LONDON — The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) launched in the UK this week, amid a surge in interest in the role of women in the Jewish community in general.
Approximately 60 women and 10 men, including a handful of rabbis, attended the inaugural meeting Tuesday in London’s heavily Jewish Golders Green area. The group, which aims to expand spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities for women within the framework of Jewish law, is a branch of the US-based JOFA, which was founded in 1997 and has more than 5,500 members.
According to JOFA’s UK ambassador, Dina Brawer, demand became clear during the work of the Commission on Jewish Leadership, which last July produced a major report on women’s roles in the community, parts of which are already being implemented. While the final paper, “Inspiring Women Leaders: Advancing Gender Equality in Jewish Communal Life,” avoided issues specific to one denomination, numerous women at a consultation meeting in March expressed concern at their lack of participation in Orthodox ritual life.
“There was an outpouring of energy and frustration,” said Brawer, a former synagogue rebbetzin, or rabbi’s wife and communal leader, who now runs volunteer training at Jewish Care. “There is a clear space for this conversation which is not yet available.”
The same mix of enthusiasm and dissatisfaction was evident Tuesday, where, after a brief introduction from Brawer, audience members split into groups to discuss the issues they would like to see addressed. Topping the agenda seemed to be synagogue life and prayer, with widespread interest in “partnership minyanim,” where women lead some of the davening — virtually unknown in the UK — and women’s prayer groups, which have been established over the past 20 years, but are still rare.
Many topics, such as the lack of women in lay leadership positions, gender issues in Jewish schools and how to give girls meaningful bat mitzvah experiences might apply to other diaspora communities as well, but the context was British. Barriers to change, participants mused, include the innate conservatism of the community, and a virtually non-existent Modern Orthodox movement.
Perhaps the biggest challenge may be the centralized nature of British Jewish life, with one organization, the United Synagogue, running the majority of London’s mainstream Orthodox shuls.
“Compared to the structure in Israel and America, it’s harder to push things through here,” said lawyer Jo Greenaway, a member of the United Synagogue Women group. “The United Synagogue is more wedded to the Haredi world, and Modern Orthodox rabbis have less flexibility. We need to prioritize our issues and not [push for] change in one go.”
There was general agreement that educating both women and men on Jewish law is key, but that standards of religious teaching in Jewish schools are low. The disparity between what children are taught in the UK as compared to in the US and Israel is “unbridgeable at the moment,” lamented one woman. “It’s devastating: these girls become women who are ignorant of [Jewish law]. They have to learn later in life instead of being knowledgeable from the start.”
The small numbers of British students at the Israeli seminary she attended, Midreshet Lindenbaum, which is known for its demanding textual studies, is “indicative of the poor high school education people receive here,” she added. “We need to see what models work elsewhere and how to bring them here.”
Many of these issues will be examined further in June, when JOFA UK runs its first conference on Orthodoxy and feminism. Because the organization currently has no funding, “it can only happen if people really want it to,” Brawer told the crowd.
‘Compared to the structure in Israel and America, it’s harder to push things through here’
Most clearly did. Tammy Beider, a 31-year-old doctor, says she usually feels “totally isolated” religiously, and has even considered moving somewhere “more dynamic and forward-thinking,” but was encouraged by the structured approach taken Tuesday night.
The discussion was “very inspiring, but also quite scary,” she said. “There is so much to be done.”