Opening Plenary

Judy Heicklen: The fact that people have traveled from near and far to be here today says a lot about the state of Orthodox feminism. I feel like when Avraham looked into the sky and saw stars beynd counting, it’s just awesome and inspiring and there’s a promise of better future to see you all here today. We’re joining together can create that future. You’ve come here to add your voice to JOFA’s, the leading organizarion advancing social change in the Orthodox community. Thank you to everyone listening from across the world. Proud to support Orthodox feminism in the UK. We want to replicate our model in other locations. Many of you feel like the only Orthodox feminist in town, and JOFA wants to help you bridge that gap. After last night’s event I’m still on a high, since there were fantastic artists raising their voices in song, story, and poetry culminating in a kumzitz (group singing) where we could raise ours. I’m also excited about today’s program, wth over 100 speakers in 50 sessions. Thank you to speakers for creating a program that really rocks.


It’s been four years since the last conference and a lot has happened since. Yeshivat Maharat graduated its first class. Sharansky proposed a new section of the Kotel to be opened for prayer, which satisfied and angered. A Doctor of Talmud was given to the first woman. A Statement of Principles about homosexuality was signed by Modern Orthodox rabbis. Segregation of women in Israel became an international issue. A halakhic prenup was held up in court. JOFA kept you informed and helped shape these events. We are proactively leading social change and proud to be Orthodox feminists.


I want to extend hakarat hatov (gratitude) to the JOFA staff, who are the lifeblood of the organization. Thank you to all. [lists staff members]


Bat Sheva Marcus: Change happens in funny ways. You think you’re not getting anywhere and suddenly you look around and see the world looks different than it did 15 years ago. You can’t predict it, or what it’ll look like or where it’ll take hold or if it will, how fast or slowly it’ll happen or if there will be a fallout or secondary changes that’ll happen. Stop and look around because the world you see here today looks different than it did 20 years ago.


I saw this kernel of change in the JOFA kallah (bride) teacher group recently. One member wrote that a woman came to her after having a miscarriage and said that she had heard that miscarriage happens after being sloppy around niddah (ritual purity), so what should she tell this woman? The other kallah teachers gave her advice about what to tell her, and one woman suggested making a campaign to break the veil of secrecy over miscarriage. Over a span of two days, the women started to plan, and change the world in their own way.


Look around you again because the voice of every woman and man in this room has been a part of a chorus and changed, is changing, and will change the face of the community as we know it. Take this as your charge throughout the day. What can you do to make the world better, to add one more note to the voices of change? Last night we heard a chorus of women’s voices in the literal sense, with music and poetry and song. Today we hear another type of chorus, the voices of scholarship, community, families finding their place in this brave new world, but your voices are the most important part of the equation. As you meet in the halls today, over lunch, during affinity groups, transcend this time and this space and move us into the next phase of change. My message to you: add your voice, don’t leave without committing to add your voice.


As always, there are way too many people to thank. [lists people]


This plenary looks at the changes that women have gone through over the past 10 years. Today’s program also focuses on the personal and private, how to build changes in the fabric of private lives. How do we juggle care of the family, going to work, and saying Kaddish? What do we think about mikveh (ritual bath), money, and the balance between raising children to make thei rown choices and projecting our values onto them? There will be different panelists from different decades. Each is uniquely accomplished in his or her own right. Ronnie Becher is one of the founding memebrs of women’s tefillah (prayer) groups and JOFA. Rabbi Asher Lopatin is the rosh yeshiva (principal) of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the first man to talk in a JOFA plenary, and that’s a fundamental change in the movement. And he’s the first graduate of Brisker that’s we’ve ever had. [laughs] Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold is a maharat, who stepped into a clergy role traditionally belonging to men, and daily faces practical challenges of a group in transition. Leah Sarna is a senior at Yale and a leader in the secular and Jewish communitiess there, represents our future.


Ronnie Becher: I’d like to dedicate this to JOFA women who have passed.


Genesis 1: the world was empty and there was darkness everywhere. Blu Greenberg said, “Let there be light!” And there was JOFA. [laughs] It was towards the end of 1995 when I got the call. Blu invited three of us, Esther Farber, Bat Sheva Marcus, and myself to her home. This took place around her dining room table. Blu announced that it was time for a conference on feminism and Orthodoxy. Initially we shot low, Blu intended for it to happen at an interfaith conference in Stony Brook. A prominent Orthodox rabbi recommended not to do it outside New York City, because we wouldn’t get the people. We considered doing it in Lincoln Square. Then Blu read in the Jewish Week that Agudah was having their conference in the Hyatt in Manhattan, and if Agudah can do it, so can we!


