Photograph via cafepress
As the associate director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), Aaron Steinberg plays a direct role in shaping the trajectory of Orthodox feminist advocacy. In the lead up to JOFA’s “UnConference” on Sunday in New York, the Sisterhood’s Sarah Breger spoke with Steinberg about the future of Orthodox feminism and what it’s like to be the only man in the room.
Sarah Breger: Have you always considered yourself a feminist?
Aaron Steinberg: While I can’t say I’ve always considered myself a feminist, for as long as I can remember I’ve felt pretty strongly about judging people as individuals—not groups. That doesn’t mean I can’t look back and remember things I’m not proud of. As a product of the Orthodox educational setting, I spent a fair amount of time in largely single-gender settings—specifically a year studying at an Israeli yeshiva and three years at Yeshiva College, YU. Hanging around a bunch of guys isn’t a recipe for thinking critically and intellectually about the opposite gender, and it took a lot of maturing and conscientiousness to get to where I am today.
No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. Up there amid all the sports stars, movie actors and underwear models, those are the faces of Jewish Orthodox feminists gazing down at you from a billboard in Times Square on Wednesday.
For one day only, the countenances of five individuals who have advanced the cause of Orthodox feminism will be flashed on a screen above the entrance to the W hotel on the southwest corner of 47th St. and Broadway. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance is behind the spectacle.
“JOFA is proud to be able to mark the important achievements of Orthodox feminism in this quintessentially New York way,” said JOFA executive director Elana Maryles Sztokman. “If you’ve made it to Times Square, you know that you’re doing something important.”
Timing will be key to seeing the billboard, as it will flash only once per hour at exactly 20 minutes past the hour on November 13. JOFA supporters will convene near the TKTS steps in Times Square at noon to look up at the billboard en masse and celebrate the achievements of the figures portrayed.
I cannot fathom the idea of working on a problem for 40 years. And yet, there is a whole group of Jewish women — and a handful of men — who have been doing just that. These are the agunah activists, some of whom have been fighting to find solutions for agunot — women trapped in unwanted marriages to recalcitrant husbands due to women’s lack of exit power from Jewish marriage – since the advent of the feminist movement in the 1970s. These activists, who demonstrate incredible perseverance and determination often with very little outcome, would be forgiven for giving up. But it’s possible that this week they may have reached a certain light at the end of the tunnel.
“I did not want to come today,” longtime agunah activist Rivka Haut told a packed crowd this week at an historic Agunah Summit organized by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization at NYU. The Agunah Summit, coordinated by JOFA founder Blu Greenberg, aimed to promote the use of systemic solutions within halakha in order to release agunot. Over 200 Jewish leaders filled the hall, eager to resolve this harrowing problem and the needless suffering of women, once and for all. “I wasn’t going to come, because I thought, more talking and not enough resolution,” Haut said. “But I’m leaving here optimistic. I think there is a chance now for real change.”
The change that Haut was referring to was the repeated calls for establishing a special rabbinical court to release agunot, one that would use halakhic tools such as “hafkaat kiddishin,” a form of annulment. Many speakers during the day supported the use of these halakhic tools, and several key rabbis — including Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Rabbi David Bigman and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin — advocated for establishing such a court immediately. Many rabbis in the audience said that they would be supportive of such a court, and some said they would be willing to study to become rabbinical court judges in order to be able to sit on the court.
When asked at a JOFA panel about the status of women in Israel and what can be done to protect women’s basic rights, I replied that I would first make it illegal for a political party that has no women on its list to run for the Knesset. Thankfully, I’m not alone in this sentiment. In fact, a new movement is beginning to form of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox women fighting against the exclusion of women from religious political parties.
Esti Shoshan, a haredi journalist, recently started a Facebook page called Lo nivharot, lo boharot, which means “If we can’t be elected, we are not voting.” As of this writing, the group has over 800 likes — perhaps not the stuff of a Steve Jobs fan page, but signs of movement nonetheless. And it comes at a particularly significant time in the development of religious politics. The legality of religious parties of Shas and United Torah Judaism is currently being debated by the Elections Council, under the leadership of Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein, based on a petition filed by a coalition of seven organizations led by Jerusalem city council member Laura Wharton contesting the systemic exclusion of women from party lists.
“The sad situation of women’s under-representation in the Knesset, is imminent,” the petition states, adding that, “an absurd situation has been created in which the country subsidizes bodies that discriminate against women.”
