By Talya Gordon
After moving to a new city during a pandemic as a single twenty-four-year-old woman, I have grown to see the incredible gifts that Judaism has given me. With all the chaos around the world, I have needed the Jewish community more than ever to provide light at the end of a very dark and winding tunnel. Latching on to my Jewish identity during this tumultuous time has meant holding on to all parts of my Judaism, including the contradictory parts, as both a proud Modern Orthodox Jew and an unapologetic feminist. Clinging to my Judaism has been a dynamic and complex journey, as I have had to ponder what it means to be an observant Jew when we are distant from one another.
For the past twelve months, as synagogues have grappled with how to react to the pandemic ravaging our world, congregants have taken a step back into the sanctuary of their own homes. Judaism, a religion associated with communal ritual, has become more and more individualized, as we have been pushed away from one another. COVID-19 has taken what we thought was important and turned it upside down. Male-centered prayer services were once the cornerstone of Modern Orthodox Judaism, but COVID-19 changed that for many. COVID-19 led to a moment of silence in ritualistic Jewish life that often moves at the speed of light.
Perhaps we were supposed to use this lull in time to introspect about how the Modern Orthodox community can make everyone feel safe, welcome, and included. Yisrael—which literally means to struggle with God—is the essence of Judaism. We cannot mindlessly live our Jewish lives in a pre-programmed autopilot way; we must analyze our practices and remain aware of how our actions affect one another. I believe that each Modern Orthodox community has the power—and perhaps even the obligation—to engage in focus groups to gain a deeper appreciation for how each congregant redefined Judaism during the global pandemic.
My new Modern Orthodox community, Congregation Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C., which is comprised of many people whom I’ve never met face to face, embraced this strategy. With the support of Rabbi Hyim Shafner, I decided to lead a focus group to dive deeper into the female Modern Orthodox experience unraveling during the pandemic. With each woman sitting in the comfort of her own home—a away from traditional sacred synagogue life—we opened a conversation that should be happening in this moment away from the synagogue: What does the future for empowered Modern Orthodox women hold? Is COVID-19 an opportunity to redefine what it means to be a Modern Orthodox feminist?
Methodology of the Focus Group
To delve into these complex questions, Rabbi Shafner and I sent out an email to women in the Kesher Israel community to gauge interest in a focus group. Since I had just moved to the D.C. community, Rabbi Shafner’s willingness to connect me with various women facilitated a smooth recruitment process. Once nine women had enthusiastically committed to the event, I sent out a Doodle (a free online scheduling tool) to find a time that worked for all the participants. I sent several email reminders, including a calendar invite, and told each participant to bring a hot drink to keep the atmosphere casual.
I prefaced the focus group by explaining that the discussion would be documented in a blog post, while also reassuring everyone that their anonymity would be maintained. I started the conversation with an icebreaker—each woman introduced herself and shared her favorite female character in Tanakh with the group.
I prepared a list of open-ended questions that I used to facilitate the conversation. The questions ranged from “What have your experiences been as a woman in the Kesher community?” to “What draws you to Modern Orthodoxy?” Also addressed was “What practical changes would you like to see for women in the Modern Orthodox community?” I then served as a moderator throughout the discussion, ensuring that each woman had an opportunity to respond to each open-ended question. I took notes throughout the conversation to document the results.
What the Conversations Revealed
The conversation was vibrant and lively. I watched as each woman passionately spoke about her journey toward Modern Orthodox Judaism. One by one, each woman spoke about her personal story,with her eager and curious peers listening intently. I watched as mere acquaintances began opening up to one another about their innermost struggles with synagogue life, Jewish expectations, and gender roles. Each woman’s story was unique, but a passion for both Modern Orthodox Judaism and feminism created a strong, unwavering bond among the participants.
There was diversity in the group’s upbringing, with individuals coming from all over the United States—one who grew up as a Conservative Jew and several grew up in the yeshivish community—bringing an added layer of complexity and nuance to the conversation. With a range in age as well, each of the women had unique insights about how her stage of life had informed her desire to be part of the Modern Orthodox Jewish community.
We generated a list of ideas that this specific group of congregants hoped to integrate into the Kesher Israel community. The ideas ranged from having a gabba’it (a female gabbai), passing the Torah onto the woman’s side of the meḥitzah, adding a maharat or a female spiritual leader to the clergy staff, giving women aliyot on Simhat Torah, and holding co-ed tisches.
We spoke extensively about cognitive dissonance; many women observed that they compartmentalize their feminism when they walk into ritualistic spaces, so that the lack of female involvement does not bother them. One woman spoke about the problem of using imprecise language, such as asking for “ten people” for a minyan, when in reality what was really being sought was ten men, reinforcing the notion that in the Modern Orthodox community, “people” means “men.” I was amazed by the nuanced comments and ideas that each woman brought to the conversation, with each comment adding more insights to this complex issue.
Interestingly, I observed that many of the women in the focus group avoided talking about women’s roles in synagogue rituals, with our conversation emphasizing the social, logistical, and learning aspects of a synagogue community. This seemingly was a result of women compartmentalizing their feminism in ritualistic spaces; this was especially true for several of the women who had grown up in yeshivish communities, where women typically have even more traditionally gendered roles in Jewish life. Regardless of whether the participants were bothered by their lack of ritual leadership or had found a way to allay this frustration, it was clear to me that under the current status quo, Modern Orthodox feminists cannot bring their full selves into ritualistic Jewish spaces. Because no one wants to reveal angst in a communal space meant to provide comfort, many women just hold this cognitive dissonance within, never expressing it to the leaders of the community.
The rich dialogue and deep passion that each woman brought to the conversation showed me the power of actively listening to congregants. It is critical to create comfortable forums in which to discuss sensitive topics; the Zoom world has facilitated this, allowing each woman to express her viewpoint while in the comfort of her own home.
Although the results described here are unique to the Kesher Israel community, the methodology could be applicable to any Modern Orthodox community seeking to engage in dialogue. Whether spoken or unspoken, the tension between feminism and Modern Orthodoxy exists in every Modern Orthodox community. It is up to each community to decide whether to ignore this tension or address it through dialogue. Each community has the power to create a space to discuss women in Modern Orthodoxy and raise community awareness. A focus group alone cannot create practical changes, but it has the power to send the message that female input is valued. It takes a passionate congregant and a supportive rabbi to create a successful focus group that can lead to change.
Intergenerational presence in a focus group is important to gather insights from women of all ages and stages of life. Zoom focus groups can create a convenient medium for congregants to come together in the confines of their homes. Before the focus group, the moderator should ask each participant to identify a private space where she or he will join the Zoom meeting, to ensure the confidentiality of the session. Throughout our discussion, I noticed how comfortable each woman was with sharing her personal story, struggles, and identity. Zoom enabled each woman to remain in her own personal environment, facilitating a level of comfort to express raw emotions on a sensitive topic.
Other communities can take advantage of this moment of Zoom and the safety it brings to engage in this conversation about women in Modern Orthodoxy. Maybe the technology can help us as a Modern Orthodox community to “zoom” out and critically evaluate how to make shul a place that is inclusive for everyone. This pandemic has refocused Judaism as a religion full of many mitzvot, not just communal prayer. This new perspective can and should help us to do the critical work of making Modern Orthodox Judaism a meaningful experience for both men and women. We must seize this opportunity as we transition out of our socially distanced lives back to synagogue life. We are stronger when we listen to one another.
I am extremely grateful to Rabbi Shafner for being the first Modern Orthodox rabbi to push me to use my voice on a topic that means so much to me. More rabbis should do the same. The next step will be for rabbis and other religious leaders in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community to respond to these voices with change—change informed by the congregants.
Talya Gordon hails from Atlanta, GA, and grew up in a Modern Orthodox family with South African parents. She graduated from the University of Maryland in 2020, worked at the NIH from August 2020 to August 2021, and has now begun a Ph.D. program in clinical health psychology at Ferkauf Graduate School of Yeshiva University.
Each community has the power to create a space to discuss women in Modern Orthodoxy and raise community awareness.
This pandemic has refocused Judaism as a religion full of many mitzvot, not just communal prayer.