What has changed with Orthodox women in the last two decades in reality is astounding. Some of the initiatives started by JOFA and other forward-thinking organizations took hold. Some didn’t. Some failed miserably. But some of the vision “leaked” out to other communities and organizations, and change happened where we least expected it.
We started noticing that the haredi communities that denounce feminism had their own feminist issues: women were standing up to their leadership about domestic violence and sexual abuse and even agitating in order to get into Hatzolah, the volunteer ambulance corps. Places that 20 years ago would not have considered celebrating a bat mitzvah or a girl’s birth were regularly holding those celebrations. Women’s tefillah (prayer groups), which had been seen as crazy and “out there,” became the more conservative bat mitzvah alternative to partnership minyanim (where women lead parts of the service).
In Israeli newspapers after Simchat Torah, observers were struck at seeing women dancing with Torahs in places you’d never think possible. And no one batted an eye. And even on the issue of agunot, or women unable to get Jewish divorces from recalcitrant husbands, which is seen by so many as the big failure because we have yet to develop a systemic solution, the Orthodox community has made incredible strides. It sits front and center on the communal agenda, and different rabbinic courts and organizations are using their clout to try to solve the problem case by case.
The seismic change in the community has been women’s learning. Twenty years ago there were a handful of women learning torah sheba’al peh (the Oral Law). Today there are dozens of women’s programs that teach Mishnah and Talmud. No one seems to think twice about it.
Bat Sheva Marcus, “How Change Happens”, The Jewish Week (6 December 2013), 23.