“You’re thinking of going to a conference on Orthodox Feminism? But that can’t exist. Besides, you don’t hate men or burn your bras!” I was getting this reaction a lot. Okay, maybe not in those exact words, but that was the implication. I am a feminist, and I’m Jewish but I myself was surprised when I came across those two words used together. I decided to attend the JOFA Conference in London, partly out of curiosity, partly to reassure myself that not all feminists were bra-burning man-haters.
The JOFA Conference was a fantastic experience. Speakers of all ages and backgrounds shared their stories, ideas, plans, and opinions with passion and enthusiasm. One of the best things about it was that the audience was actively engaged, taking advantage of the opportunities to ask questions and share their thoughts after each speaker. The amount of planning and effort that had gone into organising the day was evident from the collection of speakers. Topics ranged from why it’s important we hear women’s voices, to women’s voices in lifecycle events to women’s voices in the community. The speeches were accessible, personal and interesting. I particularly admired the courage of the women who shared emotional and personal experiences in order to emphasize the need for Orthodox Feminism.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s speech was about men and women being equally created in the image of God and the covenantal approach for men and women. I remembered the Biblical story about how Eve, a woman, was only created second to Adam, a man, from his ribs. This seems to imply that women are second place creations and are dependent on the existence of men. I asked Rabbi Greenberg: How could this story show God’s intentions of gender equality when the message of this story seems to contradict this? Rabbi Greenberg explained that there are two versions of the story in Bereishit, the first one being that originally there was only one gender, only one being. This symbolises that God wanted every person created after to be equal in value, despite race, intelligence, ability, and of course gender. The second story, the “ribs” story, illustrates how this image of equality was broken when one human was separated from the other, and foreshadowed how this idea of equality would be broken, showing the need for us to work towards the original equality that God intended. I found that this linked to feminism because it is an ideology that advocates equality.
The main idea I took away from the conference was the uniqueness of Orthodox Feminism. Orthodox Feminism recognises that halakha is a dynamic process that adapts to the changing realities of the Jewish people. Living in the 21st century when gender equality is now accepted in the West, Orthodox feminists call for the halakhic interpretations to reflect this new reality.
I think I can speak on behalf of everyone that attended the conference when I thank JOFA for organising an amazing conference that left my head buzzing with new ideas and my eyes opened to challenges faced by Orthodox Feminists.
What can happen when we take mikvah out of the realm of the hidden, and bring it into a space where we can engage in an open, honest, safe dialogue? What can exist when we are able to share our feelings around mikvah, and the laws and rituals that surround it, without the fear of being judged or stigmatized? What is created when we can ask questions about subjects that are usually deemed too personal or too embarrassing to discuss with others?
In my experience, the product is a space like no other. A space in which men and women can feel supported and affirmed, while making themselves open and vulnerable, and, as a result, re-explore and re-evaluate their mikvah practices—and, by extension, potentially their niddah (the laws relating to sex and menstruation) practices, sexual practices, and intimate relationships.
This past December, I had the incredible privilege to lead a session at the 8th International JOFA Conference with Sarah Mulhern which sought to answer the questions listed above. The session, entitled “No More Whispers,” used anonymous polling technology to allow the participants to respond to questions via text message and watch the answers appear instantaneously on the screen. This technology allowed a large group of people to participate in a single discussion while also respecting the sensitive nature of the subject. To quote Sarah: “Just because I won’t tell you when I am going to the mikvah or who I see there doesn’t mean I cannot tell you about my experiences and feelings around it.”
By the end of the session, it was apparent to those of us in the room that the power of the space, and the desire for the discussion, extended far beyond those of us participating in that particular discussion. Using the anonymous polling software, we asked everyone if they were comfortable having their (anonymous) responses shared with the broader public, and the answer was a unanimous yes.
More so than any commentary I can overlay, some excerpts from the discussion speak for themselves:
“The mikveh lady is small, with terrible posture and is wearing a snood. She has seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of bodies. Her job is to get them all this mitzvah, and while she’s at it, to hold all the secrets of our bodies. She’s maybe the most powerful woman in this neighborhood.”
What burning topic/question related to mikvah have you never felt comfortable discussing publicly?
We will be continuing this conversation via webinar on Wednesday night, July 9th at 8 pm EDT. To join us, register for MikvahChat: An Open, Honest, Anonymous, Online Conversation About Mikvah, Niddah, and Sex.
