In the spring of 2020, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance awarded Devorah Scholar grants to seven Orthodox synagogues. This innovative program, designed to seed the American landscape with women spiritual leaders, was made possible thanks to the generosity of Micah Philanthropies. Women who retain the position of a Devorah Scholar deliver congregational sermons, play an active role in youth and adult education, and provide lessons and lectures to the broader community, in addition to offering pastoral care and counseling. Applications for the next cohort of Devorah Scholars will be open until March 2021. For more information, contact Dr. Sarah Kranz Ciment, Sarah@jofa.org.
Online Megillah Readings
One of JOFA’s most successful online programs in 2021 was the Megillat Esther readings. JOFA held women-led online readings on Purim night and Purim day. Readers and listeners from across North America and around the world (including Europe, Israel, and South Africa) joined in to participate in this important mitzvah. JOFA also held a virtual Megillat Ruth reading before Shavuot. Our Megillat Esther and Megillat Ruth apps continue to be useful and effective tools, helping people learn how to read the megillot in their homes, synagogues, and communities.
On June 10, 2021, JOFA partnered with the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA) to host a webinar titled “Influencing Lasting Change.” The conversation was held with JOFA founder Blu Greenberg, executive director of ORA Keshet Starr, and Rachel Tuchman, a licensed mental health counselor and Instagram influencer. With the agunah crisis in the news and so at the forefront of many minds, these leaders discussed harnessing the energy of the moment and merging strategies to effect long-term change.
On March 7, 2021, JOFA held the Tenth International Conference on Orthodoxy and Feminism: Building a Vibrant and Equitable Orthodox Community. This day-long virtual conference was opened with remarks by JOFA president Pamela Scheininger and was attended by more than 800 people from around the world.
Participants had four tracks to choose from, as well as an array of affinity lunches. Sessions were centered around gender equity in day school education, advancing women in ritual roles and leadership positions, and contemporary issues such as women in the workplace during a pandemic, reproductive justice, and intersectionality. Affinity lunch topics included how to raise feminist sons, a high school and young professional meet-up, the revolution in women’s learning, and building a diverse leadership pipeline.
Leadership in the Face of Pandemic
Since its founding in 1997, JOFA has advocated for expanding women’s rights and opportunities within the framework of halakhah, to build a more vibrant and equitable Orthodox community. In the face of a second year marked by pandemic, forcing Orthodox synagogues to balance COVID-compliant safety rules with halakhic requirements, 5781 was a year when women rose to the occasion and demonstrated strong leadership in Orthodox synagogues. Whether in the capacity of spiritual leader, ritual leader, board president, lay leader, or educator, women stepped into key roles, and in some cases, served as the backbone of their synagogues, ensuring that communal tefillah (prayer) remained a mainstay of Orthodox life. The value added by having women serve as role models in Orthodox synagogues is incalculable. The positive ripple effects will benefit community members, both young and old for generations to come.
On Sukkot, there is a custom to invite ushpizin and ushpizot (guests) into our sukkot. Traditionally, these guests are biblical characters. Out of this custom has grown a modern practice to welcome spiritually other key admirable figures whose presence we would want at our meals. This year JOFA honored 24 notable women whose contributions to synagogue life have improved Orthodox communities. (See poster.)
Although this is certainly not an exhaustive list, these women, nominated by their community members, have each demonstrated strong leadership, made positive change, and created lasting impact through their work. We take this opportunity to honor, celebrate, and thank them for all they do.
Gender Equity in Day Schools
Over the course of planning and executing JOFA’s March 2021 conference, Building a Vibrant and Equitable Orthodox Community, it became clear that there was a need to create a space to continue the conversation about gender equity for day school educators. To that end, the Jewish Education Project and JOFA partnered to create the Gender Equity in Day Schools Network. This network is in partnership with the Azrieli Graduate School of Education and Administration and the William Davidson School of Education.
The network is designed for female teachers who work in day schools and want to explore the tensions that arise around gender in the day school environment. Giving language to their lived experience, these educators will examine the dynamics of gender in the classroom, in the texts taught, between students, and in their role as teachers. As both an exploratory and goal-oriented network, this cohort collaboratively discusses how to support teachers in their spaces and circumstances.
This learning community consists of two dozen participants from 15 schools across the country. The cohort launched in August 2021 and is meeting monthly for the duration of the year. Topics include gendered expectations around what a teacher is supposed to be, gender and power, the educator in the classroom, communication, negotiation, career advancement, choosing the texts to teach, starting to create a culture of change, and strategizing toward the future.
Ruthie Braffman Shulman
Ruthie Braffman Shulman served as a Devorah Scholar at the United Orthodox Synagogue in Houston, TX. There she held the role of Director of Education and