The Torch explores gender and religion in the Jewish community. Named for Deborah the Prophetess, "the woman of torches," the blog highlights the passion and fiery leadership of Jewish feminists, while evoking the powerful image of feminists "passing the torch" to a new generation. Disclaimer: All posts are contributed by third party authors. JOFA does not assume responsibility for the facts and opinions presented in them.
That night, a video changed my life. It was just over six minutes long, yet its message touched me profoundly and spurred me to take action. It was a Sunday evening in November 2011, in an elegant setting in South Street Seaport, overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge. I was a guest of Belda Lindenbaum, zt”l, at JOFA’s first Tribute Dinner, celebrating the organization’s achievements since its founding in 1997 and the advances of the Orthodox feminist movement. The story of JOFA was told through women’s voices in a short video. Women spoke of having no voice, of the loneliness they endured as mourners attempting to recite kaddish from the women’s section. They spoke of the alienating language of the traditional liturgy and of feeling like spectators in the synagogue when seated in the balcony. They admitted to the wounding experience of being adults, yet not “counting” in a minyan, the injury of being part of 51% of the population who remain invisible in many aspects of communal life, whose spiritual potential is not fully actualized.
But it was not a gloomy narrative – these women did not simply give up or abandon hope or Orthodoxy altogether – they remained positive and determined to be included. Through JOFA, they created a community of like-minded individuals, joined their voices, and advocated for change within halakha. Their narrative turned to gratitude, reflecting on the changes and achievements attained over fourteen years since the founding of JOFA. Grandmothers rejoiced at new opportunities for marking their granddaughters’ births, coming of age, and marriages. There was delight in women’s Torah scholarship and spiritual leadership.
I had been introduced to Orthodox feminism only a few years earlier. I was raised in the Chabad Lubavitch movement where women were empowered in leadership roles, although not in the synagogue. While my own experience of Orthodoxy was very different than that of the Modern Orthodox women speaking, their personal and frank narratives elicited empathy in me. They opened a window into their own experience of Orthodoxy. Through that aperture I was now able to gain a new insight on the many questions about women’s roles, participation and lack of equality I had often been asked, but had dismissed with some trite apologetic answer.
There was one particular voice in the video that resonated with me above others. Judy Heicklen recounted her feeling of pride when her son, at a school session preparing boys for their first aliyah, included his mother’s Hebrew name in addition to his father’s name. She could barely speak for her emotion and I, watching her, had tears in my eyes. It had never occurred to me before that a Bar Mitzvah boy should use both his parents’ names when called to the Torah. But all of a sudden it seemed so obvious. My tears of emotion were mixed with a pang of realization of the collective dismissal of mothers’ input into their sons’ journeys to adulthood. As a mother to four sons, three of which had already celebrated their Bar Mitzvahs, this narrative resonated with me.
The video concluded with the recognition that while much had been accomplished, so much more had yet to be achieved. At that moment it became really clear to me, that I no longer could remain an observer, but had the responsibility to take action and do my part to create an Orthodoxy that is more inclusive of women. The 6 minute 11 second video prompted me to become the first JOFA UK Ambassador in 2012 and to initiate an Orthodox feminist movement in the UK. Over the last three years JOFA UK has brought together kindred spirits and hosted three conferences addressing Orthodox feminism with the participation of international scholars Professor Tamar Ross, Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber, Blu and Rabbi Dr. Yitz Greenberg, Rabba Sara Hurwitz and Rabbi Ysoscher Katz. Together, we are slowly but surely changing the landscape by inspiring women and men to see the benefits of greater female participation in ritual and Torah study.
As I look forward to celebrating JOFA’s eighteenth anniversary at our Tribute Dinner on November 15th, I can only imagine who will be inspired to action, and what lies waiting for us just beyond the horizon.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.