Attending JOFA

by Lindsay Simmonds

The anticipation of any JOFA (JEWISH ORTHODOX FEMINIST ALLIANCE) Conference is enough to make any orthodox feminist weak at the knees. Entitled ‘Voices of Change’ – this year’s conference hosted over 800 participants from an eclectic variety of continents and countries. 

JOFA aims to improve the spiritual, intellectual and ritual participation of Jewish women in orthodox life – and in so doing strengthen orthodoxy itself. Given this aspiration, the conference hosted a variety of lectures and workshops, including a musical evening on the motsei Shabbat preceding the Sunday conference. I brought my ten year old daughter along to this celebration of women’s voices – and she too was inspired by the poetic liturgy and haunting melodies of Alicia Jo Rabins, along with her guitarist husband Aaron Hartman (who from the band ‘Girls in Trouble’), who transfixed her audience, creating both the emotion and narrative of ancient biblical women – whose stories, she emphasised, overlapped with so many of our own.

The morning’s opening plenary was a delight, with speakers who spanned several decades of orthodox feminism sharing their own experiences – trials, successes and disappointments. Most poignantly, a university student, Leah Sarna, spoke of her expectations of herself, her community and the wider orthodox Jewish world. She had her audience surprised at her confidence and tenacity, but was very well prepared – she stressed that she was well aware of how being a single woman might compromise her ability to understand the daily machinations of family life, but suggested boldly that until one’s expectations are expanded, individual and communal flourishing is hindered. She earned a rapturous applause and much respect that morning.

I then attended Rosh Kehilla Dina Najman’s session entitled, ‘Uniting a People in Diversity: The Thread of Tolerance in our Rabbinic Tradition’ – highly relevant I felt, whilst Limmudgate proliferated in the UK. Dina has been Head of the KOE community in Manhattan since 2006 and heads the gemara department at SAR Academy in Riverdale, NY. She is a thorough and dynamic lecturer – both profound and erudite; her class was packed, burgeoning out of the doorway, indicative of her well respected Torah scholarship and clarity in teaching. She spoke of the emergence and development of dis/comfort in machloket (dispute) within the rabbinic tradition. Her particular area of expertise lies in medical ethics, but she functions as both scholar and role model in all that she participates – always bringing serious scholarship, grace and personal authority. 

Additionally, I attended a panel discussion on women’s experiences of saying Kaddish for a loved one. This session was of a much more personal nature. My father is very unwell and thoughts of saying Kaddish for him haunt me daily. I am the only religious member of my family and thus I feel both a responsibility and privilege in the undertaking. But I am also a lecturer, a PhD research student and the mother of five children. How will I manage? Will I manage? I needed to voice my very tangible concerns and I needed comfort from those who empathised with my distress.

The session reflected a collection of personal stories recently published, entitled, ‘Kaddish: Women’s Voices’, and had many participants crying, myself included. The intimacy of the small room helped stimulate the emotional responses to the stories shared – a mother who lost her son to Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a daughter who lost her mother to a stroke and another daughter who lost her father very suddenly.  It was this latter experience, of Debbie Yatzan Jonas, which was so desperately close to home. She related to us that reciting Kaddish was, ‘...the last and only thing I could do for my father. If someone had told me I had to crawl across sub-Saharan Africa licking the ground with my tongue to give comfort to my father’s soul, or to heal my open sore of a heart, I would have done it gladly. And since it was the only thing I could do, the thought of not doing it was unthinkable.’ (p.57) 

Lastly, I attended two sessions concerned with hyper-sexualisation, sexuality and sex education within the orthodox world. The first was devoted to the concern about girls’ body image and names which relate to their sexual self-knowledge and promiscuity, and a second which explored the importance of honesty and straightforwardness in discussing sex with your kids. 

The first session dealt with research which suggested that many young teenage orthodox girls feel pressure not only to strive towards unattainable ‘thinness’, but to go ‘Brazilian’ in order to fulfil an arguably infantilising objectification of women, espoused in much of the  media. That this behaviour is rife amongst orthodox American teenage girls is a very worrying trend – and the session was punctuated by teachers, parents and friends’ questions and expressions of concern. The discussion continued as to how to create a healthy body image and positive messages about meaningful sexual relationships, without being branded a ‘slut’. The second session, run by sex therapist Dr Bat Sheva Marcus, was unashamedly open. In a somewhat Jo Brand-esque fashion, Bat Sheva encouraged her orthodox audience to take educating their children about sex very seriously indeed. She insisted that sharing knowledge of bodies, sexual organs, sexual pleasure and sexual desire was a categorical obligation of parents for their children. It has to be said that Bat Sheva was a riot, and had the audience hysterical – but her message was unambiguous and in my humble opinion, indisputable. 

Spending a weekend with men and women who believe that expanding girls’ and women’s education, ritual participation and leadership experiences in the orthodox world is immensely uplifting. But it also provokes the niggling thoughts of the work which lies ahead. The project of an orthodoxy sensitive to feminist concerns is a venture which is ongoing and at times overwhelming. But it a venture which supported by JOFA, USA and perpetuated by JOFA UK will enable daughters like myself to honour their loved ones and find comfort within their orthodox communities; it is a venture which will enable girls and women to have a rich and deep understanding of their religious texts and heritage, and it is a project which will enable an expansion of orthodox leadership to every member of the community.

Each speaker or participant brought their scholarship, their personal stories, their history, their creativity and their tenacity to the JOFA conference – endeavouring to inspire, hoping that lives are enhanced, that ideas are shared and friendships established. I highly recommend the experience

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