Orthodox womens calls for recognition being heard

NEW YORK — What a difference a year makes.

For the organizers of the Second International Conference on Feminism & Orthodoxy, the last year has seen major leaps forward in their primary areas of concern — Torah learning for Orthodox women and expanding the ways in which women can serve as religious leaders.

The year between the inaugural conference, which was fraught with trepidation and nervous excitement for organizers, and the second, which was held in Manhattan on Sunday and Monday, also marked a notable change in the way their issues are regarded in the Orthodox community.

At a time when Orthodox organizations and their leaders continue marching to the right on a panoply of issues — from pluralism to the peace process — Orthodox women's calls for empowerment seem to be less controversial than they were even a year ago.

This time around, conference participants and organizers alike were no longer asking whether it was possible to reconcile Orthodoxy and feminism. This time, they were doing it.

"We're part of the mainstream now," said the conference chair, Blu Greenberg. "We are modern Orthodox, not troublemakers at the edge of the community. This was a very mainstream group."

But given that no major Orthodox organizations sponsored the event — and the one that did last year, Amit, pulled away this year — it was equally clear that this nascent movement is not fully embraced by the Orthodox establishment.

"It doesn't matter that we didn't have their sponsorship," Greenberg said. "There were plenty of women from Amit and Emunah at the conference," she said. Emunah is another Orthodox women's organization.

The president of Amit, Evelyn Blachor, said in explaining her group's decision not to sponsor this year's conference: "As a social service organization which is about helping children in Israel, we didn't think it was part of our mission to sponsor the conference. We did not want to offend any of our constituents and dilute or pollute our mission."

With 2,000 participants, the conference this year attracted a bigger crowd than most American Jewish religious gatherings. Only the fervently religious Agudath Israel of America and Reform movement conventions draw larger numbers.

Numbers tell much of the story of how the movement has grown — and how it is moving from being regarded as traif, or at least questionable, to much more acceptable.

Organizers expected about 400 people to attend last year's conference, and 1,000 showed up. This year, they expected 1,400 and instead had about 2,000 participants, ranging from adolescents to septuagenarians.

Last year, organizers found it difficult to get "big name" Orthodox rabbis and "mainstream" Orthodox women to participate, other than those who are already most closely identified with the idea of promoting women as spiritual leaders within Orthodox Judaism.

This year, so many called the organizers wanting to participate that they had to turn some away, said Bat Sheva Marcus, conference co-chairwoman.

Last year only a handful of men attended. This year many more were visible — both in the audience and as speakers.

Prominent Orthodox rabbis speaking included New Yorkers Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and Adam Mintz of Lincoln Square Synagogue, and Shlomo Riskin of the West Bank settlement of Efrat.

Also speaking at the conference were two members of the fervently religious community — Lubavitcher Henna White, who spoke about "The Ultra-Orthodox Woman: Conceptions and Misconceptions," and Rabbi Yosef Henkin, a Jerusalem-based interpreter of Jewish law, who spoke about the ways in which traditional Jewish texts view the subject of modesty.

Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City recently became the first Orthodox synagogue to announce that it had hired a woman to work as a congregational intern, a sort of para-rabbinic role in which the intern performs those roles permitted to women. The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, N.Y., was the second.

Sessions at the conference included those devoted to:

*Gender and traditional texts.

*Expanding women's religious roles in the synagogue and at home.

*Reclaiming a mother's name in traditional ceremonies like brit milah.

*Pre- and post-nuptial agreements.

*Domestic violence.

*Creating a woman's prayer group.

*The views of Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Joseph Soloveitchik, two Orthodox religious leaders whose interpretations on women's prayer groups, pre-nuptial agreements and divorce have guided current developments in these areas.

This year, like last, women also came from all over the world — from Australia and England, from Holland and Hong Kong and Israel.

"I came because I wanted to know where the zeitgeist is," said Sally Berkovic, who came from a suburb of London.

"I also wanted to have my own feelings reaffirmed by other women, because I feel intellectually isolated in England, which is much more conservative on these issues," said Berkovic, author of "Under My Hat," a recently published book about her experience as an Orthodox feminist.

"And I have two young daughters," she said. "I want to know what place there will be for them in Orthodoxy."