Agenda wants to help empower Jewish women and to help enable them to play a prominent public role in the Jewish community, Agenda seeks to broaden the conventional definition of the Jewish family to include lesbians, gay men and others who are often excluded from Jewish life.” –’87 brochure
Jewish Feminist leadership was part of NJA’s culture from its earliest days. An October 1984 Conference on Women and Judaism organized by the DC Chapter on NJA (WANJA) brought out more that two hundred people to attend workshops from “Yiddish Literature” to “Elderly Jewish women.” In early 1985, that same chapter held a meeting on the theme “what do we mean by a Jewish feminist perspective?” A women’s study group within WANJA, called Galya, gathered together to discuss readings and life stories. Galya was half straight and half lesbian, and worked together to create a workshop on homophobia and co-sponsor a women’s shabbat with the National Women’s Studies Association conference and George Washington University’s Hillel. When NJA was starting, there were already strong Jewish feminist and lesbian-feminist movements. However, initially not many of these activists got involved in New Jewish Agenda. In my interview with Clare Kinberg, who organized the National Convention in Ann Arbor in the summer of 1985, she explained:
I wanted to connect where I was coming from with what NJA was doing… On the local scene, every city had a Jewish lesbian group and seders and stuff going on, but not very many of the people were involved in NJA. Agenda was seen as more mainstream because they wanted to organize among American Jews. It felt like two trains going on separate tracks to me, and I really wanted to combine them. That was a vision that I made for the ’85 National conference. I strategized to invite Adrienne Rich and Elly Bulkin and other people, who were prominent among Jewish lesbians as writers and activists and leaders, to the convention… A lot of lesbian feminists got involved at that convention and afterwards.
The 1985 Conference passed a resolution to begin a Feminist Taskforce (FTF). The national FTF encouraged local chapters to form feminist taskforces, too, and work on recruiting women who would be interested in that work to NJA.
In her article “Challenges of Difference at Bridges,” Kinberg writes about the impact of Jewish feminists on NJA:
Feminists brought to NJA what we had learned from Feminist organizing. We initiated structural changes with the organization, including gender parity in all national leadership bodies, guaranteed “out” lesbian/gay representation in governance, and men’s and women’s caucuses. NJA’s structure also insisted on geographic diversity (within the continental United States) and representation of people over age fifty-five. NJA, formulaically at least, applied a central insight of the feminist movement: the realities and contexts of our personal lives are inseparable from our political perspectives and actions.” (29)
New Jewish Agenda’s feminist taskforce was also influenced heavily by the work of many non-Jewish feminists of color who had been challenging the white-dominated culture of the larger feminist movement, and making space for complicated conversations about overlapping identities. In the 1984 book Yours in Struggle, Elly Bulkin (an FTF member) wrote:
Much as the women’s movement of the late Sixties and early Seventies had its roots in the earlier civil rights struggle and the New Left, both the increasing number of women who define ourselves as Jewish feminists and our growing activism against anti-Semitism within and outside the women’s community owe a significant debt as well to the emergence in the last decade of a broad-base Third World feminist movement in this country. Women of color, especially lesbians, have been in the forefront of creating theory and practice that insist on the important of differences among women and on the positive aspects of cultures and identities. With “identity politics” as a basis, feminist of color have been able to link analysis with day-to-day political activism, as the lay out a range of ways in which individual and institutional oppression works. (98)
The work of the FTF covered ground that overlapped with many of the other campaigns: anti-racist organizing, Middle-East peace, and economic justice were among the FTF’s biggest focuses. Also, the FTF housed both the Gay/Lesbian Working Group and the AIDS Working Group, perhaps only because the FTF’s membership was so heavily lesbian.
GESHER Newsletter and Bridges Journal
One of the FTF’s projects was Gesher, an internal newsletter that included reports from each chapter’s FTF, and raised feminist issues within NJA.
Clare Kinberg writes,
In 1988, Jewish writers and editors Ruth Atkin, Elly Bulkin, Adrienne Rich and I started talking about the possibilities of expanding the Gesher newsletter into a journal and becoming independent of NJA. Our intention was to be an explicitly Jewish participant in a multiethnic feminist movement; to connect Jewish renewal movements; and to make connections across generations, countries, and languages by publishing archival material and writing in different Jewish languages and in translation.
We wanted to create a forum that would address questions that came up again and again in our writing, organizing, and publishing: Who are Jewish feminists and what are we doing in our own communities? What are our goals? Who are our political allies and how do we discover them? How can others become political allies to us? (in Brettschneider 30)
The first issue of Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and our Friends came out in 1990. Clare served as managing editor until final issue (#31) in Spring 2011.