Nearly every month, it seems, there is troubling news relating to the status of women in Israel. Late last year it was women forced to sit at the back of public busses, and then Haredim attacking schoolgirls in Beit Shemesh for being insufficiently modest. In October the leader of Women of the Wall was arrested and allegedly mistreated by police for leading others in prayer at the Kotel. And recently, according to the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Knesset candidate Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan declared that the agunah issue is caused by women’s groups trying to besmirch the rabbinical courts, rather than by husbands who refuse to divorce their estranged wives.
JOFA brought together some of the women involved in confronting these issues, both in the U.S. and Israel, for a roundtable discussion on November 28 in midtown Manhattan.
Israeli feminist leaders Hannah Kehat, founder and executive director of Kolech: Religious Women’s Forum and Susan Weiss, founder and executive director of The Center for Women’s Justice participated, along with Americans Nancy Kaufman, director of the National Council of Jewish Women; JOFA founder Blu Greenberg and Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner.
Rahel Berkovits is an Israeli feminist, a teacher of Jewish texts, and a founder of Shira Hadasha, which bills itself as an “Orthodox Feminist Congregation in Jerusalem.” Her recent book, “A Daughter’s Recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish,” delves into classical sources, and argues that under Jewish law women are permitted to recite Mourner’s Kaddish. She spoke recently with The Sisterhood about women’s issues in the Modern Orthodox and the Haredi communities, and giving women agency when it comes to saying kaddish.
Raphael Magarik: Coming from an Orthodox background, when did you start to write on halacha and gender?
Rahel Berkovits: I’ve been researching these ideas for a long time. I used to believe that to make changes [on women’s issues], you needed a big-name rabbi. The breaking point was the issue of women saying the sheva brachot [marriage blessings]. I did halachic research, I felt it was possible, and I thought, “I can’t do it unless I get the rabbinic stamp of approval.”
I spoke to some of my teachers, and they said, “What you say makes sense, but I won’t say it’s okay, because people will say I’m feminist or Conservative.”
I had this really ridiculous idea: Sometimes in halacha it’s the people with very big shoulders who make major radical decisions, because they’re not worried about what people will think. So I made this appointment to meet a prominent Haredi rabbi. He treated me so poorly. All he wanted to know was, “Did I have a TV in my house? What type of music was I having at my wedding?” I just remember walking home crying. At that point, I decided I was going to make most of my halachic decisions for myself.
How do you make sense of the simultaneous emergence of the progressive, feminist Orthodoxy of this book, on the one hand, and the struggles over women in Haredi communities, such as Beit Shemesh?
In 1997, Blu Greenberg chaired the first International Conference on Feminism & Orthodoxy. About 400 attendees were expected and more than 1,000 showed up, hungry for a community of other women committed to both traditional Jewish life and their own religious potential. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which was born of that first gathering and had Greenberg as its founding president, has run six more conferences and now claims some 5,000 members worldwide.
JOFA is honoring Greenberg, along with past president Carol Kaufman Newman and key funder Zelda Stern, at a dinner in New York City on November 20th. The Sisterhood spoke with Greenberg about what has changed for Orthodox Jewish women since JOFA began — and what hasn’t.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen: Of issues on JOFA’s agenda, where has there been the most change, and the least?
Two courses are underway to teach the teachers of Orthodox brides, grooms and married couples how to better prepare their students for healthy sex lives.
In Israel, a course for male teachers of grooms is currently being held at the Puah Institute and in New York, a course for female teachers of brides will be held for the second time by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.](http://www.jofa.org/).
According to this article the Puah course, run in conjunction with Bar-Ilan University, is training marriage counselors and rabbis to address sexual problems among married Orthodox Jews. The JOFA course is titled “Demystifying Sex & Teaching Halakha: A Kallah Teacher’s Workshop,” and is being held in conjunction with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and Yeshivat Maharat. March 13th-16th.
But as I wrote in this New York Times piece, there has been a growing embrace, in recent years, of the need to address — or even prevent — such problems.
The recent Rabbinical Council of America decision to exclude women from the rabbinate brought to mind the 2004 film “Mekudeshet: Sentenced to Marriage,” a documentary about women stuck in the divorce process in Israel.