And the first international conference on feminism and Orthodoxy came into being in February of 1997. Please note that we didn’t even have a name, board, or organization yet. We crossed our fingers – or davened (prayed) with deep kavana (intent) – and planned for 400 attendees. And then the tsunami hit. That February morning we were overwhelmed. Masses kept poruing into the Hyatt. As the registration desk was overrun with over 1,000 people, the hotel managers called us over in a frenzy and said, “How are you gonna feed all these people? Who’ll pay?” Blu, without blinking, opened her purse, took out every credit card, and said, “Here, take these!” [laughs]


Clearly, we’d struck a chord. Women and even some men were looking for a place to learn, explore, and dialogue on issues related to gender and Judaism within a halakhic framework. We provided the venue. It also didn’t hurt that before our conference, the Va’ad forbade bat mitzvahs in women’s tefillah groups, and that five Yeshiva University heads severely critiqued women’s tefillah as a whole. The Jewish Week linked the two events in an article two weeks before the conference, and it served us well.


It truly was international, women came from all over. Our funding was donated primarily by 3 non-Orthodox people: Felix Posen, Rachel Cowan, and Michael Steinhart. The most important takeaway from the conference was understanding that people needed an address for Orthodox feminist issues. So we rallied the troops, created a board, formed JOFA, and started planning a second conference for the following year.


JOFA wasn’t everyone’s first choice of name, Blu suggested OWN (Orthodox Women Now) as a play on NOW (National Organization for Women), she thought “JOFA” sounded like chewing, and there was debate about using the f word in our name. It did give us a lot of trouble but a lot of attention a well. Bat Sheva consoled Blu by saying that it’s just a temporary name until we come up with something better. Blu replied that there’s nothing as permanent as something temporary.


Before the second conference there was even more drama. We wanted to widen the spectrum and present a broader view, so we included models of learned women, including one who was Conservative. An eminent rabbi who had been a close friend of our organization announced that he would have to withdraw if she didn’t, and he got funders to withdraw too, and under this financial duress we agreed to disinvite the Conservative speaker, sadly. But Blu stood up and said, “That’s fine, but if she’s not coming, neither am I.” She asked for 24 hours to get this rabbi to change his mind and the minds of the backers’, and succeed she did, we kept our funding and had our second conference. This set a pattern of pluralism and openness reflected in every conference.


I’ll share two stories:

There was a moving moment during the second conference, after lunch, when Rabbi Chuck Sheer stood up and suggested that all males (and then there were a number) should leave so women could form their own mezuman (prayer quorum).


At that conference, three non-Orthodox wmen were asked to be observers. One main comment they gave was, when asked what they thought, was that there was too much asking of the rabbis. Our response was you’re right, we are about that chain of tradition.


JOFA broadened, so that it was not just about a conference. We were an info source, an advocacy group, a resource for networking and news and info. We set up a speakers bureau, began agunah advocacy (which is a cause near and dear to everyone at JOFA), brought Shabbat Tilamdeini into communities to show that women can be true Torah scholars and enhance the Torah learning of different places in the US, sold an agunah pin to alert the world of the problems of agunot, launched Getlink as a listserv for agunot, started Tu B’Shvat sedarim, sold a calendar, bags, hats, magnets, and t-shirts, and sponsored a trip to Israel where we connected at Bar Ilan with the first female hesder program from the seminary Ein HaNatziv.


As I think back to those beginning days, it’s important to state that we had a deep commitment to our task, but at the same time, in spite of the challenges and controversies and politics, it was an exhilating time, joyful, and whoever says that feminists don’t have a sense of humor have not met our group. We were filled with laughter, those were heady times and we were likeminded people working together towards achieving our goals. It’s a long long road, and although we’re not ready to be put out to pasture, there’s been exciting development in expanding JOFA to the next generation, to collegiate and even high school students. I feel blessed to have been a part of this journey and would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge some of the courageous male rabbis who have helped us along the way.


Rabbi Asher Lopatin: Thank you. I’m humbled to be speaking here in front of leaders, women and men who came before me and who are still here and leading. I’ve attended so many JOFA conferences but I feel it’s important for me, as a man and rabbi and Jew and human being, to do what I can do to partner with men and women who are really making this difference.


