It was January 2007, almost exactly six years ago. I was sitting in my office, reviewing a dense corporate document retention proposal, when I realized it was time for a career change. I had questioned whether I wanted to remain a lawyer for several years. On the one hand, the law firms where I practiced treated us like indentured servants. We worked extremely long hours, were yelled at, and spent most of our time toiling away at menial tasks like reviewing boxes of emails or proofreading our bosses’ work. On the other hand, the pay was great and the risk was low. All we had to do was sacrifice our time and our pride and we could do quite well. For years, the financial benefits of the job and the uncertainty about what else I might want to do held me in check. But by 2007, the drudgery of the work and the sense of how meaningless it felt became too much for me. I decided that the risk of switching careers—even to something as dramatic as becoming a rabbi—was worth it.
This dilemma of accepting an unpalatable status quo or taking a risk on an uncertain but potentially transformative new direction is basically what the Israelites confront in Parashat B’shalah. The Israelites have just fled from Egypt and have journeyed as far as the Sea of Reeds when God rouses Pharaoh to chase after them. God is looking for the big finish to the Exodus drama, a climactic battle in which God can once and for all establish supremacy for all to see (Exodus 14:4). The Israelites, however, are not amused. In fact, they are terrified. Whatever faith in God they might have developed from experiencing the ten plagues quickly evaporates in the face of charging chariots and alarming battle cries. They beg Moses to let them return to their former lives of slavery in Egypt. But Moses tells them to have faith, and God, through Moses, parts the waters of the sea so that the Israelites can pass through to the other side. We all know what happens next: the Israelites make it safely across the sea, and once they get to the other side, God causes the waters to crash down upon the Egyptians who are in hot pursuit, drowning them in the sea.
In a fascinating commentary, though, our Sages did not just assume that the Israelites had the courage to march into the parted sea. Even though this event, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, would become a seminal moment in Jewish history which we recount twice a day in our liturgy (in the Mi Chamocha prayer), the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 36b-37a) depicts the Israelites as being hesitant to take the plunge:
Rabbi Yehudah said: When the Israelites stood by the Red Sea, the tribes strove with one another. This tribe said. “I’m not going into the sea first.” And another tribe said, “I’m not going into the sea first.” [Finally,] Nachshon the son of Amminadav jumped and descended into the sea first.
Rabbi Yehuda reflects how we often feel when facing a life-altering challenge. The fear of making change can often be paralyzing. Inertia is a powerful force, as is the psychological comfort of predictability, no matter how unpleasant the predictable may be. We can—and do—come up with a multitude of justifications for staying right where we are. We are conditioned, both culturally and biologically, not to go into the sea first. But Rabbi Yehuda’s account also expresses the truth that it only takes one leap, one chance, one moment of action, and our whole world can change.
We each face these crossroads in life. For some, it might be whether to remain in a relationship that has gone stale or whether to endure the pain and anguish of ending the relationship with the hope of finding a better one. For others, like myself, it might be whether to remain in a job that lacks fulfillment but provides a steady paycheck, or to pursue a dream job that might not work out.
We even experience this crossroads at national levels. As the Israeli election on January 22 showed, Israel is almost perfectly split between center-left and right-ultra Orthodox parties (each bloc received approximately 60 out of the 120 seats in Israel’s parliament). Israeli leaders, in picking a new government, will have to choose between retaining the status quo coalition of the past few years or forming a new coalition that embraces socioeconomic reform, equal treatment of Haredi and Hiloni Israelis, and an engaged peace process. Will a Nachshon ben Amminadav emerge to lead Israel into a new, dynamic, and possibly redemptive future, or will Israel’s leadership remain entrenched on the shore, arguing among themselves and unwilling to take the first pivotal step forward?
Change is always hard. We yearn for stability, structure, and continuity in our lives. Yet the wisdom of our tradition is that God will support us if we are willing to take the plunge into uncertainty. The narrative of the Israelites standing at the Sea of Reeds offers us more than just an historical/mythical account of our people’s origins. It empathizes with the difficulties we face, today, between taking risks on an unknown but potentially meaningful future versus remaining mired in an unpleasant, yet known, present. And it offers us hope if we are only bold enough to claim our own redemptive path.