There is one particularly heart-wrenching scene that has been playing over in my mind recently. “Rachel,” a 30-something Orthodox mother of four who tried to get a divorce from her philandering husband for more than five years, had enough. “He is living with another woman!” she screamed at the apathetic judges, right before they kicked her out of the courtroom. “He has a new family, he has moved on with his life, and you cannot do anything to help me?” The court staff violently removed her, as she wailed down the hallway. “Stay away from this religion,” she cried. “This religion is terrible.”
Rachel, a radio producer for an ultra-Orthodox radio station, wearing an elegant sheitel and modern but appropriately Orthodox clothes, is smart, savvy and put together, calm under pressure and able to manage a powerful career and busy family as a single mother. In other words, she was perfectly ultra- Orthodox until that point. She, like other smart religious women, was betrayed by the system that she dedicated her life to. The rabbinate caused her to come undone. Rachel hasn’t just come undone, but she is done with Orthodoxy. In fact, all the women who were documented during the making of this film underwent the same transformation: they start out religious, and they end up walking away.
Elana Sztokman is a fabulous writer whose pieces are always an asset to The Sisterhood and the rest of The Forward (and I get a gold star for having made the shidduch). But in her new blog post, Jewish Feminists Launch RCA Protest, Elana gets a few important things wrong.
The first is that she calls the petition launched to convince the Rabbinical Council of America’s leadership that they should endorse women’s religious leadership a Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance campaign when it is not. In fact, the organization decided not to issue the petition itself and instead sent carefully-worded open letters to the RCA, stating:
Rather than engage in semantic discussions about whether or not it’s halakhic for a woman to become a rabbi, or make divisive statements about a woman’s role in Judaism, we urge the RCA to focus instead on finding new ways for this motivated group of learned women to thrive.
Why is it worded this way? Because JOFA’s leaders know that the RCA leadership is not going to endorse women as para-quasi-rabba-maharat-rabbis in any form, so JOFA is not wasting its credibility capital and calling for it. Instead, JOFA is asking for something that it can’t name and I’m sure the RCA can’t either: non-rabbinic ways to make use of the growing cadre of women who are highly educated in Torah, highly skilled as leaders, and highly motivated to use their abilities for the benefit of the Jewish people.
In a bold and passionate move, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) has sent two letters to the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), a leading Orthodox rabbinic organization, in an attempt to advance women’s leadership roles in synagogues and communities.
One of the letters reads:
As the major rabbinic arm in the Orthodox world, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) is in a position to demonstrate its support of these women, thereby strengthening the Jewish community. Please encourage the RCA’s members to create professionally meaningful and halakhically appropriate opportunities for women within our Orthodox institutions.
Rather than engage in semantic discussions about whether or not it’s halakhic for a woman to become a rabbi, or make divisive statements about a woman’s role in Judaism, we urge the RCA to focus instead on finding new ways for this motivated group of learned women to thrive. They are ready to make an impact in the Orthodox world—in our synagogues, at our schools, and within our homes. We ask that you encourage them in their journey and help find places for them, so that they may be able to transmit their knowledge and experience to others in our community, thereby enriching the Jewish community.
Meanwhile, a recent JOFA email also linked to an online petition from an independent group of Orthodox college students. The petition, spearheaded by Jordanna Birnbaum, Michelle Kornblit and Hannah Wenger reads:
There was an exciting energy at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference. Speakers in both the plenary and individual sessions, such as emerging star Lisa Schlaff, made far-reaching statements and bold suggestions about issues ranging from marriage and sexuality to halachic ingenuity. Participants responded in kind with creativity and courage, revealing what seems to be a powerful consensus that Orthodoxy is in the midst of a major overhaul from the ground up.
The fact that conference participants expressed full and enthusiastic support for Orthodox women rabbis offers some sense of the disconnect between this grassroots community and the formal leadership of Modern Orthodoxy. It suggests, as did many of my encounters at the conference, that Modern Orthodox decision-makers are out of touch with the lived experiences of their constituents. Nowhere was this disconnect more apparent than in Rabba Sara Hurwitz’s plenary lecture. As she was called to the stage as “Rabba,” the entire room stood and cheered. This was clearly a place where the Rabbinical Council of America’s pronouncements were irrelevant at best, where Hurwitz was and is Rabbi.
However, as Hurwitz spoke, she revealed that while the audience was ready to take on the RCA, she is not.
