By Daphne Lazar Price
“I’m ready to get back to normal.” I hear those words out loud and in my head daily. And even as I write them here, I wonder if we want to go back to “normal.” We have endured a lot throughout this pandemic: illness and death, quarantine and distancing, and various impositions and lifting of restrictions (that were sometimes reimposed). But I don’t think we should idealize the hectic quality of life before the pandemic or the hard costs incurred. We learned a lot about ourselves as individuals and about what it means to be in community with people, both in person and from afar. For JOFA as an organization, this experience has also meant that we took the time to look inward, review our online presence, evaluate our accomplishments, and look toward the next 25 years.
When the pandemic broke out in March 2020, pivoting to solely online programs was an easy task for JOFA. We had long been running online programs in addition to in-person gatherings. At the time, there were a few live events in the works, which we intended to postpone until the spring and then quickly had to reimagine as online gatherings.
We used this as an opportunity to expand our online community. We did so through virtual women-led tefillah (prayer) services and megillah readings. We provided educational opportunities as well as conversation starters on advocacy issues such as women in the workplace, creating a culture of self-care, domestic abuse, and agunah prevention. And, of course, we advocated for including women in decision-making processes wherever decisions are being made. People from across North America, Europe, Israel, South Africa, and Australia joined us to lead and learn together. Reaching wider audiences, creating and deepening partnerships with like-minded organizations, and providing low- or no-cost access to programming have been a plus. Those moments have been inspiring and the feedback overwhelmingly positive, but not without consequences.
In March 2021, JOFA held its Tenth International Conference on Orthodoxy and Feminism: Building a Vibrant and Equitable Orthodox Community. Throughout the day, conversations were centered on lifting barriers and gaining access to increasing women’s roles in education, leadership, and ritual engagement. Of course, by holding the conference remotely, the barriers of cost, travel time, and family and childcare accommodations were lifted. And yet, the all-important, never-to-be-underestimated shmooze that happens organically at the water cooler, in between sessions, and in the coatroom during in-person gatherings, as well as the physical energy and shared excitement, were lost.
JOFA is far from the only organization asking these hard questions and weighing the costs and benefits of in-person vs. remote vs. hybrid gatherings. We would love to hear from you. What worked? What would you like to see more of? And what needs improvement? We want to be best prepared as we enter into this “new normal” and navigate the next phases of pandemic life, as we look ahead to JOFA’s next 25 years.