Below is a text from a speech I delivered at the JOFA conference on December 8th, 2013. This speech was compiled based on conversations that I’ve been having with friends for the past four years. Many of those people read drafts of this speech or gave content input early on. If you like what you read or hear, it’s because of them.
In the coming months I hope to flesh out some of the points I made in this talk. Follow my blog to get notifications of new posts!
You can watch a video recording of this talk here.
I want to speak today about dedication. Frankly, I think we need more of it.
The success of Orthodox Jews throughout history has always rested upon a bedrock of devotion to Torah and Mitzvot. Dedicated observance. Study and practice and thoughtfulness that pervade every sleeping and waking moment of life: from birth to death.
The present is not the first time in Jewish history when we’ve looked around and realized that we don’t quite know what that dedication ought to look like.
The book of Nehemiah recounts the events that took place right after the Jews returned to Israel from the Babylonian exile. In the eighth chapter it says, and I summarize, “Ezra the priest brought the Teaching before the congregation, men and women and all who could listen with understanding. And they gathered to study, and they found written in the Teaching that the Israelites must dwell in booths during the festival of the seventh month. The whole community made booths and dwelt in booths.”
The return of the Jews from exile brought with it a new reality—a Temple, self-rule and a reconstituted Jewish community. In seeking to adapt to that reality, to find dedication in that reality, the Jews, men and women together, turned to the Torah—and rediscovered the holiday of Sukkot.
As the world changes around us, we too must turn to the Torah and find what wisdom it holds for our time—a time when women occupy roles in society undreamed of in the days of our great-grandmothers.
And to a certain extent we have done this. We have looked to the Torah, we have found new ways, and implemented them successfully. Nowhere can this success be seen more clearly than in my generation.
While once a controversial topic, it is now obvious to my generation that women can and should learn and teach Talmud. It is obvious to my generation that women, if they eat together, should make a zimmun when they bentch together. It is obvious to my generation that if a woman wants to carry a lulav and etrog on sukkot, she should do so. And it is obvious to my generation that when we get married, we will sign prenups. And this list goes on. We looked to the Torah, and we found new kinds of dedication.
We have successfully begun this Nehemiah-like process, but it is far from complete.
We see a changed world—one where women participate in the workforce as men do. As my friends and I prepare for our post-college careers, we face tremendous challenges. What kind of career do I want to have? How can I balance my career with that of my spouse? With children?
And we are also asking: as my life fills with work and career, how can I keep it filled with Judaism?
Yet, while the secular world asks a tremendous amount from Orthodox women today, the Jewish world has not upped its demands—and so far we Orthodox Feminists have hardly asked it to. We’ve looked to deepen our participation in the aspects of Judaism that we were already attending—shul on Shabbat and holidays, formal Jewish education, mealtimes—but we need to ask more of ourselves. We are not only Jewish on Shabbat and we are not only Jewish in high school. As Orthodox Jews dedicated to Torah and Mitzvot, we can do better.
Our male friends know that as they chart their futures, their daily schedule will include minyan attendance. Maybe daf yomi, or a chevruta. That’s what our community expects from men: dedication. We ask our men to schedule their lives around their commitments to the Jewish community—and we ask them to do this publicly, so that we can hold them accountable.
Why, then, don’t women in our communities just do the same? What’s holding people back?
In July of 2000, George W. Bush addressed the NAACP’s annual convention. He spoke powerfully about education inequality in America, coining the phrase: “The soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Learning how to read is much harder when nobody expects you to do it. Waking up an hour earlier every single day to daven with a minyan that barely notices your presence and doesn’t expect you to be there? Maybe even harder. The soft bigotry of low expectations.
I believe that our communities aren’t asking enough of us. We need to raise our expectations; we need to demand dedication. We need to expect women to come to shul not just on Shabbat and not just in time for Kiddush, but every single day. And when they’re in shul, we need to find roles for them. We need to expect women to learn, and we need to provide them with real skills and compelling learning opportunities. Lastly, we need to have clergy who model this lifestyle and attend closely to women’s needs and spiritual health.
I believe that the future is one of dedication and heightened expectations because I see it playing out already today, on college campuses. In our collegiate communities, like in the days of Nehemiah, we, together with our male friends, have looked to the Torah, and we’ve found new ways.
At least five college campuses have women who act as gabbais of their Orthodox minyan. More have women who organize leyning. Women on our campuses oversee Kashrut. Most campuses allow women to share divrei torah from the bima during davening. Women are presidents of their collegiate orthodox communities. These communities offer substantive learning opportunities for both men and women—provided by both male and female educators.
And on these campuses, where women have ritual leadership positions, female role models, and face heightened expectations, there are always women in the beit midrash, and there are always women attending daily minyan—and their minyanim expect them to be there.
If I sleep through minyan, I get a text message from the gabbai letting me know that I was missed. Judaism structures my day more than my classes or assignments do. I feel connected spiritually, and I feel needed by my community.
I know that I’ll have to work hard to recreate this environment after graduation. But I also know that it’s possible. I spent this past summer in Washington, DC, and my roommate and I decided to go to daily minyan. After a few days, we started getting a special welcome in the morning announcements. We felt like our presence mattered to those praying around us, and it cemented our resolve to plan our summer around a dedication to shul-going, and attend regularly. I look forward to a time when the women’s section won’t just be me and my roommate.
You’re sitting there thinking to yourself, these are all nice ideas, Leah, but try keeping it up once you have children. Well, that’s probably what your grandmother told you when you said, “I want to be a lawyer.” But you’re still a lawyer, somehow, or a doctor, or a business executive or a professor. A few couples made it work, and they modeled it for their friends and their children. Now countless families across the country make it work. So, I ask you, why can’t we?
I want to thank my parents and their generation for the world they’ve created—one where this conversation is relevant. I want to thank them for fostering a reality in which women can have the highest of career aspirations. And I want to thank them for their Orthodoxy—for raising us to love our Judaism and hunger for more of it.
We are talking about a generation of ambitious women and men who have been raised to passionately love Torah and mitzvot. A generation of men and women wholly convinced that the Torah has something to say about how to shape lives and family in the modern world. Our successes to date are historic. But we need your help. I want to close with one last request, for my generation and for the men and women who will follow us: expect and demand our dedication. I believe that we will deliver.
 NYU, Brandeis, Columbia, Penn, Queens