At last Sunday’s conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance there was an interesting session titled “Rediscovering Mikvah: Creating a New Construct in Thinking about Mikvah.”
Given my increasingly ambivalent relationship to my own mikveh practice, I slipped away from all the sessions on Orthodox women and leadership that I needed to attend to for my coverage of this central issue, and went for some personal inspiration.
The session was run by Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, an Orthodox Jew who is also a professional sex therapist, and featured Carrie Bornstein, the Mikveh Center director at Newton, Mass.’s Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center.
Early Sunday morning, I shlepped my tired self through the rain — taking the subway up to Columbia University — to cover the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference. At the end of a long day, I came away energized.
At the First International Conference on Feminism & Orthodoxy back in 1997, there was something electric in the air, and that same electricity was apparent on Sunday.
To be sure, the current imbroglio — see this story for the background and this story for an update — over what roles women with the same training as rabbis get may play in Orthodox institutions and what they can be called was a galvanizing issue. JOFA founder Blu Greenberg told me, afterward, that there were lots of last-minute registrations, likely a result.
It’s a story of a Sisterhood post done good.
Last month, Elana Sztokman, a regular contributor to this blog, proposed a model for infusing Orthodox day schools with the kind of feminist values that have informed partnership synagogues and have advanced women’s leadership roles within Orthodoxy.
The buzz that her blog post generated secured her a spot as a featured speaker at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) conference, taking place this weekend in New York. (Sisterhood contributor Rebecca Honig Friedman previewed the conference here.)
Elana spoke with me today in the Forward studio about her vision for Orthodox day school education and the often-troubling messages that Orthodoxy sends to boys and men — topics on which she’ll be presenting this weekend.
Listen to the podcast:
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.
Feminism has no doubt transformed Orthodoxy over the past three decades. Women have gone from begging to hold a Torah on Simchat Torah to holding their own services, to creating partnership synagogues in which women take active roles alongside men in running the service. It’s not only about women learning Talmud, but also about being acknowledged with proper titles for the roles — from religious leaders who argue cases in the rabbinical courts to the most recent breakthrough of calling women (almost) rabbis. Gender roles in Orthodoxy are rapidly being redefined in homes, communities and synagogues, where men and women share the tasks of preparing for Shabbat and educating children, leading prayer and giving a D’var Torah. The list of changes goes on, and it’s all quite exciting.
Yet, remarkably, these changes have failed to find parallel expression in the Orthodox school system. Notwithstanding tremendous efforts by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and other groups to address these issues, the fact remains that from preschool on, schools continue to send the message that women are predominantly charged with the home, and men are in charge of prayer and ritual. School books show men as active and women as passive — a message compounded by school decors that have walls plastered with pictures of men/rabbis and women’s pictures few and far between, if at all. The issues surrounding how teachers relate to gender in the classroom, how girls are treated in math and sciences and how boys are treated in art and literature — issues that blasted open in America with the 1992 AAUW report “How Schools Shortchange Girls” and have since contributed to a complete evolution of gender in education in America — have barely been noted in the Orthodox day school system.
Two fabulous Jewish magazines have new issues out that are must-reads for anyone interested in Judaism and gender.
The first is Lilith’s new issue, which proclaims, in big black letters on a red background, that “Boys are the New Girls.”
It’s an interesting premise, highlighting the much-needed attention paid lately to boys. Boys — and men — are unfortunately missing in action from Jewish life in liberal (i.e. non-Orthodox) precincts. In this New York Times article back in February 2006, I explored this issue as it relates to the Reform movement, which was the first major Jewish institution to grapple with the gender imbalance in its youth groups, camps and synagogues.
The new Lilith issue includes, among other items on the topic, essays on what it means to be a Jewish man today by Rabbi Steven Greenberg (the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi), a provocatively titled essay, “Bottoming for God,” by Forward contributor Jay Michaelson, a look at King David as a model of manhood by Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Manhattan’s Congregation Ansche Chesed, and a piece on not fitting into stereotypes of boyhood by self-proclaimed “wimp” Paul Zakrzewski. The Lilith package also includes an interview with Sally Gottesman, who is co-founder and board chair of the organization Moving Traditions, which is developing a program to reach adolescent Jewish boys.
The new issue of the semi-annual journal of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) is devoted to a treasure trove of essays and articles looking at the concept of modesty from many perspectives.