Sisterhood Blog

Jerusalem's Mayor Bending to Haredi Pressure?

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Getty Images
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.

Israeli blogger Hanna Beit Halachmi asks in the title of her most recent post whether Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is good for Jewish women. For her the question is rhetorical, as she is outraged as what she perceives as the many signs that Barkat is capitulating to Haredi political pressure, especially when it comes to the elimination of women from the public sphere.

Barkat’s punishing of City Council member Rachel Azaria earlier this week for petitioning the High Court of Justice to enforce a prior ruling prohibiting the segregation of men and women on the streets of Haredi neighborhoods, is just the latest example. The Sisterhood broke that news in this post.

While liberal and pluralistic Jerusalemites are railing against Azaria’s firing from her job overseeing early childhood education and local councils administration, Barkat maintains that his actions have absolutely nothing to do with religious pluralism and civil rights, and everything to do with procedural matters. He maintains that just as a government minister cannot sue the prime minister, neither can a city council member submit a legal complaint against the municipality.

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Brooklyn Bus Flouts Discrimination Law

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Adam E. Moreira
Brooklyn’s B110 bus.

Every day sex-segregated buses for Hasidim roll right past my corner, ferrying people between Williamsburg and Boro Park. It never occurred to me to write about it.

I’ve been writing and editing lots of Sisterhood stories about the sex segregation problems in Jerusalem and its environs, but I assumed that the bus line that I see six days a week (not on Shabbos or holidays of course, when we often see men in shtreimels and frock coats making the trek by foot) was private. It is painted different colors, has a different kind of bus-route display on its front, the long windows on the side are tinted dark gray so you can’t see in, and the buses are festooned with Yiddish ads for everything from kosher vitamins to holy books.

Why on earth would it have anything to do with the New York City public transit system?

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Gilad Shalit's Vulnerability, and Ours

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Getty Images
Gilad and Noam Shalit the day of Gilad’s release.

If Israel could choose a single day to live over and over again, then Tuesday, October 18, 2011 would be a leading contender. The days preceding Gilad Shalit’s homecoming were full of stress, worry and controversy regarding the price the country would have to pay for his return, the release of more than one thousand Palestinian prisoners. Future days will, in all likelihood, be full of the same.

But the day of Gilad’s release was an oasis of unadulterated celebration and joy. It felt like a spontaneous national holiday. All over the country, people dubbed it “Gilad Day” “Chag Gilad” and “Gilad Fest.” It was certainly the happiest day in recent memory.

The entire nation focused on one pale, painfully thin young man, deprived of light, love and care for so many years, stepping out into the sunshine, embracing his father, saluting the Prime Minister and the IDF chief of staff, and finally returning to the warmth of his family, and his first home-cooked meal (reportedly pasta, prepared by his mother Aviva).

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Taking Down Gilad Shalit's Flag

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Joel Zand
The flag honoring Gilad Shalit that hung in the author’s yard.

On Tuesday we lowered the flag. To be exact, we completely removed it with the prayer that it will never need to be raised again.

I am speaking of the foam and plastic Israeli flag that has been tied by a blue ribbon to a tree in our yard since Gilad Shalit was abducted by Hamas on June 25, 2006. We vowed not to remove it until Shalit was safely at home in the loving embrace of his family. My husband has had a Gilad Shalit sticker on his car all this time, and my boys have worn Gilad Shalit dog tags, bracelets and t-shirts off and on over these long five years and four months, but that flag has been the most enduring symbol of our solidarity with the kidnapped soldier and all those who have worked to free him.

The flag, one of hundreds I had ordered for Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations at the school I used to run in New York, moved with us to California, and then from one house to another. We carefully removed it from a tree at our first house, and carried it by hand to our new one. We chose to affix it to an orange tree in our new yard. Ours are not Jaffa oranges, but they are close enough.

