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.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
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!
The Jewish world is full of debates and controversy. Get the latest in our weekly newsletter.
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.
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!
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?
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 http://www.jofa.org/2013conference
Watch this great studio performance by Alicia Jo Rabins of “Girls In Trouble:”
Watch Ofir Ben-Shitrit on Israel’s The Voice: