Yesterday morning, as the sun rose on the Western Wall, a group of women clad in prayer shawls and phylacteries waited to lead prayers and read from the Torah. While the Women of the Wall conducted their monthly prayer services, the citizens of Israel, as well as Jews across the world, once again faced the now monthly question regarding women’s place in prayer, holy places, and society.
At the same time, a group of 20 international women’s rights activists traveled by bus to Haifa, where they met with prominent women of the Haifa community, and academic and Hi-Tech worlds.
After days of panels and discussion on topics like the ever-relevant “Women in Judaism”- with grass-roots activists like Alieza Salzberg (founder of the egalitarian Yeshivat Talpiyot), Sarah Weil (founder of “The Women’s Gathering” for the Jerusalem lesbian community) and Sarah Einfeld (former member of the ultra-Orthodox community and activist for Orthodox women’s rights) – the discussions held with Haifa’s diverse women marked the end of the first annual International Women’s Conference in Israel (IWC).
Six months ago, my friends and I began working on turning a dream into reality. As fellows in the StandWithUs Israel fellowship, we spent our free time this year training to be representatives and advocates for Israel, and the IWC was our chance to prove our worth.
Israel in the mainstream international media is usually portrayed through the conflict. The day to day lives of Israelis like myself and my friends are not what the world hears about, and when our daily ritual is shown to the world, it is usually in the wake of something viewed negatively- like separate seating on buses. These are big issues in Israeli society- but they are not our Israel.
Our Israel is not bombs, war, and hate- it is a country that is full of challenges, but these challenges lead to creative and critical thinking, discussion, and new ideas. Our Israel is not black and white, but colorful. There is no one opinion, rather a spectrum of colorful ideas that sometimes clash, but oftentimes meld together to form stronger, bolder colors.
Our Israel does not get heard, and we wanted to give it a voice.
As can be attested by the monthly blog fest on the Times of Israel every Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the new Jewish month), women’s role in Israeli and Jewish life is a topic of burning importance. Israel is a country that sits on the cultural cross roads of East and West, tradition and modernity, which magnifies the significance of this specific societal discussion. Israeli women, their challenges, and their accomplishments, serve as a prism for societies world-wide.
For us – the 25 hard working students of the Hebrew University StandWithUs Fellowship – this offered a unique opportunity to create change for the women of the world while giving real Israeli life a chance to be seen and heard across the globe.
It is not Israel’s progress in the area of woman’s empowerment that makes Israel a unique country. Our speakers- which included prominent female figures in Israeli society like Penina Rosenblum (cosmetics entrepreneur and former MK, Likud Party), Shlomit Weiss (Intel-Israel executive), MK Michal Rozin (Meretz Party), MK Ifat Kariv (Yesh Atid Party), and Lt.Cl. Shirly Subul (head of the IDF Combat Fitness Lifestyle Branch) – made it clear that this is only the beginning.
Israeli women are successful in the world of business, politics, and even the seemingly macho world of the army, but the truly unique story is the conversation taking place throughout all of Israel regarding the country’s women.
Change can only happen through dialogue, through both similar and dissenting opinions willing to meet and discuss each other’s points of views in order to create an environment that is respectful to and comfortable for all.
Together our participants from Israel and places like Nepal, Nigeria, and Holland, gleaned valuable tips, lessons, and tools from notable speakers like world-renowned legal expert and human rights activist Prof. Frances Raday, and former Israeli emissary to the UN Prof. Gabriela Shalev. Equally, and maybe more important, were the lessons that they learned from each other’s stories and examples.
Over the course of four days, the IWC served as a lab not only for a wide variety of Israeli thoughts on the topic, but for international discourse on women, impact and change.
In addition to lunching with an Arab mother in the Old City of Jerusalem, a visit with an Ultra-Orthodox grandmother in the Bucharan neighborhood, and various other hands on experiences with Israel’s diverse women, participants also presented the wide array of challenges that they faced in their countries. Issues like HIV, discrimination, LGBT rights, sexual harassment, women’s health, and how to begin dealing with it all.
Dealing with such challenges, along with others like women’s rights at the Western Wall, in the religious world, and the way that women are viewed and treated in society, will take time. But after the past four days I can safely say that I know of at least 20 people who have started a proper and respectful conversation that will lead to a better Israel and world for everyone.