And this is true on the Israeli side, too. The infamous glass ceiling debated in America is similarly a hot topic in Israeli society, where women are now fighting to secure higher-paying, more senior positions in companies and in the political sphere.
On the mission, which ended just days before Israeli municipal elections, the group heard from Ifat Zamir, head of We Power, which aims to bring a leap forward in all matters relating to equal representation for women around the management table and generally on board of directors.
“The way forward is complex,” said Zamir. “This is a social, public and legal journey and ultimately a personal one for every female manager attempting to break through the glass ceiling.”
Zamir worked closely with a group of 42 women who ran for mayor of their city councils on Oct. 22. While only two women made it into the top office, she said the number of women candidates more than doubled. Also, nearly 1,000 women (as opposed to just more than 300 last election) ran for a seat in their city council. Those results should be available next week.
To prepare the women for their races, We Power offered workshops on how to raise campaign funds and held planning meetings, offering them a network of support. She said she is not worried this year about how many women actually get seats, but rather feels this year’s election is just the first step in a journey.
“This is only the tip of the journey,” said Zamir. “I think we will see big changes in five years [with the next municipal election].”
Moran Nagid, a researcher in the Israel Democracy Institute’s Democratic Principles project, told the JT that Israeli women have equality of access — “Israeli women can go where and do whatever they want” — but if one looks at how many men and how many women are in the same types of positions, there is a real gap.
“It is difficult for women to take charge where there are lots of men,” Nagid said, noting that she and organizations such as We Power are pushing the government to enact legislation (similar to affirmative action) that would make it easier for women to step up, and that would provide incentives to companies that employ at least a certain percentage of women.
Added Zamir: “The 20th century was about women’s rights. The 21st century is about women’s leadership.”
One of the most famous woman leaders in Israel today is Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center and the head of Women of the Wall.
Hoffman has had tremendous impact on women’s rights in Israel, specifically with encouraging the government to provide a place at the Kotel for egalitarian services, where women can feel comfortable wearing tallitot and tefillin or even reading from a sefer Torah. Hoffman and her group are in negotiations now with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky to finalize plans for such a space.
In addition, Hoffman was instrumental in stopping the segregation of Israeli buses, in which there were more than 2,500 rides per day during which women had to sit in the back. Today there are less than 300.
“We went to the court and we won the case,” said Hoffman, who told the court this was a civil-rights violation. But she noted that despite the legal win, on the ground nothing seemed to change except that in the buses signs were put up indicating that women could sit where they wanted. So, she and her colleagues and friends — some from abroad — started taking “freedom rides.” They would sit in the front of the bus. When drivers did not defend their choice, they sued the drivers. After nine drivers received hefty fines, the other drivers stepped up. Today, the women who choose to sit in the front are freer from harassment.
“It is a marvelous thing about being a freedom rider. Once, we went to sit in the front of the bus and within two minutes a few Haredi men blocked the whole front of the bus with these big suitcases. I turned to the driver. He stopped the bus and said to everyone, ‘Let them sit where they want or I will lose my job.’ The men got up,” Hoffman recalled. “At the second, third, fourth stops, women came to sit next to us. On about the 10th stop, a [Haredi] woman pulled out a bag of licorice and gave one to me and to the two other women tourists [Hoffman was with]. She said, ‘This is a little way to say, ‘thank you.’”
Hoffman admitted that change in Israel is slow — she has been fighting for equality for more than a quarter-century. But she said it is no slower than anywhere else in the world. She noted how she was in Macy’s on the day of the election of President Barack Obama and an African-American sales woman was assisting her. When the woman heard the news, she started to cry. She said she was thinking of her mother and the racism she had experienced and the pride she must feel that, in her lifetime, she was seeing a black president.
“It has taken you [in America] more than 200 years. Twenty-five years is nothing,” said Hoffman, who reminded that Jews have endured 3,000 years of a patriarchal society, and that it will take time for men to make room for women’s rights. But she said that to ensure a viable and vibrant Israel, these changes will have to happen. She noted that a message of social justice and progressivism best connects young North American Jews with Israel.
“We should stop telling them stories from 65 years ago, and we should tell them of the pioneering in 2013, of the fight for social justice, quality, tolerance and plurality. That is something you can sink your teeth into,” said Hoffman. “The time has come. This is the moment.”
“There is a revitalization of spirituality in Israel,” said Rabbi Saroken. “It is a renaissance.”
She said that the women on the trip left with a with a feeling of hope in the leaders of today and for tomorrow and of what Israel will be. They saw the battles and the challenges, but they also saw that there are people fighting.
“There are incredible women that are intent on helping Israel be the ohr lagoyim [light unto the nations] we strive for it to be and on making the Israel of tomorrow be a place we can be proud of,” she said.
But the women also awakened a new spirit within themselves. On Day 4, the women left their hotel before sunrise and traveled by jeep to the Mitzpe Ramon crater. There, they davened Shacharit [morning prayers] and counted their blessings. One woman is struggling with cancer. Another woman, just had a brain tumor removed — and survived. Others are balancing work, life or a new phase of being a grandmother.
“We were able to find an incredible sprit within ourselves,” said Penn. “We realized how fortunate we [are].”
Merle Intner described that morning as a “heart-and-soul- opening experience,” as standing at an “awesome place in the form of the geography and an awesome place because we were so in touch with ourselves.”
She told the JT that the highlight for her was seeing how young Israelis were giving back to society in so many ways, and while she is already actively local, she said she would find new ways to give back more, to better connect her grandchildren with Israel so they can understand their country and their heritage.
Said Zweig: “I am a reborn activist [for Israel].”
Noted participant Suzie Offit: “Rabbi Saroken and Ailene gave us a lot of their time for this. But I think they are going to feel the ramifications of it for a long time.”
Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief — firstname.lastname@example.org