In 2013, I gathered seven friends from West Orange to attend JOFA’s eighth international conference. JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance), the organization advancing social change around gender issues in the Orthodox community, hosted this mega-event as it does every two to three years. We clambered into my Toyota Sienna early on a Sunday morning for the drive into Manhattan, and the air was buzzing with anticipation for the learning and discussion that would take place. But the morning ride paled in comparison with the evening ride home.
Traffic crawled through the city and delayed our return home, but no one seemed to mind terribly. During the day, we had barely seen each other as members of the carpool had scattered to favorite lecturers and sessions of interest. But when we crowded into that tight-knit space of my minivan, the conversation felt charged with electricity.
We debated issues of the day with informed and passionate voices, calling on survey results, sociological research, and text sources from the Talmud and generations of rabbis to bolster our opinions. We agreed or disagreed with the substance and ramifications of presentations on the role of women in rabbinic leadership, the incidence of eating disorders among observant teens, and the challenges of tzniut, or modesty, in day schools.
We considered best practices to promote gender-neutral language and gender-equitable study in the classroom, and ways to advocate for agunot (women unable to obtain a Jewish divorce). But most important, we started talking about the changes that we could effect locally, changes that we could make with support from our carpool group.
I am proud to say that I identify as both an Orthodox Jew and a feminist, and I do not believe that the two are mutually exclusive. My personal agenda is to advocate for meaningful participation and equality for women within the framework of Jewish law in family life, synagogue, school, and Jewish communal organizations. I want to increase the presence of women in our institutions by advancing their leadership and scholarship, and by promoting greater ritual involvement for them. As such, I have been involved in JOFA and its activities as a member of its board of directors for more than five years.
The reverberations of the conference were lasting. Within a few weeks of that drive home, members of our group were instrumental in sponsoring a well-attended halachic post-nuptial signing party at Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David in West Orange. The post-nuptial agreement is a legal contract designed to prevent husbands from denying their wives a Jewish divorce.
Within a few months of that car ride home, members of our group obtained support from rabbis and community leaders to hire a yoetzet Halacha, a female halachic adviser specializing in issues related to laws of family purity, for the West Orange and Livingston communities.
Less than two years later, several members of our group spearheaded the formation of Maayan in West Orange, a congregation based on the partnership model where women can actively participate in communal prayers within a halachic framework. Other conference attendees reinvigorated the monthly women’s tefilla gatherings that take place in a West Orange home.
Several months ago, I was tasked with organizing the ninth international JOFA conference, which will be held Jan. 14-15 at Columbia University. The theme is “Chart (y)our course.” As the phrase indicates, the event will educate, inspire, and energize you to choose your agenda items for the weeks, months, and years ahead — the ideas or rituals to which you will commit yourself personally.
Perhaps you will concentrate on sharing domestic duties with your spouse, or on asking the female guests at your Shabbat table to lead the meal’s blessings. Perhaps you will ensure that the women’s section in your synagogue is open and available every day of the week, or that a woman can feel comfortable reciting Mourner’s Kaddish during services. Perhaps you will lobby for women to speak publicly from the bima in your synagogue, or for women to serve in all executive offices of its governing body.
“Chart (y)our course” emphasizes that this is a group effort, that the conference will empower attendees to shape a collective vision moving forward. The “our” refers to JOFA’s support of advocacy to stem the disappearance of women and their photographic images from the ultra-Orthodox media; to JOFA’s imperative to respond to conversions that are challenged by the Israeli rabbinate; to engender an inclusive community for LGBTQ individuals; to address sexual abuse in Jewish institutions; and to build programs and locally shape new initiatives, with the help of others in the community.
What projects and action items will be generated by the rides home from the 2017 JOFA conference? The fourth minivan from the Greater MetroWest area, and other locations in central New Jersey, is filling up, so reserve your space today at jofa.org.