Today, I signed a petition to Gilad Erdan, Israel’s Interior Minister. At the request of our Israel Religious Action Center, I wanted to help send to him a strong message that we should support Israeli families by keeping them together, not by tearing them apart. Read more
Education is fundamental to the Jewish soul. As a people we have fought to be able to continue learning even in the most difficult circumstances. In Israel, we are fortunate to have top-quality Jewish and secular education. Learning into adulthood is not feasible for most Israelis, but tens of thousands of men in the ultra-Orthodox community receive state support to continue their studies for their entire lives. This privilege is not available to all Israelis.
When I was a member of the Jerusalem City Council back in the 90s, I met a young woman who changed the way Israelis think about education. Jenny Baruchi was a student at the Hebrew University and, as a result of her mother being employed there as a cleaner, she was able to attend without paying tuition. In spite of this advantage, she was unable to finish in the usual period of three years; as a single mother, Jenny had to work at the same time to support herself and her family. Jenny turned Jerusalem on its head when she decided to sue for the right to receive the same living stipend that haredi men receive for studying in kollel (a religious school for married men).
She brought to the attention of many Israelis for the first time that thousands of married haredi men were able to study for a lifetime with state support, while students in universities who come from economically challenged backgrounds had almost no options for support. Many yeshiva students receive stipends for on-going study, and these stipends are not based on merit.
These stipends are a major contributor to haredi men not joining the job market in Israel. Allowing tens of thousands of haredi men to continue religious studies for a lifetime without developing any “real world” skills keeps them from ever breaking the cycle of poverty, and it robs the Israeli society of their contribution. In fact, the national budget for yeshiva students is more than twice the amount available for university students in financial need.
The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) has been at the forefront of trying to stop this preferential treatment, and our recent petition in Israel’s Supreme Court is beginning to crack this long-established system. IRAC’s legal team argued that special scholarships for yeshiva students need to stop. We feel they are harming both the state and the haredi men who take advantage of them.
We were very encouraged by the questions and the general mood of the seven-judge panel. It is actually very rare to have so many judges hearing one case, and it is an indication of how serious they find this issue. We are now waiting to hear their verdict and we hope it will come in the next few weeks, although the wait could drag on for months. If we succeed, it will not end all abuses of the state education budget, but it will close one huge loophole keeping haredi men out of the workforce and stopping poor secular Israelis from being able to study in university.
Jenny Baruchi is a success story. After seven years, taking on debt, and working long hours, she got her degree and is now a motivational speaker in Israel. She helps women from disadvantaged backgrounds understand that education is the key to breaking out of poverty. We are keeping our fingers crossed that the Supreme Court Judges will agree with us that equal access to education is a Jewish value that should be shared with all Israelis.
How You Can Help
From Anat Hoffman, the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC):
Agriculture is one of Israel’s greatest industries. It is innovative and creative. Israeli fields use the least amount of water. Israeli cows have the highest milk production in the world. Israelis have also innovated new fruits and vegetables over the years. Israelis have created the cherry tomato, new types of peppers, and over 400 new varieties of fruits and vegetables. Israel exports these all over the world.
Recently however, Israel has begun exporting a diseased fruit; a fundamentalist interpretation of Judaism.
According to this extremist view, men and women must be separated from each other in the public sphere; at the Western Wall, at the bank, on a public street, in a post office, on a bus, and in a cemetery. He who stays away from women is the most religious. So men who want to score high on religiosity won’t ride buses with women, won’t shop with women, and won’t hear them sing.
This sort of fundamentalist view of religiosity, fertilized by the government, has now been exported to New York as well.
Last week, it was discovered that a publicly funded bus in Brooklyn, the B110, has been forcing women to sit in the back of the bus so men do not need to see them. Even though this fruit has a Jewish star on it and says imported from Israel, it is a fake Jewish product that is dangerous, illegal, and backwards. Throw it out. Judaism has never had monks and this radical view towards separation of women goes against 2000 years of history.
At IRAC, we are promoting and fighting for pluralism every day. Extreme elements in the ultra-orthodox community are still trying to force women, both religious and secular, to sit in the back half of city buses. This is in direct violation of Israeli law and counter to a recent Supreme Court ruling on the matter. IRAC and its volunteer Freedom Riders have been monitoring the situation by constantly riding the bus lines the ultra-orthodox are trying to segregate. We have seen results but much more needs to be done so we are launching a Freedom Rider campaign for Americans.
We invite all congregations coming to Israel, to join us for a two and half hour program, where you will ride a segregated bus and get an up close look at the situation on the ground. We have been doing this successfully with Israelis and it has made a difference, one bus at a time. Take part in the change IRAC is bringing to Israeli society. Anita Silver, who lives in New York, participated in many freedom rides with us during her visit to Israel and said “It was the highlight of my trip. I encourage everyone to take a ride to help Israel stay on the right route.”
For more information see the IRAC’s Freedom Rider webpage.
Just prior to a shiva minyan (after a funeral) service at the mourner’s home, I was approached by a congregant who asked me “Rabbi, are women included in the minyan?” This veteran Or Ami congregant, an active Jewish woman, surely knew that our congregation, and this rabbi, recognize the uncompromising egalitarianism intrinsic to Judaism. Unlike our orthodox brethren (of Jewish, Catholic, Muslim and other faiths too) who graft a foreign patriarchal stream into a once egalitarian tradition and thus do not count or fully include women, we count women as full partners in the minyan (the 10 adult Jews needed for a communal prayer service).
Knowing that she must have been teasing me, I said with a straight face, “sure, as long as you don’t sing the prayers out loud…” She, a few other longtime congregants and I all chuckled at that, and I turned back to my preparations for the service.
My wife contends that sometimes my sarcastic humor is not evident to people who do not know me. Case in point: a few moments later, another congregant approached, saying that some of the other non-Or Ami guests were shocked to learn that the mourners were part of a synagogue which, apparently orthodox, did not include women in the minyan! Unfortunately, their shock turned initially to embarrassment as I explained to them the underlying joke. After the service, we finally laughed about the whole situation.
It did give me pause. I would have hoped that most of the Jewish world, by now, would have embraced our God-given egalitarianism so that anachronisms – like not counting women as part of a minyan – would be a thing of the past. Alas, this is not so.
In many places around the world, women are still considered secondary or second class citizens. Sure, there is an attempt at apologetics to explain away the differentiation. But in truth, they remain of secondary status. And in Israel, these attitudes lead to other, more drastic situations:
- In ultra-orthodox areas of Israel, some buses are segregated and women are expected to sit in the back.
- At the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem, women are confined to a small area on the side (the men’s area is huge). Women cannot pray with tallit or chant from Torah, as is traditional in progressive Jewish movements around the world.
- Women cannot be divorced in orthodox Judaism without a “get” (Jewish divorce document) from the husband. Thousands of women in Israel cannot remarry because their husbands will not give them a “get.”
The Reform Movement has worked for full equality of women – ordaining them as rabbis and cantors, having them serve as Temple presidents, inviting them back into the center of Judaism as was intended. May the attitude, that there is anything okay with the segregation of women – on buses, in prayer, in a minyan – soon be an artifact of the past.