NEW YORK – “We are here at a time when Jewish unity must be a critical priority,” declared Chella Safra, Treasurer of the World Jewish Congress, in opening the online forum, “Women in Contemporary Judaism: Jewish Unity and Religious Diversity.” The keynote speakers and panelists who followed as part of the World Jewish Congress event, which was held in partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, shared that sentiment, a common interest across the Jewish religious spectrum in recognizing the innovation of Jewish women religious leaders, as well as an interest in being seen as simply Jewish leaders, not defined by their gender.
“The participants in today’s forum exemplify the spirit of unity within their diversity,” Safra said. “Through our Jewish history, we have learned that as Jews, we are one people, and we are much stronger when we are united. We all have the responsibility to spread Jewish education and the meaning of our Jewish values to the world around us.”
“Gathered here are current and future Jewish spiritual leaders from across the world and religious spectrum. We aim to create a shared language, vision and work plan around the challenges and opportunities facing Jewish women,” stated Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs Omer Yankelevitch. With the conversation convened on the fifth day of Hanukkah, Yankelevitch compared the addition of new individual candles for each night of the holiday “held together by a common base” to “the power of individual women who bring their own light into our shared Jewish public square, each person standing as an individual sharing her personal light, connected in the end to a shared base.”
The forum featured Jewish women spiritual leaders, including rabbis and rabbinical students, from across the religious spectrum and around the globe, including the Haredi, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform streams.
On how women Jewish leaders are really just Jewish leaders, Dr. Ruth Calderon, founder of the Alma Home for Hebrew Culture, a faculty member of the Mandel Leadership Institute, and a former member of Knesset, said, “My wish for all of us is that we will see a time where we study Torah like any other Jew so that we can celebrate ourselves as being Jewish, whether we are ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, secular, liberal, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform or anything else, and that we can live as Jews rather than just as Jewish women, that there will be nothing that stops us from taking part in study or from sitting at the table.”
The first panel discussion, moderated by journalist Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, focused on the challenges and opportunities of religious leadership. Rabbi Professor Dalia Marx, the Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Professor of Liturgy and Midrash at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, noted that “there is so much that unites us, and we tend to forget it and neglect it and instead put at the center our treatment of halacha.” The solution, she believes, lies in how “women tend to put their egos aside and sit around the table and talk. I think our redemption will come from women – women taking care and taking charge to bring good and wellbeing to the Jewish world and to the world unto itself.”
Rabbi Gesa Ederberg of the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue in Berlin, and the founder of Masorti Germany, emphasized that being called a pioneer may “sound like empowerment of women, but actually is taking away from our power. It diminishes the power of our ancestors, our amazing foremothers on whose shoulders we are standing.” She argued that women Jewish leaders shouldn’t just be called upon to speak on the role of women in Judaism or halachic issues that pertain to women, but broader issues. “We need to find spaces where we are seen as leaders with a gender, but not gendered.”
Added Rabbi Judith Nowominski, Dean of Students and Professor at the Marshall T. Meyer Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, on the possibilities for women’s leadership, “Time will not bring the change; we must bring the change.” She acknowledged, “I think that we have several challenges, but in a nutshell, we have the responsibility to unite women from different walks of life.”
“Different faces of religious leadership are needed today in the various religious communities that exist,” said Rabbanit Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld of Kolech Lamdaniot in Jerusalem. “The more communities that open their doors to women and to female leadership, the more it will have a snowball effect. From my own experience, that can truly benefit people.”
The third keynote of the forum was given by Noemi Di Segni, President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, and a member of the WJC Executive, who provided a window into Italy’s “peculiar” situation, in which the country’s 25,000 Jews living in 21 communities consider themselves Orthodox but for the most part are not observant. She posed the question, “What is the right way of living, educating and relating to surrounding society in a way that will ensure the Jewish future? It is surely not a new question, but a constant doubt as the world moves faster and faster. And as certain phenomena like antisemitism are accentuated and not forgotten, we need to ask this question every day.”
The second panel discussion, “Emerging Leaders in an Ever-Changing Jewish Landscape,” featured innovative, young leaders. The conversation was moderated by Alana Baranov, a member of the WJC Jewish Diplomatic Corps.
Viktoria Bedo, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and a rabbinical intern at Park Ave Synagogue in New York, proclaimed, “I’m not planning on becoming a female rabbi; I’m planning on becoming a rabbi for all, for all men and women, and I’m hoping to serve all kinds of different communities in the future.” Addressing attendees from Budapest, she expressed interested in serving Hungary’s Jewish community when its members are “ready for it.”
Her approach to equality was echoed by Vanessa Harper, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and a rabbinical intern at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York, who acknowledged that we are experiencing the first generation of nonbinary and trans rabbis. “In the Reform movement, we are adding gender-neutral translations and gender-neutral God language that gives people the space to see themselves in our tradition. The more women, the more people of all genders we have in these spaces, the more that Jewish tradition will be able to be built and shaped for everybody.”
She said that today, the Reform movement’s rabbinate is comprised of about half women and half men, with more women than men in cantorial school. She has found a creative way to interpret Torah and Jewish tradition through challah, which has found a following among millennials on her Instagram feed, @lechlechallah.
Pnina Pfeuffer, CEO of the New Haredim in Israel, called herself a feminist in the haredi community, a “contradiction in terms.” Acknowledging that she won’t become a rabbi because of her community’s halachic limitations, she said she plays the role of a “suffragette,” working to accomplish the gender equality that has yet to be attained, but is possible, within halachic bounds. She founded a beit midrash, a Torah study group for Haredi women, which meets in her home weekly.
Rabbanit Leah Sarna, Associate Director of Education and Director of High School Programs at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in New York, also emphasized education and her drive to improve women’s presence in the modern Orthodox community. Ordained at Yeshivat Maharat in 2018, she is focused on energizing high school girls around Torah study and ensuring their access to it. “It matters to me that our girls are going to learn Gemara because this is our inheritance, the Torah is ours.” In discussing her new podcast, “Prayerful,” she added, “I love Tefilah, and I think that women should have the opportunity to lead in prayer.”
The forum concluded with closing remarks.
Marie van der Zyl, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and a WJC Vice President, shared, “During this pandemic, I’ve often given the message that humanity is resilient, fluent and adaptive. It is these qualities that unite us a global community. As women, we have these qualities in abundance right from the Biblical times of Sarah and Rachel to today’s inspiring talks.”
Esther Mor, President of World WIZO, who also serves as a WJC Vice President, said our differences make us stronger. “The Jewish people of the 21st century is amazingly diverse. While we may not be uniform, we are connected to our shared history and vision. We are united through our mutual desire to make the world a better place and a sense of collective responsibility. The Talmud teaches us that the world is too heavy for anyone to carry alone.”
Sarah Winkowski, Past President of the International Council of Jewish Women, and a WJC Vice President, referred back to the forum’s conversations on Jewish unity and religious diversity, and how together we must address the challenges and opportunities of leadership – “issues of great concern for the Jewish people, be it in Israel or the diaspora.” She reminded attendees, “As [WJC] President Lauder said last week in our board meeting, we cannot lose one single Jew.”