well, the ones who used to walk over the bridge from Brooklyn to get to college. They were as religious as they were serious about their secular learning, and despite many contrary stereotypes, they had no problem attaining advanced degrees while remaining fervently Orthodox. My grandmother’s degree was in math, of all things. Like I said, a woman ahead of her time.
Her problems came when she dated. She used to tell us stories about how she hid her achievements from her dates, so as not to intimidate men by appearing, heaven forbid, smarter than them. In the end, she married my grandfather, Cantor David Maryles, z”l, who apparently was proud of having a smart wife. She was “old” at the time of their wedding (26 years old, I believe), and also taller than him – a big taboo in those days as well – but he did not seem to have been bothered. In every photo I’ve seen of them together, he looks deliriously happy.
The story unfortunately did not have such a happy ending. My grandfather died at the age of 39 of leukemia, leaving my grandmother to care for five boys under the age of 12. She lived with her father-in-law for many years, working part-time as a bookkeeper to try and make ends meet. My father, who at 12 was officially the “man of the house”, also helped support the family from the time he became bar mitzvah. Wealthy they were not. From what I understand, it was more like just scraping by. So much for the power-woman with a degree in math who could conquer the world.
Still, my grandmother held on tenaciously to her own intellectual dignity. She found every opportunity to take classes, and had fascinating contributions to make to every conversation, always commenting on social trends and human behavior. I think that it’s her imprint that made me interested in sociology so many years later. Her idea of a great birthday present was always a book. I still have a shelf at home lined with books that she gave me, all of them inscribed to me in her impeccable handwriting. I did not read most of them at the time, just as I did not appreciate her while she was still alive and in sound mind. I’m terribly ashamed today that I did not give her then the respect that she deserved.
Yet, so much of what I do today is with the feeling that Grandma Bea is sitting on my shoulder watching me. I feel a deep commitment to the mission of making the world a safe place for women like her – for all women really, but especially for those smart, creative, independent-minded women who have an original voice, passion and ideas. I want to ensure that there are empowered spaces for women like my grandmother to thrive, to create, to speak, to emote, and mostly to feel completely alive and equally valued members of society. If my grandmother were living in the world that exists today, I can only begin to imagine the great things that would have come out of the fabulous workings of her mind.
So what am I grateful for today? I’m grateful for my life, where I have freedom and opportunities that I wish my grandmothers had. I am grateful for all the work that the feminist movement has done over the past two generations, making the world a better place for women. I’m especially grateful for religious feminists who have fought tirelessly against often fierce, aggressive and at times mean-spirited opposition, who never gave up the struggle to ensure that religious women are seen, heard, and valued. Feminists have enabled me to get to the place where I am today, where I’m working, speaking, writing, and thriving. And I’m able to do all these things while building a loving family, with a spouse and children who, like my grandfather, are proud and happy to have a smart woman around. That is not something I want to take for granted, ever.
Certainly the work of feminism is not done. In some ways, women today continue to struggle with many of the issues that they struggled with generations ago: social expectations around femininity and motherhood; a stoic religious leadership that is often so reluctant to acknowledge women’s real needs; entrenched sexism in communal and social institutions. These battles are hardly over.
Still, there is so much to be grateful for. I wish my grandmother were here to see all this, to read my books, to talk to me about my dissertation in sociology of education – to have written her own dissertation – and to do things like go to a partnership minyan or attend the JOFA conference. I wish I could hear her thoughts about it all. I wish she would have had some of the opportunities that I have had. Perhaps my life is in some ways an extension of hers.
And, if I listen closely, I can hear my grandmother’s voice talking in my ear over my shoulder. I’m mostly grateful that she is still with me all the time.
Jewish feminists have a lot to say. We have been grappling with issues of gender inclusion in Jewish life for a long time, wrestling with our sometimes competing pulls and ideals for years. Centuries, I think. Maybe since the beginning of Judaism. Maybe since the creation of Eve. So there’s a lot we like to talk about — need to talk about.
Like my friend Tammy. Tammy loves Jewish life, the sounds, colors, and connections that she experiences in her synagogue community and in her Jewish traditions. But going to shul has become a struggle. Climbing the stairs to the women’s section of her Orthodox shul, where women’s presence is an afterthought or a mystery – Tammy has to drag each foot to climb each stair. She’s searching for another way. Whether that means a different synagogue, a new community, or transformations from within, she knows that she needs a change. And talking to other women who are on the same journey – perhaps different locations on journey, perhaps further along or further back – has become critical. We talk, we listen, we laugh and we cry, and we support one another as we figure it all out. That sharing of experiences, stories, reflections and dreams has become a crucial component of the grass-roots drive towards communal transformation.
That’s why we have this blog. For all the women like Tammy out there who are seeking connection on their journeys. This is a place for a free and open sharing of experiences around gender in Judaism. It’s the space for women and men of all ages and backgrounds to write about how they grapple with their lives as seekers of fairness, justice and compassion within the Jewish tradition. The written exchange is a vehicle for personal and communal empowerment. It’s writing as a tool for social change. It’s also a tool for love and support for those who are willing to share their vulnerabilities – and their strengths. This is a place where we welcome the struggle, and learn to love each other for it.
I just want to acknowledge that we’re not the only space on the internet for Jewish feminist blogging. In fact, we love the Jewish feminist blogs out there – the Lilith blog, the JWA blog, the Sisterhood blog, and the many individual women and men who courageously put forth their Jewish feminist voices every day. I’m a huge fan of the writers out there, and I’m so excited that JOFA is joining this fabulous club.
I would add that The Torch is perhaps slightly different in that JOFA focuses primarily on religious experiences, and on the particular struggles of Orthodox feminists. However, it’s really important to note that even though that’s our primary focus, it is not an exclusive focus. In fact, one of my own core beliefs is that Orthodox feminists have an enormous amount in common with other Jewish feminists, and also with religious feminists of other faiths. This is, in my opinion, an under-explored aspect of Orthodox feminism, and I would love to use this blog as a space to build those connections in different ways. Life and blogging is about finding and creating links and bonds. I’m very excited to do that here.
What unites us here is a feminist consciousness. We love unapologetic, daring commitment to gender equity. It’s what brings us together and motivates us.
Hence the name the Torch. It’s our fire, our passion, our refusal to have our voices squelched. Here, our fires are free to burn. Like those of the amazing women before us, from Deborah to Beruria to Glückel of Hamelin to Blu Greenberg to Rabba Sara Hurwitz. We are proud to be part of a millennia-long journey, and proud of all the women before us who have passed the feminist torch to us.
We welcome your submissions. The more voices, the better! We especially enjoy reading on topics related to gender in: religious life, family life, Jewish education, Jewish thought, halakha, Jewish history, bible or Talmud, Jewish professional or organizational settings, politics, business, spirituality, sexuality, body issues, art, and pretty much any area of your life. If you think you have something to say, please send it in! If you don’t consider yourself a feminist but think you have a contribution to make to the discussion, send it in! We welcome that exchange as well.
Please email your pitch to: email@example.com. And don’t forget to comment and share.
Looking forward to the conversation!