After the Israelites realize their freedom from the Egyptians, they break out into raucous celebration. The people unite in a triumphant and jubilant song, known as Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, which we recount each year during the Torah reading for Parashat Beshallah. May each of us be blessed with the courage to follow our own paths of meaning in life. And may our decisions enable us to sing with joy about the lives we create for ourselves and our people.
Are you on the freedom bandwagon yet? Celebrations of the concept of freedom seem to be permeating the cultural-political zeitgeist these days. Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” which tells the story of President Lincoln’s efforts to pass a Constitutional amendment banning slavery, just received a leading 12 nominations for best picture of the year. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in which we celebrate the birth of the great civil rights hero who helped lead African Americans in their struggle for freedom from racial oppression, is just around the corner (January 21).
And have you seen the Piers Morgan-Alex Jones interview yet? In a clip that has gone viral, Jones, a radio talk show host and gun enthusiast, launches into a vitriolic tirade about guns, freedom, and potential revolution that makes one wonder how he qualified for a gun permit in the first place.
All of this happens to be coinciding with the time of year in which Jews read the Exodus narrative. At first glance, it appears to be perfect timing. After all, the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery to freedom formed the moral and linguistic basis for Kin’’s civil rights oratory and is inextricably intertwined with Western society’s development of a natural right to liberty (which underlies both the 13th Amendment and gun owner’s claims to liberty from government intrusion into gun ownership). Continue reading
Ask any Jew what Hanukkah is about and you are likely to get one of two possible explanations: Maccabees or Menorahs. The first approach emphasizes a story about national liberation from tyranny. In this account, based on the First Book Of Maccabees, Mattathias the priest and his sons stood up to the mighty Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV, waging a successful three year-long guerilla war that, against all odds, freed the Jews from oppression and returned them to self-rule. The second narrative centers on oil in the Jerusalem Temple. As recounted in the Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat 21b (which omits the Maccabean revolt altogether), when the Jews tried to restore worship in the Temple, they could only find one small vial of sealed olive oil with which to light the eternal flame of the menorah in the Temple. Though the oil should only have lasted one day, it miraculously wound up lasting a full eight days, until a new supply of oil could be found.
It is quite fascinating to see how these two stories continue to resonate today. After World War II, and especially after Israel’s founding in 1948, the story of the Maccabees’ military prowess in defeating large, neighboring enemies became a popular new paradigm for thinking about Jewish toughness and masculinity. We no longer had to see ourselves as meek and bookish victims but could instead refashion ourselves as heroes, standing up to those who challenged our authority to express our Jewishness publicly. This notion of Jews being courageous and selfless, fighting for the preservation of Jewish civilization, continues to resonate today. On the other hand, many Jews focus more on the ceremonial candle-lighting aspect of Hanukkah, fashioning Hanukkah into a kind of “Christmas for Jews,” complete with candle lighting, festive eating, gift-giving, and caroling. We don’t have to feel left out of the pageantry and fun of Christmas because we have our own Jewish version, and for kids it is even better because we get presents for eight days while Christians only get gifts once! Continue reading
“I hate them,” he said, with quiet conviction.
“Who do you hate?” I probed.
“Them. The Palestinians. I hate them.”
It was at that moment I realized that I held in my hands a pivotal moment. My response had the potential to shape my children’s lifelong attitudes regarding Israel and her neighbors.
I used to be more of a peacenik. I believed that both sides had legitimate points and (relatively) equal rights to the land of their ancestors. But as time has passed, it has gotten more and more difficult for me to have compassion for those on the opposing side.
We Jews have a historical right to the land. It was promised to us by God; hence the moniker, The Promised Land. But it would be inaccurate to deny that there were other peoples living there even at the time of the Bible. If “Joshua Fit De’ Battle Ob Jericho,” as the Negro spiritual goes, there must have been someone with whom to battle. To pretend that there was not a sizable and deeply-rooted Arab population in the land is both foolish and simply wrong.
