Do We Really Need the JOFA Conference?

They overflow the curbs of Eastern Parkway. With their black hats, beards, and suits, they are an inverse image of throngs of people wrapped in talittot (prayer shawls) praying at the Kotel (Western Wall). They come from their postings all over the world to the annual Chabad Kinus Shiluchim. The logistics of assembling them for the annual photograph boggles the mind and getting them all into the picture is a real accomplishment. When it is sent out to the faithful, the picture of these committed men must rally their compatriots to the cause.

READ: What is Chabad-Lubavitch?

But, when I look at all those smiling faces in that crowded mass of humanity, I get nervous. The conformity makes me uneasy. I cannot help but think back to the famous Macintosh commercial shown during the Super Bowl in the 1984.  And I ask why do we need a JOFA conference? Is it good for the Jews?

The reflexive answer is a resounding yes. There are no women posing in the Eastern Parkway group shot. For most Orthodox organizations, there is rarely even a single woman in the public relations photo released to the media at the close of the annual gathering.  

The women who come to the JOFA Conference wear many different styles of clothing in the full spectrum of color. So giving creative, engaged, and varied women who are helping shape the Orthodox Jewish future a venue to be heard and highlighted — and even pose for a celebratory picture — meets a vital need.

One could also take the view that conferences are like a family gathering. Getting everyone together for Pesach (Passover) or Thanksgiving can be a chore and the time spent together can be uneven. But most of the time everyone is happy and there is nothing diabolical about the get together. So why worry if the people of JOFA have a conference every few years?

But my discomfort about the possible groupthink created by conferences persists. Are the women who come to the JOFA conference being forced to espouse a party line? Attendance may foster stridency that compromises open dialogue. Do the women and men leave the conference drawing sharp lines between themselves and the rest of the community and limit consideration and implementation of constructive solutions for how to live meaningful Modern Orthodox Jewish lives?

The first JOFA conference that I remember attending was the third one held in 2000. My wife Audrey was the conference chair. That fact alone, for those who know her, should reassure people that JOFA is not going to get together to foster a single viewpoint or foreclose discussion. That has always been a defining feature of JOFA’s leadership from the beginning.

Nonetheless, the temptation to control things is strong. We live in a spinning world. Watching Audrey pull the conference together, negotiate with speakers, coordinate different activities, and ensure that the food was right and enough, made me realize that a good conference is not meant to reach a bottom line. Instead, it creates a temporary shared community where people can get together, think out loud, argue, persuade, and return home richer for the experience than when they arrived.

There is widespread recognition in city planning of the need for open public squares where people can gather freely and interact. They may play Frisbee, drink overpriced coffee, read a magazine, or just sit and chat there. In thriving cities, these places literally buzz with activity year round. Healthy living spaces from Greece to Greensboro have incorporated this feature into the architecture of the community.

I think a good conference fills the same purpose for intellectual cities. They provide a forum where people can congregate to share ideas, hopes, and plans, disagree or converge on a common goal. The public space is not the place where legislation is passed but it is the site where people become familiar with the nuance and complexity surrounding the issues that confront them. A public square leads to an educated polity that hopefully will pursue meaningful objectives for the success of the entire community. That is what a good conference does. That is what JOFA conferences do and that is why I am completely comfortable when I attend. When the conference is over, I am confident that the Modern Orthodox world is a bit smarter and a little more equipped to face the future thoughtfully.  Not too shabby for a day’s work.

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