By Nomi Kaltmann
Australia, for most people, conjures images of cuddly koalas, beautiful beaches, and picturesque landscapes with laid-back people. I was born in Melbourne, Australia, and can confirm that for those in coastal cities, this image is pretty accurate. Most people live relaxed lives and take their time to get things done.
But on Sunday, May 9, 2021, Australia finally launched its own chapter of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Because most Australian cities have been spared the major chaos and sickness of the global pandemic with the country’s borders shut to inbound and outbound travelers since March 2020, we were able to host an in-person launch.
The creation of the first branch of JOFA in Australia, 27 years after the founding of JOFA in the United States and almost a decade after the UK, was the result of a convergence of factors. Orthodox women in Australia have learned that while their secular lives may still have many glass ceilings to shatter, the gap between their religious and secular lives is much greater. In the three decades during which I have attended synagogue, not that much has changed. The structure of our synagogues is nearly identical to those my great-great-grandmothers attended in Australia at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The Genesis of an Idea
The kernel of an idea to create JOFA Australia began in 2018, when I approached the rabbi of a large Modern Orthodox synagogue that I attend weekly. As an engaged and committed religious woman, I was concerned about the growing sense of disenfranchisement among young women who were feeling that not much was being done to encourage their engagement within Orthodox synagogues. I asked if it were possible when returning the Torah after Torah reading on Shabbat morning, that the Torah be brought up to the meḥitzah so women could have the opportunity to kiss it. To my mind, a small gesture like that could make a big difference and would indicate to women, particularly young women, that they were seen and recognized as participants and valued members of the service.
The rabbi dismissed me outright and let me know that he would never consent to this request. He told me that there were ultra-conservative voters in his shul who wouldn’t like it. He also told me, quite frankly, that if I didn’t like it there, I was welcome to leave and find another synagogue.
As shocking as those words were, I knew at that point that my mission had changed. Those hurtful, insensitive words convinced me that one rabbi does not own Judaism nor does he have the the right to tell me to leave a synagogue or community where I feel I belong. I would much rather work for change within a system than abandon it entirely.
I decided that if I had this experience, asking for something that would be considered normative in most Modern Orthodox synagogues around the world, the time had come to mobilize women like myself who felt that things could be much better in Australia. We might be logistically far from the global Jewish centers in Israel and New York, but a simple request—bringing the Torah up to the meḥitzah, as is widely practiced in hundreds of Modern Orthodox synagogues across the world—was seen as pandering to conservative Australian attitudes rather than reflecting normative religious doctrine.
Creating a Board
I started canvassing women who might make up a board for JOFA Australia. The women spanned different age groups and Orthodox communities. They were smart and intelligent, but, like myself and many of their friends, they felt that things could be different. We were all focused on creating change—even small changes—within the communities in which we exist to overcome the practices of decades that had been stagnant and slow moving. The time to start JOFA in Australia was ripe.
With a board of six committed women, we decided to launch. We connected with the global JOFA branches in England and United States and started brainstorming ideas. Assisted by Daphne Lazar Price, the executive director of JOFA in the United States, and Rabbi Dina Brawer, the inaugural founder of JOFA in the UK, we were given access to previously successful programs and ideas that had been used in other communities around the world. We felt totally supported by our overseas sisters and knew that there was so much work to be done in Australia. As we edged closer to our launch date, we remained optimistic that women would recognize that the need for JOFA in Australia was greater than ever.
When COVID-19 restrictions had relaxed enough to allow 100 people in a private home, we decided to launch. While many of us knew that there was space in our communal discourse for an organization like JOFA in Australia, we were far from certain that we could get the maximum number of people in the room.
We knew that we were onto something when, with minimal advertising, all 100 tickets were booked almost two weeks in advance of our launch. We created a waitlist. Then we had messages pouring in, from men and women alike, advising that they really wanted to come to the launch event.
When the big day arrived, there was an electric energy in the room. There is something truly remarkable about getting together 100 energized people, from all ages and walks of life, with the shared mission of improving the situation for Orthodox women in Australia. From the reception our launch had, it was clear that the men and women of Australia were truly ready to embrace change. In my opening speech, I noted that change for women happens in a community when the right people gather in a room to create an alliance that pushes for these changes.
As part of the launch, we asked the attendees to break out into small groups at five stations and answer questions about pertinent topics relating to Jewish women, such as: lifecycle celebrations, education, leadership, Orthodoxy, and desired innovations we. These topics were meant to get people thinking about what is currently being done well, what could be improved, and what solutions could help solve some of these complicated issues.
Their responses were overwhelming. Women told their war stories about feeling excluded and unwelcome in Orthodox synagogues and communal spaces. They spoke about women feeling discouraged from running for board positions in many Orthodox institutions, due to bullying and sexism. Women described feeling unseen or irrelevant, particularly in older shuls, where the architecture places women in high balconies or far from the action. Women noted that while a small number of community organizations were trying to do the right thing for Orthodox women in Australia, overwhelmingly women felt they lacked the education to step into Orthodox leadership roles and that the community would benefit from women’s educational activities.
Suggestions for Change
Although these stories were painful, the discussions also provided a sense of optimism. The suggestions for change included the establishment of a women’s speakers bureau to overcome the phenomenon of male-only panels. The creation of a women’s Orthodox scholarship fund would enhance leadership opportunities for women in our community. Life-cycle think-tanks would help create awareness of the difference between halakhah and sexism.
As I write, I am still on a high from the incredible reception that the launch of JOFA in Australia received from women and men alike in my community. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but we also have role models in the United States and UK to look up to. We feel the love and support from afar!
Although Americans may rightly assume that Australians live in a relaxed paradise, I can assure you that although we may be 30 years late to the party, Orthodox feminists in Australia have stood up to be counted, galvanized by the creation of this important alliance. Big changes are on their way, and I look forward to reporting back to you soon with an update on our progress. Stay tuned.
After earning bachelor of laws and bachelor of liberal arts degrees from Monash University and a master’s in legal practice from the Australian National University, Nomi Kaltmann became the first Australian woman to enter the Yeshivat Maharat semikhah program. She is a founding member of the Women’s Orthodox Tefillah Group of VIctoria, Austalia, and the first president of JOFA in Australia.
From the reception our launch had, it was clear that the men and women of Australia were truly ready to embrace change.
JOFA Makes It Down Under
JOFA Makes It Down Under
By Nomi Kaltmann
Events & Updates
Jofa and Yeshivat Maharat are pleased to announce a joint solidarity mission to Israel, taking place from midday Monday, January 8, through Wednesday evening January