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Freedom riding Israeli style

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.

My Second Freedom Ride

By Rabbi Leigh Lerner, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

“Git to the front of the bus, bwah, or else!” That was the end of my first freedom ride, but I was only 13, just a kid boarding the bus from downtown Atlanta to Buckhead. Segregation reigned in 1958 Atlanta, and having arrived from the integrated north, I just knew it was wrong and wanted to make a statement, so I sat in the “colored” section on that Peachtree St. trolley. The driver would have none of it and threatened to throw me bodily off the vehicle.

Now flash to Jerusalem, 2012 – 5772, and a different kind of freedom ride. Come aboard an Egged bus in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox section dotted with yeshivot and a perfect copy of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s home in Brooklyn. Buses in this area of Jerusalem and in many other areas of Israel had, over the last 12 years, become segregated: women in the back and bidden to enter by the back door, and men in the front. “Mehadrin” bus lines grew to 50 in number, despite the ill-feeling they engendered.

Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, brought the law suit that re-integrated Israel’s buses, but on January 12, Anat, James Cherney, a URJ board member from Chicago, and I took a short ride to make sure the law was being obeyed and to open the front of the bus to Haredi women.

Anat sat in one of 4 seats facing each other in the front of the bus. Except for three women, every female either boarded from the back and remained there, or boarded from the front and went to the back. Both ends of the bus became quite full, but not a single Haredi man would occupy any of the 3 seats in the vicinity of Anat Hoffman.

One woman boarded the bus and sat by Anat, who exchanged a hello with her. She stayed in that seat for one precious minute, then went to the back. Why? Did she sit there to make a statement momentarily? Or did she lose courage and resign herself to the back, as all the men around her expected her to do?

Another woman rode but three stops. She stayed near the back door, which is just before the women’s section, then left with her heavy case. A third woman boarded with a stroller and stood in a space at the back of the “men’s” section, where Egged provides extra space. It was a double stroller, and she needed the room.

When Anat, Jim Cherney and I left the bus, the area where Anat had been seated filled quickly with black hatted men.

Segregation exists in Jerusalem. Until IRAC won its case, it existed with the assent of the government, the very government that subsidizes the bus companies. Now it is sustained by social pressure. Still, many Haredi women bless IRAC for opening the front of the bus to them again. Only by sitting where we please will Jerusalemites and other Israelis keep their buses integrated. Separate can never be equal.

Be a freedom rider yourself. When you visit Jerusalem, take 2 hours of a morning to hear IRAC’s story and ride a Jerusalem bus as an observer. Your eyes will open not only to parts of Jerusalem the tour buses never go, but to people, issues, and struggles that too often remain hidden from our view of the Jewish State of Israel. If you’re traveling with ARZA, it’s doubly easy to arrange.

Drama of Darfur refugees

Written by Steven, first published in Devarim Dec. 2011, Brazilian Jewish publication

Greetings from the state of Israel. My name is Steven Beck and I am a second year rabbinical student at the HUC-JIR, currently living in Tel Aviv. I was born in the United States but I have had the privilege of living all over the world—Europe, the Middle East, South America, and Africa. I have seen amazing things during my travels and been immersed in dozens of different cultures during my years living abroad.

I was also witness to several tragedies while living in Africa, including two elections that turned violent. I saw masses of people being forced from their homes, and I witnessed the potential for cruelty that can exist when the rule of law is forsaken. The sight of people being forced to flee for their lives is an image I will never forget. There is nothing that can replicate the shock you see in the eyes of someone—man, woman or child—whose world has been turned upside down.

All around the world today there are millions of people living in terrible situations simply because they were caught in the middle of a conflict in which they played no active role. In countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, northern Uganda, Eritrea, the Ivory Coast, Somalia, and of course Sudan, millions of vulnerable people survive in refugee camps in the most dangerous conditions. They are completely dependent on the goodwill of the international community, individuals, and foreign state governments for their survival.

When I first returned to Israel after several years’ absence, I noticed a distinct demographic switch in the area around Tel Aviv’s central bus station. What was once an area full of Eastern European immigrants had become home to a large number of Africans. I soon learned that this area was now the center of activity for refugees from the conflict in Darfur. Many other Africans from other parts of Sudan, Eritrea, the DRC, and Somalia had also made their way to Israel as refugees. The number of refugees living in Israel now numbers around 36,000; close to 8,000 of them are from Sudan and an estimated 1,200 are from Darfur.