I want to talk briefly that this is a partnership with women and JOFA and feminism, it’s not to just help out women. It’s critical, this partnership and women’s leadership, it’s an issue for klal yisrael (the Jewish community), for all of us. It’ll transform the entire community. I’m sitting next to Maharat Rachel and when we hired her at Anshe Sholom over six years ago to be our ritual director, it wasn’t just because she was a woman or to help out the women in shul. We needed to transform our shul and make it grow and change the community, and she was an incredible person for that.


As a woman, she was able to do things I couldn’t. Like her approach to taharat hamishpacha – I remember I had a two minute conversation with someone who asked me a question, and Maharat Rachel had an hour conversation with the same woman that because I had a different approach, as a woman and chachama she was able to do where I couldn’t. On Simchat Torah she started singing and it was suddenly transformative but not just for the women, for the entire community. It made Simchat Torah something different for everyone. When Rachel ran a kumzitz on Tisha B’Aav, which was something I couldn’t do, certainly men can run kumzitzes but there was something special about Rachel doing it.


It’s exciting that she’s now a maharat. Of course my shul misses me, but it misses my wife more. [laughs] It’s exciting that today the OU recognizes the role that a spouse places, a husband/wife team together, with the JLIC program on campuses. We need to have woman in a place of leadership as well. I want to tip my hat to Chabad as well, who understand that husband/wife are codirectors. We need to recognize that it’s not a good college program and it won’t reach its potential without having women’s leadership in place.


When it comes to women carrying the Torah, it’s not about allowing the women to carry the Torah but transforming the shul into a mikdash me’at (small Temple). Without having women holding and seeing the Torah and being part of the service, it’s a dimuntion in kedushat mikdash (holiness of shul) in the same way that a shul without a mehitzah (divider) wouldn’t have the level of mikdash we need. If it doesn’t follow way of the Beit HaMikdash, where women could see and received korbanot (ritual sacrifices), if women can’t have opportunity but want the opportunity to touch the Torah and hold the Torah then it’s a dimunition of the entire mikdash me’at, the entire holiness of that synagogue. When we don’t have women teaching and don’t promote women, we are losing Torah, the whole Jewish community is losing Torah, we need more women’s leadership and Torah.


As a student of Rav Soloveitchik, he wasn’t a feminist or aware of feminist thought but I think he would’ve been one. Feminist thought has so much to teach men and women and we have to rise to that challenge. Tova Hartman quotes Carol Gilligan, and perhaps the mesorah (tradition) is stronger when we include ideas of feminism. Doing things together isn’t a zero sum game, it’s not an individualist idea, if we empower other people to do something that’s game for all of us. Men and women will lose out if we don’t incorporate them as part of our tradition.


The agunah issue is tragic for so many women and continues to be a tragic issue, but it’s not just a women’s issue, it’s for the entire community. What about the families that these trapped women are not able to create because of that? The loss is not just for those women, but for the entire Jewish people. I want to mention about women’s zimmun, when three women two men eat together and they don’t have the women do a zimmun it’s a loss for the entire table and not just for those women who may or may not want to do it. As the president of a male rabbinical school, I stand ready to partner with women and promote women’s leadership and do it as man, as a Jew, out of concern for not only women of klal yisrael but for the whole community. We need leadership coming from women, we need inclusion, to transform our community because Judaism needs it because klal yisrael needs it. I feel that this is happening, that Judaism in our community is moving in the right direction.


Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold: It’s an honor to be here, in a room like this with so many likeminded individuals. People tend to ask what it’s really like in shul. I’ll tell you about succeesses and pitfalls and more broadly about the future.


Rosh Hashanah was my first big coming out experience at my shul. There were 1,600 people, and on the second day I gave my big sermon and stepped back down into women’s section into what was latrer decribed to me as a mosh pit, people were so overwhelmed and flanked me and thanked me with tears in their eyes. One woman said to me, “we’ve been waiting for you.” The men were also very moved. I’ve been warmly received, like I was at my shul in Chicago.


The maharat title has caught on, people use it like rabbi or cantor, people really do use it. It’s my title. My four-year-old explained to her non-Jewish babysitter that girls can be rabbis too, they’re just called maharats. One little one at shul called me Mrs. Rabbi last Shabbat. The community accepts me as a full member of clergy.


So many men have been essential to success of women’s spiritual leadership in the Orthodox community. Rabbi Asher and Rabbi Adam Scheier, who I work with now, are men who have stepped aside to create space so I can have an impact, and without them it would not be possible. They are part of the success of the maharat initiative.


