Friday, February 20, 2004

Local Activists Hit Orthodox Feminist Conference

Local Activists Hit Orthodox Feminist Conference
By Aviva Richman
Special to the Jewish Times - FEBRUARY 20, 2004

The fifth semi-annual international conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy sponsored by Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) in the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York on Feb. 15-16 was not a "women's event." Titled "Zachar U'Nekeyva Bara Otam: Women and Men in Partnership," the goal of the conference attended by more than 1,500 people was for all members of the Jewish community to build a more "inclusive, humane and halachic [Jewishly legal]" Judaism.

Issues of women's exclusion and powerlessness in certain areas of Judaism were examined as humanitarian concerns, not only of interest to women. Nor was the goal to blur gender distinctions completely.

Dr. Tamar Ross, a professor at Bar Ilan University, outlined an Orthodox feminist stance that recognizes the religious benefit of gender roles while looking out for cases where gender differentiation leads to abuse. She offered a pragmatic approach to determine what aspects of gender roles should change, explaining that if much personal harm will be allayed, it is a battle worth fighting. Speakers also considered how changes affect the overall halachic system.

In one analogy drawn by Rachel Levmore, a female advocate in Israeli religious courts, conference participants were endowed with the task of "oiling the machinery" of the rabbinic legal system to effect change. Areas addressed included gender imbalances in Jewish education, marriage and family, Judaic texts, the synagogue and rabbinic leadership.

Multiple presentations on sexual abuse and agunot gave a clear message of two areas where harm is great and change is necessary. Vicki Polin, a Baltimore resident and president of the Awareness Center (The Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault), co-presented a workshop titled "Shattering the Silence: Childhood Sexual Abuse." The center builds awareness and provides resources relating tosexual abuse in Jewish communities throughout the world. Its
Web site serves as a clearinghouse, listing names of known sexual offenders within the Jewish community, who often jump from one community to another to evade consequences.

"We have to protect children and women survivors need to be validated," she explained. As to why she came to the JOFA conference in particular, Ms. Polin pointed out that the Orthodox community is "20 years behind the times. Rabbis need to be able to say words like molestation,
rape, and sexual abuse and not be afraid."

In a plenary address, Rabbi Yosef Blau of Yeshiva University affirmed the need for rabbinic change, stating that the existence of abuse in the Orthodox community is not a sign of weakness, while addressing the issue properly is a sign of strength. Rabbi Mark Dratch, vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, stressed the importance of applying Halachah correctly so that it protects victims of abuse by stating, "If Halachah cannot protect a victim it is not [the correct interpretation of] Halachah,"he said.

Other areas of gender differentiation were less clear cut and sparked more questions than answers. Three different styles of tefilot (prayer) on Monday morning were evidence of three different approaches in the Orthodox feminist movement towards gender roles in the synagogue. When asked for particulars about what steps should be taken next by Orthodox feminists, Rabbi David Silber, founder and dean of Drisha Institute, did not elucidate specific
instructions but stressed the importance of incorporating thought into action and action into thought as the movement moves forward.

One topic of debate was the word "feminist" itself and how Orthodox feminists should relate to other feminists. The issue came up in Baltimore resident and attorney Laura Shaw Frank's workshop on gender in the public and private spheres in relation to biblical passages in Numbers 27 and Psalms 45:14.

As participants debated over when it is appropriate to publicly challenge rabbinic leadership, some felt indebted to more radical feminists while others were resentful. The former thought that radical feminists have "paved the way" for change within Orthodox Judaism, while the latter thought that inappropriate public attacks against the religious system only undermine efforts for more moderate change.

Mrs. Shaw Frank emphasized the need to carefully consider what issues should be raised publicly and how. For "fundamental concerns," she said, both men and women must be willing to stand up as did the daughters of Tzelafchad in Numbers 27, before the entire congregation and its leadership.

Speakers addressed the struggle between maintaining consistent ideology and respecting others, especially leaders. In her plenary address, Manhattan therapist Miriam Schacter outlined how she and her family engaged in a respectful process with their synagogue rabbi to raise concerns about gendered language in relation to their son's bar-mitzvah.

Rabbi Aaron Frank, principal of Beth Tfiloh's lower school, stressed the role of respectful relationships as the foundations for any long term change. Especially in schools that are "mission driven," there is often a gap between the ideology of administrators and teachers that can only be bridged by relationships based on listening and respect. These relationships are crucial in the process of awareness building about gender biases and broader social stereotypes within curriculum, teaching styles and dress code.

While most of the conference attendants were New Yorkers, a significant number of Baltimore residents participated. Mrs. Shaw Frank and Rabbi Frank moved to Baltimore from Riverdale, N.Y. a year and a half ago. Their new position "totally changed the way [they] viewed the conference." The lack of large scale institutional support for open, feminist Orthodoxy in Baltimore made them realize how distinctive New York is, they said.

"We're so far away from congregational interns [here] — we're still trying to dance with the Torah [on Simchat Torah]!" An organizer of this year's conference and a member of the board, Mrs. Shaw Frank now thinks it is important to have a dialogue with New Yorkers and out-of-towners so everyone understands that more fundamental battles are still being fought in most Orthodox communities. Many Baltimore attendants were excited by what they witnessed at the conference.

Mindy Dickler, a member of Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Congregation, said, "I feel like I'm a part of history because what I saw discussed today will be a part of my children's lives." Marty Vidaver, another Ner Tamid congregant, was inspired by the leaders, speakers and activists she encountered. "These people are living women. They are empowering all Orthodox women."

A Beth Tfiloh graduate, Aviva Richman is a student at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio.

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