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Jerusalem Official Opposes Segregation, Loses Role

By Renee Ghert-Zand

courtesy Rachel Azaria
Jerusalem City Councilwoman Rachel Azaria

Jerusalem City Council Member Rachel Azaria quickly paid a high price for standing up for what she believes in. On October 17, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat stripped her of her portfolios on the city council that concern community councils and early childhood issues. She was being punished for petitioning Israel’s High Court of Justice to enforce a previous ruling that ordered police to prevent gender segregation on the streets of the Haredi Jerusalem neighborhood Mea Shearim.

In an exclusive telephone interview with The Sisterhood later the day she lost her portfolios, she said that less than 24 hours after the Court issued its ruling in her favor, she received an email from one of Barkat’s assistants on behalf of the mayor stating that “because you went to the High Court of Justice, I am relieving you of your duties.” Barkat did not personally contact Azaria to inform her of this. But his office sent out another email announcing the change minutes later to all 31 members of City Council.

Azaria wrote a message on her Facebook wall letting her constituents and supporters know that “Nir Barkat took a position against the High Court of Justice and in favor of the extreme right faction among the ultra-Orthodox public and stripped me of my portfolios,” and that she would continue to fight for Jerusalem’s young families and children as a City Council member at large. She signed off with the words “Yerushalmim lo mevatrim” (Jerusalemites don’t give up). It was both her rallying cry and the name of the grassroots party on whose ticket she ran in the 2008 municipal elections which carried her to the city council.

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JDater Allegedly Stole Hearts and Money

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Gross, in a publicity photo from his author website.

It’s always horrible to hear stories of people getting swindled for thousands or millions of dollars. But I always feel an extra wrench in my heart and an extra dose of righteous anger when the swindler is someone involved in a romantic relationship with his victim. It feels like a double dose of larceny – in addition to being robbed of money and trust in human nature, the victims have a broken heart to mend and devastated self-esteem to repair.

Right now, the despicable behavior award goes to an Atlanta writer and disbarred former attorney named Mitchell Gross, 61. He decided to subsidize a luxurious lifestyle using the savings of single Jewish women looking for love on JDate. Federal prosecutors recently put an end to his activities, arresting him at his home on October 6 and charging him with wire fraud and money laundering.

Gross, under the pen names Mitchell Graham and Douglas Alan is the author of legal thrillers and a fantasy trilogy. His “Mitchell Graham” website says:

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'Protect Life Act' Continues the War on Women

By Sarah Seltzer

While the economy stagnates and many additional issues ought to be at the top of their agenda, House Republicans are still fixated on policing the uteruses of America.

The “War on Women,” the name given to an onslaught of state and federal laws that have restricted abortion, birth control and women’s health care in an unprecedented way, has some particularly heartless elements.

One of its most brutal measures, the bill known as HR 358, or the “Protect Life Act,” passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 251 to 172 despite impassioned speeches from many congresswomen. Among advocates for women, it has been renamed the “Let Women Die Act.” Here is why, according to the website Jezebel, the name has stuck:

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When Sukkot Is a Festival of Sex Segregation

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Nir Keidar
Members of the Lev Tahor sect at Ben Gurion Airport.

Israel’s High Court of Justice has just ruled that there can no longer be gender segregation on public streets of the Haredi Jerusalem neighborhood Mea Shearim, according to Haaretz. Except this year, the ruling states, when a barrier of up to 26 meters long may be erected to separate the sexes during the festival of Sukkot, as it was last year.

Jerusalem City Council member Rachel Azaria, who was recently interviewed by The Sisterhood’s Renee Ghert-Zand, and her colleague Laura Verton petitioned Israel’s High Court to require police to enforce the law, according to Haaretz. This is the last year when the segregation will be allowed, the court wrote in its decision. But of course that’s not very likely to provide a bulwark against the increasing confinement of Haredi women out of public view.

