It was only five years ago that Rachel Azaria first got involved in local Jerusalem politics as councilwoman. Now a rising star in the municipality, she was sworn in as the city’s new deputy mayor on November 21.
Azaria, 36, was first elected to Jerusalem’s city council in 2008. In elections held this past October, her Yerushalmim (Jerusalemites) party doubled its representation on the council, and negotiated its way to key positions and portfolios.
The Forward has covered Azaria’s outspokenness and activism on behalf of young families and women when she was first elected in 2011. She has been at the forefront of the fight against the exclusion of women from the public sphere in Israel’s capital, and in Israeli society in general. An Orthodox feminist, she is not afraid to speak out against those who oppose her and her allies’ efforts to create a more tolerant, pluralistic Jerusalem.
In light of her appointment as deputy mayor, the Forward’s Renee Ghert-Zand asked Azaria about her approach to campaigning, her new job, her political plans and ambitions, and how she, as the mother of four young children, balances work and family life.
Jerusalem residents were told to stay off the streets during the recent, highly unusual, heavy snowstorm. Only plows and emergency vehicles were allowed to get through.
And only in Jerusalem would a “Purity Mobile” count as an emergency vehicle.
Ynet reported that Taharat Habayit (purity of the home), a Haredi organization, sent a 4x4 jeep-like vehicle out in treacherous road and visibility conditions last Thursday and Saturday nights to pick up women and take them to local mikvehs so they could immerse immediately following their monthly periods of ritual impurity.
“The organization’s top priority is raising awareness to the importance of the family purity mitzvah. We see it fit to operate even with such serious conditions like rainy weather and heavy snow, so that as many women as possible adhere to purity laws and manage to reach the mikveh in the easiest and most convenient way,” said Taharat Habayit chairman, Rabbi Yehezkel Mutzafi.
According to the BBC, a quiet revolution is taking place among ultra-Orthodox women in Jerusalem. They have discovered the power of mascara.
There are, of course, numerous strict restrictions on these women when it comes to their appearance. They must wear modest clothes — no elbows, no collar bones — cover their heads, and many even cut off their hair. And yet, whether it is pressure from the secular world to look a certain kind of pretty or some deep-rooted desire in women to beautify oneself, they are heading to the beauty salon.
I never really paid close attention to the street signs in Jerusalem until a couple of years ago, when I missed an important turn onto Golda Meir Blvd. I missed the turn because the local Haredim had erased the print on the sign. They were obviously far more concerned about removing a woman’s name — let alone her image — from a sign than about drivers such as myself getting lost.
So I am sensitive about matters having to do with Jerusalem street signs, especially when feminist issues are involved. It’s no surprise, then, that I took note of a story Jerusalem councilmember Rachel Azaria posted on her Facebook page about a group of high school students who took it upon themselves to address the fact that signs for streets named after female biblical figures identify the women only by their relationship to men. Meanwhile, the signs for the male characters include full-blown descriptions of their significance to the biblical narrative and the Jewish people.
A prayer rally is being planned for Rosh Chodesh Nissan on March 12 to provide a way for Jews in New York to stand in solidarity with Women of the Wall, who will be praying at the Kotel that same morning.
The rally, billed as “Wake up for Religious Tolerance: Rosh Hodesh Nissan Solidarity Minyan in Support for Women of the Wall,” comes on the heels of 10 women being arrested at the Kotel Feb. 11 for praying while wearing prayer shawls. They were released a few hours later.
“The goal is first of all to have a really uplifting extraordinary Rosh Chodesh prayer service, and at the same time draw attention to those who can’t have that same experience because of the interference and harassment and arrests happening in Israel,” said Conservative Rabbi Iris Richman, one of the event’s organizers.
