Originally published in the UK Jewish Chronicle
We — my husband and I — made aliyah twice.
First, as a starry-eyed young couple, the second time as a family of five after six years back in the United States. After some debate, we opted for a soft landing over intense integration and wound up in Bet Shemesh. Before arriving, I had heard rumours of a rabbi excommunicated on account of his books on dinosaurs, and of gyms where televisions were outlawed, but I chalked such things up to extremists. After all, I had grown up in Lakewood, NJ and we all always got along just fine — – jeans-wearers and sheitel-donners alike.
It soon became clear, however, that I had moved to the front line. Nowhere near any of Israel’s borders but the front line of ever-increasing religious extremism. Over the years, it has crept in — sometimes seeping so slowly that we don’t notice until too late, sometimes slamming us against the proverbial wall.
At the same time I confronted religious extremism in my hometown, I was working to help free a family member from the man who’d been chaining her to marriage. It was a battle of many years, and, in seeking help for her, I met incredible people who wage war against religious extremism and the pitfalls of the religious establishment day and night, on behalf of all Jews.
These experiences created a perfect storm that left me an advocate for those who fall victim to the very establishment meant to protect them. I rail against the warping of our tradition into a tool of oppression. And I advocate for change.
I write about the removal of images of women and girls from Orthodox publications, about Charedi women’s higher death rate from breast cancer, about Jewish women chained in marriage, about women’s rights in the mikveh and the obsession with (preventing) Orthodox women’s leadership. I raise awareness of child sex abuse, converts’ rights and plights, and human rights in general.
It may sound as if things are awful and that so much has gone wrong, but with struggle comes opportunity; there is a flipside to this.
The reason there is tension is that Israel is dedicated to being both a vibrant democracy and a proud Jewish state. It succeeds on many fronts but problems arise when these two value systems collide.
Here in Israel, the religious establishment is a government body. Fighting discriminatory policies, therefore, means taking on the establishment, with all that that implies.
One approach to change is to work from within the Knesset, petitioning legislators for protective laws. For example, it is now law that four of the 11 members of the committee that elects religious court judges must be women. Considering that the religious courts are nearly entirely male-dominated, the presence of women on the committee that appoints these judges has the potential for significant impact on the personalities, biases, and secular education levels of the men selected for these courts, where all divorce issues are handled.
Another way to effect change is via the courts. Women scored a victory for rights in the mikveh after a Supreme Court petition called for women to be allowed to immerse without an attendant and according to her own customs.
There are also people working outside the establishment, creating halachic alternatives to the services they provide. Currently, there are halachically valid (Orthodox) alternative options for kashrut certifications, marriage, conversion, and, soon to be, divorce.
Grassroots activism and media also play a part, since awareness leads to people taking action. We can all fight against the removal of images of women and girls by refusing to buy the publications that won’t print female pictures. We can protest against growing extremism by creating more moderate alternatives and speaking out whenever we can.
Change is happening for the better. We, all of us who care, have the opportunity to help improve our society. Those who live here can be part of this locally, while those from afar can also make a difference. Israel is the Jewish homeland, which means our fight here is your fight there. We are working to improve the future of the Jewish state and the Jewish people.