When Brother Met Sister…An Israel Adventure into a World of Discrimination and Fear

As you know, we visit Israel regularly.  Among other things, we look forward to opportunities to check in with leaders of our movement, including the talented staff at the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), an organization to which the Perlin family is especially devoted.  We also visit Reform (or “Progressive”) congregations with which we are associated, along with the inspiring rabbis who lead them.  And we are always delighted to spend time with extended family and dear friends, catching up on each other’s lives and engaging in good-natured, animated debates – typically over large quantities of freshly prepared food.

Our trip this month was occasioned by a meeting of the Israel Committee of the Board of Governors of Hebrew Union College (HUC), which Rabbi Perlin joined earlier this year.  Aside from all the events at the Jerusalem Campus of HUC, including opportunities to study with distinguished faculty members and to meet with energetic students enrolled in the Year-in-Israel and Israeli Rabbinic programs, we were thrilled that our visit overlapped with the 25th anniversary celebration of Women of the Wall, aptly abbreviated as WoW!  With the confluence of so many events (not to mention perfect Southern California-type weather for an entire week in Jerusalem), we were certain that this would be a memorable visit.  Still, I had no idea of the single most moving experience which awaited me in the most unlikely of circumstances:  a visit with four ordinary yet remarkable Modern Orthodox women in Beit Shemesh, arranged by our partners at IRAC.

It was warm and sunny a week ago Tuesday morning as Orly Erez-Lachovsky – one of IRAC’s intrepid team of lawyers – and I began our drive from Jerusalem to the town of Beit Shemesh.  Orly and I talked about the lingering excitement of what had happened among WoW at the Kotel (Western Wall) the previous day.  It was there that some 800 Reform, Conservative and Orthodox women, wearing whatever ritual items they found personally meaningful, had come together to pray aloud at the Wall, protected by the military and police and with relatively little interference from those who had for so long doggedly opposed their right to do so.  How ironic, I’ve always thought, that the Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi designated by the Israeli government to administer the ‘heritage foundation’ which controls the Wall repeatedly proclaims that women cannot exercise their right to pray as they wish at this historic site, simply because their prayers would offend the Ultra-Orthodox wishing to do the very same thing.  In short, the Rabbi of the Wall claims an exclusive right to interpret Torah and has decided that the rights of his followers are more important than anyone else’s because….well, I don’t know why, other than because he is currently in charge.

I admit that I’ve never personally found it spiritually moving to be at the Wall – in part because it seems to bring out the worst in my fellow Jews, and in part because I feel so much more connected to the religion which arose after the Temple’s destruction.  It was then that our ancestors substituted synagogues, study and prayer for the priestly and sacrificial regime associated with the Temple in Jerusalem (and represented today by the surviving stones of the wall that protected its western flank).  Still, I can’t deny the special feeling I had being among some 200 supportive men at the Wall a week ago Monday, providing WoW an added buffer against potential disruption and praying in synch with the women on the plaza below us. Whoever thought it would feel so liberating to be in what seemed like “the men’s balcony?”

As we drove away from Jerusalem the next morning, Orly and I spoke at length about the amazing progress made by WoW.  We recognized that it was the result of a 25 year-long and highly principled struggle to do what the vast majority of Jews felt they should be able to do all along.  Progress, we agreed, also required the engagement of women from across the Jewish religious spectrum, not to mention the voices of Jews from around the world.

Fresh from that experience in Jerusalem and flush with a sense of enormous progress, I was totally unprepared to confront the enormity of the continued challenge represented by the treatment of women in Beit Shemesh, a town of perhaps 100,000 people some 30 kilometers west of Jerusalem.  I had read of the most noteworthy incidents there, especially when Orthodox girls were aggressively harassed by extremist Haredim (that is, the Ultra-Orthodox) as they attempted to walk to their new school in 2011.  I was also vaguely aware that there had just been a contested municipal election in Beit Shemesh, in which reported widespread voter fraud was said to have crucially contributed to the re-election of the Ultra-Orthodox mayor in a town now nearly evenly split between Haredim on one side, and Modern Orthodox and secular Israelis on the other.  Orly didn’t offer too much detail in advance on what we would see or who we would be meeting – and I had the impression that they didn’t know much about me, either.