Shacharit [morning] prayers will be led by Cantor Shayna Postman, who works at Town & Village Synagogue in Manhattan. “She’s a woman davenning, but we are expecting to involve all four denominations in the service,” Richman said. Rabbi Robin Fryer Bodzin, who is known as one of the “Kotel 10” since being arrested on Feb. 11, will lead Hallel.
Having a child fall victim to sexual assault is every parent’s worst nightmare.
In the picturesque Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot, a network of alleged pedophiles has been exposed in recent months.The difficulties of relying on children’s testimony, and the initial reluctance of the ultra-Orthodox community to cooperate with officials has made the justice process difficult and painfully slow. If all of the allegations are to be believed, there are more than 20 perpetrators guilty of horrific crimes against more than 100 children, some of them young toddlers. And many of the alleged molesters are still freely walking the streets, in full view of their accusers and their parents.
Parents in Nachlaot — a mixed neighborhood with residents who range from secular to ultra-Orthodox are losing patience with the police and the justice system. Some worry that if the process does not move faster, vigilante-style action will be taken against the alleged perpetrators. With the police keeping a tight lid on the identities of key suspects, with gag orders imposed on the media, several bloggers have stepped into the breach to try to warn their neighbors, and report on the atmosphere in the neighborhood.
The State of Israel was established on the basis of equality between the sexes. I oppose discrimination of any kind against women. We are a single island in a much larger area, a single island in which the status of women is ensured by law. But this is insufficient. We still have much to do in order to ensure gender equality and I say that the first thing is to provide for strong enforcement by the legal establishment of the laws designed to ensure that same gender equality.
Can you guess who uttered these words?
The answer: none other than Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, speaking at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, as part of a discussion marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. His statement was part of the official record of the meeting. A newspaper report has him further declaring that the exclusion of women and their images from public space and women singing in public ceremonies are issues that the secular public “won’t back down from.”
Every area pertaining to religion and state has been defined in recent years as a battle between secular and Haredi Jews. That has been the accepted view in Israeli society: Ultra-Orthodox and secular are the two camps, and they fight. Shabbat, kashrut, the so-called hametz and pork laws: All the battles have been portrayed in black and white, with everything seen as clear-cut.
But Israeli society is more complex than that. There are a lot more shades of gray, and many more people who define themselves in a more nuanced manner, whether they affiliate themselves with religious Zionism, are traditionally observant or formerly Orthodox, or identify with one of the other Jewish streams — Conservatism or Reform, among others. This complexity began to find expression in the last municipal elections in Jerusalem, when essentially all of the non-Haredim found themselves aligned in one camp, opposite the ultra-Orthodox. We called ourselves “pluralists.”
This past month, the main front in relations between religion and state in Israel has centered around the exclusion of women from the public domain.
To walk a mile in another woman’s shoes, Nancy Kaufman of New York recently boarded a gender-segregated public bus in Jerusalem.
The CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women took a “freedom ride” with a group of colleagues while recently visiting Israel to experience what it’s like to be a woman and assume that one must move to the rear of the bus on designated routes, while men sit up front.
Kaufman took a front seat, netting what she says were “very dirty looks” from men who boarded. She also recounted the comment of a female passenger (in Hebrew) to a woman in the Council entourage: “You should be ashamed of yourselves. Why don’t you take care of your own prostitutes and drugs and do not worry about us.”
True confession time. Even as I have been writing here at The Sisterhood regularly about the struggles of women in places like Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, with their issues of gender segregation and the disappearance of their images from public space, personally I have felt pretty far removed from the situation.
