Debate Magazine

The Women’s Liberation and Jewish Identity Conference

Posted on the 22 April 2011 by Starofdavida
Women’s Liberation Jewish Identity ConferenceI recently attended the Women’s Liberation and Jewish Identity Conference, sponsored by NYU, the Jewish Women’s Archive, Brandeis University, and the Spencer Foundation. Because of Passover shopping and maternal colonoscopy conflicts, I was only able to attend two sessions on the second day of the conference: Jewish Feminism/Feminist Judaism and Jewish Liberation Projects.
Jewish Feminism/Feminist Judaism Arlene Agus, Blu Greenberg, Susan Weidman Schneider, and Susannah Heschel were the panelists, with Chava Weissler as the chair. They discussed how they became involved in Judaism and feminism and what they have accomplished regarding Jewish feminism.
Ms. Heschel, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s only child and professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth, talked about how Judaism became equivalent to social activism in her eyes due to her father’s actions, and how sexism and Judaism contradict each other.
Ms. Greenberg, creator of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and my absolute icon, discussed how she loved Judaism from a young age, and the feminist movement’s critique of Judaism’s patriarchal tendencies made her dislike feminism at first. When Arlene Agus invited her to the First National Jewish Women’s Conference, she learned many lessons: Jewish women are not on a pedestal, as evidenced by agunah, the lack of women in leadership, language issues, and minimal ritual celebration; the dialectic that exists between men and women; the necessity for full access for women; and many among others.
Ms. Weidman Schneider, a founder of Lilith Magazine, mentioned an Israeli couple at her synagogue that respected girls’ opinions as much as the boys’, which made her think that girls could do anything. After a year spent in Israel, she was riled to merge her Judaism and feminism, and was drawn to create Lilith.
Ms. Agus, who rediscovered Rosh Hodesh and co-created Ezrat Nashim, spoke about how she is related to commentator Rashi and how knowledge of her family’s women makes her feel like she has been passed a torch. She also mentioned how when she was six, her male cousin was allowed to sing Adon Olam (link here) and she wasn’t, so she complained to the rabbi. He wrapped her in his tallit (prayer shawl) which made her feel validated, even though she still was not allowed to lead. She also discussed how it’s hard to have to choose between feminism and Judaism.
When asked about the opposition between Judaism and secularism, Greenberg opined that there is no opposition: the two nurture each other. Weissler felt that the distinctions are blurrier now than they were in the past.
Another audience member asked about current feelings in synagogues towards feminism. Heschel felt that while there are a lot of changes, the attitudes are still too patronizing towards women. Agus maintained that women are included in many more ways than they used to be, and that women scholars are imperative for the movement. Greenberg praised current initiatives being taken by Orthodoxy, like women’s tefillah groups, despite the fact that she acknowledged that we have a long way to go. Weidman Schneider credited feminism with increased participation for all members of the Jewish community.
When asked for a Jewish feminist perspective on secular women’s issues, Agus and Heschel felt that such initiatives have already been taken. Greenberg voiced her disappointment in the past thirty years of work, since Jewish feminists have been in a “small box of fighting” and not been able to push for larger agendas.
Jewish Liberation Projects Aviva Cantor, Maralee Gordon, Rebecca Alpert, and Yavilah McCoy were the panelists, with chair Marya Levenson. The panelists discussed their work regarding creating a friendlier Judaism for every Jew.
Rabbi Gordon, a leader of the Jewish Activist League and Jewish educator, discussed her years living on a Chicago commune and creating a Havurah organization. After seeing several part-time rabbis and feeling she could do a better job, she was ordained in 1996, at age 48.
Ms. Cantor, a creator of Lilith Magazine and extensive researcher of Jewish feminism, explained the necessity of Israel as a homeland for the Jews. As she wrote the only feminist analysis of Jewish history, she discussed men’s role as leaders and women as facilitators in order to protect the Jewish people, which explains men’s resistance to feminism within the religious sphere.
Rabbi Alpert, one of the first female Reconstructionist rabbis, discussed her journey as a homosexual feminist woman rabbi in the 1970s to now. She credited the Second Wave for the increased access women have to the clergy, despite the fact that many of her contemporaries don’t see the connection.
Yavilah McCoy, the founder of Ayecha, is an African-American Jew who is active in promoting awareness of multicultural Jews. She discussed Jewish perceptions of race and how to pursue inclusion for Jews of color in the predominantly white Jewish community. She mentioned the need for more African-Americans in Jewish leadership and more widespread understanding of Jews of color.
When asked why Jews can tend to racism, Meredith Tax, another panelist at the conference, and McCoy felt that racism isn’t in any way a Jewish trait, but just something the predominantly white Jewish community swallowed. Cantor blamed inaction on the community’s part for racism within the Jewish community.
Levenson summed up the session by explaining that all Jewish feminists challenged boundaries, and Gordon added that Jews are not fulfilling their legacy if they don’t fight back.
All in all, I really enjoyed the conference, even though I was only able to attend a couple sessions. I loved being able to hear some of my idols speak about a topic so near and dear to my heart. May there be more opportunities for Jewish feminists to get together and discuss the good things in life.

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