BY RABBI ELLEN NEMHAUSER / AJT //
The dialogue about women’s role in all spheres of Jewish life isn’t new; it originates in our earliest Jewish texts and continues to this day. In fact, the conversation is louder than ever in Israel.
Daily headlines from Israel focus on two opposing views. On the one hand, we have women and men struggling to gain and maintain gender equality in all spheres of life, and on the other hand,
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there are the ultra-Orthodox, who claim that Jewish law dictates that women are rightfully restricted from equal participation in religious rituals and in the general public sphere.
Of course, with this debate going on 6,500 miles away, one might wonder what (if any) voice that American Jews can have in this discourse. The leadership of Temple Sinai clearly thinks that we do have a stake in shaping the socio-political and religious landscape of Israel; last spring they invited Anat Hoffman as their first “Activist in Residence,” and that is where my story begins.
The Start of Something Special
Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), also directs Women of the Wall, a gathering of liberal women who meet at the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh to pray and read Torah.
In April 2012, Hoffman spent a weekend here in Atlanta exploring women’s issues through the lens of classic and contemporary texts, history and current events. During that weekend, Jane Cohen, an active member of the congregation, was inspired to spearhead a trip to Israel to investigate the matter of the role of women in Jewish life.
Jane invited me, a synagogue educator at Congregation Or Hadash, to come along as the trip’s spiritual leader and teacher. Together, we cast a broad net to gather women from a variety of liberal communities in Atlanta, and eventually, 10 women decided to take part in this special mission.
The theme of the trip was “Israel, Women and Social Action.” Jane set the tone for the trip by unabashedly stating her view that Israel is not a democracy in all aspects of the word.
Our group visited a variety of places, most of which are not typical tourist attractions. We were out to investigate the special achievements of Israeli women and get a sense of the particular challenges they faced in day-to-day life.
Each of us already had a clear sense that the religious right in Israel are doing their best to ensure that women are not granted the right to be equal participants in the public religious sphere. But we also knew that women have made and continue to make invaluable and unique contributions in every realm of Israeli life.
The Victories and the Struggles
During our time in the Jewish State, we met with four different female rabbis, each with their own story and her own talents. We studied with students at the Reform seminary, HUC-JIR. We talked to the director of the adjoining Bet Shmuel childcare center, who introduced us to a class of students whose mothers are immigrant workers, likely brought over unlawfully.
Lively conversation took place with a social worker at Kol Isha, a non-profit which prepares ultra-Orthodox women to enter the work force. Then, we celebrated Shabbat with Rabbi Miri Gold, who has worked in Israel for 25 years but has only just been recognized as clergy in the past 10 months by the Israeli government.
We were moved by the poise and talent of the teenage immigrants we met who are being educated and cared for in the beautiful Israel Goldstein Youth Village. We were empowered to contribute a letter to a “women’s Torah scroll” being crafted by a soferet (scribe) and rabbi ordained by the Conservative movement.
And on the final day of our trip, we were inspired by Yad Lakashish – Lifeline for the Aged. It’s a workshop for elderly citizens where seniors gather to create arts and crafts which are sold in the gift shop on-site as well as Judaica shops all over the world.
But besides these exciting developments, we also saw the injustices: restrictions of women at the Kotel; inequities in pay and lack of recognition for female clergy; lifestyle limitations for women within certain restrictive communities; and the attempts of the ultra-Orthodox to relegate women to “the back of the bus,” both literally and figuratively.
We participated with the Women of the Wall on Rosh Chodesh Adar and also spent that afternoon as Freedom Riders, joining the efforts of IRAC to “desegregate” a bus traveling through an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. We sat at the front, middle and back of the bus with the hopes of sending the message to both women and men that they can sit wherever they choose.
Still, perhaps one of our greatest achievements was our group – comprised of women from two streams of Judaism – finding a sense of common purpose with the many women and men we met. Together, we all work to support and nurture women and children in Israel.
So often we see the disparities and the clashing of our worlds. Yet we 10 travelers managed to approach our meetings and experiences with respect, sensitivity, wisdom and humor. We share in the struggle for equality and justice – after all, if Israel is our Jewish Homeland, then these are our challenges.
An interesting note: When we visited the Kotel, two of our participants wore tallitot. That day, 10 women in total were detained, among them the mother and daughter with whom our group celebrated Havdalah two nights before.
Then, the following month, for Rosh Hodesh Nisan, three female MK’s came and stood, wearing tallitot with WOW. This time, there were no detentions and no arrests.
And finally, just this past week, six women were detained for participating in audible prayers while wearing ritual garb. In a groundbreaking decision, the judge that was assigned to the case of the police against the women declared that Women of the Wall are not disturbing the public order with their prayers, but rather the disturbance is being created by those publicly opposing the women’s prayer, and the women were released immediately.
Our trip was an incredible journey of growth, understanding, experience and humility. We Americans have much to learn from Israeli society, and we must embrace that women, children and the elderly are valued members of the fabric of society. We remain connected to our friends old and new in Israel as we all eagerly await a more holistic understanding of full equality.
The trip was the first of its kind for the tour company ITC – as well as for us – but certainly this is not the last. We hope to bring an Atlanta delegation of women to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall this coming November.
If you wish to learn more about WOW or to join our next trip, contact Rabbi Nemhauser at email@example.com.