OPINION: Meet the Orthodox women pushing for change in Israeli society

Shira Ben-Sasson Furstenberg

Shira Ben-Sasson Furstenberg

By Shira Ben-Sasson Furstenberg, New Israel Fund

I spent last Shabbat in London meeting modern Orthodox communities and leaders, in particular to discuss the role of Orthodox women in leading change in Israeli society.

We read Parshat Balak, in which we are told of the passing of Miriam, connected to water and life and to strong feminine leadership. In learning about her, we see a woman able to lead in two spheres – family and public.

My work is in many ways inspired by Miriam. We at New Israel Fund have the privilege of supporting Orthodox women leading change, acting from within their communities. Through our ‘Meshanot’ programme we are able to identify and support social entrepreneurs, women who are agents of change.

One area we have been asked to support connects to the mikvah. The issues raised by these women are varied, from the spiritual (how to make the experience more meaningful) to low levels of pay, training and poor employment conditions of women who work in mikvot (they are state employees), to whether a mikvah can be a community space to educate on women’s health, family violence prevention and more.

In seeking change, these women debate whether to work quietly to change the system from within or to use more public strategies.

For example, one ultra-Orthodox activist in Tsfat began a training programme for mikve assistants to highlight their various needs. The impact of her work was noted and there is now a tender by the Ministry of Religious Affairs to roll out this work across Israel.

Another area where many women, and men, are committed to change is ‘Refusak’ (women who are denied a Get – a Jewish divorce). Again, success here is being led by women recognising the need to create change within their own communities and on the national stage.

For example, Mavoi Satum (Dead End) is a leading organisation we are proud to support whose approach to the problem of agunot (women whose husbands have disappeared) and mesoravot get (women who have been refused a Jewish divorce) combines personal assistance with advocacy for broader reform.

On the personal level, it provides legal, emotional and psychological support and empowerment training. Nationally, it advocates reform in the marriage and divorce system though seeking to influence decision-makers and conducting public-awareness campaigns. It also helps women to tell their stories as a way to bring this issue to public attention.

Across the Four Houses – the Bet Din (courts), Bet Midrash (learning centres), Bet Knesset (synagogue) and the Bait (the home) – we are hearing moderate Orthodox voices in efforts to improve the status of women from within their society. These voices are also being heard in the struggle against exclusion and extremism.

We have achieved great successes in tackling the phenomena of the exclusion of women from public spaces, not least with the attorney-general in 2013 recommending outlawing any behaviour that stops women receiving “public services with equal conditions”.

However, there is, sadly, a need to remain vigilant in combating this exclusion, and women are at the forefront of this. In discussing these issues during my visit to the UK, it was refreshing to meet so many people interested in and committed to them. I learnt much about how these issues affect Jews in the UK as well as how much concern there is about what is happening in Israel.

It is difficult to draw parallels, beyond being refreshed by the amount of energy and passion from people I met.

My late grandfather, a pre-eminent leader of the national-religious movement, was often asked whether it was the ‘national’ or ‘religious’ component of the equation that was the more important. His answer was that it was being the hyphen that was more important. This lesson in moderation is an inspiration for my work.

I returned to Israel on the day we buried Gilad, Naftali and Eyal. I was deeply moved by the words of Rachel Fraenkel, a talmidat chachamim, as she recited the kaddish for her son. It was the first time an Orthodox woman of such stature has recited kaddish so publicly, and the Chief Rabbi said “Amen”.