We soon arrived at a modern mall outside the town, called “Big Fashion” – when it comes to shopping, there’s no attempt to translate such words into Hebrew! We met up in the parking lot with three women and, just considering how they were dressed, I would have assumed only one was Orthodox.  They all spoke Hebrew with Orly, so I was relieved when all three proceeded to speak English with me.  I soon learned that each had made aliyah from Australia, Canada or the US a decade or more earlier.  A fourth woman, a native Israeli who also spoke excellent English, joined us soon thereafter.  They began by pointing out a nearby billboard which advertised some new residential construction in the area, proudly noting the pictures of women which had been pasted onto the posters that originally included only men and boys.  As we left the parking lot and still not knowing what to expect, I went out of character and put on a knit kippah, jokingly suggesting that it might be good for me to wear a protective ‘helmet’ for our tour.  They laughed and said the kippah was “more like a target” – something I didn’t fully appreciate until later.  At this point, however, we still knew very little about each other…and I did not know what I was about to experience.

Our first two stops made clear that this was not your ordinary tour of Israel.  We began by looking at a nearby plot of land surrounded by concrete which looked as if it had been ravaged by a runaway bulldozer.  The women explained that this was the Beit Shemesh soccer field, which for years was “under renovation” – or at least this was the official explanation to the broad community.  In reality, the local Haredi rabbi had prohibited the playing of sports, which is why he insisted that the field be dug up and no longer used.  (It was for similar reasons, I later learned, that a modern new gymnasium built for the residents was converted into an Ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva – sports, of course, not being allowed.)  A few minutes down the road, we stopped at a large, overgrown plot of land surrounded by fencing.  The women noted that an overseas foundation had several years earlier offered to provide several million dollars to build a community center on the property.  By this time, I wasn’t too surprised to hear the explanation that development had to cease when bones were miraculously “discovered” on the property, suggesting it had been a burial ground and therefore not suitable for building.  My hosts were quick to point out that the physical evidence of human remains was never shared with the public, and then pointed to the nearby Haredi apartments and shul whose leaders were determined that no non-Haredi buildings be constructed in ‘their’ expanding neighborhood.  They also noted with a touch of irony that a few Haredi buildings somehow had been constructed on land which was more definitively determined to be the site of old burial plots.

As we drove into town, I was beginning to appreciate the intensity of the women’s emotions.  They were deeply devoted to maintaining the way of life each had grown up with and – in most of their cases – to the sense of religious Zionism that inspired them to make aliyah and raise their families in Beit Shemesh.  The native Israeli woman talked proudly of her work in the community center (which has a relationship with our own Northern Virginia JCC), and how she had to fight each day to maintain programs in which boys’ and girls’ activities overlapped. Despite her strong spirit, she seemed a bit more deflated and resigned than her immigrant friends to the steady loss of freedom to live the kind of life she had known through all her years as part of a Modern Orthodox family.  Perhaps her alienation was deeper because what she was experiencing was so antithetical to the Israel in which she was raised.  Still, her friends remained animated as they described their own experiences as poll workers in the recent, disputed elections, and their determination to continue the judicial and political process they felt could ultimately lead to fresh voting and, perhaps, a different outcome.

We shortly entered one of several Haredi neighborhoods.  The buildings were unremarkable, and while there were few pedestrians it was obvious by their dress what kind of community we were in.  What my hosts were most anxious to show me were the disputed street signs.  Some signs noted that women were prohibited from walking on the sidewalk outside of synagogues, lest men encounter them when they leave their prayers.  The municipality had removed some of these signs, but they mysteriously kept reappearing.  Even more prominent were the many signs declaring that residents expected that women be dressed “modestly,” in some cases spelling out in great detail what that meant and explaining it was because of the neighbors’ devotion to God.  While my hosts surely respected that extremely modest dress for women is a value important to some Jews, it was equally clear that they considered the prominent street signs to be as much an expression of territoriality as they are of piety.  Equally so were banners hanging outside of Haredi apartments declaring proudly that they do not have internet connections, lest they risk exposing their youth to worldly ways. (Yes, buildings are segregated by religious practices…and some are limited to Ashkenazim rather than Sephardim, who are considered by the former to be less worthy.)

We soon came to what some consider ‘ground zero’ of the clash between Haredim and the Modern Orthodox:  the Orot Banot School for girls.  It was here a couple of years ago that Haredim famously spit on and harassed young Modern Orthodox girls walking to their new school…and the controversy still simmers.  What became clear by looking at the geography was that it was the proximity of the school to Haredi buildings – again, a territorial threat – that so offended the Ultra-Orthodox.  It seems they would rather destroy buildings or make them uninhabitable than allow them to be used for a worthwhile purpose that is not their own.  It is this kind of behavior that leads some Haredim in Beit Shemesh to rip up Israeli flags on Independence Day, to call dedicated Modern Orthodox women “Zionist Nazis,” to attack innocent girls …. all the while trying to consolidate political power and increase the lavish financial support they receive from a state whose legitimacy many of them deny.