The time period leading up to the establishment of the sovereign State of Israel in 1948 is fraught with geopolitical missteps and gaffes that charted this current course for disaster. From the very beginning of Israel’s existence, she has been under near-constant threat from enemies, both external and internal, always having to defend her right to exist to the international community. Along the way, decisions made by Israel’s government have contributed to, though not caused, the untenable situation.
And then there is the fact that none of the surrounding Arab countries have done anything to help the Palestinian people.
And then there is the reality that the Palestinian people have continually chosen leaders who have their very own selfish and self-serving interests at heart.
And then there is the inevitability that years of oppression, whether real or perceived, whether by Israel or their own leaders, has instilled a hatred and resentment in the Palestinian people that locks them in this vicious cycle of violence.
And none of that matters in this moment because I have this one opportunity to give the “right” answer.
“No, you mustn’t think that. You must never think that.”
And I say that because I don’t want to become like “them.” Like the terrorists. The ones who have so little regard for human life that they knowingly and willingly place their weapons among their most innocent and vulnerable. The ones who choose to use the money given from the international community to increase their firepower rather than build up a healthy infrastructure for their own people.
They are Hamas.
“If you want to hate someone, my dear children, hate them. Hate the haters. Hate the murderers. Hate the terrorists. They are the ones who have been shooting rockets into Israel for your entire lifetimes. They are the ones whose actions allow just 15 seconds for kids like you to run to bomb shelters. But feel only compassion for the innocents who are being used for political gain. Feel empathy for the children whose government builds weapons that will kill them rather than shelters that will protect them.”
Is this an oversimplified response? Is it a white-washed one? Yes, to both.
There will be time enough to revisit this situation and its nuances now – please God – the fighting has ceased.
But my children are still young. And they are still impressionable. And above all else, I want them to cling to the Jewish ideal that all life is sacred. Even the lives of our enemies. So I show them footage of the humanitarian aid that the IDF safely transfers over the border with Gaza. We read stories about the injured brought into Israel and cared for by Israeli medical professionals. We see pictures of military actions that are halted when intelligence indicates that the loss of human life is too great to justify them.
Because the moment that we regard all Palestinians with hate, we will have lost our own humanity. And that would make us no different than the terrorists.
I hope that I’m not the only one who immediately thought of the sacrifices that appear scattered throughout the Torah. -There are several in which pairs of animals are sacrificed, but of course, the most famous is the sacrifice of the goats on Yom Kippur. It is a bit different in this case of course: rather than one animal being sacrificed, and the other set free, the turkeys are delivered to the White House in a motorcade where one is pardoned, and then both are retired – to live long lives elsewhere.
I decided not to bother to go and look up the origins of this mysterious ceremony, so that I can imagine it in any way that I wish.
The human predilection for symbolic action is so enormously pervasive.
On the day before much of the country engages in a ritual of gathering families together, many offering examples of what they are grateful for, many, many of them eating the same ritual foods – turkey, pumpkin pie, stuffing, watching the same football game… on this day before, the main dish is pardoned and offered an escape to a long life. I hope all of you will consider offering your own thoughts on what this could possibly mean in the comments.
Compare this ritual to that of the ancient Israelites and their sacrifices of atonement. It makes me wonder if, even in ancient times, the Israelites didn’t really consider sacrifice to be efficacious for atonement any more than we think that it is. After all, the rabbis, after the Temple was destroyed did not elect to maintain a sacrifical cult, even though they could have offered sacrifices somewhere that was not the Temple, as they had prior to it. many of the rabbis hated tashlich – that ceremony still beloved today, in which we cast our sins out with bread to be eaten by the fish – symbolizing several things at once – generosity, atonement… and yet, few people believe that throwing crumbs at fish is really the same as doing the hard work of repentance. Continue reading
It was after sustaining over 1,000 rockets fired into Southern Israel from the Gaza Strip since the beginning of 2012, more than 130 rockets fired just in the past 3 days alone that Israel finally responded militarily. The barrage of rockets landing in indiscriminate locations — preschools, shopping malls, bus stations and homes — was just becoming too unbearable for the one million Israelis in the range of the rocket fire. It is astounding that even one day of such an assault could be bearable let alone months and months of the same continuous fear of imminent death.
