By Rabbi Steve Garten
I rode a bus in Jerusalem on January 22, that in and of itself is not unusual. What made this 90 minute journey unique was that it had been arranged by Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Centre (IRAC) for myself and Judith Sudilovsky, a free-lance journalist on assignment for Na’amat magazine. Our task was to observe and record gender segregation on bus line 56. On this bus line and others both in Jerusalem and between Jerusalem and other cities Haredim insist that women sit in the back of the bus and when possible only enter through the back door. IRAC has been instrumental in having the Israeli Supreme Court declare “segregated buses” illegal. However both Egged, the semi-public bus line and the Haredim, ultra-orthodox Jews of Israel, have had difficulty implementing the Court’s decision. This was one of many “Freedom Rides” undertaken by men and women to assess the impact of the ruling on public transportation. It should be noted that the new light rail service in Jerusalem, which is privately owned, does not have this problem. In fact Arabs and Israelis ride comfortably together and the train line crosses through both east and west Jerusalem.
I did not ride the buses in the American South in the early 1960’s, even I was a little too young for those “Freedom Rides.” However it is not difficult to imagine how the buses which run through Haredi neighborhoods manifest the same kind of “Jim Crow” laws. Haredi men enter only through the front door of the bus. They stand and sit in a manner that inhibits and physically blocks many women from entering from the front door. They insist either verbally or through hand motions that woman enter through the rear door. What amazed me was those women who enter through the rear doors will more than likely not pay for the bus ride and the driver colludes with this practice in order not to upset the Haredi men. Women who have the strength or tenacity enter through the front are discouraged from sitting or standing there. If non-Haredi woman enter through the front door they can experience verbal reminders or physical reminders that they are not welcome in the front of the bus.
On our Journey Anat sat in a pod of four seats, Judith sat in a row of two seats and I sat alone all in the font of the bus. In the first 15 minutes only women entered the bus and all moved rapidly to the rear. The first man to enter was Masorti, traditional not Haredi, and he sat next to Judith. As the bus progressed from the Haredi community toward the city centre many men entered but stood rather than sit next to Anat. Women who entered through the front door of a stretch bus walked a gauntlet of black coated men who did all they could to impede their movement as “punishment” for violating “their space.” About forty minutes into the journey a traditionally dressed Sephardic woman alighted onto the bus using the front door. Confronted by a sea of black coats she shrugged her shoulders and sat next to Anat. A few minutes later another modestly dressed head covered woman entered confronting the same scene shrugged her shoulders and sat across from Anat. Finally a middle aged man took the fourth seat. As people entered and exited the seats next to Anat and Judith now remained filled with both men and woman.
It is not unusual for us in Canada to ruminate about the cultural/religious rights of minorities in a multicultural society. Should a woman be allowed to cover her face, outside her home when dealing with civic authorities? Should cultural/religious norms be accommodated in the public schools, police forces, and public spaces? Should cultural/religious norms of a minority be imposed on the majority? These are significant questions. Our courts and the court of public opinion continue to wrestle with them. The demand by Haredim in Israel for segregated buses, segregated public sidewalks, restricted public roads during Shabbat and Chagim are another kind of challenge for a democratic Jewish state. If the religious norms of one group are allowed to supersede the civil rights of the majority how are those decisions made. Are these rights only available to Jewish minorities, not Muslim or Christian minorities? Serious questions which the State of Israel has to confront and in many ways they are equally as important as questions of peace and security.
I look forward to following how our brothers and sisters in Israel resolve these vexing issues.
Rabbi Steve Garten is the congregational leader of Temple Israel in Ottawa, the only Jewish Reform synagogue in the city. It is dedicated to Torah (study), Tzedakah (charity) and Avodah (worship). It provides members with an opportunity for them to reflect on their Jewish identity and pursue their personal spiritual pathway within a supportive and caring community. Rabbi Garten was born in New York City but has lived in Canada for over thirty years. He is married and is the father of two University graduates, both of whom celebrated B’nai Mitzvah at Temple Israel and served as president of FROSTY.He is an avid player of the game of golf hoping one day to become a golfer.