There was a sense of subdued determination among the 450 people swarming the halls of the Wohl Conference Center at Bar Ilan University during this year’s Kolech conference. Some of the attendees had been coming to Kolech conferences for years, while others had not been born when Kolech, Israel’s premiere religious feminist organization, was established in 1998. Still other Orthodox feminists told The Times of Israel they did not attend the July 13 event because it was no longer necessary for them to be there.
However, judging by the range of topics covered, the unapologetic perseverance driving Orthodox feminism today leaves no stone unturned and no stained-glass ceiling unshattered.
The lives of Orthodox Jewish women have changed dramatically in a relatively short period of time. Just six years ago, no Orthodox women had received rabbinic ordination, only a handful of “partnership minyanim” (Orthodox synagogues that promote women’s inclusion) existed in Israel, sexual abuse was still largely swept under the rug, and Jewish lesbians were still a small and mostly unseen community.
In fact, at the 2009 conference, participants were surveyed about what title they would theoretically give a woman rabbi – rabbanit, rabba, and “important woman” were all on the list. The title of “maharat” had not yet been invented: Back then, it was all still hypothetical.
The facts on the ground are quite different now, judging by this week’s Kolech conference. Today, some dozen women have been ordained as rabbis and quasi-rabbis, with untold numbers in the ranks of the various institutions that are now offering this opportunity. There are programs underway for women rabbinic judges as well.
In other changes, over 20 partnership minyanim in different flavors regularly meet throughout Israel; formerly taboo topics like sexuality, sexual abuse, and sexual orientation are now front and center with no holds barred; and conversations about women’s roles in synagogue describe aims of full egalitarianism, with women in every role possible and counting in a quorum.
“We are witnessing real evolution,” said Kolech board member and conference co-organizer Ofira Krakauer. “Topics that we fought for have become mainstream. Organizations are collaborating with us on issues relevant to all of Israel, such as sexual harassment, get [divorce decree] refusal, and the establishment of alternative rabbinical courts.”
Kolech founder Dr. Hannah Kehat spoke in a plenary lecture dedicated to Orthodox feminist pioneer Belda Lindenbaum who died earlier this year.
“The influence of religious feminism can be felt throughout Israel. You can see it in terms of how Israelis celebrate lifecycles to the momentum for breaking the haredi monopoly on the rabbinical courts,” claimed Kehat.
Kehat invoked the ideas of non-Jewish feminists like Simone de Beauvoir and Mary Daly as well as non-Orthodox Jewish feminists such as Rachel Adler and Paula Hyman as models for “the powerful intersection of religion and feminism.”
Nevertheless, Kehat added that “public spaces in Israel are still very male. Israelis tend to prefer their public spaces, like the Western Wall, with the haredi version of Judaism.”
‘Israelis tend to prefer their public spaces, like the Western Wall, with the haredi version of Judaism’
Nurit Jacobs-Yinon, who last year helped establish a new partnership minyan in Shoham (where, notably, head of the Tzohar rabbinical organization Rabbi David Stav is the town rabbi). Although hobbling around the conference on crutches following a leg injury, she was undeterred and impassioned while speaking alongside Efrat Shapira-Rosenberg and Batya Kraus about what she sees as the urgency in promoting women’s inclusion in synagogue.
“Partnership minyanim are spreading because of all the loneliness that Orthodox women feel in synagogue,” she said, “Once you’ve been to a partnership minyan, there is no turning back. You can’t do it the old way anymore.”
Several session topics were tied to recent news in the Jewish world. One on women rabbis – which only became possible in Israel last month – included an announcement by Devora Evron that she, too, will be becoming a “rabba” in a few weeks, through ordination from the organization Beit Morasha. Also, a discussion of sexual abuse in Orthodoxy was particularly timely given the number of accused rabbis in the last year alone.
‘Partnership minyanim are spreading because of all the loneliness that Orthodox women feel in synagogue’
In a particularly riveting lecture on education, physicist Dr. Rachel Knoll presented new research on religious girls and the sciences, in which she demonstrated that girls graduating the state religious school system lag far behind almost every other demographic group in Israel when it comes to participation in sciences.
Religious girls take fewer science classes and enter fewer science related careers than religious boys, secular girls, secular boys, Arab boys and Arab girls – according to every parameter. Fewer than two percent of religious girls receive a “Technology Matriculation Certificate,” which paves entrance into technology-related fields. Knoll interpreted the data by describing the messages that religious girls receive about science careers not being the right place for them.
The conference had a noticeable number of young attendees, including Eden Farber, 18, and Gefen Lavi, 18, both of Zichron Yaakov and recent graduates of the Ein Hanatziv pre-army learning program for girls.
“I’m a feminist and I think this is an important cause and I want to be part of this movement,” Lavi said. “This is a really important conference,” Farber added, saying that she was particularly moved by a lecture by Dr. Susan Weiss who described the “blacklist” that rabbis maintain of people who are not allowed to get married in Israel.
‘I’m a feminist and I think this is an important cause and I want to be part of this movement’
The rabbinate’s “dirty laundry” list includes: gay couples, anyone trans, all non-Orthodox converts, converts who are not deemed religious enough, people born to converts not deemed religious enough, children born of incest rape, children who do not know who their fathers are, children born to formerly childless widows who did not marry their dead-husband’s brother, children of agunot (“chained women” whose ex-husbands refuse to grant them a divorce), women suspected of adultery, and more.
Keren Ruby, 16, of Maale Gilboa, attended with her father, Shawn Ruby a hi-tech worker turned rabbinical student who describes himself as a longtime Orthodox feminist. They came to this conference especially for the session on LGBT issues, since Keren recently came out as bisexual.
“When Keren told me that she was planning on coming out in her school, I was afraid that it wouldn’t be a safe space for her,” Shawn said. “We weren’t entirely correct but we weren’t entirely incorrect either.”
Keren said that her “friends and teachers were very supportive, but the administration gave her problems.” She is now switching to a mixed democratic school.
Keren Ruby’s story is an indication that, as several different speakers noted, the state religious school system has not caught up with the changes around them.
In a post-conference Facebook thread, Miriam Friedman Zussman of Beit Shemesh wrote, “I had a blast just soaking it all in. Such a great feeling being in such a warm likeminded habitat. Not feeling like an ‘extremist’ or a ‘radical.’”
Susann Kodish added, “I really see a need to stretch religious feminism into many other directions: education and schools, if not for our daughters then for our grandchildren, girls and boys.”
Elana Sztokman is the author most recently of “The War on Women in Israel.” She is an Orthodox feminist activist with decades of scholarly work in the field.