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.
When I think about Shavuot, the first image that pops into my head is a mob of Israelites gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai, impatiently waiting to receive the Torah amidst shofar blasts, smoke, and lightning. This image inevitably triggers Merle Feld’s poignant poem, “We All Stood Together,” and Judith Plaskow’s iconic book, Standing Again at Sinai. Both of these feminist texts explore women’s absence from Jewish tradition and from the moment of revelation and explore the ways that Judaism can transform itself to become more inclusive. I am well aware that feminism and gender are essential lenses for my Jewish experience (after all, I do work at JOFA) but I was a bit surprised that my subconscious had designated Shavuot as a holiday of exclusion. The Torah tells us that women, along with men, were present at Mt. Sinai, and the Midrash, rabbinic commentary, teaches that all of the souls of future generations of Jews were present at Sinai. That seems relatively egalitarian. Upon further thought, I realized that Ruth, the protagonist of our Shavuot narrative, embodied the marginalization that I was sensing and that Shavuot is an appropriate time to engage with the topic of exclusion.
Ruth is a woman, a widow, a convert, a penniless immigrant, and a Moabite (a different, hated race forbidden from entering the Jewish people). She is an outsider in every sense of the word. And yet, she is at the center of our Shavuot story, and at the core of the narrative of the Jewish people, as the great-grandmother of King David.
On many holidays, we focus on the ways that Jews were excluded, marginalized, and victimized by other cultures. On Hanukkah, we were oppressed by the Greeks. On Passover, we were enslaved by the Egyptians. On Tisha B’Av, we were victimized by the Babylonians and the Romans. All of these holidays memorialize times when Jews were marginalized as a nation. Ruth is notable because she was marginalized by the Jewish people. She was an outsider in the Jewish community. Yes, Ruth was ultimately a “success story.” She converted to Judaism, married Boaz, a wealthy and prominent land owner in the community, and gave birth to Oved, the grandfather of King David. She ultimately overcame these disadvantages and was accepted into our Jewish narrative as the great-grandmother of King David and the paradigm of chesed, loving kindness, and selflessness. However, we should not focus solely on the end of the story, to the exclusion of her other identity markers. The story of Ruth should remind us of the ways that the Jewish community is still segmented, and should serve as an opportunity for us to explore the way that our community treats other individuals within the Jewish community, those who are “Other” because of their gender, their race, their socioeconomic or religious background.
On Shavuot, we have the rare opportunity to sit with our communities and study texts into the wee hours of the night until daybreak. Tikkun Leil Shavuot is an alternate reality with ebbing and flowing cycles of intensity—caffeine buzzes, catnaps, sugar rushes, crashes after the first few cups of coffee and pieces of cheesecake wear off. It can be a dreamy time, learning underneath the stars, finishing up that final chevrutah as the birds start chirping and the sun rises, eagerly anticipating receiving the Torah anew, and imagining what our ideal Jewish community should look like.
We have the opportunity to examine the big questions: What does it mean to receive the Torah? How does the Torah impact us all differently? How do we engage with the more difficult, exclusionary aspects of the Torah and halakhah? How can we build a more inclusive community? A more committed community? How can we create a community that would welcome and accept Ruth, a community that values and encourages the equal contributions of women to our ritual community? How will the Torah help us build the Jewish world that we are craving?
This Shavuot, let’s embrace the opportunity to discuss those big questions, and explore ways to build the more equitable Jewish community that we crave. We could start by inviting more women to teach classes and address the congregation from the bima, including mothers’ names in ketubot and aliyot, offering more childcare options during prayers and classes, or simply welcoming everyone with a warm smile, and the question, “How would you like to participate in our community?”
Two years ago a number of parents in my community approached me for assistance. Their daughters would all become b’not mitzvah within the next year and they wanted to read from the Torah at their ceremonies. I offered to teach the girls and coordinate the services.
Our rabbi was not supportive of the Women’s Tefillah gatherings and he would not permit the families to borrow a Torah from the synagogue. Ultimately, I scrambled to call in a few favors and successfully acquired a scroll for each occasion.
The s’machot (celebrations) were all lovely. The bat mitzvah girls were mature, poised, gorgeous, and proved to all in attendance that they had learned well. But, my experience of getting the Torah scrolls was stressful. I wanted to find a way to make it easier for the next cohort of girls in our neighborhood. So, I approached JOFA about the possibility of storing a Torah to lend to those in need.
In May of last year, my dream became a reality with the inauguration of the Joan S. Meyers Torah Lending Program for the tri-state area. Thanks to the generosity of the Meyers and Lindenbaum families, individual women have free access to a Torah – for the bat mitzvah leyning at her Rosh Chodesh Tefillah, for the bride-to-be celebrating at her Shabbat Kallah, and for the new mother as she is called up to name her infant. We also provide communities with free access to a Torah – for the nascent partnership minyan hosting its first Shabbat morning service, and for groups of women who want to be able to touch, kiss, hold and dance with a Torah on Simchat Torah. A Torah for one and a Torah for all!
