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Successful Conference Spawns New Orthodox Feminist Alliance

When more than 1,000 people showed up for a conference on feminism and Orthodoxy in February, organizers knew that they had tapped into something powerful.

To further develop the grass-roots movement of Orthodox feminists, conference organizers are starting a new organization: the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

The alliance will be based in New York and focus on advocacy and research into issues ranging from women’s prayer groups to problems in Orthodox divorce.

Directors, mostly the women who organized the first conference, are planning a second one in New York next February, as well as similar meetings in Chicago and in Israel.

"There’s a lot to do and it needs a standing body, a professional staff, to do it," said Blu Greenberg, the central organizer of the first conference and a founder of the new alliance.

"There’s tremendous energy around these issues now," she said.

The alliance is projecting a first-year budget of $150,000, which its directors anticipate raising largely from Jewish family foundations. Conference participants spontaneously donated about $10,000 after last February’s event.

Among the list of planned projects are a resource center that will archive materials by and for Orthodox women.

The alliance will collect new rituals, such as naming ceremonies for daughters, and new prayers that have been written to be said after childbirth and on behalf of agunot, the Orthodox women who are "chained" to dead marriages because their husbands won’t give them divorces.

The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance will also maintain lists of rabbis doing positive things for Orthodox women — and of rabbis doing negative things against them, Greenberg said.

Greenberg said such a list would be helpful, for instance, when a woman is looking for a rabbinic adviser to help guide her through a divorce.

The new group also intends to cooperate with other organizations focused on issues of domestic violence and divorce in the Orthodox community, aiding their efforts by helping them publicize what they do.

The alliance plans to network with women from Judaism’s other denominations, which would make it one of the few Orthodox groups officially engaged in such dialogue.

"I learn a tremendous amount from women in other movements," said Greenberg. "Many things are different about us — issues of identification with community, of the authority of religious leaders — but we have many things in common, like commitment to Jewish survival and the intensity of women wanting to enter more fully into a religious life."

Greenberg said part of the organization’s mandate will be "bringing Orthodoxy back to its central place" as it focuses on values that have historically been part of the modern Orthodox endeavor, such as humanism and endorsing the value of secular, as well as Jewish, education for women.

News of the group’s creation was not universally embraced.

Rabbi Raphael Butler, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, which represents centrist Orthodox synagogues and youth groups, said, "The place to address these issues is through the infrastructure" that already exists.

"The community is addressing these concerns" articulated by those forming the new group, he said.

"If there are additional issues to be resolved, it should be through the established organizations," he said.

"The Orthodox community is strong and vital enough not to have to splinter into additional initiatives to somehow redefine the center."

Women would work through the Orthodox establishment if they could, said one alliance board member.

"The O.U. and other Orthodox Jewish organizations have been too slow to respond and too slow to allocate significant resources to the issues important to Orthodox Jewish women," said Susan Aranoff, the director of the New York-based Agunah Inc. and a board member of the new organization.

"We may be able to work together with existing organizations on the issues," she said, but "Orthodox women are not sufficiently empowered in the existing infrastructure."

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