A group of Jewish women started Bet Debora in Berlin in 1998. In 1999, Bet Debora organized the first conference of European women rabbis, cantors, rabbinical scholars and other interested Jewish women and men in Berlin. Its goal was to illuminate the ongoing process of emancipation of Jewish women in Europe. Back in the 1990s, due to the change of generations and the fall of communism – to name two major reasons – a dramatic change was under way, sparked by Jews with the shared goal of rejuvenating Jewish life: new groups, initiatives and communities were emerging throughout Europe – often outside official Jewish structures. A central concern of this movement was gender equality in the synagogue and in other areas of religious life. By the time the first Bet Debora conference took place, there was no longer any question that women should have the same opportunities as men within Jewish communities. Since women already were a driving force in the renewal of Jewish life in post-war Europe, attention was focused on how to gain more recognition for their contribution.
In 2001, the second Bet Debora conference was held, focusing on “The Jewish Family – Myth and Reality.” Participants took a critical look at traditional concepts of Jewish family and the “ideal woman,” versus actual lifestyles of Jewish women today, ranging from single mothers, patrilineal Jews to same sex marriages.
The third conference, held in 2003, was dedicated to the theme of “Power and Responsibility from the Perspective of Jewish Women.” Discussion revolved around the question of Jewish women’s involvement in and influence on synagogues, communities and institutions. Participants also exchanged ideas on new political arenas, on “feminine” political style, on solidarity and competition between women. In addition to discussing the traditional imbalance of power between women and men in many areas of Jewish life, participants also took on the issue of problems of communication between women from Eastern and Western Europe.
With the goal of strengthening the connections and exchange of ideas between Jewish women in Eastern and Western Europe, the fourth conference was convened in Budapest in 2006, in cooperation with the Budapest Jewish feminist group Eszter Táska (“Esther’s bag”) and the Central European University (Budapest) Department of Gender Studies. For the Hungarian women this was also a celebration of Hungary’s induction into the EU. Guided by the theme of “Diversities,” participants looked at how the identities of Jewish women – both historically and today – are constantly renegotiated at the points of intersection between religion, modernity, political involvement and professional activities.
The fifth conference, on “Migration, Communication and Home,” was held in 2009 in Sofia, in cooperation with the local Jewish community. Participants looked at how tradition, assimilation, migration and concepts of home influence and change women, their families or Jewish communities.
In 2013, the sixth Bet Debora conference returned to the German-speaking area: Vienna. The theme was “Tikkun Olam – Jewish Women Contributing to a Better World.” On one hand, participants discussed the diversity of tasks that women perform on a spiritual, organizational and societal level both within and outside Jewish communities. On the other hand, it became quite clear that these women still do not receive due recognition and status. Despite the lack of recognition for their work, the Eastern European participants demonstrated unbroken optimism, a spirit that is shared in particular by younger women in the West.
The next conference took place in England in 2015: The theme was “Engendering Jewish Politics – Redefining the Role of Women.” Participants were from an immense spectrum, ranging from secular Jewish women to Reform rabbis to women from an ultra orthodox Jewish backg round. Despite the religious, political and cultural differences, as feminists the women were all speaking the same language, a language that speaks of equal opportunities and equality of men and women in the Jewishcommunity, and is carried by the unique voices of the women themselves.
Our 8th meeting on “Jewish Women in Europe: Creating Alternatives” took place in the European Capital of Culture 2016 – in Wroclaw/Breslau in Poland in September 2016. It was organized in cooperation with the Bente Kahan Foundation and Czulent, a Krakow-based organization and chose the eventful German-Polish history of the Jewish community as its starting point in order to investigate how Jewish women dealt with the disasters and discontinuities of the 20th century.
Thirty years ago, in 1989, the Iron Curtain fell, the socialist regimes collapsed, and new democratic countries were formed – a development that also proved a catalyst for the evolution of Jewish life. Three decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the 9th Bet Debora conference with the title Jewish Women: Being Present, Bringing Change which was held in Belgrade, wanted to celebrate our gains and identify present challenges at a time when democratic values are increasingly being called into question.