There are some difficulties I’ve faced, like feeling like the token woman in any given setting. I was invited recently to a panel of women clergy, and I looked around and asked, “would we have a panel of male clergy?” I look forward to the time when I won’t have to be the token woman or people won’t see my gender first.


The daily minyan (prayer quorum) is a challenge, being a female leader in a male space. Along with that is the challenge of Shabbat and juggling three small kids with a male spouse who has the hiyuv (religious requirement) of tefillah (prayer), which is a different struggle than for male rabbis with female spouses. I’ll go to shul instead of my husband. It’s difficult being a woman running a minyan, since you need a male on hand to make things happen.


Another difficulty is, and this may sound strange, but on Shabbat sometimes I want to be like other young moms. I know they probably struggle with the fact that they come to shul late and can only sit for a few minutes until their kids start to scream, but I look at those moms and when I’m away for Shabbat that’s my fantasy. I just want to go to shul late and stand outside and schmooze with my kids. This vision is what my Shabbat might look like if it was a family day and not a work day.


But where’s the Orthodox feminist movement today? Specifically for women in my generation, in their early 30s. I did attend first 1997 JOFA conference, when I was 17 years old. Over the years I got more connected and active in communal life and kept coming to JOFA. I started to think that the spekaers I was hearing at JOFA events sounded angry about a host of issues. I asked Carol Newman why they were so angry, and that speaks volumes. I grew up never feeling disgruntled or brushed aside. Of course there were always inequities and progress made, but I never felt frustrated in daily Jewish life because I’m standing on the shoulders of women who ensured that I didn’t have to feel angry.


What’s also interesting to me is that when I looked at the marketing for this conference, which clearly worked because you’re all here, it said JOFA: not just for feminists. I found that fascinating, because I don’t really use the word feminist in my daily existence, I don’t identify with that word. If anything I feel postfeminist, that it’s another way of saying we’re all feminists because the effort has been so successful. I always expected to be given a job that would let me do what I know how to do regardless of whether I’m a woman or man, that I should have every opportunity regardless. So feminism is not a word I live with daily, it’s just a way of being for me.


In many ways, we’ve arrived. And at the same time, there is so much to fight for. Will I be offered equal pay? Will women in my community feel like full particiapnts? Will my little girls in day school be given the same opportunities as little boys? We’re confronting these struggles from a point of strength, and that’s powerful.


I’ll end with a story about perspective and how we tell this story of Orthodox feminism, what the story arc can be. I spoke at a senior community center in Montreal, and being the token woman they wanted me to speak about myself and who I am and what I’m doing, so I told them about being a maharat and my job and so on, and it was lovely. At the end I did a Q&A. A woman started telling a story with Sarah Schenirer, because that’s when the community first began to take girls’ Torah study seriously. Because Sarah Schenirer did what she did, we can do what we’re doing. This woman in the audience said, “I knew Sarah Schenirer, we were neighbors in Krakow, and I saw hundreds of students coming in and out of her house. Now that I meet you, I say sheh’hehiyanu.” I was floored. This story started a century ago. Yeshivat Maharat is the evolution of women’s learning. I look forward to finding out what’s next.


Leah Sarna: [The text of this speech can be read here]


Ruth Calderon: I landed at 6 am. This is such a sweet way to land into this place. Thank you.


Let me share with you what it is for me to study Torah. Firstly, I could say it’s very personal, and as we learned in feminism it’s very personal and political at same time. There’s a big difference between feeling here to be among so many people and women that share something that’s so deep to me. Most of my life, my experience of studying Torah was not lonely but very alone, I didn’t know anyone else who did that or were interested in it. It was a little embarrassing in Tel Aviv where I grew up, or just not understood by my parents, who were a bit worried about it, and by my classmates.


I wasn’t raised as part of a denomination or halakhic community. My house was a mixed marriage, with one parent Sephardi and one Ashkenazi [laughs], so my house was very paternalistic. I thought I was a boy like my big brothers and everything was fine, but then one Friday night after kiddush (the blessing over the wine), my mother told me to come to kitchen to do dishes. I was shocked, like I suddenly became servant. I think that’s the minute I became a feminist. [laughs] My big brothers are physcians now, they were the pillars of my childhood. I always followed them and tried to go where they did. There were always things that boys can do and they wouldn’t take me, like going fishing or riding motorcycles. We all lived in the same room and my bed opened at night, so my brothers had cars and motorcycles on the walls but I didn’t have a wall to put things on. I think in that sense it’s very personal that I wanted to be with the boys, since I understood that they get the good stuff, that’s where where the power is. In Israel there’s an expression, that there are the ones fighting and the ones supporting the fighters. I wanted to be a fighter.