Nairobi UN Forum
In 1985, NJA sent a delegation from the Feminist Task Force to Nairobi, Kenya, to attend the UN Decade for Women Non-Governmental Organization’s (NGO) Forum. This NGO Forum gathered over 14,000 representatives while the simultaneous official Decade for Women Forum was attended by 2,000 government representatives. NJA’s delegation, including Executive Director Reena Bernards and National Co-Chair Christie Balka, presented a successful dialogue at the NGO Forum that had been organized collaboratively over many months between feminist Jewish, African-American, and Arab activists, and changed the tone of a major conversation at the Forums.
The UN Decade for Women Forum began in 1975 in Mexico City, followed by a 1980 Forum in Copenhagen. In 1975, a “Zionism equals Racism” resolution had passed the UN Forum, to the dismay of Jewish and Israeli feminists. This was the first time such a resolution had passed within a UN body – soon followed by a similar resolution at the UN General Assembly. The 1980 Forum was reportedly disastrous, with Palestinian-Jewish tensions and raging disputes interrupting participants from building consensus on any other issues. Palestinian representatives and those from other Arab nations denied Israel’s right to exist, and Jewish women reported widespread verbal abuse and anti-Semitism. Jewish representatives responded by rejecting the inclusion of Palestinians in the Forum and attempting to silence the voices of any who expressed criticism of Israel.
Members of NJA returned from the Copenhagen forum with clear intention to do the coalition-building work necessary to shift the conversation. To that end, they convened three NYC meetings between Arab, Jewish, Black, and other feminist leaders. Yet, this successful campaign was not without growing pains. A letter of critique from Carol Haddad, a representative of the Feminist Arab Network, to NJA’s Feminist Task Force, identified and challenged the ways that NJA organizers had invited African-American and Arab feminists to the table late in the process, and had tightly controlled the conversation. The letter criticizes one Jewish dialogue organizer’s anti-Arab racism in a recent article, and generally questions whether the Jewish women offering an invitation to dialogue are committed to really addressing anti-Arab racism or simply seeking “dialogue for the sake of dialogue.” The letter illustrates the necessity of NJA’s ongoing work to address internal community issues of white privilege and racism, in addition to their external work to challenge anti-Semitism.
In Nairobi, Balka and Bernards attended daily Jewish caucus meetings at a Nairobi synagogue, formed a caucus with Peace Now, and attended numerous workshops on Middle East topics. They distributed 4,000 copies of the NJA brochure offering guidelines for the dialogue, including these two:
- Israel will not be singled out as a unique violator of human rights. Nor will the Palestine Liberation Organization be singled out as a terrorist organization. Standards for human rights and international conduct should be applied uniformly to all countries.
- The equating of Zionism with racism is divisive and inaccurate. Zionism is a multi-faceted movement for Jewish national liberation and it is therefore unconstructive to the process of dialogue to assert that it is equivalent with racism. (This is not to deny that racist policies do exist within Israel.) It is in the interest of all women including Palestinians that the issue not be addressed in this way.
NJA held a major public workshop at the NGO Forum, “Israeli and Palestinian Women in Dialogue: A Search for Peace,” with speakers Mary Khass and Lisa Blum. According to a year-end report on the collaborative dialogue, “[Speakers] shared their mutual concerns over the continuing hostilities, the impact of violence on their respective communities, and the need for mutual recognition and self-determination for both the Jewish and Palestinian people.” Balka is quoted in a Kansas City Jewish Chronicle article saying that this was the best-attended workshop at the NGO Forum, and it was translated into five languages. NJA also coordinated two off-the-record meetings between Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian, Arab-American, European Jewish and American Jewish women.
The “Zionism = Racism” declaration was again brought to the UN Forum in 1985, proposed by the Soviet Union and supported by Iran and Syria. The language was struck down in large part due to Kenya’s peacemaking negotiations. In the paragraph in question, “Zionism” was replaced by “and all other forms of racism,” language that eventually passed by consensus including representatives from the Soviet Union and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
This was a big victory for NJA – they had played a crucial role in shifting a deadlocked conversation towards dialogue, with international impact. An NJA Press Release quotes Christie Balka: “Many of us are committed to continuing these discussions now that the conference in Nairobi is over. I found a hunger for contact on all sides. New Jewish Agenda intends to persist in the dialogue.” After the 1985 Forum, NJA attendees spoke around the country about the process and outcomes of their organizing.
