By Elana Maryles Sztokman
When I decided to take this job as Executive Director of JOFA, one of the most thrilling incentives for me was that I would have the opportunity to work with women whose work I have admired for so long. The image of standing on the shoulders of giants keeps returning to me, as I learn more about the organization and its powerful history of making change. To honor this truth, and to give the well-deserved respect to women whose dedication to gender advancement in Orthodox life built this organization, the staff and I have decided that we are going to use the space of the Spotlight Blog to profile the JOFA leadership. We started with JOFA treasurer Allie Alperovich, and we will continue to do so throughout the year.
Now, as I enter this privileged role leading the organization, I sat down with my predecessor, Robin Bodner, who served as Executive Director for ten years and steered JOFA through most of its journey until now. I wanted to gain wisdom from her experiences, her about her dreams and vision, and of course honor her vital contribution to the cause. The interview was moving, engaging, and enlightening, and gave me some great motivation in moving forward:
How did you come to work for JOFA?
In 1997, I went to the first international conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy. It was exciting to see so many people who were thinking and talking about issues that were on my mind. I remember feeling back then that I wanted to be part of this movement.
In early 2002, a colleague called me and said, “You have to call Blu Greenberg. JOFA is looking for an Executive Director and you’re a perfect match.” I had been working at Hadassah for 12 years then, and I wasn’t actually looking for a job. But I went to the interview and they called me the next day. I began working as JOFA’s ED in March 2002.
In a way, this position was a fulfillment of a dream.
What are some of the changes you’ve seen in JOFA over the years?
When I came on board, it was a very small operation. The organization had a small office in a law firm and a cubicle for the one staff person. There was so much to do: find an office, build an infrastructure and launch a conference. It was rough in those early years. Aside from having mounted three international conferences (no mean feat), there was little in the way of ongoing programming save Shabbat T’lamdeini, an annual program that promoted women’s scholarship and gave them the opportunity to speak publicly in local shuls, which wasn’t normative at that time. And with the exception of the JOFA Journal, there were no other publications. In a relatively short time, we accomplished a lot. We created a professional infrastructure – a new logo, an accurate database, an informative website, and a strategic plan. With the help of dedicated and passionate Board members, we built an online library, and developed many programs and artfully designed publications.
During the last 10 years JOFA became a player on the Jewish scene, a figure at the table, a voice to be heard. Our opinions on key issues related to gender and Orthodoxy were sought by the media. As the ED, I met with directors of other Jewish organizations. And when relevant issues surfaced, JOFA spoke with the RCA and our leaders were asked to meet with the OU. So JOFA is out there, making real change.
What was your most gratifying project?
That’s a really tough question because there are so many!
I feel that the Ta Shma Halakhic Source Guides play a very important role invigorating individuals to a more thoughtful and committed observance and worked hard to bring the initial ones to fruition. It’s also the first time that women were given an opportunity to write and publish on topics that were previously the domain of men only; to do the serious research and to show that women are really knowledgeable about these issues. I was also gratified to find that the Beit Din Handbook for Agunotproved to be a very useful tool for many women who were suffering from gett refusal.
I vividly recall the first JOFA Fellows Shabbaton, and the excitement and energy of these young women as they came into the 2010 conference. It was truly heartening. “Yes,” we were able to say, “There is future Orthodox feminist leadership!”
And then – our celebratory event in November 2011, celebrating JOFA’s achievements and honoring JOFA founders Blu Greenberg, Carol Kaufman Newman and Zelda R. Stern. It was a real highlight – a magical night!
You’ve seen a lot of communal changes over the years
I’ve been living in Flatbush, Brooklyn, since I was three and I’ve seen a lot of changes in this community. I attended the Yeshivah of Flatbush elementary and high school. In those days, we learned gemara together with the boys as we did all other subjects – except gym. We even had school dances.
My life was informed by my experience at that school, where, with the exception of a very few issues, we girls felt we could do almost anything. I’m saddened by how things have changed since then.
I remember a youth Shabbat in my shul more recently when the boy spoke from thebimah, up front, but the girl spoke from her seat in the back and you couldn’t hear her. I was so upset and told the rabbi that we should do it the same way for both. If things are halakhically permissible for women, they should be given the opportunity. So much of the resistance has nothing to do with halakha – but rather public policy.
What is the greatest challenge that Orthodox feminism faces today?
There are several things. To the younger generation, the word feminism is anathema. They just don’t feel it applies to them. The issue of iggun is still a major problem – there have been so many organizations fighting for resolution of this injustice for years, and we haven’t really made headway toward a systemic solution. And there are still too many organizations without women in top leadership positions; panels and discussions where women aren’t represented. Too few high schools allow women to teach Talmud. We need to ensure more high level visible positions for Orthodox women with appropriate titles and equal pay.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I helped bring JOFA to a new level as a professional organization and increased awareness of its mission. I think I made a lot of friends for JOFA over the years. Building relationships is fundamentally important and it takes time. I loved traveling around the country, meeting with people, getting groups together.
During these 10 years I felt that JOFA was making history and that I was part of it, advocating for women’s rightful place in the Orthodox Jewish community and for our voices to be heard; and promoting access for women whether it was opportunities to showcase their scholarship or access to ritual inclusion or positions of leadership.
What is your vision for the future of the Jewish community?
I would like there to be greater tolerance and respect for diversity, more opportunity for conversation and discussion and acceptance of different points of view. There issinat hinam. The different denominations don’t converse with one another and I find it very painful. I would like to feel that there is a place for my kind of thinking in my local shul. I’m kind of on the fringe. They know that I’m going to be the one to say, “But, where are the women?”
If you look at much of the publicity for events here in Brooklyn, you see a lot of advertising: ”For women only” or “For men only.” Women’s pictures aren’t in the newspapers, even when they are being honored together with their husbands. I would like to see greater inclusion of women with men. Is there a reason that a book club needs to be segregated by gender?
I would like to see women treated with equal dignity as men. After all, both were created b’zelem elokim.
If you could give your successor (that’s me!) one piece of advice, what would it be?
One of JOFA’s biggest challenges is that it’s still very New York-centric. I think you really need to broaden the base. Building strong relationships with individuals in communities across the States will impact change in these local communities as well as increase fundraising.
I see JOFA as a catalyst for change, creating opportunities for what’s permissible. When you create facts on the ground, there is a ‘trickle down’ effect. Over time new attitudes and behaviors become more mainstream and new norms are created. We saw it with simchat bat, with bat mitzvah, with women speaking, women writing and publishing. So that’s what you have to focus on.
What are your plans for your retirement?
I’m learning at Drisha, and in addition to the study of Jewish texts, I want to go back to the study of Jewish history and gender issues.
It’s been wonderful to have more time for family (especially my grandchildren), and friends, and the opportunity to go to museums, lectures, and take yoga classes. But l also want to find a meaningful way to continue engage with feminist issues in my community, to be involved and active in these matters which are very important to me.
So when Rabba Sara Hurwitz called me recently to ask if I’d help plan the celebration of Yeshivat Maharat’s first graduating class of halakhically knowledgeable Orthodox women as spiritual and religious leaders, I said yes. We hope you’ll join us Sunday morning June 16th to commemorate this historic event.
Thank you for everything that you’ve built and worked so hard on. I wish you much hatzlacha on the next part of your journey, and I look forward to continuing to engage with you at JOFA!