Yael Brodsky Levine had been interested in going to a JOFA conference for a while, but when she saw that this year’s keynote panel was on “Conversion, Rabbinic Authority and Power Imbalance in Orthodoxy,” it sealed the deal.
“The topic of this year’s keynote panel was particularly compelling. It touched on the broader, meta-issues at the root of people’s concerns,” said the 25-year-old. She was on duty monitoring the lunch buzz at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance event Sunday.
Concern about unchecked rabbinic authority has spiked since the scandal last month involving Rabbi Barry Freundel, the Georgetown rabbi accused of planting video cameras in the community mikvah to watch women bathe naked.
Since the scandal, there have been widespread calls to increase female authority over the mikvah, which is used both for conversions and ritual practice. In advance of the conference, JOFA released a document of “Mikvah Best Practices” on its website last week, providing women with mikvah safety tips and recommending as little male involvement as possible.
“We want to familiarize women with the best practices, so that when and if things deviate, they can feel confident in speaking up,” said Pamela Scheininger, director of the best practices initiative.
JOFA’s conference, called the “UnConference” to highlight the event’s informal feel, attracted a diverse crowd of about 225, 20 percent of whom were male, according to a JOFA representative. Many came specifically to engage in conversations about rabbinic authority and conversion practices.
“There are so many questions still left unanswered,” said Rachel Levine of Merrick, L.I., who attended the conference with her husband, Jan Levine. “The community still wants answers.”
The keynote panel featured Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the leading “open” Orthodox rabbinical school; Elana Stein Hain, former clergy member at Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side; and Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the leading council of Orthodox rabbis.
“I used to be the left-winger in the room before coming to the RCA,” joked Rabbi Dratch, a former pulpit rabbi in Stamford, Conn., who on Sunday represented the most conservative voice on the panel.
When challenged with a question about the inherent power imbalance in an Orthodox rabbinate that still excludes women from “full participation and access to halachic authority,” Rabbi Dratch said that he “predicts a different structure of religious leadership down the road,” though he wasn’t specific about its contours.
“The rabbinate as we know it today is not the same as it was in Eastern Europe,” he said. “The rabbinate is still a work in progress.”
He later pointed out that his statements “do not represent the opinions of other RCA members” and that issues of power and gender would still exist “even if we plug women into the rabbinate.”
Laura Shaw-Frank, a founding board member of JOFA and the panel’s moderator, later commented on Rabbi Dratch’s response.
“He went as far as he could,” she said, qualifying that “we’re not going to get an answer that’s an answer” when it comes to the question of women joining the rabbinate as equals.
“There are two reasons people are here,” she said. “The first is the most obvious: feminists came to talk about issues they care about, and be around others who care about the same conversations. The second is the panel on rabbinic authority. This continues to be the burning question on people’s minds.”
Panelists also spoke of the importance of having a “watchdog” organization, a body outside of the rabbinic leadership that would check the rabbinate’s power.
“Any discipline that consults only with itself needs a system of checks and balances,” said Stein Hain. Such an organization would serve as a “watchdog and a whistleblower,” she said.
When it came to monitoring conversion, a topic of particular sensitivity since many of Rabbi Freundel’s alleged victims were converts, Rabbi Lopatin called for an “anti-Chofetz Chaim revolution,” referring to Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, a mid-19th century rabbi who popularized the prohibitions against lashon hara, or gossip.
“It’s time to say yes to speaking out,” said Rabbi Lopatin.
“I hope, post-Freundel, the question has changed,” said Rabbi Lopatin in response to the question about power imbalance in the Orthodox rabbinate. “The question used to be how can we include women in our organization. The question now: Why don’t you have women in your organization?” he said to applause and cheering from the crowd.
“Can you really justify having an all-men’s club anymore?” he continued. “The burden of proof is now on those excluding women, not those including them.”
Rabbi Lopatin is also a board member of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a council of Orthodox rabbis that began accepting female clergy as full members two years ago.
Adina Goldberger, a medical student at Northwestern University, traveled from Chicago with a few friends to attend the conference. Like many others, the keynote panel particularly attracted her interest.
“It’s rare to have a panel on rabbinic authority,” said Goldberger, who has attended several JOFA conferences. “They’re really addressing the core problems here as opposed to the symptoms.”
In the past, conferences have revolved more around ritual practice, she said.
“The question of how to practically make a women feel at home in the synagogue is very different from discussing gender role on a meta level,” she said.
Lauren Grunsfeld, 35, and Aimee Bailey, 31, two members of the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn, attended the conference in order to address a running debate between the two of them.
“By pushing to become part of the rabbinate, it seems women are just fighting to be part of a male paradigm,” said Bailey. “Why should women fight to have more power in the system that was built from day one to cater to men?”
Grunsfeld disagreed. She said women joining the rabbinate would advance the feminist cause. “We’ve seen how much power can be abused when there are only men at the table,” she said. “If women could join the conversation, problems would get better, even if they weren’t completely solved.”
Rabba Sara Hurwitz, a spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and the first women to receive ordination from Rabbi Avi Weiss, is eager for the conversation to progress.
“Women are already serving in rabbinic roles,” said Rabba Hurwitz, who is also the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, a program that trains women to be spiritual leaders in the Orthodox community. “I’m eager for the conversation to move past gender role and onto larger communal issues, like spirituality, education — how do we inspire our children?” she said. “A balanced leadership is a means to an end, not the end unto itself.”