The town where I live, Ra’anana, feels like something of an oasis from the religious-secular tug of war that happens in other Israeli communities. We have an unusual demographic make up. Our small city has a solid non-Orthodox majority, with a substantial minority of Orthodox Jewish families, estimated at about 25 percent, nearly all “national religious,” or modern Orthodox. Haredim in Ra’anana, though they exist, are few and far between. The town is a magnet for immigrants from Western countries: South Africa, the U.S., Canada, France, England, Argentina are only the biggest sources. We have Orthodox and non-Orthodox residents from nearly every country in Europe and South America. As a result, our Orthodox population tends to be tolerant of their less observant neighbors, and the non-Orthodox population is extremely respectful of those who observe mitzvot. With many Orthodox women from abroad in jeans and uncovered hair, you can’t always tell who is who. We also have a critical mass of residents who identify as Conservative and Reform Jews, also uncommon in Israel. In short, Ra’anana is about mixed and as ‘live and let live’ as predominately Jewish cities in Israel go.
I’ve always felt that the local spirit was embodied nicely in the building where I take Pilates classes. The three-story building has storefronts on the ground floor, and the side entrance leads to the stairwell. Upstairs, there is a large Chabad center where prayer and study takes place. Downstairs, is a dance studio, where a different kind of learning happens: girls and women — Orthodox and non-Orthodox — learn ballet, jazz, hip-hop and take Pilates classes. That the men heading to study Torah at Chabad and girls in leotards and dance gear could amicably share space, to me illustrated the harmony in the community.
It was small, low-key and the participants numbered in the hundreds, not the thousands. But a crowd of Israeli women took to the streets to speak out — or, more accurately, sing out — against the continuing attacks by religious extremists on women’s right to be seen and heard freely in the public square.
The November 11 action was a long time coming. Too long. As Sisterhood readers know, for months the situation has become increasingly disturbing. There has been: bus segregation, harassment of schoolgirls in Beit Shemesh, streets free of females in Mea Shearim during Sukkot, soldiers walking out on ceremonies that include women singing in the IDF and women soldiers being excluded from Simchat Torah celebrations, in addition to disappearing and defaced images of women on Jerusalem billboards. None of it is new.
Astoundingly, until now, no Israeli women’s organization took the initiative to organize a public event of any kind to express the anger and frustration of Israeli women at these developments. So the 11-11-11 singing protest, created single-handedly by intrepid blogger Hila Benyovich-Hoffman, and promoted on her Facebook page, finally brought some objection to the public square was sorely overdue.
One issue I never quite thought I would experience in 2011 is bus segregation. I am not referring to blacks and whites, because, after all, this is not 1960 in Mississippi. I am referring to the gender segregation of men and women on buses with routes originating from the predominately Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo in Jerusalem.
With a group of women visiting Israel on a National Council of Jewish Women study tour, I recently rode the buses to experience firsthand what it is like to be a woman and assume you must “go to the back of the bus” when you board bus No. 56 or No. 40.
This now illegal activity started in 1997, when public transport companies began to operate special bus lines for the Haredi public, beginning with two lines in Jerusalem and Bnei Barak. Called “Mehadrin” (extra kosher) lines, women would board the bus through the rear door and men would board through the front door. Women who objected to these rules would be subjected to harassment and intimidation and, in some cases, physical violence.
When Sandy Bar lost her head, many Jerusalem residents decided that enough was enough. The actress and model, who is featured in Israeli fashion company Honigman’s ads for its new winter line, was suddenly reduced to a hand holding a purse. The public could see Bar’s face, framed by her long dark hair and adorned with large sunglasses, in the ads posted in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities. But in Jerusalem, she was represented by a disembodied appendage.
This head chopping has prompted two kinds of responses among Jerusalemites. Some have taken to social media to circulate photos showing the difference between the two ads. One has even made up a “missing” poster for Bar’s head. “Lost: Sandy Bar’s head. Last seen at the entrance to Jerusalem. Finder should call the following phone number immediately,” it says.
Activists with the Yerushalmim civic non-profit organization, who have been tracking the disappearance of women’s images from Jerusalem’s public spaces for the past several months are taking a different tack. As part of its “Uncensored” campaign, they are inviting women to be photographed for posters that Yerushalmim members have begun hanging from balconies in the center of the city.
