Belda Lindenbaum, who described herself as “a late bloomer” in respect to feminism but who went on to make her mark in helping to found several institutions that advanced the role of Orthodox women, died May 12 in her Manhattan home. She was 76.
A vice president and founding board member of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), Lindenbaum, a New York native, was instrumental in founding, along with her husband Marcel, Midreshet Lindenbaum, an institute in Israel for advanced Jewish women’s studies. It includes service in the Israeli Defense Forces, similar to men’s hesder yeshiva programs.
Many last week recalled her zeal in furthering the causes she held dear, as well as her warmth in her relationships with family and friends.
“Belda was a revolutionary leader, passionate advocate, and staunch feminist,” JOFA wrote in a statement this week. “It is with sorrow that we remember and honor her transformational impact on the Jewish community and the deep friendships formed along the way.
Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, JOFA executive directed, described Lindenbaum as “fierce and tenacious. She brought out the best in people,” encouraging many women to develop their potential as Torah scholars and Jewish leaders. “She saw no reason to be satisfied with an inadequate status quo.”
Weiss-Greenberg recalled a story she heard of a time when Lindenbaum was traveling, needed to say Kaddish, and found herself in the women’s balcony of a synagogue where the men did not stop to allow her to say the mourner’s prayer. Instead of remaining silent or saying Kaddish quietly to herself, “she yelled, ‘Kaddish.’ And there was Kaddish. She made it happen.”
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, whose educational network in Israel includes Midreshet Lindenbaum, wrote of her leadership role in advocating for women’s right to divorce in Jewish law: “She was deeply religious and insisted that her God of love and compassion would not and could not allow women to be held captive to their husbands, or aspire to be less than worthy scholars in the classical literature of our tradition. She was courageous and powerful in her righteous demands but gentle and loving in every one of her personal relationships.”
The Lindenbaums also funded a program of lectures at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem on the role of women in Judaism.
“I was a late bloomer with respect to feminism, Jewish or otherwise,” Lindenbaum told the Jewish Women’s Archive. “At the age of 29, my personal bio would have read: married, three sons, a newborn daughter, frum (religious; literally, “pious”) from birth, modern Orthodox, and the product of a co-ed Jewish day school.
“Despite my history, my religious life was all ritual with little meaning, and I had stopped attending synagogue. I felt invisible and superfluous there, and filled with an unease I couldn’t name,” she said. “It was my husband who provided my wake-up call when he prodded me by asking, ‘What will you teach your daughter? What will you show her?’”
She said she renewed her synagogue attendance “with a new sense of purpose. I was determined to work for change in the status of women in all areas of Jewish life.”
That is what she did, said Blu Greenberg, founding president of JOFA, who was a friend of and fellow advocate with Lindenbaum for more than four decades. “Belda was a life force, a passionate person who was driven by a Jewish sense of justice and was not afraid of anyone,” Greenberg told The Jewish Week. “Yet she was a kind, giving person, beloved by so many people. She was Jewish nobility.”
Rabba Sara Hurwitz, dean of Yeshivat Maharat in Riverdale, where Lindenbaum was a founding board member, noted in in a memorial message this week, that Belda and Marcel Lindenbaum “changed the course of the Modern Orthodox community by building Jewish institutions where women’s Torah scholarship, authority and leadership have become part of the fabric of the Jewish communal landscape.”
In addition to her husband, Lindenbaum is survived by five children, Nathan, Matthew, Bennett, Victoria Feder and Abigail Lindenbaum Tambor, and their spouses, 21 grandchildren, and two siblings, Carol Kaufman Newman and Gerald Kaufman.