Ten years ago, pictures of women began to disappear from bulletin boards in Jerusalem. Next, women themselves were asked to sit at the back of buses that were called “Mehadrin Lines.” Eventually, gender separation barriers were put up in the streets of Me’ah She’arim. Along with my colleagues at the Yerushalmit Movement and Yerushalmim, we began to fight for the pluralist character of the city and even of the larger Israeli society.
We didn’t fight the extreme elements in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world who were behind the campaign directly, but rather we fought the advertising agencies, the municipality and the police who were cooperating with them. These non-Haredi bodies were acquiescing to an extreme group and allowing them to wield control over the collective experience. They argued that their policies expressed an underlying tolerance, a “live and let live” attitude. All they were doing, they claimed, was allowing each neighborhood to determine its own mores on the basis of its own culture.
But how do we determine the borders of a neighborhood? To which sector does it belong? Had anyone asked the Haredi women if this campaign reflected their culture and mores? Were they interested in this campaign? Did the reaction of the non-Haredi sectors reflect apathy, even alienation from the Haredi world, a la “let them choke on their primitive culture, as long as it doesn’t affect us.”
I found myself, a religious woman, explaining to my secular friends that this campaign did not reflect Halacha, but rather a new extremism. True, it is nice to be tolerant, but we must remember that there are values that are worth fighting for. The equal treatment of women is one of those values. Additionally, mainstream Haredi society needs to respond to its extremist elements. This ought to not be construed as a fight between Haredi and secular society.
We returned to the High Court of Justice again and again. We put up our own advertisements with pictures of women on bulletin boards around Jerusalem. We demonstrated against Mehadrin (gender segregated) bus lines. We won, we lost, we won in part. We learned that all victories are temporary and that we need to remain vigilant in the face of extremism. Extremists don’t despair and they don’t give up. They will continue to try and impose their agenda wherever and whenever they can.
Another surprising and important thing happened to us. Slowly, we discovered that we had partners within Haredi society. Not only those who supported us quietly, who whispered during anonymous phone calls. But also Haredi women activists who are fighting for change within their own community. They are fighting for access to higher education and the legitimization of their career aspirations. They are fighting for the right to be elected to public office. They are calling on Haredi society to marginalize the extreme elements and they are doing it in a fashion that is appropriate for them and their community.
From the moment that we met them, our approach changed. Maybe women, from different parts of society could bring about a lasting change, each in her own community as well as in the meeting points between these communities. We looked for ways to replicate and perpetuate this inspiring cooperation. We called it “Women Changing Jerusalem.” We set up meetings of neighborhood women leadership, secular religious and Haredi, who were interested in identifying and fighting for the needs of their neighborhood together. We got to know women representing different worldviews and we learned to see the world through their eyes.
In each neighborhood in which we worked, we were surprised. In Kiryat Yovel, Secular and Haredi women dressed up as each other on Purim: heels and tank tops on one side, long skirts and wigs on the other. They visited each other’s homes. Secular Miri was surprised to realize that her Haredi neighbor Chana’s home was so similar to her own. There was thick tension in the air when on Memorial Day, Haredi Rivka said that standing during the siren was a Christian custom. The secular women fumed. They argued. They compromised. The Haredi women would read Tehilim (Psalms) while the rest of the country stood silently. They didn’t always agree, but at least they were talking.
In Ramot, the discussion focused on a washing machine. Secular Donna was very busy and her soldier son brought home dirty laundry when he came home for the weekend. So the only time to do laundry was on Shabbat. On one hand, she wanted to be considerate of her Haredi neighbors and on the other hand this was her house and her private life. After talking to each other. They found a way for Donna to do the laundry and for her to feel comfortable in her own home while minimizing her neighbors’ opposition. At a recent meeting in Sha’arei Hesed and Nachlaot, during the wave of stabbing attacks, secular women heard the fears of their Haredi neighbors: their clothing identified them as a target wherever they went.
Through “Women Changing Jerusalem”, women have learned to view the world through the others’ eyes. They now view the conflict between them from a different perspective. They all want to find ways to live together and to work together to further the needs of their neighborhoods. They saw that when they worked together to ensure that there would be kindergartens and playgrounds in the neighborhood, they were more effective.
We continue to fight for women’s visibility in Jerusalem, but most of our energy is now channeled into finding and supporting the women who are working for change from within the Haredi community and are paying a heavy price for their activism. We must ensure that they have our support and never feel alone.
The week of International Women’s Day is a good time to spotlight the women who have chosen to take on the responsibility of leadership roles within their communities throughout all of the sectors of society and in particular the women who are looking for ways to connect to one another, to work together, to pave a new path together despite the increasing polarization of the surrounding society.
“From women shall go forth hope.”
“From Zion shall go forth Hope.”
*Translation from the Hebrew by Dina Weiner
Tehila Friedman-Nachalon is a fellow in the Mandel Leadership Institute, former Chair of Ne’emanei Torah ve’Avodah, a modern Orthodox movement promoting pluralism and democracy, and board member of the Yerushalmit Movement, a non-profit for a pluralistic Jerusalem. She was Director of the Israel office of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, a grant officer at the Rothschild Foundation, and an adviser to Natan Sharansky.