As I flick through the pages of my pocket prayer book deliberating over which tunes to pick for Lecha Dodi at this week’s local Partnership Minyan, two thoughts distract me. Firstly: I sincerely hope the clatter of the Jubilee Line train at rush hour is drowning out my occasional involuntary audible humming. Secondly (and slightly more profoundly): is this how diligent bar-mitzvah boys use their commute to school to cram in practice in the run up to the big day?
Quite apart from the momentary humour involved in imagining my thirty-something self sharing the same experiences as a thirteen year old boy, the latter thought is, for me, imbued with both sadness and excitement. Sadness, or perhaps more accurately, regret, at lost opportunities—crucially, lost education. But more importantly, it serves as a reminder of quite how far the role of women in Modern Orthodoxy has progressed in the UK in the last few years. Here I was, preparing to lead a Kabbalat Shabbat Service in an Orthodox setting—my skills no longer only of use in the ‘grassroots’ minyanim where I will forever be indebted to those (of both genders) who shared their knowledge with me.
In addition to spurring activism, one of JOFA’s main achievements in the last year has been the visibility it has bestowed upon the whole debate on women’s participation in Modern Orthodoxy. Last year’s JOFA UK conference shifted the conversation from the fringes to the mainstream, and whilst there remain divisions and frustrations on all sides—especially regarding the pace of change —there is immense value in the dialogue itself. In particular, there is value in hearing the unexpected voices, for example, those women who actually feel uncomfortable in close proximity to a Torah, an inevitable consequence of their lifetimes’ physical separation from this sacred scroll.
So, to what should we aspire in the year to come? For me, top of the list is acceptance from those who would prefer to maintain the status quo—their understanding that this is not an exercise in pushing boundaries; rather, it is about tearing down unnecessary fences (and fences around fences). It is about Jewish women reclaiming our heritage – not for the sake of doing the same as men, but because living an enriching life of Torah should not be unduly limited or defined by gender.
After that small request, comes the tachlis, the practical steps—where appropriate, share your skill set with others! Many of us are part of a ‘lost generation’ of women, enthusiastic to learn, but deprived of education in our youth… One thing is for sure, male or female, it’s an exciting time to be a Modern Orthodox Jew!
Join hundreds of women and men this Sunday (22 June) at the Second Annual JOFA UK Conference. Click here to register.
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Ten years ago on Simchat Torah, three American friends and I walked from synagogue to synagogue in our North West London neighborhood, looking for a place where women were doing more than standing on the sides chatting while the men danced. We didn’t find one.
“The UK Jewish community is about fifty years behind America,” my friend remarked, shaking her head. Both of us had grown up attending American Orthodox Jewish day schools where women’s learning, prayer, Rosh Chodesh Torah readings and Purim megillah readings were quite normal.
At the time, these types of opportunities were not only unavailable to most British women, they were not even on the agenda. Now however, that is no longer the case. The conversation in London over the last several years has changed dramatically. Women are asking for greater participation in both communal and home life, and demanding opportunities for learning and observance that didn’t previously exist.
From this small corner of London, what has happened in the last few years is no less than a revolution. Women’s issues have gone from the back burner to a main topic of discussion and debate at Shabbat tables and lectures. They are reported on regularly in the Jewish weekly newspapers, and discussed on Facebook groups dedicated to Modern Orthodoxy and Jewish feminism.
JOFA UK along with Women in Jewish Leadership and the United Synagogues’ Women’s Executive are just a few of the trailblazing organisations and committees that have started over the past few years. With this organised support behind them, British Jewish women have found new courage to ask for greater ritual participation within Jewish law, whether it be in prayer, learning or leadership roles.
Thanks in part to JOFA UK, over the past year, we have seen more women’s megillah readings in London than ever before. A growing number of women are volunteering for communal posts that are newly open to them. Women are asking their children’s schools to be more conscious of representing female historical leaders. New classes and opportunities for women to study sprout up regularly. And these are just a handful of the recent developments. It is indeed an exciting time to be an Orthodox Jewish woman in the UK.
How we can build on the achievements of the last year and invite more women to add their voices to Torah study and ritual? JOFA’s second annual UK conference will be one place to discuss those issues. The conference will feature the founders of Orthodox Feminism, Blu Greenberg and her husband Rabbi Dr. Yitz Greenberg. Blu Greenberg will discuss why it’s important to hear women’s voices, and whether speaking up can change expectations. Rabbi Dr. Yitz Greenberg will present on the conflict within Orthodoxy over feminism. He will address how the role of women reflects a struggle, shared by men and women, to find a halakhic language to achieve a universal respect for the image of God.
