Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the first major communal dinner for JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Association, held this past Sunday evening, was the sense of pride in and celebration of the accomplishments of the organization, founded in 1997.
Though often on the defensive and frustrated in their efforts to press the Orthodox establishment to expand opportunities for women in the areas of spiritual, ritual and intellectual life, within the framework of halacha, the women of JOFA set aside Sunday evening to mark the inroads they have made.
The group’s leaders noted that women’s learning of Talmud and other Jewish texts has expanded and deepened since JOFA was founded, more have girls taken a post-high school year to study in Israel, and women’s leadership roles in the synagogue have grown, just short of rabbinic status.
Indeed, a growing number of young women are now preaching to and teaching congregants. As a result, there has been a gradual recognition among Orthodox synagogue members that more and more of these women have the knowledge and capacity to be full-level leaders in the community.
The fact that more than 400 people attended the dinner was a sign of appreciation for JOFA’s mission to bring “meaningful participation and equality for women in family, synagogues, houses of learning and Jewish communal organizations,” within the boundaries of religious law. The evening’s honorees were former JOFA President Carol Kaufman Newman, key funder and activist Zelda Stern, and the founding president of the group and acknowledged mother of the Jewish feminist movement, Blu Greenberg. Appreciation for their efforts was palpable in the room.
Yet for all their success, including sensitizing husbands and sons to the need for greater religious equality, the women of JOFA are well aware of the tasks that remain, most notably the struggle to prevent agunot — women unable to receive a get, or religious divorce, from a recalcitrant husband.
Rabbis have expressed sympathy for the plight of these women, but have resisted calls for systemic changes in Jewish law to eliminate the problem. They maintain that halacha limits their efforts to intervene, while the women insist that the words “halacha” and “inherent injustice” should be incompatible.
Perhaps if the rabbis thought of their daughters in that unfortunate place of the agunah, they would be spurred to act. In the meantime, the women of JOFA continue, in the words of activist and evening emcee Bat Sheva Marcus, “to raise children and raise consciences,” symbolizing their efforts to bring change to a denomination they still love and embrace.