As I recently reported, Jerusalem City Councilmember Rachel Azaria lost her job and membership in the governing coalition for having gone to the High Court of Justice to oppose gender segregation in that city and to protect the equal rights of women.
An online petition has begun circulating to pressure Mayor Nir Barkat into giving Azaria back her city council responsibilities overseeing early childhood programs and local councils administration.
But the story is not just about what has happened to Azaria. “We are dealing with all kinds of exclusion of women in the public sphere in Jerusalem,” Conservative Rabbi Uri Ayalon told The Sisterhood. Ayalon, the founder and leader of Kehilat (Congregation) Yotzer Or, is on the board of Yerushalmim (Jerusalemites), a non-profit civic organization working to build an inclusive, pluralistic city. He and others in the organization have been tracking what they call the “disappearance of women from public life” over the past couple of years.
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.
It seemed as though Rachel Azaria, then a 30-year-old mother of two, came out of nowhere to run on a grassroots, independent party ticket and win a seat on the 31-member Jerusalem City Council in 2008.
Although this was her first foray into politics, she was already a recognized figure in the world of Israeli social change organizations. For the decade prior to her election, she had worked for environmental causes, and then as the director of Mavoi Satum, an organization that works on behalf of women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce.
Since joining Jerusalem’s City Council, Azaria has assumed the Early Childhood and Community Councils portfolios, helped establish the new civic non-profit organization called Yerushalmim (Jerusalemites), and given birth to a third child.
For once it will be the men sitting behind women, rather than the other way around.
Unlike in Jerusalem buses passing through Haredi neighborhoods, in which women are required to sit at the back while men sit at the front, on the capital city’s new light rail system it will be men sitting in the last car of the trains.
While representatives of the ultra-Orthodox Edah Chareidit have protested the light rail through its years-long development, they now say they will use the last car for men only and coordinate prayers there in afternoons and evenings.
“The distance between the cars solves the halachic problem of sitting behind a woman, so we’ll have no problem sitting there and proving that our insistence on sitting in the front in buses does not stem from chauvinistic motives,” said Edah spokesman Yoelish Kroiz in an article on Ynet.
On a recent Friday, Karen Lakin, an English teacher who made aliyah to Israel from Connecticut with her husband and two teenage children in 1984, invited me to a café on the Giv’at Ram campus of the Hebrew University to meet the others in her breakfast club. Eight of its nine members were in attendance, including six Jews and two Christians, one of whom is an Arab, originally from Kfar Qana near Nazareth, who now lives in Beit Safafa, Jerusalem.
For the past quarter century, the women have been meeting every Friday for brunch at a café somewhere in the city, no matter the weather or the security situation. The women also have a book club, share an opera subscription, eat Shabbat and holiday meals at each other’s homes, and celebrate birthdays and American Thanksgiving together every year.
Since most of them don’t have many relatives in Israel, they quickly became each other’s family. “In fact, it’s closer than a family, because we chose each other,” said Arlene Yaakov, who is originally from New Jersey and who, in June 1967 at the outbreak of the Six Day War, took the first Israel-bound plane she could catch out of the U.S. so she could volunteer on a kibbutz. “I drove straight through from Los Angeles to New York to get on that plane,” said Yaakov, a tour group coordinator.
Years back, when the Lubavitcher rebbe was alive and I was covering various events connected with that movement, I was always pleasantly surprised when my job seemed to cancel out my gender.
For instance, at a gathering of thousands of Chabad emissaries, then held at a hall on Eastern Parkway across from the movement’s headquarters, instead of being kicked upstairs with the wives, I was led through a packed, black-jacketed male-only crowd to be introduced to bigwigs at the front. It was definitely not in keeping with that community’s practice of maintaining physical distance between women and men if they’re not immediate family members, but it didn’t seem to matter, because I was a journalist.
A female reporter for ABC News-Europe covering haredi rioting in Jerusalem over a parking lot opened on Shabbat was not so lucky.