How Change Happens


I believe in being an agent of change. I think our responsibility — in the brief time we have on Earth — is to figure out how to make the world a better place. I’ve raised my three kids with that as their mantra. But sometimes, keeping that mission at the front of my mind can get awfully frustrating, and there are days I feel as if I’ve just set them — and myself — up for failure. Sometimes it feels as though real change will never happen and that rather than trying to make significant changes in the world, I should just cordon myself off, back into a private bunker and live my life the way I want. But doing that doesn’t feel right either.

I’ve learned an awful lot about change in the last 20 years. And, as often happens when you look back, I can’t believe how naïve I was, once upon a time. Now, I know that once you have a better idea of how social change happens, it’s easier to handle the setbacks and harder to get discouraged. Understanding more about change, no matter what your issue is, substantially ups the odds that you’ll stick with it and radically reduce the frustration.

About 18 years ago, I became involved with an outrageous group of smart, irreverent, seriously committed Orthodox women who believed that women’s exclusion from ritual and leadership of the Jewish Orthodox community had little to do with Jewish law and much more to do with habit and narrow worldviews. And we thought we might be able to change that. So we went ahead and formed JOFA (The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.)

At that time I thought change would happen in a linear progression, that training women in halacha (Jewish law) would lead to their being allowed to serve as halachic leaders, and that if women knew more about ritual, they would naturally just start participating. I also thought that information and facts were key. If people just knew the law, they would agree to make changes.

Basically, when faced with the heavy brick wall of women’s exclusion, I assumed that if we just kept pounding on that wall with reason and information, ultimately we’d be able to knock it down.

But I learned that change happens unevenly, with different parts of the community advancing on different issues at different speeds.

What has changed with Orthodox women in the last two decades in reality is astounding. Some of the initiatives started by JOFA and other forward-thinking organizations took hold. Some didn’t. Some failed miserably. But some of the vision “leaked” out to other communities and organizations, and change happened where we least expected it. 

We started noticing that the haredi communities that denounce feminism had their own feminist issues: women were standing up to their leadership about domestic violence and sexual abuse and even agitating in order to get into Hatzolah, the volunteer ambulance corps. Places that 20 years ago would not have considered celebrating a bat mitzvah or a girl’s birth were regularly holding those celebrations. Women’s tefillah (prayer groups), which had been seen as crazy and “out there,” became the more conservative bat mitzvah alternative to partnership minyanim (where women lead parts of the service).

In Israeli newspapers after Simchat Torah, observers were struck at seeing women dancing with Torahs in places you’d never think possible. And no one batted an eye. And even on the issue of agunot, or women unable to get Jewish divorces from recalcitrant husbands, which is seen by so many as the big failure because we have yet to develop a systemic solution, the Orthodox community has made incredible strides. It sits front and center on the communal agenda, and different rabbinic courts and organizations are using their clout to try to solve the problem case by case.

The seismic change in the community has been women’s learning. Twenty years ago there were a handful of women learning torah sheba’al peh (the Oral Law). Today there are dozens of women’s programs that teach Mishnah and Talmud. No one seems to think twice about it.

So here’s what I’ve learned about how change happens: You start screaming about something and though many people turn their backs, some people listen. And if they don’t hear you the first time, they probably hear you the third or fourth time, and then some people take those messages and translate them into their own communities or their own language. And then one day you turn around and see major changes in places you’d never expected. And you start noticing that the wall you were worried about has a myriad of small cracks in many places, and you notice that the cracks come from other people banging on it or from the shoots climbing up through the wall in new places. And then one day, all those tiny cracks converge. And a big chunk of the wall comes tumbling down.

Now, when I look at our community it gives me real hope. And it leads me to encourage my kids and others to work for the changes that they think are important. Because maybe, even if you don’t feel like you are getting anywhere, you are making more of a difference than you think. 

Bat Sheva Marcus is a longtime Orthodox feminist, a founding member of JOFA and chair of the Dec. 7-8 JOFA conference, titled “Voices of Change.”