One more step.
Seize every moment.
There is a famous poem by Israeli author Yehuda Amichai in which he describes the visits of tourists.
“Visits of condolence is all we get from them. They squat at the Holocaust Memorial, they put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall, and they laugh behind the heavy curtains in their hotels,” wrote Amichai. “Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower. I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide, and I became their target marker. ‘You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.’ … I said to myself: ‘Redemption will come only if their guide tells them, ‘You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important. But next to it, left down and a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.’”
Ironic, but with this man is where the journey of 32 women started last month. On a mission titled Women On A Mission, they read this poem and started a trip focused on the new paths that women are taking in Israel to build a more equal and sustainable Jewish state.
The experience, run by Beth El Congregation and planned by Rabbi Dana Saroken and Director of Development Ailene Sher, took 30 congregants from Tel Aviv to Beer Sheva to Jerusalem to experience the people of Israel in a way that most of them said they had never experienced it before. The mission was 10 powerful days of education and elucidation, of getting behind the scenes of Israel’s women forces, people who are transforming society.
According to participant Jane Zweig, for example, who had traveled to Israel many, many times, the “women dug deep into what Israel is all about.”
She termed it “amazing, sababa, chaval al hazman” and about sisterhood.
“I have been to Israel 28 times and this time has impacted me far more than the others,” she said.
“Each Israeli woman who we met refused to accept the status quo in Israel. They were willing to take risks to bring about change,” said Beverly Penn. “They all had hope. They all look forward to a better world.”
But the Baltimore women were not offered sugar-coated successes, but windows into the reality on the ground. They touched the impact of Israel’s security situation on the land, heard of the resistance by the Rabbinate and other Ultra-Orthodox leaders to make changes that some see as affording equal rights to people who choose not to adhere to an Orthodox viewpoint and witnessed the petrifying financial situation — poverty — of Israeli minorities and especially minority women.
“I knew there were issues in Israel,” noted Sher. “But I did not realize there are so many powerful women out there working with these different organizations to right the situation. The trip opened up everyone’s eyes to what the possibilities are. And we learned, it only takes one person to make a difference.”
On their second day, the women enjoyed a fashion tour with TLVStyle, a boutique company founded by Galit Reisman that specializes in discovering Tel Aviv’s unique and leading designers. Reisman noted that it is difficult to find success in Israel’s fashion arena — there is such a limited market. But TLVStyle helps women designers connect with one another and leverage group buys, and it trains them how to market their designs outside of Israel, through Etsy, for example, and into Europe.
The women participated in a special tasting tour at Shuk Levinsky, where they walked with Inbal Baum, the owner of Delicious Israel, which arranges experiences to showcase and celebrate Israeli food and wine. The women learned about the foods of Israel, where the melting pot meets the cooking pot, and the contributions of Israel to the culinary industry.
The shopping was good. The people were inspiring.
Take Dr. Chana Kehat who singlehandedly founded the Israeli Orthodox feminist movement and the organization Kolech (Her Voice), which promotes the rights and status of women through a consensual process of change from within Orthodoxy. Kehat is an Israeli trailblazer in a movement previously dominated by Americans but now spreading to a wider range of Israeli women, including Orthodox Ashkenazi and Sephardi.
Kehat was born into a Haredi family. A mother of six, she has a Ph.D. in Jewish philosophy and was awarded the President’s Volunteer Award. Her organization has made headlines for advancing issues such as gender equality (with a curriculum for schools), fighting on behalf of agunot [“chained” women] and those who suffer from sexual abuse and addressing sexual harassment in the Orthodox community.
“She said life was hard. …. What she didn’t say was that [because of her work], her husband lost his job, her kids were being attacked for what she is doing,” said participant Marlene Siegel. “But she was so upbeat. She was amazing. She perseveres.”
And she is slowly having impact.
In 2009, in response to Kehat’s work, Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun of the Gush Etzion yeshiva spoke in favor of transferring more authority to female spiritual leaders. Rabbi Benny Lau, then head of the Center for Judaism and Society and the Institute for Social Justice at Beit Morasha, talked about how gender segregation and messages in traditional Jewish texts were not explained properly and that he felt they had a negative impact on men’s perception of women.
Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, a Haredi rabbi, said in response to a conference Kolech held, “If women’s motivation is truly pure, then they should be encouraged to learn Halacha and be able to answer questions that come up.”
There was also a visit Vivian Silver, who made aliyah to Israel 40 years ago from Canada. Silver is the co-executive director of Arab Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation-Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development. She accompanied trip participants into a Bedouin village, where her organization is transforming the lives of the local women.
Silver told the JT that her organization prides itself on its ability to accurately assess the needs, abilities and available resources in the field and to adjust programming to meet real-time needs while leveraging existing resources. She explained that Bedouin are the lowest socioeconomic rung in Israel and that you cannot work with them as you do with poor Israelis, as the starting points are unequal.
“The highest unemployment rate in Israel is among the Bedouins. With Bedouin women, it is so much more,” she said, noting that Bedouin culture dictates that women should not work outside of their villages. AJEEC-NISPED runs training programs for these women, which combine assertiveness training with entrepreneurship and vocational training. It helps them get loans to start their own businesses and also starts businesses in which to employ Bedouin women.
One of the organization’s greatest successes is its hot lunch program in Hura. There, 17 women make 6,000 hot lunches per day.
“Every person has some capabilities,” said Silver. “Cooking is a capability of these women, without any formal education.”
Israeli law dictated that hot lunches had to be served at Israeli schools. Instead of bringing in a Jewish contractor to serve the lunches, AJEEC-NISPED trained the women to operate a very professional kitchen — in their own village for their own people.
“It is a life-changing experience,” said Silver.
In another instance, her group worked with women from across several Bedouin villages to train them to be photographers and videographers in the women’s tents during celebrations such as weddings. It also trained DJs and hairdressers.
“The wedding season is a very intense season for six months of the year. These women have very intense employment for those six months,” she said.
To get started, the organization had to get buy-ins from the women’s fathers, husbands, uncles, etc. — and the program was met with resistance. However, she said once the families started seeing paychecks, their attitudes changed.
“Equality is still a long way away,” she said, “although there have been steps forward.”
She added: “I think most women want change. They want a change to what is culturally acceptable, they want an education, they want opportunities, they want a little more freedom of movement — and slowly, it is happening.”