What country would tolerate approximately 1/6th of its population being assaulted by rockets on a daily basis? What country would sit back and do nothing while a sizable portion of its citizens left home everyday and kissed their children goodbye like it was the last time they would ever see them because it very well might? Would the United States find that an acceptable way of life? Did our President not order the intrusion into a sovereign state — Pakistan — and the elimination of Osama bin Laden? Did not most of the free world celebrate that action?
Yet, I could not help but notice the disparities in my Facebook feed these past few days. As a former campus rabbi I am connected to many people in their late teens and early twenties on Facebook. It was shocking to me to see words like “genocide” thrown around by people in this demographic in reference to Israel’s act of self defense. Why would Israel’s right to self-defense provoke exclamations by young American Jews about how horrible it is to be connected to the Jewish people during this moment; how embarrassed they were for the actions of fellow Jews and how they cry for the loss of Palestinian life?
Let me be clear. All people of good conscience cry for the loss of innocent Palestinian life. All life is infinitely sacred and of immeasurable worth regardless of religion, ethnicity, race or political affiliation. All people are created in the image of God. But where is the condemnation of Hamas? Where are the tears for the Israelis killed? Where is the heartbreak for children not knowing if they will live another day because they took the brave act of going to school?
I strongly believe that one can love Israel and be critical of Israel at the same time. I strongly believe that indeed to be a lover of Israel means to want to help Israel achieve a more just and more perfect country living in peace with its neighbors. Yet, this is not being critical of Israel. This is being ashamed of being associated with Israel.
Why the shame? Why the shame that a sovereign and free state chooses to exercise its absolute right to self-defense? The United States State Department, a government body that has often taken very critical positions of Israel, was unequivocal in its support for Israel to defend itself:
We strongly condemn the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel, and we regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians caused by the ensuing violence. There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel. We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately. We support Israel’s right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties.
Hamas claims to have the best interests of the Palestinian people at heart, yet it continues to engage in violence that is counterproductive to the Palestinian cause. Attacking Israel on a near daily basis does nothing to help Palestinians in Gaza or to move the Palestinian people any closer to achieving self determination.
The phenomenon we are facing on college campuses is not objective and rational criticism of Israel. The phenomenon we are facing goes way beyond that. We are facing the results of a sub-culture on the college campus that glorifies the demonization of Israel. I do not mean to exaggerate the bias against Israel on college campuses. Each college is different and in most university environments the mainstream campus culture does not vilify Israel. Yet, there is a clear and undeniable sub-culture that seeks to depict Israel as a genocidal, maniacal regime bent on the utter and total destruction of all Palestinian life. It sees every action Israel takes that expresses its self-determination as a state as evil.
This sub-culture has deeply affected many young American Jewish students. If one wants to be progressive, peace loving and liberal there is a tremendous pressure to disaffiliate with Israel and to condemn its very existence, because when one denies the right of a free state to protect itself one is doing nothing less than denying it a right to exist.
There is no easy answer on how to counter this dangerous and subversive sub-culture. How does one work against something so popular and so cool to many of our young people? At the very least it is imperative that we are aware of this sub-culture because perhaps the most effective way to combat this blind hatred is by cultivating one-to-one personal relationships with the next generation of American Jews who are being impacted by this phenomenon.
We must work towards developing a sustainable culture of Israel engagement where one can be a lover and defender of Israel and through that love offer critique and constructive criticism. The answer to this sub-culture is surely not to deny the right of people to express dissent with the policies of Israel but it is to direct those criticisms in a productive way and one that seeks to embrace the narrative of the Jewish people in its ancient-modern homeland. It is to be proud of Israel, with eyes wide open of its flaws and not to live in shame of being Jewish and being in the generation privileged to live in a world with a free, democratic State of Israel.
