JOFA conference highlights Orthodox women’s progress

JOFA conference highlights Orthodox women’s progress

It’s been 20 years since the first major gathering of Orthodox feminists, and the achievements gained by these pioneers is nothing short of astounding.

I attended the first International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy in 1997 as a student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and I recall being impressed by such innovations as women’s tefilla (prayer) groups, the increase in study opportunities for women, and the exploration of the Jewish rituals women may engage in.

Since that time, I have observed the official creation of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and subsequent conferences run by them; the growth of partnership minyanim, in which men and women assume roles within the structure of an Orthodox service; the opening of a yeshiva that ordains observant women; and even the evolution of titles conferred on female clergy.

“I’m pleased to report that the state of Orthodox women in the rabbinate is strong,” Rabbi Lila Kagedan, the first North American Orthodox woman to use the title of “rabbi,” told the approximately 1,200 people at the opening session of JOFA’s Ninth International Conference, held Jan. 14-15 at Columbia University. “We’ve come a long way,” she said, but “we still have a long way to go.”

“We aren’t going anywhere,” said Kagedan, urging supporters to voice themselves “at the top of your lungs.” She added, “The work starts once you shatter the glass ceiling.”

Kagedan was hired last January to join the clergy at Mount Freedom Jewish Center, a synagogue in Randolph that describes itself as “open Orthodox,” but left that position to assume the post of senior rabbi at the Walnut Street Synagogue in Chelsea, Mass in September. A 2015 graduate of Yeshivat Maharat, the Bronx institution that ordains women and allows them to choose the title that bests suits them, she said she chose rabbi because it was the only one that made sense to her. “I wanted to honor the rabbis that I respect.”

Female rabbis now enjoy support from some so-called mainstream Orthodox figures, including Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel, who addressed the conference. Riskin, who set off controversy when he hired a woman to serve as a spiritual leader in his community, presented a session on the next steps in Jewish women’s leadership and affirmed his support for women as dayanot, or judges. 

“Women judges would be game changers,” he said.

Panels covered a range of developments and issues affecting Orthodox feminists. Sessions addressed such topics as agunot, women unable to obtain a divorce from their husbands; the dress code in Jewish day schools; the status of women in the hasidic and Sephardi communities; destigmatizing mental illness in the Orthodox community; and single Orthodox mothers by choice. “In Her Shoes,” an interactive session on domestic violence run by Jewish Family Service of MetroWest’s Rachel Coalition, employed simulated role play to convey the obstacles and horrors that women face when seeking protection from their abusers. While domestic abuse occurs across religion and race, we learned that Orthodox women face additional challenges, like dealing with the stigma of a broken family when considering future “shidduchim” for their children, or in obtaining a get, a Jewish writ of divorce.

It was heartening to see younger women and girls at the conference. Liat Greenwood of West Orange, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania who served on a college student advisory committee for JOFA (her mother, Pam, was the conference chair), said, “I came out of all the sessions feeling very excited and wanted to know what I can do next” to help move along the agenda. She said she’s interested to see what kind of follow-up JOFA engages in with the college students who attended. 

Her younger sister, Sarit, is 11 and a sixth-grader at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston. A highlight for her was a lunchtime session where she shared her experiences and impressions with other middle-school students. She was intrigued to learn that some day schools allow the Torah to be passed over to the women’s section during services and said the conference was “a great learning experience.”

For first-time attendee Rachel Sakofs, who recently moved from Skokie, Ill., to New Jersey with her husband and young children and is living in Morristown with his parents, the conference helped confirm the priorities she values in searching for a new home and community.

Looking for an environment “where both men and women are valued and can participate in the direction of the community,” she recognized from some of the speakers that “you need to have a level of grit” in terms of “passion, perseverance, and hope,” she said. “That was inspiring.”

Even with so many topics covered, Sakofs, who has a child with special needs, would have liked a discussion circle for families with children like hers; other affinity groups met during lunch. 

I agree that all segments of the Orthodox feminist community deserve to be acknowledged and addressed, and I was impressed that JOFA even held sessions relating to gay and lesbian couples and the experiences of those undergoing gender transition. It’s clear that Orthodox feminist leaders must continue to keep the tent wide open, ensuring that all the community’s stakeholders find a place for themselves.

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