The road on which the girls’ school is built has become an unofficial border, one on which each of my hosts had at some time experienced harassment.  It divides Haredi apartments from those of other Israelis, leading some Haredim to threaten their neighbors for allowing their television screens to be visible from the Haredi apartments (a dispute partially settled by an offer of the television owners to close their shades – a concession that my hosts felt merely contributed to further unwarranted demands).  I felt as though the road I was on was as much a ‘fault line’ in relation to Israel’s religious and political future as are the seismic fault lines which generated recent earthquakes in the Galilee.  In both cases, it is feared, more forceful shocks lie ahead.  But unlike the geological rifts, I thought, at least the man-made ones should be preventable.

By this time, my hosts and I were sharing more of our personal journeys.  We swapped stories, which for me included the story of Temple B’nai Shalom, our congregants’ devotion to raising Jewish families despite being a small minority, what it’s like keeping a kosher home in Virginia, and more.  Each of us seemed surprised that we did not fit our preconceived notions of one another.   In some ways, our paths had even converged — one Orthodox woman had worked in banking for many years before making aliyah and another still manages bond portfolios remotely for a well-known US firm. Still, what sticks with me more than anything else was how proudly and insistently the women defined themselves as “pluralistic” – not just Modern Orthodox Jews, but pluralistic Jews.  We had quickly found the bedrock of our common ground: a shared devotion to living Jewish values, especially those of respecting each other’s religious practices and commitment to the people of Israel.   It was then I thought of the prayer for peace in our Shabbat service, when our TBS rabbis ask us to remember “our brothers and sisters in the Land of Israel.”  Indeed, I realized that these four women were not just people I happened to meet along the way; they were my sisters.

The last stop on our tour of Beit Shemesh cemented our sense of solidarity.  We went to a health clinic in a Haredi neighborhood.  Before entering, we stood at a sign that welcomed patients but featured arrows pointing to two different entrances.  You can see a photo I took of the sign on the front of tonight’s service folder.  I understood enough Hebrew to know that one arrow was associated with the word “nashim,” or “women,” and the other was “gevarim,” or “men.”  I didn’t know at first why that image hit me in the gut in a way like none other that day.  I then realized that – as I stared at the sign – my mind’s eye had superimposed two English words onto the Hebrew ones next to the arrows; one was “Whites” and the other “Coloreds.”  I’ve lived in the Old South long enough to know what that meant, and my reaction clearly moved the women as well.  The impact was not diminished as we entered the clinic and I discovered that – while there were plenty of signs suggesting otherwise – the gender separation was not strictly enforced.  Once again, posting public signs of segregation was a statement of territoriality more than conviction, which made them seem all the more shameful.

Like seemingly all Israeli tiyyulim, adventures large or small, ours ended a week ago Tuesday at a coffee shop.  The locals and I sat around a table together like family, discussing what they had shown and told me.  We continued to focus on what we shared – a commitment to pluralistic Judaism, and a mutual respect for what each of us brought to the table.  As they promised to fight on – something they acknowledged would not have been possible without the support of Orly and IRAC – I felt more profoundly than ever before my unwillingness to accept religious fundamentalism, or what I think of as “exclusivism” or “exclusionism,” the opposite of “pluralism.”  After a short while, we said a heartfelt l’hitraot, “until we see each other again.”

As Orly and I drove back to Jerusalem, we talked about the centrality of the fight against gender segregation to the fight for the soul of Israel – both the nation and the people.  Segregation of women is not just an affront to the modern Jew, and it certainly isn’t just a “women’s issue,” any more than the ordination of women rabbis was over four decades ago (and I’m sure you’d agree that worked out pretty well for us!).  No, forcible segregation threatens the heart of Judaism, and the ideals of Israel.  We have learned in the United States, as elsewhere in the world (not least throughout the broader Middle East), that even if one believes that “separate” can be “equal,” it can’t.  Enforced segregation by gender, often designed to reinforce separation by ethnicity or religious identity – whether imposed, abetted or merely tolerated by the state – builds walls of fear and misunderstanding, deepens the disunity which we – a mere 20 million Jews on this earth – can hardly afford, and diverts valuable material resources.  More importantly, such segregation diminishes our humanity.

We need to celebrate and be inspired by such progress as that which was experienced last week by the Women of the Wall.  We also need to remember that their success is due in part to the support of committed men.  But I can tell you, based on what I experienced with my sisters in Beit Shemesh, that there is more, vitally important work to do.  We at B’nai Shalom know how much our Sisterhood and our Brotherhood each provide to their respective, gender-based membership.  But we also recognize that they freely give support to each other, and to the congregation as a whole. Let us not take for granted what we have, or what we – men and women alike – can and must do to support the cause of pluralism among the people of Israel.    Our sisters and brothers depend on us.  More importantly, we owe it to our daughters…and our sons.

Shabbat Shalom.    

Gary Perlin