Jewish Journal


March 2, 2000

A Gentler Orthodox Feminism

A Gentler Orthodox Feminism, Third International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy downplays explosive issues


Where others saw three Orthodox women in groundbreaking careers and stylish hats, Rachel Pollack, 17, perceived something more. She had found role models.

"This is something I might want to pursue," said the bright-eyed Ramaz senior after sitting through a session with the world's first -- and only -- congregational interns at last weekend's Third International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. At the session, the female interns, who perform some roles of assistant rabbis, discussed their own salary and status -- as well as why, more than two years after the revolutionary appointments, only two synagogues employ such women.

For Pollack, struggling with issues of religious identity, the session hit home. "I want to know I could have an opportunity like this," she said.

But the Ramaz student was among just a few dozen of the 2,000 participants in the two-day conference, sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), on hand to hear the frustration that sometimes crept into the voice of Julie Stern Josephs, a congregational intern at Lincoln Square Synagogue.

A title can make a difference, Josephs acknowledged to the small audience in one of 11 concurrent workshops offered on Sunday afternoon.

In her pastoral duties, she said, "When the rabbi comes, it's 'the rabbi came to visit,' when I come, it's 'Oh, it's just Julie.'"

That only a small group learned of the interns' internal struggles seemed part of a larger pattern at this year's feminism conference. In sometimes subtle ways, the JOFA organizers appeared to be striving for a gentler, kinder gathering than those held in 1997 and 1998. The more provocative issues were often not broadcast before an audience of hundreds, but tucked away in smaller workshops.

"The whole tone of the conference is much more positive this year," said Ronnie Becher, an organizer. Becher admits it's "absolutely disconcerting" that only a handful of the more than 800 Rabbinical Council of America rabbis offered free invitations showed up. But still, she says, this year, "We're on the map. Our issues are clear. We're a proven force. A proven entity."

In many respects, the conference -- which blends two worlds some consider as incompatible as oil and water -- built on the successful ingredients of the first two. Like the previous gatherings, many participants left energized by the discovery of a like-minded community, dedicated to broadening women's roles within the confines of Orthodoxy and adherence to halacha, or Jewish law. This sense of kinship was particularly strong for women from outside of the New York metropolitan area.

In her upstate synagogue, Sharon Strosberg, for example, felt unwelcomed when she tried to recite "Kaddish" for her parents. "I'm just amazed to see that there are so many Orthodox women willing to stick their necks out here," said Strosberg, a first-time participant who attended with her 18-year-old son, Joshua.

Representatives from Australia, England, Holland and Spain, as well as Israel, reported on progress and setbacks, in seeking to advance change while adhering to rabbinical guidelines.

At times, however, the conference seemed to be deliberately pulling back, downplaying the more explosive issues. The devastating issue of agunot, or women trapped in bad marriages without a Jewish divorce, was tackled in many conference sessions. But unlike the two previous feminist conferences, the issue was not spotlighted at a plenary gathering.

In what was heralded as one of the more significant sessions devoted to agunot, Rabbi Adam Mintz of the Lincoln Square Synagogue discussed current techniques to help women in this plight, while Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, Israel, explained how hafgaat kiddushin, or annulment of marriage, might be employed at a future rabbinic court in Israel.

"There is enormous precedent for a very compassionate and understanding halacha that allows for a bet din [rabbinic court] to annul a marriage if the situation warrants it," said Rabbi Riskin, who says he has taken only the initial steps toward creating this central agunah court.

Will it be established this year? Rabbi Riskin looked heavenward and rolled his eyes. "I ask for women-power to help."

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