by JOFA Staff
The next generation of Orthodox feminist leaders kicked off the New Year on Sunday with an intense leadership development seminar. The JOFA Campus Fellowship is an innovative JOFA program that cultivates leadership among outstanding young Orthodox women. The JOFA Campus Fellows gathered for a day of seminars, lectures and workshops about promoting a feminist consciousness in the Orthodox community, as well as riveting talks from some of the women whose life work has been dedicated to advancing Jewish women.
The Fellows’ leadership training seminar, facilitated by JOFA board member Laura Shaw-Frank and coordinated by JOFA Program Manager Rachel Lieberman, offered insights into the social, cultural and at times halakhic challenges faced by women promoting gender equity in Jewish life. JOFA founder and leading Orthodox feminist activist Blu Greenberg shared historical and personal aspects of their journeys, urging the young women to “know your own strengths.” JOFA board member Professor Sylvia Barack-Fishman also spoke intimately and encouraged participants to believe that they can “have it all – you just have to know what ‘all’ is.” Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman, JOFA’s Interim Executive Director, spoke about her own journey to become a feminist, and urged fellows to “talk back to your culture.” NCJW CEO Nancy Kaufman also spoke to the fellows about her experiences being the only woman at the table in Jewish leadership settings, and offered some practical tools for getting ahead in sometimes adverse settings. “Our beloved Jewish community desperately needs women’s leadership,” she said. “Each one of you has the potential to be part of a new narrative emerging about women in the Jewish women.”
Speakers also encouraged the cohort to network, connect with like-minded people, and find mentors. JOFA has paired up each Fellow with a mentor, and the Fellows have committed to introducing at least three programmatic components on their campuses this year. The Fellows also heard from past cohorts about experiences, challenges and successes on their respective campuses.
This year’s JOFA Campus Fellowship, sponsored by the Hadassah Foundation and now in its third year, consists of nine undergraduate women studying at Brandeis University, Yale University, Barnard College, Stern College for Women, New York University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Maryland, and University of Michigan. The cohort worked in small groups to share challenges and strategies for addressing some of conflicts involved in being an Orthodox feminist. They also worked on constructing strategies for campus programming, brainstorming with one another around shared issues and interests.
Fellows’ planned programs address issues of women’s scholarship, women’s ritual inclusion, prayer and leadership. Brandeis University Fellow Dina Kritz from Silver Spring, Maryland, is planning on creating a habura learning group on her campus to raise consciousness about Jewish feminism. “The first step to gaining support is to promote an understanding of the issues,” she said. University of Michigan fellow Karen Layani from Evanston, Illinois, will be working on policies of passing the Torah to the women’s section during Shabbat services, and advocating for a woman president of Hillel. University of Maryland fellow Esther Nehrer from Beachwood, Ohio, will be promoting a culture of women’s learning in the beit midrash, similar to the plan of Stern College Fellow Yehudit Goldberg from University Heights, Ohio, who will try to develop more opportunities for women to learn Talmud. NYU Fellow Sarah Orenshein from Teaneck, New Jersey, is planning on teaching women how to be gabbaiot in their synagogues.
“It was great to discuss ideas with other fellows who are also thinking about what they can do on their campuses,” said Barnard Fellow Jackie Cohen of New York. “It helped concretize ideas that I have been thinking a lot about.”
“It’s so cool that there are so many others like us,” added University of Pennsylvania Fellow Serena Covkin of Short Hills, New Jersey.
“This was a fascinating day,” Ms. Layani said. “It was a great opportunity to hear from people who have dedicated their lives to advancing Orthodox feminism.” Several Fellows expressed a similar sentiment. “Hearing from some of the founding shapers of the Orthodox feminist movement was really invigorating and reestablished the big picture in the forefront of our minds”, Ms. Goldberg concurred. “It was important for me to learn about the evolution of Orthodox feminism over time,” Ms. Orenshein added, “and gives me hope for the future of Jewish women and expanding our roles in both ritual and leadership.”
“I also liked hearing from past fellows,” said Yale Fellow Rebecca Schlussel of Teaneck, New Jersey. “A lot of creative ideas were expressed today and that was very thought-provoking.”
“I am so inspired by this young group of women,” Ms. Shaw-Frank said. “This leaves me with a lot of hope for the future of Orthodoxy.”
“I have been looking forward to this for so long,” Ms. Kritz said. “Since I got accepted to the program – no, even longer. I’ve been waiting for this since I was eleven years old, since I first went to a woman’s tefillah group. I think I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.”
Learn more about the JOFA Campus Fellowship