Organizers of womens confab overcame anger, differences

There was a lot of anger when planning sessions got underway for the second Bay Area Jewish Women's Conference, slated for Sunday, Nov. 5 at the San Francisco Fashion Center.

Many members of the conference's 20-woman steering committee — a diverse group spanning all ages and lifestyles — felt they had been denied sufficient voice at the first conference in 1992.

But they were determined to be heard this time around.

Early in the 18-month planning session the question surfaced whether the event should be called a "Jewish Feminist Conference" or a "Jewish Women's Conference," said co-chair Serena Eisenberg. While many members found the word "feminist" empowering, they recognized that many Jewish women are nevertheless put off by that word.

Ali Cannon, who called herself the most outspoken of the lesbians on the steering committee, reported that she detected homophobia now and then, particularly when she suggested lesbian poet Irena Klepfisz as a potential keynote speaker.

"I challenged the group not to pigeonhole [Klepfisz]," Cannon said. "Irena is a wonderful poet, she's a Holocaust survivor and a part of the Yiddish community."

Her feelings of alienation ebbed when other committee members spoke up in support of Klepfisz.

"Personally," Cannon said, "I felt acknowledged."

A grass-roots, volunteer-run effort funded by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Endowment Fund and other grants, the conference was designed as a unifying vehicle for all Jewish women regardless of age, lifestyles or levels of religious observance.

The all-day event — titled Celebrating Diversity/Creating Community — will offer 80 workshops (see accompanying article for details) and keynote addresses by Klepfisz and Bay Area community leader Anita Friedman.

Guided by their principal of inclusiveness, Eisenberg, her co-chair Marriam Cramer Ring and the others devoted more than 200 meetings to working out difficult issues. Trained mediator Amy Kitay led many of the meetings.

"This was a group of dedicated, motivated women who were not afraid to state their opinions — and some of those opinions resulted in awkward or stressful moments," Kitay said.

"The idea of including everyone is exciting, but there are practical considerations for accommodating everyone, including religious and secular Jews, teens, seniors and the physically challenged Jewish population as well," said Eisenberg.

Ensuring that the conference, at 699 8th St., was open to women who could not afford to pay the $55 admission fee was another sticky issue.

"Yes, we want everyone to come," said Cramer Ring. "But this is an expensive event and we have to pay for it."

While attendees at the 1992 conference were invited to request limited scholarship funding, many current committee members felt this option was not "inclusive enough." Nor did they like the idea of letting would-be attendees trade volunteer hours for free admission.

"People should volunteer if they want, but no one should be indentured," said Cramer Ring.

The group decided to note on the registration form that no one will be turned away for lack of funds. Donations to subsidize the cost of those not paying full fee are welcome, Cramer Ring added.

Finding a logo for the conference that would reach women of all levels of Jewish observance was another challenge.

Since some observant Jews would be offended by the depiction of the human figure, female silhouettes could not be incorporated in the design. Conversely, religious symbols were nixed, as they might made nonobservant women feel excluded.

The finished design features Hebrew words from Proverbs 31:25 with the English translation: "She is robed in strength and dignity."

When the conference is over, organizers will learn whether they've attained their goals. But one thing is certain, according to Cannon.

"There is a common yearning among Jewish women for something that is just our own," she said. Celebrating Diversity/Creating Community may be that thing.

"It didn't come easily, though," noted Cramer Ring wryly.

Suzan Berns