I take great pride in knowing that the Joan S. Meyers Torah Lending Program has reached its first anniversary. You can help extend the reaches of this program by getting the word out to family and friends. And when you borrow the JOFA Torah, please tell me about your experience! Did you teach a class for girls to learn how to chant the ta’amei hamikra (cantillation marks)? Did you call up a woman for her very first aliyah? Did you witness a woman recite Birkat haGomel with this Torah on the shulkhan (table)?
Though the Torah is housed at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, its true home is in its portable aron kodesh (holy ark). This Torah wants to take part in your milestones. This Torah wants to move from one place to the next. This Torah wants to join in relevant and meaningful celebrations. This Torah wants to make its home in your home.
If you’d like to borrow the Torah, fill out this form and someone will be in touch to discuss details.
Some big issues for orthodox feminism have come up in the news lately. Did you see that women will soon be allowed to monitor kashrut in institutional kitchens in Israel? JOFA Board member Carol Newman wonders how new this actually is.
I wonder who the rabbis thought was in the kitchen all these years. I have been married for over fifty years and have made more meals than I could possibly count. I’ve cooked for my family, for extended family, for guests, and even for organizations that asked me to host events. No one ever came into my kitchen asking to see the mashgiach.
So what is this all about? My brother-in-law, Marcel Lindenbaum, says the rabbis are afraid of change and therefore what we are seeing in so many instances is a rabbinate that wants to keep things exactly as they are. I maintain that change has already happened. The rabbis simply fear change that has to do with empowering women in Judaism.
In her new book, “The Kind Mama,” Alicia Silverstone explains her refusal to give her son a brit milah. Her rationale suggests a lack of God’s omnipotence: “my thinking was: If little boys were supposed to have their penises ‘fixed,’ did that mean we were saying that God made the body imperfect?”
I believe that we were not born “perfect” for a reason, sometimes difficult to understand. I do believe that there are instances, and this is one of them, where we are asked to complete the work of “perfecting.” It began with Adam naming the animals and culminates in the act of procreation where men and women create new life. Bread, a staple of life, is given to us in the form of wheat, but it is humans who harvest, grind, knead, and bake the wheat flour to make the bread. We are partners and perfectors in the act of creation.
Sounds like there’s more than one way to be a “kind mama.”
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
There have been numerous conversations recently about mikveh, tzniut, niddah, and sexual relationships within the Orthodox community. They have spanned the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s about time that we’re having these conversations, because these are really important and central issues that have an enormous impact on our lives. And when issues of personal status, ritual, and belief systems are hard to talk about, they tend to get swept under the rug or ignored. And when people feel ambivalent about halakha, they often feel a terrible sense of shame.
Two years ago, Mayyim Hayyim asked me to write a blog about sex and the mikveh. Now might be a good time to revisit the issue of when halakha becomes a smoke screen to hide sexual problems. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.
I’m a medical sex therapist. I see dozens of women each week who are struggling with their sex lives. The struggles don’t differ much between the women in the Jewish community and other communities. But I am constantly struck by the role that the mikveh (and the laws surrounding its use) plays in the observant Jewish woman’s personal struggle, how it both effects and is affected by the quality of the sexual relationship.
Continue reading “When the Mikveh Feels Overwhelming” at Mayyim Hayyim’s blog, The Mikveh Lady Has Left The Building.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Dr. Monique Katz, a member of JOFA’s Board of Directors, once shared a d’var Torah that has stuck with me for many years since.
She pointed out that we spend most of our time trying to initiate changes in our Orthodox community where we see injustice to women vis-à-vis the agunah issue, leadership roles in synagogues and on boards of Jewish institutions, and women’s participation in Jewish rituals. Human nature causes people to dwell on the bad things that happen rather than the good, so our news is just like the newspapers—when something good happens, we forget to include it in our report. But, Nicky said, when a rabbi makes a change that has a positive effect on women, we must remember to practice hakarat ha’tov—recognizing the good.
I was recently reminded of Nicky’s charge shortly before Passover when I was at Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue for my granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. To my great surprise, a woman carried the Torah scroll through the women’s section. It was very moving to watch women kiss the Torah—some for the very first time, and to see their reactions. Once the Torah had been put away, Rabbi Lookstein announced that the woman who had carried the Torah was the vice president of the synagogue and had petitioned him to permit the women to bring this ritual, and kavod (honor), to the women’s section.
I saw Rabbi Lookstein that evening and made a point of going over to him and thanking him for making this change. He told me I was the only one to offer him praise, though he had received numerous negative comments from others.