Jewish Feminists Discuss Family:
At the National Taskforce meeting in September 1987, the FTF committed to talking about issues of “Family” as a 2-year campaign, and went about the work of creating dialogue about both traditional and non-traditional families within the Jewish community. A few example events:
- On May 7, 1988 (Mother’s Day weekend), the Philadelphia FTF convened a one-day Conference on Women and Poverty at the historic center city Reform synagogue Rodeph Shalom. The article in Gesher notes that one member of the congregation, on being told of the conference, replied “Poor Jewish women? I thought they all wore mink coats!” A panel discussion between Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, Ellen Tichenor, Adrienne Rich, and Barbara Breitman addressed the reality of high poverty rates among all women and discussed how stereotypes of Jewish wealth work to hide the poverty many Jewish women struggle with.
- A few days later, on May 19th 1988, the NYC chapter of the FTF put on a program called “No More Family Secrets: Now We’re Talking,” co-sponsored with Jewish Women’s Resource Center (JWCR, a program of the National Council of Jewish Women/NCJW). Initially, JWCR was hesitant to work with NJA because of Middle East Task Force work (a common barrier to coalition with other Jewish groups), but after three meetings JWCR agreed to co-sponsor. Flyers for the event used powerful statements to get attention and attract people ready for honest conversation, stating (asking of readers “is this true?”) “There are no Jewish battered women,” “There are no Jewish alcoholics,” and “There are no Jewish incest survivors.” The event started with a presentation by Marty Spiegel, and then broke into three groups for discussion: one group for men, and two for women. The two women’s groups were split so that one was designed for personal sharing and one for more political (less personal) discussion.
- A Tucson FTF program on Jewish Feminism and Social Activism brought together 105 people. At the program, featured speaker Adrienne Rich discussed the work of the FTF and the issue of “jap-baiting.” The Tucson FTF also organized a follow-up event on “Eliminating anti-Semitism and Homophobia” co-sponsored with the Tucson Lesbian and Gay Rights Advocacy and Chai Aliz Lesbian and Gay synagogue in Tucson.
Gay and Lesbian Working Group
In 1985, Agenda published and widely distributed a pamphlet called “Coming Out/Coming Home” about homophobia and gay rights within the Jewish community4.
In April of 1986, the Brooklyn and Manhattan chapters of NJA cosponsored (with other organizations) the first New York community-wide conference on Lesbian and Gay Jews at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. Over 300 people attended this gathering, and NJA members including Rabbis Balfour Bricknour and Linda Holtzman, Elly Bulkin, Diana Stein, and Shelly Weiss presented at workshops. A July 12,1987 National Council meeting passed an amendment requiring two National Council seats to be filled by Lesbian and Gay NJA members. Elly Bulkin and Adrienne Rich, of the Feminist Taskforce, were the first two representatives. The 1987 National Convention also founded an NJA Lesbian, Gay, and Allies Network. It seems that this group was mobilized by anti-homophobia workshops that had been prepared and facilitated by members of the Feminist Taskforce throughout 1986 and at the convention. Also in 1987, NJA organized a Jewish contingent and Havdallah (end of Sabbath) service at the October 12th March on Washington for gay rights. NJA did turnout from their constituency as well as outreach to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, National Council of Jewish Women, National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, and B’nai Brith.
Despite the presence of lesbian and gay Jews, and the leadership of more than a few, there was lingering homophobia within NJA. In her October 1986 Gesher article “A Lesbian Looks at Outreach,” Chaia Lehrer wrote that of the events that took place after a committee to do outreach into the gay community planned to meet at the home of a homophobic NJA member. Lehrer worried, “What will the well-intentioned but homophobic members of my chapter say in front of these lesbians and gay men we’re trying to reach out to? Am I exposing lesbians and gay men to more homophobia?” Lehrer ended up recommending some internal education before outreach, and a workshop took place. The workshop was challenging because a few people were very homophobic, but Lehrer also found the teach-in useful. Lehrer had a chance to express some of the challenges facing lesbian and gay Agenda members. She wrote, “Are we expected to pass as straight so that we can ‘more effectively address other issues’? Are we welcome in Agenda if we cannot/will not pass? If we come out, can we count on the full support of other members?” Lehrer went on to urge heterosexual Agenda members to continue self-education and consciousness-raising, and to show up as an ally at gay rights events and find other ways to demonstrate care for gay issues, and to embrace and support the difference of gay and lesbian Jews.
At a January 1988 National Steering Committee meeting, the NSC discussed the fact that the organization was facing issues related to “coming of age (sometimes hard or controversial questions that have been sidestepped or otherwise avoided)” and brainstormed a list of such issues to tackle in future conversations. The sixth point (of 29) listed is “residual homophobia within NJA,” so we can assume that at least one member of the NSC still felt it was a pressing concern in early 1988.