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Change slow for Orthodox women

NEW YORK, Feb. 18 — When Miriam Schacter’s son was getting ready to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah, she and her husband asked their synagogue’s rabbi to call the boy up to the Torah using both parents’ names as part of his Hebrew name. Usually, men called to the Torah are identified only by their name and their father’s name. The rabbi, however, turned down the request. But when he later spoke of the Bar Mitzvah boy in his sermon, the rabbi used the full Hebrew name each time, identifying him by both his parents’ names. The change, while small, was significant, says Schacter, a psychologist who related the anecdote in a plenary address delivered at the fifth International Conference on Feminism & Orthodoxy. It also was illustrative of the pace of change — sometimes painstakingly incremental — taking place in Orthodox religious settings to provide women with expanded communal roles. Those changes — and frustration with the often slow pace of the shifts — were the subject of this week’s conference, held over the weekend in New York and convened by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, or JOFA. The gathering attracted about 1,000 people. The conference’s theme was adapted from a line in Genesis: “Male and Female, God Created Them: Women and Men in Partnership.” It reflects a conscious reframing of JOFA’s strategy for furthering women’s leadership and recognition in Orthodox religious settings, the organization’s founder said. “There’s increasing recognition that the Orthodox feminist movement is not hostile to men, but rather inclusive of them,” said Blu Greenberg, JOFA’s founding president. “We’ve always had a healthy number of men as speakers. We just highlighted it this year because it will make a deeper impact to make the partnership explicit.” Carol Kaufman Newman, JOFA’s current president, said that she recently realized that the organization needed to make a more overt statement about partnering with men in order to effect change. “I woke up one day and realized that we cannot do it alone,” she said. There were more men at the conference this year — 21 percent of those registered, according to JOFA — than in years past. There also seemed to be a more visible presence of young Orthodox women, and a greater — though still notably limited — presence of representatives from the Orthodox establishment. For the first time, a member of Yeshiva University’s administration was on the program. Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual advisor to Yeshiva University students, spoke at a plenary on the topic “When Authority Breaks Down: The Abuse of Power.” He said he was there not because he endorses JOFA’s overall mission, but because he is committed to advocating for change around the issue of rabbinic abuse in the Orthodox community. And while he has not been given flack by colleagues at Y.U., where JOFA often is viewed as being on the left “fringe” of Orthodoxy, he said, a few students did ask him why he spoke at the conference. “Basically I told them that the topic is very important, that women have to be involved,” said Rabbi Blau. “It is becoming more acceptable for the mainstream to be associated with JOFA,” Greenberg said. “It’s still not totally mainstream and maybe JOFA will always have to be one step ahead on issues, but we’re part of the same halachic community.” One conference participant, Judy Gurland, said “A few years ago, when this organization started, Orthodox rabbis thought it was just a group of upstart women. Now the rabbis are finally starting to listen. I don’t know if they hear us yet, but at least they’re listening.” At the first JOFA conference, in 1997, there was great excitement and a sense among participants that they were making history. That excitement was absent from this conference — the atmosphere was more work-a-day, with a feeling that things are changing for women but, in many parts of the Orthodox world, very slowly if at all, and that much work lies ahead. A notable change from conferences past was the number of people saying women should be — and will be — Orthodox rabbis. Greenberg’s used to be virtually the only voice calling for such a step. And in her address closing the conference, she predicted that women will be accepted in such positions within 25 years. In an interview, she lowered that time-frame to within a decade. But several men also said women should be able to work as Orthodox rabbis. “If we had more women spiritual leaders — and yes, I would call them rabbis — in this country, who would benefit? We all would,” said Rabbi David Silber, founder and dean of the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, which provides advanced Jewish studies for women. He described the Orthodox feminist enterprise as something benefiting the entire Jewish community, and compared the exclusion of women from certain posts, like heading Orthodox Jewish schools or even teaching Talmud, to the segregation that not long ago kept black athletes out of certain team positions. “It’s wrong, and stupid, because we need the talent,” he said. “The woman’s movement can allow Torah to speak with a louder voice to the entire Jewish community.” In another session, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, spiritual leader of Los Angeles’ Congregation B’nai David — Judea, agreed. “The stupidest thing the Orthodox community does now is not having women rabbis. It wastes intellectual and spiritual talent,” he said as a panelist in a forum on “Rabbis and Change.” What was clear in that discussion, and others, is that changes rabbis make — in the ways in which they involve women in religious leadership and explicitly recognize them in ritual — are gradual and often inconsistent. Rabbi Kanefsky, for example, says he makes a point of choosing equal numbers of men and women to speak from the pulpit on Jewish holidays. He says he also ensures that half the members of the ritual committee at his synagogue are women. But he isn’t comfortable requiring that men be identified by Hebrew names that include their mothers’, as well as their fathers’. “That would impose a deviation that some may find meaningful and others may not, but which could be more divisive than helpful,” he said at the forum. Rabbi Asher Lopatin, of Chicago’s Congregation Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel, spoke in the same forum of the difficulties he’s had in getting his congregation to adopt similar innovations intended to benefit women. A Simchat Torah service for women, where they can embrace and dance with the Torah scrolls just as the men do, attracts over 100 women. But an effort to start a regular women’s prayer service has petered out, he said. For change to take place, he said, “it’s critical for the rabbi to seem passionate about it.” He also suggested that like-minded Orthodox rabbis meet to give each other encouragement. Rabbi David Kalb, of Beit Chaverim Synagogue in Westport, Conn., said that focusing on finding places in life-cycle events for women to have more of a voice “is a way to expand the role of women in halachah in general, and may be easier than some of the more intense ways, like reading from the Torah.” One area where change has been particularly slow is that of alleviating the problem for agunot, women chained to marriage because her estranged husband will not grant her a divorce. While JOFA is credited with putting the issue on the larger communal agenda, little change has taken place on a fundamental level of how rabbinic courts operate and how they interpret Jewish law. “For all the gains, it’s really disheartening that there are still long-time agunot suffering only because of the desire of their husband to punish them in some way or another, and that the rabbis have not resolved that problem,” Greenberg said. “It’s an injustice to the community and an embarrassment to halachah which needs immediate resolution.” She suggests that courts require any case older than five years to be resolved within six months. “Courts do this all the time; they say things on the docket for years have to be cleared by this or that date. Our patience and our tolerance level for this kind of injustice should be lowered,” she said. JOFA is presently researching Orthodox religious courts, where Jewish divorce issues are adjudicated, and which often are viewed by JOFA members as being hostile to women. JOFA has completed research on seven courts, gathering information about their policies, procedures and fees, and is trying to get others to participate. The information, once compiled, will be shared with rabbis, synagogues, attorneys and women’s organizations. But in terms of overall change, Greenberg says, things “take time. It’s a process. People’s sensibilities and communal cohesion are all factors in the unfolding of this movement toward equality in Orthodoxy. We see progress. Not every day in a straight line, but things are changing.”