A Woman’s Place is in the Seat of Decision-Making

With all the debate and discussion in recent days of Women of, for, on, off, and over the Wall, it has perhaps gone unnoticed that the Knesset Constitution, Law & Justice Committee this week recommended that Israel’s parliament ratify a bill with significant ramifications for such “hot” issues as women’s equality and halachic justice in the context of the Jewish State.

The bill focuses on the makeup of the committee that elects dayanim, the judges within Israel’s rabbinic court system.  Currently, the committee includes: two chief rabbis, two rabbinical court judges (these 4 members are by definition always men), two ministers (one of whom is always the justice minister), two Knesset members, and two legal representatives of the Israel Bar Association.  In November 2011, the Bar Association chose its representatives to the current committee. Both were men. Thus, for the first time, the dayanim selection committee did not include even a single woman. In response, Emunah, the national religious women’s movement, filed a position to the Supreme Court demanding that the committee include women. Other women’s groups joined the petition, suggesting that a specific number of places be set aside for women.  The Supreme Court encouraged the Knesset to develop legislation to deal with this issue of women’s representation and has frozen the appointment of any further rabbinic court judges until the matter has been successfully resolved.

On May 13, 2013, the bill was authorized by the legislative committee for its first reading in the Knesset. As a law, it would mandate that at least one each of the two ministers, MKs, and Bar Association members be women, thus ensuring that they constitute at least 3 out of the 10 committee members (with the possibility of adding an 11th spot that would be reserved for a to’enet rabbanit, a female advocate in the beit din system). The bill was sponsored by two new members of Knesset, Shuli Mualem-Rafaeli of Bayit Yehudi and Yesh Atid’s Aliza Lavie. Shuli Mualem emphasized that halachic Judaism was, and will always be, her guiding light, and that her goal here was simply to ensure that the judiciary committee mirrored the real face of Israeli society. “Fifty percent of the population is female,” she said at the committee hearing. “With more women involved in the process, the halacha (religious law) can be more Jewish.”

Now, I don’t know so much about the issues involved in this bill – although I intend to learn more, and to keep you updated in future blog posts as to its development into law. But I do know Shuli Mualem. She is my neighbor here in the yishuv of Neve Daniel, a small town of about 450 families in the Gush Etzion region south of Jerusalem.

This week I had the privilege to interview Shuli. I came away feeling that I had enjoyed an informal “shmooze” with a new friend, while concurrently sitting in the company of a woman to be admired: someone whose response to her awesome challenges has been to devote herself to family, community, and the nation as a whole; a woman who, in her own words, when faced with death opted to “choose life.”

Shuli was born in Israel, the eighth of nine children. Her mother, who was pregnant with Shuli when the family left Morocco to settle in Haifa, died when Shuli was fourteen. From then onward, her father raised the children and it was her father, she says, who became her “role model for the integration of Torah and Avodah (labor).” Both before and after aliya, he left work every afternoon to return to the beit midrash. “My father never relied on anyone else to support him and his family – yet Torah was always his clear priority,” Shuli recalled. “And as the rav of a Sfardic beit knesset (synagogue), he insisted on strict halachic observance while simultaneously making everyone feel welcome.”

After serving in the IDF, Shuli went on to become a nurse and, twenty-three years ago, to marry Moshe Mualem.

On February 4, 1997, two IDF helicopters collided over the She’ar Yashuv moshav in Israel’s Galil region. There were no survivors.  The highest ranking of the 73 soldiers killed in the crash was Lt.-Col. Moshe Mualem.

“On the night of the accident, I realized that I had to make a choice. And I said: I choose to live. There were many components and ramifications of that choice. It meant choosing to go on; choosing to live a life filled with meaning and purpose; and later I realized it also meant: choosing to marry again.”

Ten years ago, Shuli married Eli Rafaeli, forming what she called, “not just a ‘second-time marriage,’ but a ‘second-time family’.” Meanwhile, Shuli continued working on behalf of “her” IDF widows and orphans, both internally – offering support and creating modalities for memorializing the soldiers who were killed – and externally – fighting for their rights. “This is how I got so involved with the Knesset,” Shuli explained to me. “We generated a conversation among our country’s lawmakers of ‘what is it to be a widow’.”

Seven years ago, Shuli accepted the (voluntary) formal position of vice-president of the Organization of IDF Widows and Orphans. Under her leadership, the Organization successfully petitioned the Knesset to change a law that had come to Shuli’s attention several years earlier: “I found out that if I were to marry again I would no longer be recognized as an ‘IDF widow’ nor would I continue to receive that category of State benefits… Now, widows of the IDF and of terror attacks continue to be recognized as such even if we remarry. Our status – and our acknowledgement by the State as such – is forever.”

It was during the years of pounding the parliamentary pavement that Shuli came to the conclusion that Knesset is “where the power is.” If she wished to generate real and lasting change in Israeli society, this wife/mother/widow/nurse/organizational leader decided, she would have to run for office.

On January 22, 2013, Israelis went to the polls. They voted in a slate of parties which gave the Knesset a number of “highs”: the highest number of first-timer MKs (48), highest number of women (27) and the highest number of religious MKs (nearly one in three). Shuli Mualem qualified as all three.

During her first few months as a member of Knesset, Shuli has striven to delineate the specific areas in which she hopes to “make a difference.” Her three-fold goals encompass: welfare; women’s issues; and Jewish identity issues. This Knesset neophyte knows that the new road she has chosen for herself is lined with difficulties. Although she describes her new workplace as a “fascinating, diverse entity, filled with people who wish to make Israel a better place,” she is well aware of the challenges involved in choosing the Knesset as the venue for her societal goals.

“But with all its complexity,” she insists – and to me her ensuing depiction describes Shuli herself better than I ever could – “I say: ‘one who has the koach, ratzon and yecholet (strength, will, and ability), let him come to the Knesset and contribute all he has to give’. To be a member of Knesset,” she concludes, “is a gift from G-d. And we must use this gift for the good of the Torah, the nation and the land of Israel!”

About the Author
Yael Ehrenpreis Meyer writes regularly for magazines in the U.S. and Israel, as well as on online forums and for a range of non-profit organizations; A science journalism graduate of New York University, she was an editor of the Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, and currently also freelances as a book editor; A New York native, she resides south of Jerusalem, in the town of Neve Daniel, with her husband and daughter