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Unraveling the 2014 JOFA Unconference

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Manhattan–On Sunday, November 23, 2014 200+ Jews gathered in the midtown office of the UJA-Federation of New York for the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA)’s annual conference. This year the conference focused more on ritual innovation and personal rituals than in past years.

The conference started with an optional Rosh Chodesh women’s tefilla service. Several things that stood out from a traditional prayer service. The service was exclusively for women, including three women in attendance who donned tefillin and tzizit. Women also had the opportunity to chant from the Torah, and perform hagba (raising of the torah) and gelilah (covering of the torah). Some women were accustomed to this level of ritual participation, while others were witnessing women performing this ritual for the first time. A special yizkor was recited for women killed by their husbands.

Chavie Kahn, lay co-chair for UJA-Federation of New York, opened the first plenary by defending the women’s search for an authentic halachic voice in daily life. She quoted Elizabeth Warren, saying, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.” Kahn was followed by Jina Davidowich, a program associate at UJA-Federation of NY, who recited a slam poem about her personal religious journey, alternatives to prayer, and talking to God as an artist. Dena Weiss Levie, daughter of Rabbi Avi Weiss and an activist, who lives in Teaneck spoke about her work with Project Shabbat in Bergen County, and her outreach to bringing in people to experience the Sabbath. Aliza Mazor, executive director of Bikkurim, said innovation is something we need to do consistently, while not diminishing [the values] we had before. The plenary closed with Dr. Sharon Weiss Greenberg, the new executive director of JOFA, addressing the need for supporting incipient and future initiatives to advance women.

Laura Shaw Frank, a founding board member of JOFA, chaired the main panel which featured Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Dr. Elana Stein Hain, former clergy member at Lincoln Square Synagogue and current director at Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America.

Shaw Frank opened by discussing the Barry Freundel scandal and asked the panelists what they think is the most important way to prevent abuse in mikveh. Stein Hain said a discipline which exists only onto itself needs an outside system of checks and balances. “Not because there’s an assumption of impropriety. But, by definition, someone from the outside will bring something different to the table,” she said. She also advocated continuing education courses about sexual harassment and other issues that affect women, calling for a system that would act as a watchdog and whistleblower and would be a good place to bring new ideas that could be implemented.

Rabbi Dratch said that it was important not to lose sight of the big picture. “Don’t paint the entire rabbinate in broad strokes. Don’t accuse the entire rabbinate of the idiosyncrasies of one rabbi,” he urged. “We hold leaders to a high standard. If he doesn’t have morals we won’t seek his Torah,” he continued.

He said there was a problem in the rabbinic hierarchy. “We elevate our leaders to the status of angels with the deference we pay to them. When we develop this cult of personality, which is common in clergy-congregant interaction, we set the stage for something dangerous. Historically, there have been checks and balances. The next step is [determining] a relationship between rabbis and communities, where the power structure was abused, and to figure out a better way to play in the sandbox together–where everyone is held to a higher standard.”

Lopatin stressed the importance of “taking it beyond individual rabbis or synagogues or congregants to institutions.”

“Here’s the real problem. I’m sympathetic to the way the geirut system developed. I understand why this [led] to some painful consequences. I understand that there was this feeling we want approval for our geirut system from the Rabbanut in Israel. It didn’t used to be so difficult. I was a pulpit rabbi for years and I saw the change. Twenty years ago there was a sympathetic process. [There has been added] pressure from the Rabbanut as years went on, pressure from rabbis in the Diaspora. Monopolies are the key problem here. I feel for a lot of the rabbis who are involved in this, who are limited in the change they can do because of fear of reactions--that their conversions won’t be valid,” he added.

Dratch continued, “There used to be a list of rabbis you could go to if you wanted an easy conversion. [There were] minimal standards of conversion essential to accept conversions. [There is] pain and anguish to converts and their families when conversions aren’t accepted. For us to have a relationship with the Rabbanut that conversions will be automatically accepted to establish the Jewishness of individuals there is a benefit. Is there a price to pay for centralizing? Yes. Same with kashrut. Standards were horrific. We need to do a better job of what we were doing.”

Lopatin added, “We love and admire converts. It’s not that wer’e suspicious. We want sincere people. If there’s an organization or Rabbanut which tries to exclude people, they must be questioned. Whatever group you are, let’s work together to welcome in the people who want to be part of the people.”