The extreme approach is quickly becoming normative and a value internalized by women in the community. That, in my opinion, is evident from what appears to be a growing number of women who are eager to comply in the name of obedience and modesty.

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A New Kittel To Provide Hope in the New Year

By Jacqueline Nicholls

My childhood memories of this festive season are mixed with being ridiculously inappropriately dressed for the weather. Insisting that I wore my new winter clothes, I would swelter in the heat of an Indian summer. But having new clothes was, and still is, a part of Yom Tov. Rosh Hashana/Sukkot are conveniently placed in the calendar for kitting out growing children with the new season’s wardrobe, but the connection is also encoded in Jewish texts. New clothes are part of the festive celebration.

Putting on new clothes is ritualized. The blessing for new things “shehecheyanu” is said, because, as the Shulchan Aruch writes, new clothes make us happy.

The blessing says:

Blessed are You, God, Ruler of the world, who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this time.

While some argue that today we should only say this blessing over particularly special garments, it does acknowledge that dressing in new clothing has the power to make us feel good. They can transform and change our mindset.

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A Mother's Joy in Gilad Shalit's Imminent Release

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Getty
Aviva Shalit the night a deal for her son’s release was announced.

I am surprised, I confess, by the depth of my feeling about the announced deal that will reportedly free Gilad Shalit from Hamas’ captivity.

I have friends who feel conflicted about the price Israel will pay for the deal. More than 1,000 Palestinian convicts, many of them the “hard prisoners” known to be particularly dangerous, will be released from Israeli prisons in exchange. My friends worry that terrorists will now feel empowered to kidnap more Israelis, knowing how high a price the State of Israel is willing to pay to ransom one of its children.

They are right. And yet. The fact of Shalit’s return to the bosom of his family is something to anticipate with the deepest joy.

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Gilad Shalit Inspires My Daughter To Join the IDF

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

Getty Images
Aviva Shalit at a 2010 demonstration to free her son.

My daughter was the first person to tell me that an agreement had been reached for Gilad Shalit’s release. Her voice was joyous in a “shouting-from-the-rooftop” kind of way. Shalit’s captivity has been very much on my teenage daughter’s mind since she saw the halting video of Gilad as a prisoner of war two years ago. After her first viewing, she marched into our bedroom with her laptop and said, “You need to watch this.”

On that video, Gilad was painfully young, painfully sad and painfully thin. He was taken into captivity in June of 2006 when he was just 19 years old — less than two years older than my daughter is today.

“I’ll translate for you,” my girl said quietly.

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How Surviving Attempted Rape Changed Me

By Faye Bittker

Courtesy Faye Bittker
The author after winning 1st Place in a 5K race this summer.

It is fair to say that I became a distance runner during the very long four minutes I was being chased by a man determined to rape me. It was then that my sense of invincibility disappeared. I swore that if I got out of the situation unscathed, I would never again exercise alone in isolated locations.

I am happy to report that I did get away. Realizing that this man was closing the gap between us and would soon be able to push me to the ground, I stopped short and hit him with all my might. Even in his drug-heightened rage, my 24-year old attacker was so shocked that I would slug him in the head that he stopped chasing me and instead put his energy into cursing me as I continued running as fast as I could.

This happened one day last year, when I was about half way through my usual morning trek – a combination of hiking up desert hills while sprinting the distances between them. I was out near my home in Meitar, a small town outside Beersheva. The section closest to my house is part of a forest originally planted in 1963 by the Jewish National Fund to help mark the demarcation line between Israel and what was then Jordan, and is now the Palestinian Authority.

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Ranking Women's Status and Why Lists Don't Work

By Elissa Strauss

Newsweek recently put out an issue dedicated to the status of women in the world. In it was a ranking of the 20 best and worst countries for women with the usual suspects at the top, including Scandinavian countries, and the usual suspects at the bottom, including Saudi Arabia and countries in Western Africa.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) did a similar ranking last year in which they determined which countries had the highest level of equality between men and women. While the two lists largely overlap there are some interesting discrepancies.

