Historic JOFA-Kolech Meeting of the Minds

Back row l to r: Prof. Tamar Ross, Judy Heicklen, Ariel Braun, Belda Lindenbaum
Front row l to r: Dr. Hannah Kehat, Rachel Keren, Blu Greenberg, Ricky Shapira-Rosenberg, Ayelet Weider-Cohen, Dr. Tova Hartman, Dr. Elana Sztokman

by JOFA Staff

The notion of the “big tent” took on a whole new meaning in the world of Orthodox feminism last week as leading Orthodox women from Israel and North America gathered in the Sukkah of Dr. Hannah Kehat, founding director of the Kolech Religious Women’s Forum, to examine gender issues facing the Orthodox communities around the world. The meeting was the first of its kind in which Orthodox feminist leaders from the two countries of Israel and the United States met for the purpose of exploring their common agenda and toy with ways to make Orthodox feminism a more cohesive international movement. Participants left with an eager energy, earnestly anticipating next steps.

“We have made some great progress over the past forty years,” said Blu Greenberg, founder and first president of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. “I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, especially in the areas of women’s learning and leadership. But there is still work to be done, especially in the area of agunot. It’s hard to believe that after 40 years of activity, we are still so far from achieving a solution.”

Many women around the table concurred. Feminist philanthropist Belda Lindenbaum, who has been working with Ms. Greenberg for those four decades, reinforced the call for systemic change. “This is an issue that burns very deeply,” she said. “There is no issue quite like agunot to make you second guess the ethical quality of the religion.”

Dr. Tova Hartman, feminist scholar and founder of the partnership synagogue Shira Hadasha argued that the time has come for more radical action, and called for a widespread Lysistrata solution, or “sex strike”.  “We have to start using our collective power, as a sisterhood,” she said. “We have to stop waiting for rabbis to be ‘nice’ to us and start using our own power.”

Both JOFA and Kolech have dedicated enormous resources over the years to the seemingly Sisyphean task of resolving the agunah issue, and, interestingly, both organizations have struggled to address the need for systematic solutions to the issue while simultaneously maintaining a broader agenda. Kolech chair Ayelet Weider-Cohen described her dream in which “we don’t have to fight for this anymore.” She added that Kolech spent a year undergoing a vision-mission process with an organizational consultant in which they decided to focus on three main issues: (1) fighting women’s exclusion and abuse in the name of halakha, (2) addressing religious women’s body abuse around infertility, and (3) educating for gender equality and mutual respect.

Significantly, JOFA underwent similar processes over the past two years, and decided to focus on two pillars: (1) women’s leadership and (2) women’s ritual inclusion. The two groups of women shared similar challenges of development and growth, and the inherent difficulties of being feminist advocates within the confines of Orthodoxy.

The women also shared a profound interest in seeing Orthodox women as leaders in a whole range of areas – as scholars, communal leaders, thought leaders and ritual leaders – and expressed hopes that respect for women would increase amid both men and women. “Feminism is not a woman’s issue but an issue for the entire community,” said JOFA chairwoman Judy Heicklen. “We need to continue to develop a strong cadre of talmidot hahamot,” said feminist scholar Prof. Tamar Ross. “I would like to see women being invited to teach not only other women but also in all-men’s yeshivot,” concurred former Kolech director Rachel Keren.  “I don’t understand why more people aren’t supporting feminism,” Belda Lindenbaum added. “Why isn’t the injustice more obvious?”

“There will be no future for Orthodoxy without feminism,” argued Dr. Kehat. “People will simply leave.”

Many issues of justice, fairness and compassion in areas of gender and religion were raised around the table. Kolech legal expert Rikki Shapira Rosenberg and author of the crucial 2010 report on gender segregation in Israel, talked about the importance of fighting the exclusion of women from public places. “I want Sukkot to be a holiday where we can celebrate equally instead of always facing discrimination.” JOFA Interim Director Dr. Elana Sztokman added that the language of ‘modesty’ is a constant obstacle to women’s advancement, and has become the ultimate definition of women’s religiosity. “We need to change the discourse of women’s religiousness,” she said. “We need to stop accepting the notion that to be a religious woman means covering up and being quiet and docile, and to replace the language of ‘modesty’ with a more holistic and spiritual concept of what it means to be religious and to seek out a relationship with God and Torah.”

The women at the meeting were all energized by the possibilities that emerged from this meeting. The encounter reinforced the idea that religious women around the world are facing similar obstacles and hurdles to justice and access to ritual life. As the world gets “smaller” and communication and transportation technologies make relationship-building and collaboration easier, the potential for working in cross-ocean alliances becomes increasingly exciting.

“I have been dreaming about this for ten years,” said longtime Kolech and JOFA activist Ariel Braun. “I have always believed that JOFA and Kolech have to work together. We may have different contexts and surrounding realities, and each group brings something important to the table. But the collaboration is key.”

There was a unanimous agreement that Jewish women are better served through partnership and cooperation, and that collaboration is a core feminist value. There was also a sweeping interest in deepening relationships based on a common vision for change. Over the coming months, the leaders of Kolech and JOFA will continue to build up their alliance and explore avenues for partnership in Israel, North America, and around the world.

cross-posted at JOFA blog