The Many-Flavored Wellspring That Is Orthodox Feminism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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