I was going to be the Minister of the Environment. That’s the answer I gave my parents when they asked me my plans for moving from New Jersey to Israel at age 22.
I believed it. And why not? I had a degree in Environmental Studies and was accepted to an MA program at Hebrew University. Living in Israel was the dream; doing what I could to make it better was the plan.
As it happens, within a few weeks, I met my husband-to-be on the beach in Eilat (during a marine biology course!) and, well, five kids and three transatlantic moves later, I am not the Minister of the Environment.
What I have become is a product of my environment: a reluctant warrior, an accidental activist.
For the past ten years, I have lived on the front lines of religious extremism in Israel, and I have seen it slowly take over both communal and political institutions.
Had I moved to moshav in the Galilee, instead of Beit Shemesh, I’d likely be happily sipping coffee on my porch, watching the sunset, knowing nothing about women being erased from publications, girls relegated to the back of the bus, the struggles of women as they try to leave marriages, or the alarming health statistics of Haredi women.
“The Orthodox community is sliding towards extremism, and the first victims are women.”
But I didn’t, and I do. And having stood at the side of an aunt, as she slogged through the misery that is divorce through the Israeli religious court, fighting to be freed from the man who had left her and her children, and having cried and begged the court’s judges to do better, but instead seeing papers “lost,” promises broken, and apathy unhinged, I have become someone who knows too much to hold her tongue.
And so, I began to write. I wrote about agunot, women chained to failed marriages like my aunt, and about the failings of the system. I wrote about women’s images being censored, and about how girls in my neighborhood were being spit on. I wrote what I saw and how I felt and that we must do better.
At that time, I continued to seek help for my aunt. I turned to anyone I could find: lawyers, activists, MKs, rabbis, rabbaniot, legal advocates. Everyone I met introduced me to someone else.
The more I learned, the more I wrote, and the more I wrote, the more I understood.
In the end, I came to perceive a systemic problem in Judaism—the Orthodox community is sliding towards extremism, and the first victims are women.
The sign in the photo above is one of several similar signs in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, a neighborhood populated by some of the most extreme sects of Judaism.
It proclaims that all women who enter the area must be modestly dressed — and spells out what that means. The graffiti underneath it echos the sentiment.
“What is the big deal? It’s just a sign. Ignore it,” people say.
But it is not just as sign. It is a symbol of control. It is a rallying point. It is the justification for violent behavior. It is a designation of turf and power.
In this neighborhood, a self-designated “Committee for Purity” decides what images and words may be published. They, and others who follow their lead, levy threats against publications and businesses, and assault those who get in their way. The committee has intimidated local businesses so thoroughly that no locally produced publication depicts women of any age. The local health clinics and banks won’t portray women, making for some disturbing promotions of women’s health featuring only boys and men for whom the same services are irrelevant.
Modest women have been called “shiksa” and “prutza.” Some of us have been spit on as well. Teens walking to their volunteer Shabbat programs have been pelted with garbage, diapers, and even bottles. A teenager cut a woman’s head open with a rock because he didn’t like the way she was dressed.
“It is not just as sign. It is a symbol of control… It is a designation of turf and power.”
It may start with women, but it never ends there. IDF soldiers have been attacked by Haredi men and boys. Women and children call the Israeli police “Nazi,” and garbage bins and tires are burned in the streets.
If the extremism were simply a phenomenon of a small group, it might be possible to ignore. But it is not — how can it be, when it exists on the political level as well?
Of the two Haredi political parties, neither allows women. Though they claim to represent the women of their community, no Haredi MK even attends the committee on women’s health (which is indeed relevant to the women of their community). The lack of representation and of listening to the needs of women has real-life consequences. Haredi women die 30% more of breast cancer than other women, and their life expectancy is 8th out of 10 lowest, compared to Haredi men’s 2nd place. I have been accused of hating Haredim because I have written about these statistics. But I’m speaking out on behalf of the Haredi women; with no Knesset presence, who will fight for their health if we don’t make the situation known?
In the Israeli religious courts, women seeking divorce are too often sent back to abusive husbands, with the judges’ reassurance that they won’t be beaten as long as they don’t ask for a divorce. Agunah cases wait endlessly on the docket, get extortion is not only allowed, but actively encouraged, as the easiest way to achieve a halachically acceptable divorce
“This is not Judaism and this is not Halacha.”
This is not Judaism and this is not Halacha. Anyone who tells you differently is at best ignorant. Much can be done to reverse these injustices without touching Halacha. Changing court practices — even how long it takes for a case to be heard — would eliminate much suffering. Get extortion should be outlawed. Evidence suggests that when women are brought into the process, as advocates, or even as administrators, divorce cases are resolved more quickly and more easily in than the current system.
The trend in Judaism is to circle the wagons, but no one notices those trampled under the wheels.
My conclusions, from all that I’ve seen, is that women have become afterthoughts. Women’s needs are considered after, and so long as they do not interfere with, those of men. Women’s perspectives are not sought out when it comes time to make decisions or establish policies, which means that, very often, women’s perspectives are not taken into consideration. The effects are devastating—on both women and men.
This is not the Judaism I know and love. My religion has been hijacked and I want to take it back. It is not easy. I have seen it repeatedly — how extremism gets worse when no one stands against it. But we must.
Until I move to that moshav in the Galilee, this is where I’ll be: working to get Judaism back on track. Writing, protesting, collaborating with others to resist policies that harm those the Torah is meant to protect. I invite you to join us.
About The Project
The Jewish Week and “The Layers Project” have collaborated to bring you the series, “Hidden Reflections, Revealed: A Communal Introspective on the Thresholds of Orthodox Femininity.” This is the fifth installment in the series that will contain images and essays that serve as a communal cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul) on the topic of several women’s issues in Orthodoxy. Read the rest of the series here, and look out for the next installment on The Jewish Week. For more personal stories and ‘in-depth insights into the lives of Jewish women,’ check out “The Layers Project” on Facebook. Images created by Shira Lankin Sheps, founder of “The Layers Project.”