Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend the international JOFA Conference in New York. I saw it as a valuable opportunity and I grasped it. I am from England and am in university there. I was invited to take part in the pre-conference shabbaton for college leaders. This was hosted in Riverdale with the programming held at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. I was miles away from England, but I felt right at home.
Walking into the shul I was struck by the large number of people. Once prayers started I was lifted by the meaning and intention with which the room was filled. I was welcomed and brought along with the community and the others I was with on a meaningful prayer journey–the first I’ve encountered in a while. This experience lasted the whole Shabbat even walking back to my host family in the light snow after havdala. I was uplifted. I have found a place I fit in. A place I can call home, thousands of miles away from where I spend these days.
The shabbaton flowed into the conference. An evening and a day filled with learning and networking. Lots of like-minded people who came together to learn and connect on a wide range of issues. From how to make halakhic practice more meaningful to destigmatising mental health in the community and integrating LGBT+ Jews within the framework of halakha. I am awe-inspired by the calibre on offer and I am still so grateful that I had the opportunity to attend and be a part of it.
Growing up in a small community, I feel fortunate that I came to JOFA with a sense of belonging that doesn’t come from frustration. I’m open and willing to listen to those who have been seen as ‘other,’ and, as a community, move forward in a way that is both inclusive and maintaining the bounds of halakha. I’m part of the future and so have a responsibility to make sure all members of the Jewish community feel welcome and at home in our Orthodox institutions.
We as women make up half of the population and yet, when attending most ‘traditional’ synagogue services, we are seen as on ‘the other side.’ Going back to the shul I attended in Riverdale, yes there was a mechitzah. However, I didn’t feel as the ‘other.’ I felt along with many others as a part of the community, and the barrier was not an obstruction even though it was present. Some may seek to sideline women in the synagogue and other ritual settings. This needs to be overcome whilst still maintaining halakhic boundaries. This is possible and I saw best exemplified in Riverdale. I’ve called many places home throughout my life. I feel lucky to have experienced the feelings of being ‘at home’ in a shul like this. I also feel extremely lucky to have had this experience as a part of the JOFA Conference.
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