The recent reports of women being dragged from the Kotel — the Western Wall — while Torah scrolls were ripped from their hands and subjected to other tactics of intimidation and force by the Israeli police are unnerving, to say the least, to read and listen to. Israel is indeed a modern democracy with a state religion, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. It is not the only contemporary democratic state with an official religion. Americans unaccustomed to overt state sanctioned religion may find it incomprehensible that instruments of the state would enforce the rules, practices and customs of a religious sect yet this is commonplace in many countries.
David Landau in a Haaretz opinion piece argued that non-Israeli Jewry protesting the enforcement of Israel’s state religion at the Kotel is nothing short of libelous by portraying Israel as a country mired in medieval-isms and religious obscurantism. He asked those who protest Israel’s actions at the Kotel to consider what the state response would be to someone performing non-Catholic worship at the Vatican or Catholic worship at the Diocese of Canterbury in England.
Landau’s argument though only extends to a certain point. Yes, the state would enforce the normative religious practice of the state religion in institutions or buildings that represent that state religion. However, the state would also simultaneously enforce the rights of the protesters acting out in civil disobedience at those sites. The harassment and physical violence inflicted upon the protesters would be prosecuted to at least the same extent as those doing the protesting would be held accountable. It is a basic right of modern democracy to protest and the modern democratic state has as much responsibility to protect the integrity of the legally recognized status quo as it does to protect the well-being of those who disobey it.
This, however, is not the entire point. If we seek to compare and contrast Israel’s treatment of the complex situation at the Kotel with that of other modern polities with a state religion and stop there we will have missed the full picture. Israel is not just a modern democratic state with an official religion, it is also a Jewish state and as such it bears a unique prism by which to view this issue.
Jewish civilization throughout history has not been known for its architecture nor its artwork. Indeed, a traditional Biblical injunction exists proscribing many forms of art. (Nonetheless, Jews throughout history and contemporary times have designed art not conforming to that injunction but a full discussion of that topic is beyond the scope of this post.) Jewish civilization is known for two primary contributions to the wealth of human development: a culture of ideas and a society of engagement with the Divine.
Our buildings do not define us. It is our books and our relationship with God that has been the hallmark defining characteristic of the Jewish story. We do not venerate places; we appreciate the potential that a place has for furthering our religious, spiritual and/or intellectual growth. This is true even when it comes to the greatest and most significant Jewish building project ever undertaken, not once but twice, the Temple in Jerusalem, of which the present-day Kotel is but a retaining outer wall of the Second Temple complex. It wasn’t the Temple building that made the Temple holy, it was the profundity of that space and the power of the rituals performed therein that infused it with holiness. When the Temple leadership become corrupt and when the Jewish people drifted far away from the principles and ideals that it represented it was destroyed.
Thus, perhaps the most critical problem that this Kotel quandary presents is that there is a Kotel quandary in the first place. To acknowledge that the Kotel presents the potential for holiness is absolutely clear. Yet, the politics of power and of control and the perspective that the Kotel itself is vested with a singular ability to intensify our prayers and meditations before God is bordering on idolatry. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a seminal Orthodox Israeli public intellectual, declared shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that brought the Temple Mount under Israeli control, that the Kotel should be transformed into a disco or as he called it a Diskotel because he astutely understood the grave possibility that Jews would begin to worship the Kotel instead of God.
So instead of battling for various religious outcomes for the Kotel: status quo, three partitions (men, women and mixed), no partitions, timeshare model, etc., let us throw our hands up in the air and dance. Let us go back to the business of being Jewish: wrestling with ideas and with God and let us stop wrestling over a wall.
In June 1975, I was getting ready to leave Israel after a year of study. I bumped into a friend and told her I was leaving early the next morning and that I would visit the Kotel one last time. She asked me: “Have you felt it?” “You mean you haven’t felt it either?” I replied, relieved that I was not the only person who had no spiritual experience at the Kotel.
