Judy Abel, JOFA's VP of communications, is a seasoned journalist and mother of three living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She also is the current president of the Yavneh Minyan, as well as one of its key founders. As part of the JOFA series on women's leadership and women women presidents, JOFA Executive Director Elana Sztokman asked Judy about her work as shulpresident and her vision of Orthodox women's leadership:
WHEN AND HOW DID YOU BECOME SHUL PRESIDENT?
I became the president of Kehilat Yavneh, which my husband, Michael Brill, and I founded, upon its inception in December 2006.
WHY IS THIS SOMETHING YOU WANTED TO DO?
Truthfully, if had know what I was getting myself into, I might have thought twice before starting and leading the minyan. Thank God I was sufficiently naïve and was blinded by the idea that we could create a warm and vibrant partnership minyan on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
WHAT IS YOUR SHUL LIKE?
Yanveh, which meets monthly, is largely lay-led, although Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat, has been serving as our scholar in residence for the past few years. Typically, various women and men from our kehilah read from the Torah and lead portions of tefillah, and Rabbi Fox offers a d’var Torah.
HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR JOB?
Ask me on a Shabbat when we’ve just completed a minyan and I’ll tell you it’s energizing and fulfilling. Ask me while we’re in the throes of planning the minyan and I’d be likely to give you a different answer.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES INHERENT IN BEING A WOMAN IN THIS ROLE?
Since Yavneh was founded to give women more of a voice in Orthodox tefillah, being a woman has not posed any challenges for me.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE SOME OF THE REASONS THAT MORE SHULS DON'T HAVE WOMEN AS PRESIDENTS?
Obviously, we are not a traditional Orthodox shul, so my leadership role is not indicative of general progress. I cannot say with certainty, but it seems that there’s a notion that Orthodox synagogues are not primarily designed to serve women. It feels like women are invited to show up, but not to make too much noise. Women in theseshuls are often oppressed by the tacit notion that their voices don’t count, in either prayer or lay-leadership. As a result, they’re not fighting for spots at the helm and the men are certainly not encouraging them to take over.
WHAT MESSAGE WOULD YOU SEND TO LEADERSHIP OF SHULS THAT HAVE NOT YET HAD WOMEN PRESIDENTS?
What’s wrong with you?
WHAT MESSAGE WOULD YOU SEND TO WOMEN WHO WANT TO FIND MORE WAYS TO BE INVOLVED IN THEIR COMMUNITY LEADERSHIP?
Don’t wait to be asked. Let it be known that you are skilled and capable. Ask why women have risen to some of the highest political offices in the country and yet in ashuls, which should places of holiness and spirituality, treating women like second class citizens is not only tolerated, it’s the norm.