Whilst the changing face of women’s roles in Judaism is happening too slowly for some and too quickly for others, that it’s happening in the UK can’t be disputed. What will the next ten years bring? Only we can answer that question.
Join us at the second annual JOFA UK Conference on Sunday, June 22 in London! Learn more and register for the conference here.
Two weeks each month, I refrain from physical intimacy with my husband because of Jewish law. It is not only difficult because I miss his touch. I feel overwhelmed that my body’s natural rhythms have placed a distance in our marriage. For me, the practice of taharat ha-mishpacha is an emotionally draining and frustrating experience.
According to traditional interpretations, taharat ha-mishpacha (family purity) requires a couple to abstain from all physical intimacy and touch, and imposes various other restrictions including not sharing a bed. This period of abstinence lasts twelve or more days: while the woman is menstruating (a minimum of five days) and for seven additional days. It concludes when the woman fully cleanses herself, and immerses in a mikvah (ritual bath). A woman is called a niddah while in this state of separation.
I got married six months ago and was so excited to observe this mitzvah. Every inspirational book I read told me that taharat ha-mishpacha is the key to maintaining a happy relationship. They explained that niddah is not meant to imply that I am dirty while menstruating; rather, the separation should build intimacy in our relationship through improved communication and non-physical expressions of affection. “Taharat HaMishpacha is the secret to Jewish femininity….showing them [husband and wife] how to relate to each other and express and build their happiness and devotion.”
And yet, I feel cheated. I struggle to find the magic in performing a bedikah (the internal examination to check for blood). The woman who taught me the laws said “an angel is born every time a woman does a bedikah.” But when I do it, I am always anxious that, God forbid, at the end of our separation, I’ll find a blood spot that will prolong it yet another day. I feel ashamed and stressed that my body’s natural cycle often does not cooperate with Jewish law and I have to wait yet another day to be with my husband.
I was taught that going to the mikvah is the best private retreat a busy woman could have – time away from the world to focus only on myself. But frankly, I find it inconvenient that I need to change my plans to take a bath. Recently, I was so sick that I could not get out of bed yet I was supposed to go to the mikvah. Delaying mikvah night is considered a terrible sin but I had no physical energy to go. I felt guilt-ridden that I was delaying our limited time available for intimacy. While my husband insisted I stay home, my emotions about my relationship have become so intimately tied with this mitzvah that I felt depressed nonetheless. I count the days when we can be together and I count them when we are apart. Every moment feels precious and the opportunity for intimacy must be a priority even when we are exhausted after a long day.
We are told that mikvah is a private matter. One should not discuss her niddah practice or mikvah night. Rori Picker Neiss and Sarah Mulhern, students at Yeshivat Maharat and Hebrew College respectively, facilitated a session at the JOFA Conference dedicated to opening up the conversation about mikvah. The discussion was aided by an anonymous live-polling tool. Prompted by quotes and pictures, we submitted, via text message, our reflections on all things mikvah. There, I realized I am not alone in my anxiety, sadness, and frustration. Participants were both deeply committed to halacha and tremendously dissatisfied with the practice.
For now I am starting to find solace in the shared experiences of my friends. I am not alone in my feelings. I know many people may wonder why I do not just give up on niddah. But ending my practice of taharat mishpacha would fundamentally shift my sense of self. I am an Orthodox Jewish woman and that means I take the good with the less than pleasant. I believe in the halakahic system, and niddah is a central aspect of my observance.
Judaism is based in communal experience and not meant to be practiced in isolation. Our prayer services require community, our food is certified as kosher by other Jews, and Shabbat is best experienced with large, joyous meals. We are not just a religion; we are a community. And yet the mitzvah that dictates one of the most fundamental aspects of human behavior is meant to be kept a secret. There is no community experience in the practice of niddah.
So here is my appeal: let’s talk about it. We are a religion of partnership, so let’s bring community back into the practice of taharat ha-mishpacha. The laws may not change but at least we can experience the joys and sorrows together through conversation and community.
 Tehilla Abramov, The Secret of Jewish Femininity, pg. 36
This Thursday (March 13) many Jews will fast from sunrise to sunset in commemoration of Esther’s fast before she approached the king, unbidden, to ask for compassion on her people. The Fast of Esther is one of the four minor fast days in the Jewish calendar. At the JOFA conference in December, Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold presented a session called Fasting for Two: Who Makes the Call? in which she contributed a much-needed woman’s voice to the conversation.
For centuries, halakhic questions around pregnant and nursing women fasting have been asked by women and answered by men. This session will explore the sources surrounding fasting from the female perspective. What does it mean to study these sources with a woman who is a halakhically knowledgeable member of the clergy who has actually experienced pregnancy and nursing? The answers may surprise you.
Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold recently joined Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim as the Director of Education and Spiritual Enrichment. Previously, she served for six years as the Education and Ritual Director at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago. Rachel (pronounced “Rakhel”) is a founding member of the Orthodox Leadership Project, serves on the editorial board of the JOFA Journal, and was recognized as one of Chicago JUF ‘s “36 Under 36.” Rachel received her B.A. in Religion from Boston University and completed the Drisha Scholars Circle. She recently graduated as part of the inaugural class of Yeshivat Maharat. Rachel lives in Montreal with her husband, Rabbi Avi Finegold, and their three young daughters.
Session handout available here.
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The excitement in the halls was palpable. Was the enthusiasm because of the record-breaking number of attendees (1,000), the new venue John Jay College, or was it the opening panel with Ruth Calderon? The spirit of optimism and confidence at the recent JOFA conference was so high that most likely it had to be more than the sum of these wonderful elements. For what happened was the creation of a historic gathering in which we saw how far we have come.
The days of tiptoeing around difficult subjects have been swept aside. Instead, we saw new faces exploring new uncharted territory. Topics that had previously been “dealt with” were now embraced and engaged on a profound level.
For the first time, LGBTQ concerns were taken up during four separate sessions in this one-day conference. Here, Queer, and Machmir: Orthodox Life in the LGBT Community launched the events. A screening of DevOut, a movie about the spiritual lives of lesbian and transgender Orthodox women, followed a lunchtime affinity gathering. Finally, a panel entitled Modern Family: Unconventional Structures offered a picture of the challenges faced by nontraditional family constellations in Orthodox contexts.
Miryam Kabakov, one of Eshel’s Executive Directors, remembered that ten years ago, when she had given a session at the JOFA conference on Lesbians in Orthodoxy, the session was nowhere to be found on the program. Only through word of mouth could JOFA attendees locate the “secret” session. Most of the women who attended that session were not openly lesbian, bi, or trans women, but rather agunot, divorced, childless, and single women, who said they were there because this session spoke to their own marginalized status in Orthodoxy.
Ten years later, a cross-section of the conference came to the sessions on LGBT Orthodox Jews. People wanted to explore how issues of gender identity and sexual orientation impact their own lives and those of their family and friends. Parents who have heard the statement: “Imma, Abba – I’m gay,” wanted to hear from a panel of LGBT Orthodox Jews to understand what lay ahead in their children’s future living in Orthodox community.
JOFA has come of age not only due to the persistence and vision of great women, but in some measure due to the men, rabbis and laymen, fathers and brothers who did more than cheer from the sidelines. Orthodox men are increasingly present as “allies.” Many Orthodox men, among them leaders, have joined the chorus of voices when it comes to women’s access and leadership. For both women and LGBT people, allies broaden the field of concern making the challenges of a minority a calling that we all face together. This groundswell of communal action has the power to urge leaders toward an expanded understanding of community itself. The very power of alliance is that it moves us from a place of pain and complaint to a broad sense of communal purpose and shared values. In a sense, alliance is a first step in a process of communal expansion, one in which a new sense of “us” appears on the horizon.
We at Eshel are very grateful to JOFA for opening up the international conference to our voices. Your alliance is not only incredibly encouraging; it will make an enormous practical difference for us. Parents and siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, teachers and students, and friends can help us to urge our religious leaders to open up a space of hope for LGBT Orthodox people and their families.
This year’s JOFA conference felt like a whole community beginning to walk forward together. What comes to mind is Moshe’s insistence to Pharoah that the service to God that he has in mind cannot be done by a few chosen insiders: “With our children and our elders will we go, with our sons and our daughters….will we go” (Exodus 10:9). The deepest religious vision, and truest service, requires us all. No doubt people will excel in different ways. We will need the old to carry memory and the young to carry promise. We will need strong-hearted women and men to lead us so that no one will be left behind. Redemption, like the revelation to come, requires us all.
Eshel’s Retreat for Orthodox Parents of LGBT Children is March 7-9, 2014. If you know anyone who might benefit, please share this link.
Become a member of Eshel’s Orthodox Allies Roundtable; an organizing effort to gently and respectfully move our communities forward. Sign up as an ally. Join OAR.
Listen to a recording of the session, Here, Queer, and Machmir from the JOFA Conference:
If 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.
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 wish the JOFA conference was longer and more often. Even if others question my credentials, I can proudly say “ich bin ein JOFA-nik!”
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.
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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