It was always fun to go, meet friends there, occasionally dance Friday evenings with the Yeshivat HaKotel guys, but it never carried for me any religious meaning. Now when I visit Israel, I rarely go the Kotel.
In the wake of the latest incident with Women of the Wall and the awful treatment of the police of Anat Hoffman, Facebook and the like are filled with anger, petitions, pre-State pictures of the Kotel where men and women are together, and videos of flash prayer mobs and the like. What has become a sacred moment for some has turned into a political football. How do I react to all this as an Orthodox rabbi?
The Kotel has become a sacred space and it is not just a tourist site. It is now an Orthodox shul. While it is legitimate to have security there, the passing of state laws defining proper religious behavior results in acts that do not preserve the sanctity, but defile it. Halacha can make room for women wearing a tallit and carrying a Torah on the women’s side of the Kotel. There is nothing inherently wrong with these practices except that they are new in practice. Forcing women to wear a tallit as a scarf is degrading not only to the women, but to the tallit itself. Forcibly removing a Torah from a woman by the police is a desecration. A rabbi of the Kotel should be asking how the Kotel can be a place that embraces Jews and does not reject them. How can halacha be maintained without shutting out others.
There are halachic issues with Women’s Torah readings, and while some might make a case for their permissibility, the communal/public nature makes it far more controversial. Doing them at the Kotel Plaza would not be an act that embraces Jews, but causes needless strife. Robinson’s Arch is a fair compromise here for this to occur and my sense is all agree to this. We should find a way that acknowledges we cannot pray together, but can stand together at least some of the time.
There is a wall that needs to be torn down here. It is not the Kotel, but a wall that has been built by the state defining religious practice and giving political power to religious authorities who seek to disenfranchise Jews. It is time that wall was torn down and new models replace it.
Having traveled frequently to Israel for the last decade, I have many amusing stories of security interviews before boarding flights to or from Israel. I know all of the questions by heart: “What was the purpose of your visit?” “Where did you learn Hebrew? “Do you belong to a congregation?” I recall being flustered during one interview before a New York El Al check-in, when I was really preoccupied wondering whether I had finished all my urgent work, packed everything I needed and if my suitcase was overweight. Following my reply that I do attend synagogue regularly, the agent asked me to tell him the name of this week’s Torah portion, and I was momentarily tongue-tied. Oh, how embarrassing when his next question was, “What kind of work do you do?” “Um, I’m a rabbi.”
At Ben Gurion Airport I have come to anticipate the exchange that invariably causes a reaction – when they ask me about my profession. Several years ago, coming home from a summer trip in intense August heat, I was wearing shorts. Not only was the agent surprised to hear that I am a rabbi, but she was suspicious. How could a rabbi wear shorts? (I admit that after that I no longer wear shorts on these flights.) For most Israelis, the word “rabbi” evokes an image of a bearded man in a black coat and hat, whose wife wears a long skirt, long sleeves and covered hair. The appearance of a woman in shorts claiming to be a rabbi defied credulity in that moment.
Without fail, the reaction is, “Really? Women can be rabbis? I never heard of this!” One time a female agent teared-up with emotion to learn that women can be rabbis. I wanted to hug her.
Such is the case in Israel – where the official Rabbinate has a monopoly on Jewish religious authority, ruling that only male Orthodox rabbis can be hired and paid by the state as community rabbis. That is, until this spring when Rabbi Miri Gold, a Reform rabbi won a nearly decade-long fight to be paid as the rabbi of her community. The court decision was in some ways inconclusive – the official Rabbinate won’t be endorsing or paying Rabbi Gold. Rather, her salary will come from the Ministry of Culture and Sport, and the ruling applies only to rabbis who are employed by regional councils. Rabbi Gold shared joy and relief at this victory, but added, “I can’t say that I feel unmitigated joy. Israel is still not the bastion of religious freedom nor the stalwart promoter of religious pluralism. We still have many hurdles ahead, but I believe that we’ll all have renewed energy and determination to push forward…”
This summer I had the privilege to meet and spend time with Rabbi Gold at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. I add her to my growing list of friends in Israel — female colleagues who are rabbis of communities. They are courageous, tenacious and crucial leaders for the future of Jewish communities in Israel. I stand in awe of the work they do in spite of the hardships they face: lack of funding and negative perceptions about Jewish religious life among non-Orthodox Israelis. They are breaking down the barriers and building vibrant, exciting communities for a new Israeli Jewish future. Check out the website of Rabbi Tamar Kolberg of Ra’anana, for example.
