By Phil Jacobs
Baltimore Jewish Times - Feburary 13, 2004
The Fifth International Conference on Feminism & Orthodoxy is scheduled for this Sunday, Feb. 15, and Monday, Feb. 16, at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City. JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which was founded in 1997, is the event's sponsor.
The conference's theme this year is "Women and Men In Partnership," asking the question are Orthodoxy's defined gender roles unchangeable.
Workshops over the two-day conference cover many issues touching the overall theme. Its opening plenary is titled "Judaism as a Gendered Experience." The description of the plenary asks the question, "Is there Jewish value in breaking gender differences down?"
Topics of the workshops range from "Raising an Orthodox Feminist Child: An Interactive Dialogue With Mothers" to "Love, Learning and Laundry: Gender Roles Within Jewish Marriage" to "Sharing Life Cycle Events: Inclusive Ceremonies and Roles for Women."
There are workshops asking how men and women can work together to effect change, giving women more inclusion in ritual practices within synagogue life. Issues of sexuality, issues of divorce and the agunot (women who have not been given a Jewishly legal divorce by their husbands), and exploring gender roles within Orthodox schools are also on the program.
JOFA describes as its mission the expansion of "the spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities for women within the framework of Halachah" (Jewish law). It advocates "meaningful participation and equality for women in family life, synagogues, houses of learning and Jewish communal organizations to the full extent possible within Halachah."
Laura Shaw Frank and her husband, Rabbi Aaron Frank of Pikesville, will both be speaking at the conference. Mrs. Shaw Frank, an attorney, is one of JOFA's founding members. Her husband, Beth Tfiloh Community Day School's Lower School Judaics principal, has made the issue of gender roles in the classroom a personal focus.
"This is a getting-together of like-minded people to explore issues that don't get explored enough," said Mrs. Shaw Frank. She will be presiding over a workshop titled "The Politics of Gender in Confronting an Abusive Rabbi" as well as teaching a workshop called Kol Kevudah Bat Melekh Penima (All The Glory of the King's Daughter is Internal). The phrase from Psalms is traditionally cited as a prescription for modesty among Jewish women and as the reason why, according to the course description, "women should remain at home and not in the public sphere."
Mrs. Shaw Frank's workshop will ask how these interpretations can work in terms of modern society.
"We want to enhance the lives of Orthodox women as well as their synagogue lives and their communal lives while remaining faithful to the requirements of Halachah," she said.
The conference draws up to 2,000 people. "It's a real movement, and it needs a conference," said Mrs. Shaw Frank.
"I must live in a community that adheres to Halachah," said the former Wall Street lawyer. "It's of paramount importance to me. I have concerns and needs as a woman that I don't believe contradict Halachah."
Rabbi Frank will present a workshop entitled "Scenes from the Classroom: Gender Education in Action," as well as "Orthodox Day Schools: Can We Do Better?" The second workshop offers questions such as "How do we educate young girls and boys to understand their relationship to gender and gender roles?"
"My main goal is to have teens think," said Rabbi Frank of the gender seminars he's held at Beth Tfiloh, "to have them be aware of the messages they are getting around them. My goal is not to tell them this is right or wrong, but to make them be critical consumers of gender messages."
He gives an example. He asked his seminar participants once to free associate between Jewish men and Jewish women in the form of a list. What words describe Jewish men, what words describe Jewish women.
One of the words that was listed under the Jewish women category, he said, "mini-van."
He takes it to another level when he says, "What does it really mean when a woman wants to wear tefillin," he asks. "What does it mean for girls to see a woman wearing tefillin? Some kids have thought about it, some haven't. I want them to become thinkers."
At least one other panel will include a Baltimore expert, Vicki Polin, founder of the Baltimore-Based Awareness Center, an Internet resource for information on childhood sexual abuse.
More information on the conference can be obtained by checking the JOFA Web site at www.JOFA.org .