Originally published in In Jerusalem, March 10, 2017

 

Noam and Noa wanted to marry according to Jewish law and tradition, but wanted nothing to do with the Chief Rabbinate. Both felt that, with its stranglehold on marriage and more importantly, divorce, where the rabbinate must approve a couple’s desire to divorce before it can be implemented, the institution does more harm than good.

They searched high and low for a way that would enable them to marry according to Halacha, without having to encounter the rabbinate at all.

Why would a young couple on the verge of starting a new life together be thinking of the end of their marriage?

Jewish law mandates that when a couple seeks divorce, it is the husband who must give the bill of divorce (get) to his wife, and she must accept it. Aguna is the term used to describe a woman trapped in marriage, while she awaits the delivery of a get from her husband. According to traditional Jewish sources, the classic case of an aguna was a woman whose husband
could not be found. One whose husband was lost at sea, did not return from a journey, or was missing in action; those are the traditional agunot. Continue reading

Unless we are personally exposed to something or hear about it first hand, it is entirely possible that we never know of its existence or prevalence. This is true for sexual assault, unusual illnesses, and even things that happen in our neighbors’ homes.

Most people forget this, however.

Every time I write about breast cancer in the Haredi sector, I get two kinds of responses. One is thanking me for getting the word out to a population that needs to hear it. I get this from survivors of breast cancer – or the families of those who did not survive, from doctors who see women unaware they are ill, healthcare professionals who ask me for advice on reaching their local Haredi communities in order to increase women’s  screening compliance, and people asking if they can translate my words into other languages for their home communities.

The other set of responses I get are from people accusing me of inaccuracy, of tarnishing an entire sector, of making things sound worse than they really are. I am told that I exaggerate, that I say things that aren’t true, and that I clearly have an agenda.

Well, I do.

My agenda is fighting a phenomenon where women’s health is endangered because of a culture of silence. A culture where women are absent from health pamphlets or billboards. A culture where women’s names aren’t written and breast cancer is called “the women’s disease.”

I have been told that this culture does not exist, that what I am saying is simply not true. Some People pass my articles around for the sake of tearing them apart, indignant that I have said things that are so patently false.

But my friends, you are wrong.  The society of which I speak is not Anglo Haredim in Har Nof, or Ramat Bet Shemesh. It is not one of English-speaking Haredim from Western societies at all. That population values – or at least tolerates – openness and secular education — certainly when it comes to health. It is also not the community of Israeli Haredim who are worldly and aware of, if not involved in, current events.  I am not speaking of the homes where Haredi magazines such as Mishpacha and Bina can be found.

I am speaking of a community where the only publication allowed for consumption is  Yated Neeman, in which no woman’s image, or even first name is printed.

I am speaking of communities where girls do not know the names for their body parts. Where 12-year-old girls are not told about menstruation until they find blood on themselves, and then only in hushed tones, as though it is something to be ashamed of.

I am speaking of communities where sex is learned of for the first time right before one’s wedding, after a life of not being allowed to even speak with someone of the opposite sex.

I am speaking of communities where women’s bodies are necessarily hidden, lest men sin.

I am speaking of communities where women live in poverty, and caring for themselves and their health — beyond whatever caring is done for their families — is a luxury, or at least, at the bottom of their list.

That YOU aren’t familiar with  this community, that you have never experienced life there, or met its members, does not mean it that it is not real. Whether you believe it or not, the phenomenon exists and persists.

If you don’t want me writing about it, if you think I’m airing dirty laundry, or sharing a concern that doesn’t belong in the greater public sphere, or you don’t want the details in the pixels of The Times of Israel, then think what you yourself can do to help eliminate the problem.

Can you help by putting pamphlets in your mikveh? Can you talk about how important this is? Can you help combat the rabbis who prevented self-screening pamphlets from being placed in the mikveh in order to ensure that nobody’s ‘mikveh night’ was “ruined” in the event that a woman found a lump? Can you help change the culture of erasing women in your local circulars and magazines? Can you protest the notion that women and girls cannot be seen in print?

Perhaps you think this is not related. But it is. All of it.

Making the names of body parts taboo and not printing a woman’s name  is part and parcel of a culture that erases women and tells them the exact parameters of their place.

These are the women I write about. These are the girls without a champion. They are the reason I write this story.

The next time someone tells you that what I write about the Beit Din isn’t true…

or that women aren’t really being erased…

or that the death rate from breast cancer isn’t really higher in the Haredi community (for a number of factors)…

do me a favor?

Don’t tell me.

I’ve got too much work to do.

 

To help us raise awareness in these communities, click here.

Originally published in In Jerusalem, The Jerusalem Post, September 30, 2016

‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ has long been the policy of the Haredi parties when it comes to how the State deals with public works on Shabbat. As long as the work was kept quiet, the Haredi parties did too. However, as was recently the case with rail work on Shabbat, as soon as the Haredi media reported it, the politicians had to protest publicly. And they did. And work was halted, stranding thousands.

Since its founding, the State of Israel has had to maintain the delicate balance of being both a Jewish and democratic country. While Jewish and democratic values often align, when the two clash– they do so with vigor.

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MK Rachel Azaria

For much of the State’s history, religious matters have been the domain of the ultra-Orthodox, the legacy of David Ben Gurion, to ensure unity and support for a Jewish state. The “status quo” arrangement Ben Gurion made remains in effect. 

And it worked — for a long time. Matters of religion used to be black and white, as MK Rachel Azaria of Kulanu explains it. People were religious or they weren’t. They kept kosher, or they didn’t. Over the past 20 years, however, many Israelis have taken on an in-between ideology, one that incorporates religious observance with democratic values, and therefore conflicts with the strict ultra-Orthodox approach that has governed the Jewish identity of the state.

At the same time, Israeli society has absorbed more than a million immigrants from countries where Jewish family lines had been blurred, leaving many unable to prove their Jewish roots. Thus, they are sociologically Jewish, but not necessarily as far as traditional law is concerned. Continue reading

When my friend’s husband sat in jail for tax evasion and fraud, he demanded and received glatt kosher meals, regular prayer quorums, and even a daily Torah study class.

For all the years he sat in jail, he refused to give his wife a get. She worked to support their five young children, and even sold what she could to keep them in yeshiva.

Outwardly, this man looked very pious. Beard, payot, kippa, black hat, the works. He played the part and people went along with it, while she suffered. For years.

This was in New York, and he was in jail for financial crimes. In Israel, he could have been jailed for refusing a religious court order to give a get and had similar cushy conditions.

A law (originally submitted by then MK Dov Lipman, now sponsored by MK Shuli Moalem) was passed this week in the Knesset to prevent this. It states that men who are in jail for refusing the Beit Din’s order to give their wives Jewish divorces may not receive glatt kosher meals, and they cannot sit and learn in the Torah wing of the prison.

The value of the law is that it finally legislates what people who advocate for agunot have been saying for so long. Namely: withholding a get (or refusing to accept one) goes against Torah and Judaism and all sense of right. You are not being religious — by definition — if you are keeping someone else chained. You cannot hide behind Torah while making someone else suffer. In a world that is mostly unaware of the scope of the get problem, this is valuable. Continue reading