That push to get in started when I was 11. In my home, which was sweet and wonderful and all the love of Judaism I have I have from there, but I never imagined that I would do kiddush, or that my father would invite me to be the Pesach (Passover) mother of the Seder. We never even saw anything like that, and if you don’t see it ever and there’s no role model then you can’t even imagine it, but I wanted to.


My book of Talmudic legends written in Hebrew that’s now coming out by JPS, Elana Kurshan is the translator, and she told me that she’s studying Talmud like a man. I thought that it’s dangerous to say that. I say that when I study Talmud, from the beginning I’m not a woman looking in the Talmud to see how they speak about us and be offended by the chauvinism. I read it as a scholar. So when I read a story I am him, I am in the beit midrash (house of study) and it’s me, mine. I think that once I started doing that, my feminism wasn’t angry anymore.


I love the maharat title, it sounds like baharat which is a spice. The only role moel I did see was Alice Shalvi, my mother’s cousin, an aunt we used to go visit. Once when I was in the army I did Sukkot at her home and she told all of us to think of four ushpizot (guests, traditionally male ushpizin) to invite. It’s now banal to do it but at the time I was shocked, nobody ever even brought up the idea that the ushpizin could be women. I’m talking Israel in the 80s. Alice was always a big teacher and role model for me.


One of my daughters went to Eilat before she entered the army, a bunch of girls went together dancing and I was a little worried, you know Eilat is like Vegas, but they went and they came back fine. My daughter told me what they did and said that on Friday night one girl said let’s do kiddush and she said “I’ll do it, but cover yourself.” The girl didn’t want to, so they did it anyway but in a way that was comfortable for themselves. Between you and me I hope that some of that dedication has passed.


I’m interested in JOFA, since it’s the sister of Kolech, and Hannah Kehat is a friend of mine. When I did Daf Yomi (daily Talmud learning) I did it for 12 years, my kids grew up over those years so I took longer than the typical seven-year cycle. I let my kids draw in the margins of my Talmud, so my daughter drew little donkeys and things. Seeing me every morning and night, studying and using markers and drawing next to me. This wasn’t something I taught them to do or that anyone in school would tell them.


My political coming into the Knesset was quite a shock, but in some ways it was the same feeling as flying in airplane and getting a bag with a toothbrush nd razor clearly meant for guys. When I started flying for work I used to get that bag, but now they’ve changed it and give a bag meant for women. The Knesset is the same way, it’s a boys’ club and they’re quite amazed to see us women. We’re not threatening to the big majority of men, but the number of women politicians in the Knesset is the biggest ever, 27/120. It’s a presence. We do have a bond between us, solidarity although we also have disputes. Yesh Atid, my party, and Aliza Lavie are working on an agenda on religious pluralism and the role of women. We’ve had successes, like women are now on the committee that chooses rabbis and mikvah (ritual bath) ladies. We’re legislating a world where women are accepted and respected and creating a religious Zionist world. It’s different between us.


Israel is a small public space, but the wish is to have public space, an urban city that is not only Jewish in the synagogue but Jewish outside and in politics and in art and culture. Women are not in committees of defense and we want them there. Women’s voices do bring a sense of compassion that is less you or me who’s bigger and more how can we work this out together. I even have a nice and surpising relationship with the Arab woman in the Knesset. The fact that she’s a woman and alone between all the men allows us to have another kind of conversation that’s not just the usual dispute.


The Talmud has taught me that dispute is the best thing, mahloket (dispute) is the way to think, it’s the only way to get deeper to the truth. It’s not like the philosophy where the teacher brings the student to his or her own thought, but mahloket is where we don’t know where we’ll end up. It’s a wonderful way to feel in the Knesset, that dispute is part of the job, this understanding that all 120 members of Knesset are necessary partners in this dispute to make a better society.


I’ll end by saying that thank you for inviting me. It’s important to us that you feel that the Knesset isn’t just a parliament for Israeli citizens, feel that we try to represent you too. We want you to feel at home in your communities or when you come to visit, it’s very important and deep in our hearts. Your voice is your voice as well as mine.