Inspired by people at JOFA

By Miriam Shaviv

This December, I was privileged to attend the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance’s 8th conference in New York City, thanks to a JHub grant. I recently helped set up a partnership minyan – that is, an Orthodox service in which women can lead certain parts of the prayers - in Borehamwood, and wanted to learn from other partnership minyan leaders. I was also keen to be involved in the wider discussions around present-day Orthodoxy and feminism.

More than any of the sessions, I was inspired by the opening plenary, which featured four extraordinary speakers. The first, Ronnie Becher, traced the origins of JOFA to a conversation at a kitchen table, and recalled the first ever conference in 1997, when hundreds were expected – and well over 1,000 turned up. The second was Rabbi Asher Lopatin, head of a modern, open-Orthodox rabbinical school in New York, who argued that accommodating women’s spiritual and ritual needs was beneficial for the entire community – not just women. It was refreshing to hear an Orthodox rabbi who understood that women’s rights are human rights. 

The third, Rachel Kohl Feingold, discussed her first year at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal as a Maharat – an ordained clergywoman from an Orthodox rabbinical school. She was one of several Maharats at the conference. I had thought beforehand that seeing how far we in Anglo-Jewry still have to travel by comparison might be depressing, but in fact it gave me renewed hope about how far we will still go.

The last, Yale student Leah Sarna, challenged the community to demand dedication from the women of her generation, by expecting them to be at shul every day, to take on active roles there, to learn, and to provide clergy who will model this lifestyle. 

In this speech, as in many of the sessions, it was apparent that the high level of Jewish education in the States had led to an Orthodox feminist movement that was often more knowledgeable, dedicated and confident than its UK equivalent.  

If we are to produce more youngsters of similar calibre here, insisting on the highest standards in our schools must be a top priority (a point also indirectly made by Maharat Feingold, who recalled that one lecture, a woman approached her and told her she had been a neighbour of Sarah Schneirer, the great pioneer of Orthodox women’s education in Poland in the 1920’s. “Now that I meet you,” the woman said, “I say shehechiyanu” – the prayer commonly recited on special occasions. She was making a direct connection between the launch of the first Orthodox girls’ schools and the Maharat.)

The most valuable session for me was the panel discussion with two women and a man who ran partnership minyanim in New York, New Jersey and Boston. I was also privileged to spend lunchtime with a group of other partnership minyan leaders from across America. 

Many of us grapple with similar issues: how to ensure excellent davening and leyning standards; make our services spiritual; secure funding; maintain momentum in a minyan that meets just once a month; and how to deal with criticism both on the right and the left. I picked up many practical tips which can be implemented back home, and we are setting up an email group to keep in touch. 

One of the difficulties establishing one of the first PMs in the UK is that to many people, it is highly unfamiliar. It was reassuring to be, for once, not a pioneer but part of a global trend (there are also partnership minyanim in Israel, Australia, Canada and elsewhere). I came away from JOFA 2013 convinced that for more advances to be made for Orthodox women in London, we must be aware of the international context. Yes, there are many differences between the American and British Jewish communities, not least in structure and attitudes to individuality and conformity.

Yet much of what seems so controversial in the UK – establishing women’s Purim megillah readings, have the Sefer Torah passed to women in shul on Shabbat, women’s Simchat Torah celebrations, giving greater roles to girls’ batmitzvahs in shuls – happened in America years ago, and the sky is yet to fall.

Understanding the wider picture normalizes what we are trying to do here. It suddenly opens up new avenues of support. And it teaches us not to lose hope, because the same battles have been fought and won elsewhere.


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