Eighteen-year-old Israeli singing sensation Ofir Ben Shitrit is in New York this week to perform at the international conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
The religiously observant Ben Shitrit burst on the Israeli pop culture scene earlier this year with her second-place finish on Israel’s version of “The Voice,” a television singing competition. Her surprise choice of avowed secularist rock star Aviv Geffen as her mentor on the show intrigued viewers and kept them glued to their screens week after week as the two worked harmoniously and productively together.
After Ben Shitrit’s suspension from her religious girls’ school, many are hailing her as a Jewish Orthodox feminist heroine for not being deterred from following her dreams. JOFA not only invited her to sing at its conference, but also put her name and face up in lights on a Times Square billboard celebrating key personalities at the forefront of the Orthodox feminist movement.
Having graduated from high school last spring, Ben Shitrit is currently doing a year of national service. She plans on going to university next year to pursue a music degree. In the meantime, she has begun a professional singing career, performing original compositions as well as covers of Hebrew, English and Spanish songs.
The Forward’s Renee Ghert-Zand caught up with Ben Shitrit shortly after she arrived in New York on her first visit to the United States. We asked her about how being on “The Voice” has changed her life, how she feels about being labeled a Jewish Orthodox feminist, and what it’s like to see one’s face and name in lights high up above on Broadway.
It appears that Ophir Ben-Shetreet’s suspension from her religious girls high school for singing in public on Israel’s “The Voice” has had no effect on her performance. Ben-Shetreet has beat out 11 other competitors on mentor Aviv Geffen’s team to reach the show’s second season final round, which will be broadcast live next Saturday from Tel Aviv’s Nokia Arena.
Equally exciting is the fact that it will be an all-female final, with 17-year-old Ben-Shetreet trying to outperform three other young women. The others finalists are: Rudy Bainasin, a 22-year-old military officer who made aliyah to Israel from Ethiopia as an infant; Lina Makhoul, a 19-year-old Christian Arab who works in retail and volunteers with the Magen David Adom, and Dana Tzalach, a 22-year-old professional makeup artist who speaks openly about her struggles with her weight.
On Wednesday, 21-year-old Yityish Aynaw was crowned Miss Israel for 2013. The occasion marked the first time an Ethiopian Israeli had won the national beauty pageant.
Despite the landmark moment, I have to be honest: I was more excited when Pnina Tamano-Shata, a lawyer and member of the Yesh Atid party, was recently elected the first female Ethiopian Member of Knesset.
I am obviously far more into brains than beauty. But not everyone is, and rather than hate on this breakthrough moment for Israeli women of color, it would be far more productive to look at the positives associated with Aynaw’s achievement.
By now, readers of The Sisterhood are aware that 17-year-old Israeli singer Ophir Ben-Shetreet was suspended from her religious girls’ high school for appearing on Israel’s “The Voice,” a televised talent competition. The suspension was a punishment for defying the halakhic injunction of “kol (b’)isha,” which prohibits a woman’s singing voice from being heard by men. It was also meant to serve as a warning to other students who might have been thinking of following Ophir’s example.
As might be expected, the story has been covered in the Israeli press. Among those offering their opinions on the matter is Rachel Azaria, the religiously observant Jerusalem councilwoman and leader of the Yerushalmim political party. Azaria has been profiled several times in The Sisterhood, particularly in regard to her leading efforts to fight against discrimination against women, and for a diverse and pluralistic future for Jerusalem and Israel.
After reading a popular column she wrote on Tuesday about her take on the Ben-Shetreet story, we asked her what she thinks is really behind the suspension, the rightward shift of religious public schools, and what devoutly secular rock star Aviv Geffen’s mentoring of the religious teen singer might mean for Israel’s future.
I read Renee Ghert-Zand’s post on the Sisterhood earlier this week, and then made the mistake of reading the comments under the article (51 of them as of this afternoon). I was disturbed for many reasons, but not, like everyone else, because a high school girl was suspended for singing in public
For starters, let’s clarify something: It simply can’t be that everyone hearing this story is actually upset that the school suspended Ophir Ben-Shetreet. From what I see, the real anger comes from those who view all Orthodox laws pertaining to women as automatically sexist, demeaning and backwards. But let’s get to that in a minute. First, if you believe that the school is in the wrong, take a moment to think about this situation as objectively as you can.
A private high school has the right to suspend its students for breaking the rules, whether that student disagrees with the rule or not. Of course, not every suspension is fair, but in an openly Orthodox institution that does not hide its affiliation with Orthodoxy, where parents are aware that they’re sending their children to a school that adheres by halacha, how can one argue with the school’s right to act in accordance with those very laws? It certainly seems as if the parents support the school’s decision, as Ghert-Zand states in her article: “The 12th grader has been suspended (with the agreement of her parents).” Unless the laws in Israel are wildly different, wherein a student can flout school rules and cannot be suspended — which I suspect is not the case — the school did nothing to warrant this uproar.
We like to encourage young people to develop their natural talents and follow their dreams. Just look how far the preternaturally talented 13-year-old diva Carly Rose Sonenclar got on the “The X Factor” with the support of her family and community (not to mention millions of American television viewers).
But that’s not necessarily how things work in some sectors of Israeli society. Ophir Ben-Shetreet, a 17-year-old with a voice as outstanding as Sonenclar’s (at least to my untrained ear) is a leading competitor on Israel’s version of “The Voice.” One would think that she would be rewarded for her confidence, effort and talent. Sadly, that is not the case.
Ben-Shetreet is essentially being punished for having an exceptionally beautiful voice and wanting to share it with the world. The 12th grader has been suspended (with the agreement of her parents) for two weeks from her religious girls’ high school in the seaside city of Ashdod. Her offense? Singing in public.