So this time when I was at Ben Gurion Airport on my way home, the interviewer reacted as expected when I told what I do. He said, “We don’t have women rabbis here.” I smiled and told him about Rabbi Gold’s victory. He was clearly affected, exclaiming, “Wow! I didn’t know I live in such a progressive country!”
Welcome to a new Israeli Jewish reality!
A couple of years ago I learned about a new front in the internal Israeli struggle over religious freedom: gender segregated buses. I was incensed. What century is this?
I have always felt that Israel has great potential to be a “light unto the nations,” inspired by our prophets of old. While the real Israel has many problems in realizing this vision, Israel’s story is still filled with many amazing accomplishments. I remain hopeful that Jewish values will ultimately prevail and the promise realized.
It had never occurred to me that the value of equality, which is so central to my Jewish life, could be rejected by an increasingly powerful and publicly present Ultra Orthodox Jewish minority in Israel. This just doesn’t feel right – this can’t be good for the Jews.
At the time I heard about this segregation I knew nothing about it. But I felt that I wanted to ride a segregated bus and sit in the forbidden (to women) front section. I stood outside the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem with my husband eyeing dozens of passing busses, trying to discern which were segregated – I couldn’t find one. Ok, I was being naïve, but in Jerusalem, where secular people are feeling increasingly squeezed out and sometimes harassed by the growing Ultra Orthodox population, emotions can run hot.
I later learned that the recently developing gender segregation problem is so extensive in some Ultra Orthodox neighborhoods that it spread to service at some bank branches, shops, and medical clinics, and even some streets. There is more – you can read about it on the website of the Israel Religious Action Center — IRAC, which is one of several groups studying this phenomenon and acting to reverse it. IRAC has collected many stories and letters from Ultra Orthodox women who do not feel safe to speak out in their own communities, but have turned to this legal arm of the Israel Reform Movement for help. Their testimonials are gripping.
I was happy to learn that the IRAC is now actively organizing “Freedom Rides,” named after the desegregation activism in the US in the 1960’s. I jumped at the chance to be a participant this summer. I learned why I didn’t see a segregated bus at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem – they have operated only between Ultra Orthodox neighborhoods. But I also learned that, thanks to the legal actions of IRAC, a court order made bus segregation illegal. Compulsory bus signs explain that riders should only feel compelled to move if an elderly or disabled person or pregnant woman would need their seat.
The “Freedom Rides” are the next phase of the strategy, providing support and empowerment to the women who need it. As a result of these rides, IRAC has been able to take bus drivers to court when they do not enforce the open seating rule. With bus drivers facing steep fines, real change is now happening. Dozens of segregated bus lines used to travel in Jerusalem neighborhoods. Now only two remain (though other cities in Israel still have some segregated lines.)
Our group of visiting American rabbis and educators, accompanied by Israeli volunteers from IRAC, boarded the number 56 bus in Ramat Shlomo. I sat down in the front section in a grouping of 3 empty seats. We started at the first stop of the line during rush hour, and the drama took quite a while to build. A male colleague sat behind me and said, “I have your back.” While there hasn’t been violence on the IRAC “Freedom Rides,” I was still a bit worried as we started.
It was fine – thankfully nasty looks can’t kill. I got plenty of those! We desegregated that bus, all right. And by the end of the crowded ride, two Ultra Orthodox women had joined me in the adjacent two seats. We all had a memorable day.
In the week that has followed I have been reflecting on this experience and discussing it with colleagues studying with me at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. How do we forge a mutually respectful culture within Israel? It’s complicated. I hope to write more in about this in my next post. In the meantime, greetings of Shalom from Jerusalem!