At JOFA conference, passion shifts to women’s leadership

Rabba Sara Hurwitz was greeted with a standing ovation in her address to the opening plenary of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference in New York, March 14, 2010. (JOFA)

Rabba Sara Hurwitz was greeted with a standing ovation in her address to the opening plenary of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference in New York, March 14, 2010. (JOFA)

Video from Sara Hurwitz’s remarks at the 2010 JOFA conference in New York City. (Ben Harris)

NEW YORK (JTA) — The last time the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance organized a conference at Columbia University, in 2007, Israeli activist Tova Hartman electrified a crowd of several hundred with her call to "stop kvetching" and start acting until the plight of "chained women," or agunot, was resolved.

"Let this be the last JOFA conference where we need to ask if there’s a halachic heter [permissive legal ruling] for agunot," Hartman said of women seeking divorces from husbands refusing them a religious writ of divorce, or get.

The audience roared its approval.

Three years later, Hartman has her wish. Agunot activists are no longer asking if methods consistent with Jewish law exist to help such women; they know that they do.

But the anger and passion that once characterized JOFA’s work on the issue was noticeably absent at the organization’s conference Sunday, and not because the agunah problem is close to resolution. It’s not.

A reference to agunot during the conference’s opening plenary drew only polite applause.

Rather it was the appearance of Rabba Sara Hurwitz that brought the faithful to their feet — twice.

"I stand here, I’m filled with emotion," Hurwitz said during the conference’s opening plenary. "The support I feel in this room is palpable."

Hurwitz is, and may well remain, the world’s only rabba, a feminized version of the title "rabbi" that she was given by her mentor, Rabbi Avi Weiss. Weiss’ announcement of the title in January set off a firestorm of criticism that resulted in his public pledge this month not to ordain any more rabbas.

While some Orthodox feminists were disappointed by the move, seeing it as a step back from the eventual ordination of Orthodox female rabbis, Hurwitz still enjoys something akin to rock star status at JOFA. She represents, for now, the upper limit of what women can achieve in Orthodox communal leadership.

Hurwitz herself urged her audience not to despair (Watch the video here).

"If it’s these words that will prevent women from greater acceptance in the community, rather than rejecting or losing faith in our rabbis, we must not give up," she said. "Perhaps now is the time to create and shape language that is more in tune with the political reality."

The issue of agunot has hardly faded from the JOFA agenda. It was the subject of several panel discussions, and the screening of parts of a documentary on the subject drew an overflow crowd. The Center for Women’s Justice, an Israeli advocacy group that files lawsuits on behalf of agunot, set up a table to distribute literature.

But the shift in focus was unmistakable, resulting at least in part from the fact that despite 40 years of activism and much progress, the agunah problem remains as intractable as ever.

"I think there is a sense that if you can’t move something, and you’ve tried, people just back off," said Robin Bodner, JOFA’s executive director. "There’s kind of an apathy. There’s a great number of people out there who have gone and given up."

Blu Greenberg, JOFA’s founding president and the inspiration for a generation of Orthodox feminists, noted during a session on the history of agunah advocacy that the organization’s president vowed years ago that the issue would be resolved on her watch.

"Here we are, 6 1/2 years later, and we’re just as far from resolution of the problem," Greenberg said.

Women’s leadership, on the other hand, has come a long way.

Along with Hurwitz, a handful of women are serving in rabbinic-type positions at other Orthodox congregations. Yeshiva University has a program dedicated to training and placing women in congregational positions (though the school has steered clear of bestowing graduates with any religious titles). And Hurwitz herself is the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, which offers training and placement services to women comparable to what male rabbinical students receive.

Still, JOFA’s leaders insist that they have not abandoned the agunah issue by a long shot. Bodner said the organization wanted to "go broad" in its programming for the conference in an effort to reach a wider audience, but that JOFA’s commitment had not waned.

For her part, Greenberg offered nearly a dozen suggestions for action on agunot in her remarks, including one that sent a ripple through the smallish crowd that gathered in a basement meeting room to hear her.

"I think we have to take this to the public press," she said, noting that even the foot-dragging rabbis on the right care what the public thinks about them. "It gets results."

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