Dealing with the Past, Anticipating the Future

By Bat Sheva Marcus

A few months ago, I stepped into rather large shoes, as I took over the JOFA presidency from Judy Heicklen. For the past five years, Judy has run the organization with her quiet focus, steel-trap intellect, and acerbic wit. And we have all been the beneficiaries. I have the pleasure of taking over an organization with a new, tremendously talented executive director and staff and an overall sense of renewed energy. I hope not to squander the opportunity.

Our goals for the next few years include putting the organization on a more stable financial footing (thanks to all of you who stepped up so admirably at the dinner), moving seriously on our out-of-town programming, and determining the next steps for JOFA. JOFA is now eighteen years old. (That’s a number that is easy for me to remember, since my speech at an early JOFA conference began, “Six weeks ago I gave birth to a daughter.”) And it’s time to reorient ourselves. What better way than to go out into the broader Modern Orthodox community and listen?

Therefore, in the next few months, JOFA will be embarking on its own “listening tour.” During this time, we hope to set up one-on-one meetings with community thought leaders, organize listening salons and meetings throughout the country, and disseminate an online questionnaire for everyone involved in JOFA. We will need each of you to be a part of this effort as we move ahead. We’ll be contacting you individually, in groups, and online in the hopes of hearing your voices and your views on what Modern Orthodoxy’s priorities and main concerns should be in the coming years. I hope that this will enable us to set out our projects and goals in a more inclusive way for the next eighteen years. You will be hearing more about this in future JOFA Journals.

This issue of the JOFA Journal takes us into darker territory: sexual abuse. As Orthodox feminists, we try to be sensitive and thoughtful about power dynamics and the various ways in which authority and control can be abused. Sexual abuse extends far beyond the Orthodox community. However, given the confluence of events in the Orthodox community in the past few years, we find ourselves compelled to add our voices to those who have stepped forward to shine the light on sexual abuse and harassment within the Orthodox community in general and, in particular, on sexual abuse by people in positions of religious authority.

As many of you know, my life’s work is about trying to bring the issue of sex and sexuality out of the whispered, shadowy corners of our lives, so that we can discuss it with one another, with our children, and with our community. I truly believe that the more an issue can be talked about in broad daylight and the more it becomes a normal and practical part of our day-to-day lives, the less risk we run of it becoming a twisted and dark phenomenon. Mold and fungus grow in the dark recesses. Wildflowers blossom in the sun and air. Sexual abuse is most likely to exist in environments that don’t allow for normal, reasonable sexual expression. Personal fears and biases grow when we are in unfamiliar territory or we are dealing with issues we don’t fully understand.

Sexual abuse and harassment are complicated phenomena. They can be dramatic or insidious, obvious or subtle, personal or communal. Our community has to walk a tightrope in response. We need to keep our eyes open, maintain vigilance and awareness, and develop appropriate responses. On the other hand, we need to understand the complexity of these issues and not allow fear of the unknown to foster a “witch-hunt” atmosphere, or we risk losing more than we gain.

It is our hope that by talking about these issues, raising our concerns, and allowing these voices to be heard, we can bring these issues out of the darkness and into the public sphere, where daylight can shine on them and productive conversations can be had. When we choose this route, then we can take concrete steps toward mitigating these problems in our community.