It’s been three years since JOFA’s last national conference in New York, which may explain the seam-bursting program, with more 50 different sessions in the less than 24 hours. It seems that organizers of the 2010 conference, which begins Saturday night, have decided to cram three-years’ worth of pent-up Jewish feminist activity and thought into a night and a day.
From the first-ever JOFA Film Festival to workshops on art and spirituality to a bevy of discussions about expanding women’s ritual and leadership roles in the Orthodox community, this year’s conference appears designed to affirm relevance to different types of people in the Orthodox community — especially younger ones.
The agenda is broad, and the average age of the speakers seems younger than in previous years (though that is a personal impression, not a mathematical survey). Most notably, the opening plenary on Sunday, which is meant to set the tone for the conference, features four women under the age of 40 — Rabba Sara Hurwitz, Erin Leib Smokler, Laura Shaw-Frank and Lisa Schlaff — who embody JOFA’s principles and are dynamic personalities in their own right.
This presents a marked change from the 2007 conference, where opening plenaries featured women over 40 (and, in a special panel, over-60 billionaire philanthropist Michael Steinhardt), and which had a clear activist agenda: to end the problem of agunot, [literally, chained women], whose husbands will not grant them a Jewish divorce.
While agunah is an issue that’s been on the program at every JOFA conference, the 2007 gathering made attending at least one session on the topic pretty much mandatory — “You have to go or you might as well leave the premises,” JOFA President Carol Kaufman Newman told The Jewish Week back then — and speakers were more riled up than, I am told, they had been in previous years. At that conference, international women’s rights lawyer Sharon Shenhav suggested that an alternative rabbinic court be set up to deal with the problem, and prominent Orthodox feminist Tova Hartman calling on attendees to “stop kvetching,” and take action in the form of civil disobedience.
In contrast, this year’s program includes a session called “Speaking in a Language Rabbis Understand: Preventing Agunah,” a title that suggests a more conciliatory approach. Led by rabbinical court advocate Rachel Levmore, it is one of four sessions that address the issue of agunot.
Still, there is plenty to get riled up about. While the thematic reach of this year’s conference is broad, religious leadership roles for Orthodox women is a particular focus. Sessions include “The Rabbinic Team: A New Model of Leadership,” with Rabba Sara Hurwitz and Rabbi Steven Exler; “Why the Rambam was Wrong: Women in Leadership,” with Daniel Sperber; “Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss: Will Women’s Leadership Change the System?” with Ronit Irshai, and “A Rabbi By Any Other Name…,” with Rachel Kohl Finegold, Sara Hurwitz, and Dina Najman. And why not, considering this year’s program includes a female Reb, a Rabba, and a Rosh Kehilla — not to mention several other women in religious leadership positions with less rabbinic-sounding titles.
Given the recent Maharat-Rabba-Maharat switcheroo fiasco, I’m expecting much heated discussion over titles and Rabbi Avi Weiss v. the Rabbinical Council of America v. Agudath Israel of America. Though I’m also afraid that JOFA officials will shy away from the subject, given how fresh the wounds are, and how precarious the situation could still be for those invested in these things. Still, it will be the Orthodox feminist elephant in the room.
Another focus at the conference is Jewish education, with a simultaneous, side-conference planned for middle school students, and several sessions for adults on the subject (including “The Feminist Mystique: A High School Educator’s Perspective,” with Shira Hecht-Koller, Amanda Newman, and Lisa Schlaff; “‘Torah Im Shivyon:’ A Vision of Orthodox Feminist Education,” with The Sisterhood’s own Elana Sztokman; “Reaching Higher: Jewish Education for the Next Generation,” with Yeshiva University president Richard Joel; “Raising Sexually Healthy Children in an Orthodox World,” with Bat Sheva Marcus; and “Turning all the Boys’ Heads: A Model of Educating Towards Greater Inclusivity in Israel Yeshiva Programs,” with Todd Berman). I am happy to see that these sessions are all focused on the content — and not the cost — of Jewish education, though I’m sure the “tuition crisis” will find a way to rear its ugly and expensive head.
Some of the other sessions that sound intriguing (and since I can’t possibly attend them all, why don’t you go and tell me about them?) include “The Orthodox Baby Boom: How Did it Happen and Can it Go On?” with Viva Hammer, “What Should We Talk About When We Talk About Women’s Leadership?” with Dyonna Ginsburg, Rori Picker Neiss, and Alana Newhouse, and “I’m Not a Feminist, But I Play One on TV: Media & Gender in ‘Srugim,’” because I have a vested interest in “Srugim,” and, come on, that’s a good title!
And, yes, at a conference like this one, with more than 50 sessions competing for my attention, titles do matter.