Reporter's Notebook: Puah Institute conference

Caught between open-mindedness and extremism, fertility organization only invites male speakers to address crowd.

Puah conference men and women mehitza 311 (photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
Puah conference men and women mehitza 311
(photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
The discussions included ovary transplantation, the checking of post-menstrual “spotting” by color-blind rabbis to determine if a woman can go to the ritual bath, breastfeeding, pain during intercourse, post-natal depression, precancerous cervical lesions and abortions. But there were no female speakers at the Puah Institute for Fertility and Medicine According to Halacha’s 12th-annual “Innovations in Gynecology, Obstetrics and Jewish Law”conference Wednesday in Jerusalem – there were only 13 rabbis and eight male physicians or PhDs on the podium during the daylong gathering.
Despite the brouhaha raised during the past week in the general media over its “exclusion of women,” and the counterattacks by the haredi world, there were no secular or haredi journalists. But I (who am neither) was there to listen and cover the sessions, as I have been for the past decade.
The discussions, as always, included terminology such as ejaculation and male orgasm, as well as other subjects that would have caused haredi men to blush even without the presence of women, and which are routinely censored in the haredi media. And as with the previous conferences, there was an equal number of women and men (more than 1,000 in all) – separated by cloth-covered dividers – in attendance, and closed-circuit TV screens showing the speakers.
Although nothing had really changed, the audience had more haredim in black kippot, and fewer national religious men in crocheted kippot. And there was tension in the air – resulting from Kadima MK (and gynecologist) Rachel Adatto’s objection last week to Puah’s policy of not allowing women experts to address the crowd.
In light of growing extremism in the haredi community, exemplified by incidents in Beit Shemesh, conflicts over gender-segregated buses and the growing “exclusion of women,” the Israel Medical Association (IMA) issued a position paper this week. The statement barred its members from discriminating against women – in the provision of medical treatment, in medical publications, in hiring and in appearing at medical conferences.
Almost all the physician speakers cancelled their planned lectures, forcing Puah – established by national-religious Jews – to scramble to find male speakers will to replace those who feared trouble from the IMA or agreed with its stance.
The revised list of subjects was handed out three hours after the conference began, and even then without the names of the new speakers, so as to prevent trouble for them.
There was tension in the air that one could touch. Guards at the men’s and women’s entrances were alert for secular demonstrators – who never showed up. But the advance negative publicity was on everyone’s mind as the chairs very slowly filled up. Was it due to parking problems, the weather, or last-minute cancellation by “liberals,” the Puah organizers wondered.
Before it opened, women spoke among themselves.
“Puah should have invited leading women doctors to speak,” argued one voice.
“They could have turned off the closed-circuit TV on the men’s side and just heard them. Maybe 22 years ago it was correct for [the late former Sephardi chief] Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu to insist that no women speakers be invited so that any rabbi or man felt comfortable. But that doesn’t mean it is mandatory today, when there are many female doctors and scientists who are more expert than men.”
An adamant haredi women countered by saying that “the rabbis say it is forbidden for men to hear women speak. A woman’s voice is nakedness.”
She was referring to what is usually understood as a woman’s singing voice, but disagreed.
“It is not only singing. It is speaking by a woman who is not your wife.”
The women’s side was a sea of almost total black and grey.
Haredi woman and even schoolgirls have in recent years abandoned colorful dresses and coats (even housecoats), and shops in haredi neighborhoods illustrate the darkening female wardrobe. A way of making women less noticeable?
“We usually have butterflies in our stomachs,” said one Puah organizer, who was the first speaker. “Will the computer equipment and the lights work and the lecturers come as scheduled? This time we have an elephant here. We pray that this 12th conference will be professional, efficient and, we hope, interesting.”
Puah founder and director Rabbi Menachem Burstein declared: “There was media noise. Today, we are not preoccupied with provocations. We thank the many people who called to give us support and affection – even from abroad. Every day of the year, except for our national conference, women can speak at our various events, but not at this one.”
Burstein added his thanks to Sari Ben-Lulu, the organization’s spokeswoman, for working overtime to defend Puah in the chaotic last days before the gathering.
“Yes, we even have a spokeswoman,” he said. “There were organizational threats, even of boycotts, against doctors who were originally on our list to speak. We will not take revenge on them.”
Ramat Gan’s chief rabbi, Ya’acov Ariel, who discussed the complicated issue of possible ovary transplants to help other women get pregnant, discussed the week’s Torah portion in which Israelite midwives Puah and Shifra delivered infant boys in ancient Egypt, despite Pharoah’s order to kill them.
“You see? There was exclusion of males then,” Ariel said with a smile.
His talmudic discussion comparing grafting citrons onto lemon tree branches and using various examples of animal husbandry to rule on the matter of human ovaries was not easy to follow.
Single women who do not find a husband when young should, Ariel recommended, have their ovaries removed and frozen so they can use them even in old age to produce a pregnancy – instead of getting an anonymous sperm donation, possibly from a non-Jew, to have a baby.
“She should freeze the eggs and she will be blessed and get married,” he said.
Many of the pinch-hitting physicians who showed up were from Ma’ayanei Hayeshua Hospital in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem’s Bikur Cholim Hospital, both of them haredi-affiliated.
They did not say whether they had been pressured into appearing at the last moment.
Puah would not compromise on women speakers at the annual event, but it decided to sponsor an annual women’s conference on the anniversary of the death of Eliyahu at which female doctors would be invited to speak.
Tel Aviv chief rabbi (and former Ashkenazi chief rabbi) Yisrael Meir Lau said that hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews suffered from fertility problems, and that Puah had made it possible for tens of thousands of babies to be born to them, thanks to medical technologies approved by rabbis.
I phoned a modern-Orthodox woman pediatrician who was not there and who declined to have her name mentioned.
“I have refused to attend Puah’s events for the past seven years as a matter of principle,” she said. “I am one of two women doctors in the country who are also lactation consultants. A discussion on breastfeeding was scheduled but I was not allowed to speak, even though men don’t know very much about breastfeeding.”
She added that the exclusion of female experts there was not a new phenomenon.
“I was asked back then by a Puah rabbi to brief him on the subject, and he presented my information at the conference,” she told me. “I was also upset that this part of the conference was sponsored by a baby-formula company.”
The pediatrician thought the IMA was “shooting from the hip” by deciding within a day to issue a position paper on the matter, but “the problem of growing haredi extremism and the exclusion of women doctors has to be dealt with.”