In the Newsweek rankings the United States is number eight, Canada is number three, Australia is number nine, and France is number 12. But the WEF’s “Global Gender Gap” report has the United States as 19, Canada as 20, Australia as 23 and France as 46, below the former Soviet Union.

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Why I Spent Yom Kippur at Steve Jobs' House

By Renee Ghert-Zand

courtesy Renee Ghert-Zand
Some of the offerings left in front of Steve Jobs’ house.

I didn’t go to synagogue for Yom Kippur’s concluding services on Saturday afternoon. Instead, I went to Steve Jobs’ house.

I got out of my skirt, put on some sweatpants and biked over to his house, just a few blocks away from mine in Palo Alto, California. There, I joined the crowd that had come to pay their respects to the late technology visionary who birthed and led Apple.

It was strange to see his familiar house, with its rustic brick walls and low-hanging slate roof reminiscent of the Elizabethan-era countryside, turned into a memorial. A corner which I had passed so many times on foot, on bike and by car, was now filled with flower bouquets, cards, posters and other personal offerings like sweatshirts with the Apple logo and used iPods inscribed in Sharpie marker with words of thanks to Jobs. Most poignant were the many apples with bites taken out of them lined up on the low wooden fence surrounding the small apple orchard that stands in front of the house.

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Why My Yom Kippur Is at Occupy Wall Street

By Jeanette Friedman

courtesy Jeanette Friedman
Occupy Wall Street protester Jeanette Friedman

On the Friday night immediately after Rosh Hashanna, my son Dan called for Shabbat dinner at Occupy Wall Street. There were about 25-30 of us who made kiddush, ate cholent (which translates these days into vegetarian chili), had tuna fish instead of gefilte fish and drank lots of juice while eating home-made challah.

When a CBS reporter found us under the sculpture on the northwest corner of Cedar and Broadway, he didn’t want to know why we made Shabbat in Zuccotti Park. He didn’t care that there were ethical, principled reasons to have Shabbat at a protest, to sanctify a day by speaking out for justice. This guy wanted us to be hippies having pot luck dinner. Sorry we didn’t fit his stereotype. “I only have 10 seconds, no time for this Shabbat thing,” he said.

I was the senior in the bunch, and David Peel, a real hippie who hung with John and Yoko back in the day (and was singing Tevye’s greatest hits), was one person who asked me why I was there, as did a struggling freelance journalist. They both looked pointedly at my gray hair and my grandmotherly physique.

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A New Space for Women in Crown Heights

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

courtesy The Jewish Channel
Bronya Shaffer

In a Hasidic community, where ritual life is separate for men and for women, there is lots of ‘women’s space,’ like their section at synagogue and at the mikvah. But recently there has been a new kind of space for women, one created by Bronya Shaffer. Bronya, a life-long adherent of the Lubavitcher rebbe and his teachings, is a renown teacher of brides-to-be and counselor to couples. I am lucky to be able to also call her my friend.

On the second night of Rosh Hashana this year she had a holiday meal dinner party bringing together an ever-changing group of her friends who are single. They range in age from their 40s to their 90s. Some are divorced or widowed, while others haven’t married. Some are frum (Orthodox) from birth, while others are ba’alei teshuva, or people who adopted observant life but weren’t raised that way. Some are professionals, others artists.

They are as eclectic a group as Bronya’s entire circle. She began the holiday meals in 2008, about a year after her husband, Gedalia, was killed by a drunk driver.

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Prime Ribs: Madonna Back at Kabbalah Center

By Elissa Strauss

Getty Images
Madonna appears to be back involved with the Kabbalah Center.

The recent controversy surrounding Madonna and the Kabbalah Center’s charity work in Malawi seems to not have had any lasting effect on her relationship with the organization. The singer was spotted taking her kids to the Kabbalah Center in New York to observe the days of repentance according to Ynet.

