FRANKFURT, Germany — Over 120 women — and a couple of men — gathered in Frankfurt for the first-ever Jewish Women’s Empowerment Summit this past weekend.
The conference was the first of its kind in Germany, and included participants from other European countries as well as the US, who gathered to share perspectives and learn about what being Jewish, female and active means to others.
At the conference hall, as an Orthodox female gynecologist addressed a crowd, another ongoing panel featured a discussion on LGBTQIA theater. Prominent writers, journalists and authors shared their works alongside academic and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students exploring new ideas and challenges they face.
A trauma and sex therapist provided a safe space to explore empowerment through sexuality, while others discussed Jewish learning for the 21st century woman, highlighting what Jewish women want both out of their own Jewish learning experience and their community.
The symposium wasn’t all talk: it featured excursions to exhibitions and museums; there was an opening night act and dance class performed and taught by well-known Israeli drag artist Uriel Yekutiel; and Saturday night party featuring The Rebbeztin’s Disco hosted by artist Jacqueline Nicholls.
Funded by the Central Council of Jews in Germany in conjunction with the German Jewish Student Union (JSUD), the symposium was a first-of-its-kind experience for young German Jews and other guests to talk about what issues and conflicts they struggle with in everyday life.
Although the partnership between the Central Council and JSUD is not new, both groups welcomed the opportunity to broaden their relationship to include advocating for women’s rights.
Sabena Donath of the Central Council was one of the summit’s key organizers.
“In the educational department of the Central Council we make seminars and conferences about Jewish issues and this is important in the Diaspora,” Donath said. “The question of female education and education of young people is one part of our work, and the combination of Jewish women empowerment is a new area that we look forward to continuing building upon and providing a new space.”
Alongside her were JSUD president Dalia Grinfeld, as well as Laura Cazes, who also works for the Central Welfare Board of Jews in Germany (ZWST). Cazes cooperated closely with the Central Council in organizing the event.
“Sabena was surprised when we asked for a partnership about this, having herself already fought the same fight years ago,” Cazes said. She noted Donath’s disappointment that women continue to face the same issues.
Reflecting on why she helped create this event, Cazes said that she had found herself compartmentalizing her “core values as a feminist” in her Jewish environment.
“It is a problem that women cannot address all of their needs in the setting of a Jewish community, that they have to create very isolated spaces,” she said, adding that the summit was a very necessary positive space which allowed both feminism and Judaism to flourish simultaneously.
In her opening remarks, Grinfeld said that, “this summit has created a space, and from that we want to build a network,” clearly highlighting the goal she shares with Donath and Cazes.
Unser 1. #Jewish #Women #Empowerment #Summit! Wir sind ready! 120 junge jüdische Frauen erarbeiten was sie als solche wollen & brauchen, in #Frankfurt, 4 Tage bei #jwes19! #100Jahre #Frauenwahlrecht #Frauenrechte pic.twitter.com/EMQEMjCsq3
— JSUD (@JSUDeutschland) February 21, 2019
Besides being inclusive of women on all parts of the Jewish religious and secular spectrums, when planning the programming organizers made sure the event was accessible for participants with disabilities, and were also considerate of parents.
Victoria Blechman, a 29-year-old event planner and mother from Cologne, brought along her husband and 5-year-old daughter to the summit.
Blechman believed her daughter was “not too young to show her this environment, because this may affect and empower her as well. While being here you can see how she’s changed, asking to do simple tasks on her own.”
Not all women attending the summit received the support of their peers prior to the event. Esther Belgorodski, 18, a student from Berlin, found that she received hateful messages when advertising the conference on her Facebook feed, even from those close to her.
“I received messages like ‘Don’t come back a feminist,’ and ‘Why bother going.’ Why do people still consider feminist to be a dirty word? Why do these comments come from other females?” Belgorodski said.
Although she was saddened, the comments did not surprise her.
As the #MeToo movement creates waves across the globe, similar stories also emerged during program sessions. Jewish women are not immune from these realities, and said they struggle to navigate their place in conversations within and without the Jewish community. Stories of sexual harassment and assault, intimidation and complex relationship dynamics came to the forefront.
Participants debated about women’s roles in Jewish life, as they reflected that it was not long ago when that role was relegated to ensuring a functioning household.
Also discussed was the pervasiveness of social media and its effect on self-esteem. Throughout the course of the event women talked about how social media platforms influence their opinions and relationships with others, how it is important for women to stand up and encourage each other rather than be competitive, and questioned why people fail to do this naturally.
One of the summit’s highlights was a Shabbat reading and discussion session with three female authors who provided intimate short stories. Themes included the identity conflict that comes from being the child of a “mixed marriage,” motherhood and stereotyping, and exploring sexuality.
One controversial story explored the dichotomy between freedom, coming of age, and sexuality with religious self-restriction, and in this case, the timing of Shabbat.
Some participants said they felt uncomfortable by the graphic storytelling as a character described the sexual actions of a 15 year old, but overall the lack of censorship was seen as refreshing and quite daring for the more conservative members of the community.
The story’s author, Mirna Funk, explained that ultimately the tale talks about an empowered woman recognizing that “In the beginning someone sets borders for you, but [to be] empowered is to feel good in the borders that you set yourself.”
Providing feedback throughout the summit, participants voiced how in the future they would like to see workshops on improving self-esteem, discussions on balancing motherhood with a career, and advice on how to be taken seriously in the workplace by both men and women.
Further highlighting the need for additional focus on professional life, they asked for tips on how to earn the same amount of money as a man in the same job. They also requested discussions on why feminism is seen as negative. The suggestions came from women across the religious and socioeconomic spectrums.
President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany Josef Schuster explained that “the cultural and political heritage of Jewish women in German society before the Shoah finds its continuation in the presence of young Jewish women today, who want to actively contribute to discourses in the majority society. This engagement is something we want to encourage with an event like this.”
Schuster said the summit had already received a wide array of positive response before it even started.
“We understand that by incorporating such topics we can sustainably reach a young target group,” he said.
His views were echoed by many participants who felt that these spaces were not always available to them. Nelly Kranz, a 26-year-old entrepreneur from Munich, was surprised and impressed that despite being a regular participant at similar events, she didn’t know many people in the room.
“The Jewish community here hasn’t managed to offer something for women that relates to daily life-struggles in a Jewish context, or a product that they want that is outside the usual anti-Semitism, Holocaust, Jewish literature context. They want tools, tips, to be heard and feel valued,” said Kranz.
Many voiced how they would have liked more men to attend and participate, as they want more men in the community to understand what they have withstood, and to work towards true equality.
Although the event was open for men to join, very few attended. Twenty-year-old Mischa Ushakov, head of policy at JSUD, attended the conference and said he believed that other men possibly felt intimidated by the topics that were going to be presented.
One of the main reasons why he wanted to attend was because he “wanted to listen and learn more about female issues,” believing that he could serve as an ally. Ushakov said he is “not threatened by women being equal, and advocates that other men should feel the same.”
Importantly, the summit was not to intended to impose views on women about what they should believe or how they should perceive the crossroads of Judaism and feminism.
Rather, the space which many participants said is not often available that allowed young women to discover facts and tools to use in their daily lives that ultimately left them with more questions than answers.