Shaw Frank reiterated how vulnerable converts are. She asked the panelists, “How can we protect them from a system...to protect their sanctity?”

“He’s (Freundel) opened up a conversation that’s been closed,” Lopatin answered. “We want you to speak out! We need a revolution. An anti-Chofetz Chaim revolution. No to gossip, but yes to speech to encourage people to speak out. Especially [with] a sensitive a process as conversion. No one wants to say anything out loud,” he continued.

“There is a vulnerability with conversion, not just mikveh,” Dratch reiterated. “Vulnerability in trying to join the people, and there is someone in his or her way, passing judgment on their sincerity and knowledge to be a part of the Jewish people. It’s the system. We are a system of halacha. No system can take into account every situation. We can’t assume what the other person feels. We committed ourselves to doing that. I am confident we will be doing better. Will we be perfect? Probably not. But we will be doing much better. [You have an] active obligation to speak out when you see something wrong. We need to listen better and validate their complaints,” he advised.

Stein Hain expressed frustration from experience in her clergy position. “Where is there room for converts to express their opinion? Is there someone who they are supposed to report to, is that clear from the outset? Congregants told me it was hard to get a call back from the beit din. The question was why can’t the sponsoring rabbi get them to respond? Is there room for actual feedback in the process, and is the sponsoring rabbi serving that role? Is there a periodic check-in with judges? If someone has served as a judge for a while is there a check-in? Do you [judges] have enough time? Are you tired? Is there anyone watching the watcher? The potential for women to be sponsors for female converts is very important to review. [There are] certain things of which she will not complain, questions come up she may feel she cannot ask. The nature of gender difference within Orthodoxy, there is a gap, there is a barrier. A woman is part of this process, a significant part of this process. She should have the authority to be up to the task. That’s what it means to join our religion,” she related.

Lastly, Shaw Frank raised the issue of gender difference specifically regarding women in clergy positions.

Dratch said, “It is different today. We will see a different model of what religious leadership looks like. If we could plug in women, we would still have issues of gender and power struggle. 85% of women clergy suffer from sexual harassment on the job.”

“Your synagogue doesn’t have room for a woman? That’s strange,” Lopatin argued. “The burden of proof should be on excluding women. The new Orthodox norm must be to include women,” he continued.

Stein Hain added a different nuance to the discussion. “We can’t implant change that isn’t natural to a community. Power structures can and will change. Having women in synagogue roles is very important. Beyond the teaching role there is a pastoral function. There is a ‘being at the table function,” not so women can bring women’s issues to the table, but the topics that she can bring to the table. Women should be at the table because women should be at the table,” she stated.

Lopatin added, “The norm should be to have a male clergy and a female clergy. I welcome a free market. [This will] make the male rabbis and female clergy better.” Stein Hain warned, “Watch out for tokenism. Make sure it’s (the woman’s position) not as a token.”

Other events of the day included, Carrie Bornstein, executive director at Mayyim Hayyim Community Mikveh teaching a hagbah workshop. She related, “Women aren’t given hagbah. There’s this assumption that women aren’t strong enough. There are plenty of women who are way stronger than many men.” Bracha Jaffe, a student at Yeshivat Maharat, gave a workshop on how to receive an aliyah. “Bar mitzvah boys get these workshops, so they get to mess up in a safe and easy way,” she shared.

College students also shared their skills and experiences. Maya Rosen, a student at Princeton University, led a tzizit tying workshop. Talia Weisberg, a student at Harvard University: Sarah Orenshein, a student at New York University, and Nini Slochowsky, a University of Maryland alumna, spoke about increasing women’s ritual participation on campus.

Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold, the director of education at Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, co-facilitated a mikveh experience discussion with Carrie Bornstein. Kohl Finegold mentioned, “Mikveh is magical and superstitious. There’s a narrative that may not work for everyone. She also urged, “If the marriage is co-ed let the marriage classes be coed. One participant shared, “In almost ten years of going to the mikveh, I had never looked at my body while in the mikveh. I never thought this could be my space. When I started to take ownership of it in my own way it became transformative.”

The day ended with conference participants sharing personal stories of ritual participation.

Rivka Hia is an intern at JLBC. She is a junior at Stern College majoring in journalism. Find out more at: about.me/Rivka.

By Rivka Hia

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