Zehavit Cohen, who is one of the most powerful businesswomen in Israel and was a frequent target of the social protest movement, has temporarily stepped down from her role as Chairperson of Tnuva Food industries, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Mother Jones reports that Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the leading breast cancer foundation in the United States, is denying a link between BPAs – a chemical compound found in some plastics that studies have determined as cancer-causing – and breast cancer. Critics say Komen receives large donations from companies who continue to use BPAs.

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Finding a Friend's Forgiveness on Facebook

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

iStock

I plug her name into the Facebook search engine and there she is: my former friend, Bea. The years have been kind to her: She’s not looking too much older, I see essentially the same face that was smiling next to me in my wedding photos when she served in the role of unofficial maid of honor. We were that close — until we weren’t. I remember the fateful phone call more than a decade, ago, when she was disappointed and angry that I wasn’t willing to leave my two small children and drive more than an hour to visit her. She told me angrily that if I wasn’t willing to make that much of an effort to see her, she wasn’t interested in being my friend anymore.

It was traumatic — the first, and only, time a close female friend had formally “broken up” with me. I was shocked and hurt. I called her and apologized for my behavior. I became upset that she was willing to let our friendship end over what seemed to be such a trivial matter. But she wasn’t interested. I grew tired of reaching out to her, and stopped. We haven’t spoken since. I look at her picture on my computer screen and wonder: Is she still angry with me? Should I still be angry with her? Or is it time to try again?

Yom Kippur is about reconciliation and forgiveness of past transgressions. We’re supposed to not only ask forgiveness from God for our sins, but also apologize and reconcile with those who have sinned against us, or those to whom we have done wrong. I believe that in our new wired age, we now have vastly increased opportunities to do this. And no, I’m not simply using religion as an excuse to spend more time on Facebook.

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Hatzalah Should Allow Female EMTs

By Renee Ghert-Zand

“Modesty” is again holding back women in the Haredi community. Although I don’t agree with it, I can sort of understand how the prohibition against women sitting in the front of a bus, walking on a certain side of the street or talking on cell phones in public can relate to tsnius, or modesty, and guard against the mixing of the sexes. But now comes a case where I just cannot see the logic, no matter how hard I try.

The New York Post recently reported that dozens of Orthodox women trained as emergency medical technicians are asking to join Hatzalah, the all-Jewish, Brooklyn-based volunteer ambulance corps.

The women are being represented by lawyer and community activist Ruchie Freier, who says she has the endorsement of prominent rabbis in Brooklyn and New Square (where Orthodox women reportedly serve as EMTs). She also claims that Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents Boro Park, thinks that having women join Hatzalah is an idea worth considering.

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Will Jews Wearing Burkas Open Pandora's Box?

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

by Nir Keidar courtesy Haaretz
The ‘Taliban Sisters’ earlier this week at Ben-Gurion International Airport.

Are the practice of forcing young girls to walk around draped in black sheets, denying them formal education and coercing them into early marriage the markings of a cult? Should such communities that do these things be illegal, and should girls whose parents join such a community be removed from their custody?

Israelis are now waiting to hear a Jerusalem family court’s decision on the matter. The ruling is expected to come next week, when the court must determine the fate of two girls whose parents joined the Israeli branch of a Haredi sect called Lev Tahor (Pure Heart). Israelis have taken to calling the group part of the “Jewish Taliban” trend, because women and girls in the group have adopted the custom of wearing burkalike veils covering their faces, and multiple layers of clothing on their bodies.

The girls in the midst of the firestorm, ages 13 and 15, are the daughters of two secular Israelis who became ultra-Orthodox and joined the sect. Their grandmother and great-uncle, concerned for the girls’ well-being, petitioned the court after the girls’ parents put them on a plane headed to Canada, to an isolated village outside Montreal that comprises 45 families from Lev Tahor.

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