I think it would make a huge difference if we all remembered to give thanks where and when it is due.
Thank you, Nicky.
We encourage you to give public recognition for good that has been done in your community. Please share your stories here, on JOFA’s Facebook page, or submit a blog entry to firstname.lastname@example.org. Most importantly, be sure to thank the change-maker directly.
This was my first Pesach away from home. I am a first-year college student and although I love my college and my vibrant Hillel community there, I was looking forward to spending the seders with my own family. And yet, as much as I wanted an idyllic Pesach at home, I knew that it would be impractical, given the amount of class I would miss while traveling. Logistically, it just didn’t make sense, so I stayed on campus. It was clear to me that there was a reason I was supposed to be at college instead of at home. And so, rather than accepting an invitation to someone else’s first night seder, I decided to host and lead my own.
My mother has led the family seder every year I can remember, so a woman at the head of the table is definitely not foreign to me. However, the idea of leading it myself was intimidating. I have never been confident asserting my voice in Jewish ritual (for example, saying Kaddish for my dad always made me nervous). I decided not to let this fear stop me and I reached out to other first-year students who might be uncomfortable going to a large communal seder, not have a smaller seder to go, or just not seek one out in the first place.
I expected about fifteen students, but even more showed up. The diversity of the group was wonderful, ranging from hopeful converts to unaffiliated Jews who had never before experienced a seder to Orthodox students who had never missed one in their lives. Consequently, the discussions during Maggid were rich with viewpoints informed by various religious ideologies and academic backgrounds.
In planning the seder, one of my priorities was to make a safe space where all of the attendees could feel comfortable. Before beginning, I made it clear that everyone was welcome at this seder, and explained the orange on the seder plate to illustrate my point. To make the seder interactive and inclusive, we took turns reading paragraphs from the Haggadah during Maggid. Only a few people were familiar with Hebrew or Aramaic so we conducted most of the seder in English. We sang rousing renditions of Chad Gadya, Echad Mi Yodeia, and Adir Hu.
Since I’m known for my feminist tendencies, nobody was surprised that I included Miriam’s Cup and discussed the strong women who are the backbone of the Exodus story. People also appreciated that I used (and encouraged others to use) gender-neutral language. We had a lot of really good conversations about the Four Sons: do we gain anything from them being male, or do they actually reflect children of any gender? How do we rationalize pushing away the Wicked Child from the Jewish community? What are the feminist implications of the Haggadah’s use for the feminine you in “you should say [to the Simple Child]?”
Although I definitely missed my mother’s charoset and all the customs we have at home, I really enjoyed leading this seder. I am so happy I was able to provide and facilitate a Pesach experience for all those people. As much preparation and stress as it took to plan, I’m looking forward to doing it again next year.
Jewish tradition has four names for the Passover Holiday—Hag HaAviv (the Spring Festival), Hag HaMatsot (the Holiday of Unleavened Bread), Hag HaPesah (the Holiday of Passing Over), and Hag HaHerut (the Festival of Freedom). Each of these names represents a different aspect of the holiday.
However, there seems to be an additional name that would be fitting for Passover — Hag HaHinukh — the Holiday of Education. Indeed, no other ceremony in Jewish life is as dedicated to educating the next generation of Jews as that of the Seder. The educational mission of Seder night begins in the Torah itself, in three different verses, which instruct us to educate our children about the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
The key verse in this educational paradigm can be found in Exodus 13:8:
וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְהוָה לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם:
And you shall explain to your child on that day, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.”
What this verse seems to be stating is that while you are eating matsah, you should explain to your child all that happened to you while you were leaving Egypt.
The same educational call is found in the Mishna, Tractate Pesahim 10:4:
מזגו לו כוס שני וכאן הבן שואל אביו ואם אין דעת בבן אביו מלמדו…. ולפי דעתו של בן אביו מלמדו.
A second cup of wine is poured out; and the son should then inquire of his father. If the son doesn’t have da’at (understanding) to do this, aviv melamdo—his father teaches him…. And according to the da’at of the child should the father teach him.
This Mishna describes the moment at the Seder when the child’s curiosity should be piqued. After all, why are we suddenly having a second cup of wine when we normally have only one? Here, the expected response of the child is depicted. However, in the event that the child does not ask, the parent is obligated to teach. The Mishna delineates an additional requirement: that the parent teach the child according to the child’s da’at — the child’s understanding, or intellectual capabilities. It is a remarkably modern approach, that of individualized education. The Mishna here is communicating that the one-size-fits-all educational model doesn’t work; education must be child-specific.
Continue reading Yaffa Epstein’s words of Torah in this spring’s Shema Bekolah.
Looking for help engaging the wide range of people at your seder? Check out the Many Ways To Tell Our Story, JOFA’s handbook of activities for people of all ages and styles.