By Daphne Lazar Price
Publishing this issue of the JOFA Journal, which focuses on women’s health and reproductive issues, might seem out of touch amid a global pandemic, heightened racial tension, an increasingly polarized society, and rising antisemitism. And still, supporting women’s health and reproductive rights and exploring these fundamental human values through the lens of personal, halakhic, educational, and public policy perspectives is essential to ensuring the maintenance of a healthy society.
Once, some twenty years ago, while visiting a major European city, I commented on the number of bicyclists weaving in and out of rush-hour traffic. My host responded that the city had recently come out of a mass transit strike that had forced people to look for alternative ways to commute and ultimately they had found that they enjoyed cycling even after bus service resumed. This choice resulted in less pollution, easier parking, and improved fitness. It was the first time I had given thought to the gift of unintended consequences.
Fast forward to the fall of 2020: We are over half a year into the pandemic. As of this writing, more than 200,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. Countless more have fallen ill and retain symptoms long after they have “recovered.” Reliance on government-funded public services has increased exponentially, reflecting the high rates of joblessness. People are feeling anxious and stressed because of the overall lack of stability and in anticipation of further waves of shutdowns. The net loss to humanity as a whole will be incalculable.
Nevertheless, there have been so many positive unintended consequences: Slowing down our frenetic daily routines and creating healthy boundaries. Nuclear families having more time together. A growing awareness of the needs of others—especially those who live alone—and a need to connect. A renewed and amplified awareness of those struggling with depression in isolation. Appreciating our own health and wellness and recognizing that it is incumbent on each of us to do our part in the world to safeguard our friends, relatives, and neighbors. And, ultimately, maintaining a sense of normalcy.
In March, when schools, synagogues, and businesses shut down, JOFA’s doors stayed open. We didn’t change the work we did—only how we were doing it. We shifted from in-person gatherings to online gatherings. We announced the recipients of funding for the Devorah Scholars program. We began to hold women-led tefillah services and Megillah readings. We offered programmatic content that ranged from mikveh use in the age of COVID-19 to leadership development to racial justice to women’s health and included ritual engagement and text-based learning. We advocated for women’s involvement in the phased reopening of Jewish communal institutions.
We addressed a communal void that could no longer be filled by sanctuaries and social halls. So many people refer to Zoom-based programs as “virtual,” but I find it to also be an authentic meeting space. Geographic distances are eliminated, and other access barriers are instantly lifted. We provide more opportunities for women to lead in ways they hadn’t previously been able to. At the start of every program, I invite people to chime in about where they are joining us from, and the results are always staggering. There are always many of the “usual suspects,” people who join us from Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and the greater Washington area as well as parts of the Midwest. We have also drawn participants from Toronto, Montreal, and Calgary, from New Mexico, Colorado, Georgia, and Maine, and from Oregon, Texas, and California, as well as international audiences from the UK, France, Israel, South Africa, South America, and Australia.
Which brings me back to the topic at hand—women’s reproductive health. There have been and will continue to be volumes written on the lasting impacts of 2020. And I have no doubt that JOFA will provide content and nuance to those conversations. But as long as there are women, there will be women’s health-related concerns. And we will continue to dedicate ourselves to addressing those relevant issues.
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