By Rachel Stafler
“Where were you all day Mommy?” asked my 6-year-old on Sunday after I returned from JOFA’s first UK conference.
“Yeah, where were you? Why didn’t you come swimming with us?” chimed in his brother.
I took a deep breath. What was the best way to explain to my two little boys where I had been all morning? The words Orthodox feminism don’t mean too much to elementary school kids. As I tried to find words that they would understand, I wondered if I even wanted to explain it to them. I didn’t want to give them the idea that women’s participation in Jewish ritual is even somewhat controversial.
As a mother to three boys, the youngest of which is just a few months old, it has become increasingly important to me that they grow up feeling that women’s participation is the norm, not something that “activists do.” Attending the UK’s first JOFA conference gave me the opportunity to question exactly how my husband and I will accomplish this.
Open attitudes here in the UK are unfortunately not the norm in many synagogues and communities. Several years ago when I suggested that our proudly modern Orthodox shul honour women as well as men on Simchat Torah I was accused by one board member of “redesigning Judaism.” The chance to create a more open minded atmosphere in London’s Jewish community is one of the main reasons why the establishment of JOFA UK is particularly exciting to me.
So what does all this mean for my boys? Thanks to one of the afternoon sessions at the conference I was able to give the topic more thought. The mitzvot of Shabbat – candle lighting, kiddush, hamotzi – are an obvious starting point for ritual participation, the presenters stressed. Although my boys are always invited to light candles with me they usually turn it down in favour of playing outside with their friends, and the times I make hamotzi too often bring questioning looks from them.
From this week going forward, my husband and I have decided to make a more concentrated effort to include them in candle lighting by giving them their own candles to light, and hopefully impressing upon them that hadlakat neirot is not a mitzvah limited to mommies only. As for hamotzi, as presenter Jo Bruce said on Sunday, “I made the challah, I can make the bracha.”
With a busy household it is too easy to get bogged down in the day to day. Perhaps the most important message I took away from the conference is a renewed desire to show my kids that their mom is actively involved in doing mitzvot and that davening and learning are not limited to their dad only. Will it be a challenge? Absolutely. But hopefully one that will bring rewards not just to my kids but to their future families as well.