New York — The participants at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance's international conference hardly looked like rebels.
Some cradled babies; others wore long skirts or various types of head coverings. Many davened during breaks.
Still, they came with a cause.
In ways large and small, these individuals are attempting to rethink — even reshape — certain aspects of Orthodox Judaism.
At the opening plenary Sunday morning in New York City, JOFA founding president and longtime activist Blu Greenberg described Orthodox Jewish feminists as women — and even a solid number of men — who consider no issue of gender insignificant.
It's also about making waves on the big issues — like divorce, said Greenberg.
Since JOFA's inception in 1997, divorce has been one of the prime battlegrounds, with advocates working steadily to ease the plight of agunot, or women who cannot remarry because they have been unable to obtain a divorce decree, or get, under Jewish law.
This past November, just when rabbis in Israel were finally supposed to convene to discuss the issue, they backed out at the last minute, much to the chagrin of Jewish feminists worldwide. Many openly called it a disgrace and a cop-out.
This past weekend's conference — one of the first major feminist gatherings since the November debacle — exposed many fresh wounds.
Addressing a crowd of roughly 1,000 participants, Norma Baumel Joseph, a professor of religion at Concordia University in Montreal, admitted: "I was angry, and I still am."
But rather than wallow in this setback, Baumel Joseph stressed that the fight is far from over.
Orthodox Jewish feminists are now — perhaps more than ever — uniquely poised to advance their agenda: "If we're such a threat, it means we have power," she pointed out. "And we should use it."
What Went Wrong?
The two-day conference celebrated the 10th anniversary of JOFA and was titled, partially from Leviticus 18:5, "And You Shall Live by Them … Passion and Possibility." As such, JOFA attendees explored how they can harness their power to affect change within the Orthodox sphere.
Sessions, held at Columbia University on Manhattan's Upper West Side, ran the gamut — from how women could gain more halachic authority to ways in which feminists could rewrite the educational curriculum to be more gender-inclusive. One workshop touched on women's Torah-study programs in Israel, while another delved into something called "partnership minyans," which allow both sexes to pray together.
Still, the issue of agunot took center stage, with 10 workshops and two films devoted to that theme.
During one program, Sharon Shenhav — the lone female representative on Israel's Commission to Appoint Dayanim, or religious-court judges — provided a behind-the-scenes look at what went wrong back in November and who's to blame for the conference's collapse.
She said that the problem was never one of halachic solutions to the actual question of divorce; rather, it was more an issue of politics.
Specifically, she blamed "extremist, Lithuanian haredi rabbis" for putting the squeeze on more moderate leaders.
"Why do haredi control the rabbinical courts today in Israel?" Shenhav asked, pointing out that these devoutly Orthodox Jews generally use their own court system anyway.
"We all know that we have compassionate, creative Modern Orthodox rabbis who are true halachic scholars," she continued. "But they lack the most important thing, which is courage. They're afraid."
Still, Shenhav assured the crowd that, one way or another, the conference will press forward.
"Those papers were prepared; they're going to be presented," she said. "It's just going to take place in a different format."
'Go to the Streets'
But how exactly feminists could be instruments of change — how much they should push the envelope — seemed to be a matter of some debate throughout the conference.
Some speakers, like Tova Hartman, a lecturer at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, encouraged a more direct approach.
During the opening plenary, she told the audience to "stop kvetching" and "go to the streets."
"At what point is the rabbinic leadership not valid?" she challenged the crowd.
Others, like Sara Hurwitz, the Madricha Ruchanit — or "religious mentor" — at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York, seemed less eager to throw barbs.
Speaking within the context of how to cultivate female positions of halachic authority, Hurwitz said that "the Orthodox movement does embrace change, but the pace of change is much more methodological and slow."
On a more personal level, she said, "as people become more comfortable with seeing women in roles of leadership, people begin asking me to participate in lifecycle events."
Still, Hurwitz, who studied at a midreshet in Israel and graduated from the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, admitted that "it is painful" not to be counted in a minyan.
In an interview after the conference, Robin Bodner, JOFA's executive director, said that the organization is at a point of restrategizing.
For 10 years now, JOFA has been putting out newsletters, guides and other educational material on the issue of agunot, said Bodner.
And though the agency is now circulating a petition to call Orthodox rabbis to action on the matter, Bodner said that, in light of recent events, JOFA needs to figure out "where do we go from here."
Could seeking advice from those outside the Orthodox core hasten progress?
Yes, assured Baumel Joseph, and, in that same vein, she suggested that Orthodox feminists — with their own set of values and approaches — could serve as a link to other Jews and rights groups of all stripes. Yet that motivation needs to come from within — from moving outside the traditional and often tight-lipped inner circles that can keep them restrained.
Greenberg similarly stressed the opportunity to create bridges.
"For the last 10 years, we were focused inward," she said. "Now, we want to broaden our vision and think of the rest of the community."
That's why Greenberg said that the conference began with two non-Orthodox speakers: feminist Phyllis Chesler and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt. In his remarks, Steinhardt lambasted the Orthodox community for being "too isolated, too insular," and for "not taking seriously the circumstance of the rest of the Jewish community."
Chesler, on the other hand, embraced a different approach, highlighting areas of overlap between secular and religious feminists.
"No woman should stay in an abusive relationship, no matter what the rabbis say," Chesler said to resounding cheers from the crowd. It's a sign that "the feminist agenda remains totally unfulfilled — not just within the Orthodox Judaism, but around the world."