S.F. Womens conference celebrates diversity, marks death of Rabin

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During services at the start of Sunday's Jewish women's conference, participants celebrated with boisterous singing. Grief-stricken, a woman quietly asked the group to acknowledge Yitzhak Rabin's death. As she sobbed during the silent prayer, others turned to comfort her.

Throughout the daylong conference, which was filled with 80 workshops and talks at San Francisco's Fashion Center, agendas shifted as women stopped to grieve.

The mournful blast of a shofar at the welcoming ceremony preceded a moment of silence.

Writer Tillie Olsen stood at the podium and broke down in tears, unable to focus on her talk.

Women stopped to write messages of condolence to slain Israeli Prime Minister Rabin's widow, Leah.

And in a dialogue between Jewish and Arab women, two Palestinians offered their prayers for an end to hate and terror.

One thousand women had come together at the sold-out 1995 Bay Area Jewish Women's Conference: "Celebrating Diversity — Creating Community." Conference co-chairs Marriam Cramer Ring and Serena Eisenberg and organizer Rebecca Schwartz, who delivered the welcoming remarks, discussed the need to forge bonds at a time of crisis.

"Yesterday afternoon as a number of us were setting up, we heard the news of the terrible tragedy. This is a turbulent time for the people of Israel and all of us stand together in our rejection of terrorist violence. But this is also a time for hope," said Schwartz. "May we come to expose the transgressions of the world to the full strong light of the sun."

Workshops ranged from Jewish cooking and culture to the wisdom of Sarah to women's liturgy. Writer and activist Tillie Olsen, nearly 84, led one of the most popular. But she had difficulty concentrating.

"I did not know the news until this morning," she told an audience of about 175. "Again it is a time in which crises crack our skies…I do feel very full of tears,both to be here and because too much rises up."

Anita Friedman, who delivered the keynote morning address on "The Future of Community," also talked about her sorrow, recollecting her own first meeting with Rabin in Israel.

"He was not a charming man, but who needs charming men? Can we talk?" said the executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, injecting moments of levity into a gripping speech that tackled social issues.

"He opened up the path to peace, sacrificing his life for it. His death reminds us why it's important to pursue peace."

Later in the afternoon, at a dialogue between Jewish and Arab women that was facilitated by the Women's Interfaith Dialogue on the Middle East (WIDME), Samira Baroody, a Lebanese-born Christian, read a message to "express the intense sense of outrage" over the death of Israel's prime minister.

Afaf Dudum, a Palestinian Christian, asked, "May I take a second to offer condolences to you and to the world?"

When she first heard the news of Rabin's death, Dudum found herself inadvertently slipping into the kind of stereotypical thinking WIDME tries to discourage. "My first thought was `I hope it's not an Arab,'" she said.

"When I found out it was just another Jewish boy who's supposed to be educated, my memories went back to Gandhi and to John F. Kennedy…Why can't we seem to educate each other? Through conferences like this, through dialogues, hopefully we can eliminate stereotypes."

Other panelists voiced hope that the peace process will continue.

Conference participants also emphasized the need to build bridges between Jewish women.

San Francisco cantorial soloist and psychiatric social worker Gail Foorman said Rabin's death "heightened an awareness that we need to be focused on coming together to break down barriers between us. One of the things I took from [Friedman's] morning session is [that] what is good for the world is good for Jews."

Loolwa Khazzoom, Berkeley Hillel's program director, talked about building multicultural bridges. During the dialogue between Jews and Arabs, she broke down while discussing her alienation as a Middle Eastern Jew. Feeling more culturally akin to Arab women than to Ashkenazic Jews, she described herself as "invisible within our own community."

Sunday's event, which followed the successful 1992 conference titled "Women as a Force for Social Change," was a time of community-building.

Lesbian activists in black T-shirts emblazoned with pink triangles joined businesswomen in red power suits.

Artists, poets, activists and musicians created new visions and sounds, culminating in a harmony of women's voices. Women hugged, they danced, they wept and they interrupted one another.

In between workshops, women converged informally over bagels, coffee and kosher lunches. Some signed up for future meetings of affinity groups on such topics as bisexuality, investment, aging and low-income women's issues. And they talked about joining together in diversity.

"Nu, a thousand women," said Sherie Koshover, director of community relations at San Francisco's Jewish Home for the Aged. "I am impressed by the organization, as I was by the last conference, which inspired me to come back. Besides, I can't think of anything more powerful than being with all these Jewish women."

In one heavily attended session, psychologist Judith Linzer addressed why Jews seek spirituality in Eastern religions — and why many return to Judaism.

"Jews are tribal" and are rooted in "historical consciousness…Judaism is not the way of detachment but of attachment…That's why it's difficult for us to be Buddhists," she said.

On the other hand, Jews are attracted to Buddhism because of its emphasis on direct religious experience — "without all the halachah, laws and observance."

Some rediscover spirituality in the Jewish tradition, crediting Buddhism with bringing them back to Torah, she said.

Schacharit Rosenthal of Richmond, a conferencegoer who is Orthodox, said she was happy that organizers included diverse religious points of view, including that of Chabad's Hinda Langer.

"But as the day played out, I felt some anti-religious slaps," said Rosenthal, who primarily attended sessions related to Israel.

Also commenting on the need for inclusion was Irena Klepfisz, a poet and translator of Yiddish literature. She is a secular Jew.

Citing "unparalleled attacks on secularism," she said many people feel that those who don't believe in God are either "immoral or depraved." Yet "most Jews are alienated from synagogue but don't want to assimilate.

"To me Jewish secularism is neither an absence nor a void," she said. "It's not assimilation. It's recognizing that I'm bound to the Jewish people."

The conference was sponsored by Bay Area Jewish organizations with major funding by the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and additional funding from the Endowment Foundation of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].