As someone who lived for over three years in sub-Saharan Africa, I was immediately interested in this situation. After seeing so closely the trauma many of these people had experienced, I initially felt proud that the Jewish state would take in refugees. It made sense that a people who wandered stateless for so many centuries would reach out to those in a similar situation today. I wanted to learn more about the situation and perhaps become involved.

In the United States, Jews were intimately involved with efforts to end the genocide in Darfur and supported many initiatives to help the nearly 2.8 million people displaced by the conflict.  I felt there was nothing more “Jewish” than reaching out to other peoples who had suffered similar tragedies to our own. I quickly learned that the reality in Israel for the refugees from Darfur was a completely different story.

Devarim Dec. 2011, Portugese Jewish publication

Where did the come from and why would they come to Israel?

The African nation of Sudan has experienced civil war in one form or another since the 1950s. The tragedy finally reached the attention of the international community in 2003, when the world was forced to confront the reality that genocide was happening in plain view. As is too often the case, the world woke up too late. By the time many westerners had even heard the word “Darfur”, hundreds of thousands of civilians had been murdered and millions of people were to flee from Sudan. The story for many of the refugees in Israel starts here.

Sudan shares a border with Egypt, which made it, along with the nation of Chad, one of the logical escape points for people from Darfur. Even before 2003, there was a large Sudanese exile community in Cairo and in a few other population centers in Egypt. The refugees were largely young men without their families. As the community grew, the conditions in Egypt were becoming more and more dangerous. Thanks to agreements between the Egyptian and the Sudanese government in Khartoum, Egypt began refusing entry to, or sending back, Sudanese refugees coming from Darfur. Many of these refugees knew that it was time to find a new haven and they thought their salvation was up the Sinai desert towards Israel.

What is their status in Israel?

The situation for these now stateless people is complicated by the fact that they are coming from countries with no diplomatic relations with Israel. As a result, the Israeli government classifies them as coming from an “Enemy State.” When they began arriving, Israel had no clear policy on non-Jewish asylum seekers. Over the last seven years, Israel has been dealing with the refugees through a series of ad hoc procedures. That is in the process of changing.

Israel is now debating in the Knesset a piece of legislation that they are calling the Anti-Infiltration Bill. This law, if it goes into effect, will mean that people fleeing war and genocide could be given the same treatment as Fedayeen terrorists or other potential security threats. If any infiltrator (as defined by this bill) enters Israel from Sinai, he or she will face up to three years in Prison. If the offending person comes from a state that is defined as an “enemy” state, he or she can be held in detention for an indefinite period of time.

What is life like for the refugees?

It is all too easy for Israelis to view the influx of refugees as yet one more threat to state security or the unique Jewish character of the state. However, I think that it is the ability of a strong and independent Israel to reach out a helping hand to people who are suffering that really defines its true Jewish character.

I recently had the privilege of spending an evening with a family from Darfur as they welcome me into their home to join them for a meal at the end of their daily Ramadan fast. I asked to meet with them to try to put a human face on the refugee issue in Israel and for a chance to get a small glimpse into their difficult lives. It turned out to be an evening I will never forget.

We sat down in the modest studio apartment that houses all three of them, the husband Yasin, his wife Fatima, and their son Zanoon. Sitting on chairs next to their bed, the smell of food cooking in the background and their one-year-old son desperately trying to gain our attention, Yasin began his story. He took us back to his life in Sudan before the fighting, before the war, and before he was forced to become a stateless wanderer in search of safety and a way back to the life he lost.

Yasin is a university educated man from Darfur who never dreamed that one day he would be forced to flee his home country. He told me about the work he used to do as an engineer in the oil fields and he painted a picture of a life that was full of promise. The life he left does not fit the image that many westerners have concerning life in Africa. He even described his wedding to Fatima, an event that was only attended by close family. It numbered around a thousand guests!

Everything changed for him in 2003; the civil war that had been raging for some time forced him to flee for his life. He went from Darfur to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and from there he entered Egypt. He spent years in Egypt with other refugees and even became one of the organizers of the Sudanese exile community. During this time he had no contact with his wife and other family members. He spoke about the constant pain from not only living without them, but also not even knowing if they were alive or dead.

When conditions worsened for Darfur refugees in Egypt, Yasin and some of his fellow countrymen left Cairo and made the dangerous journey up the Sinai towards Israel. They used Bedouin smugglers as their guides. Once they had crossed the Israeli/Egyptian land border, they were discovered and put into detention for nearly two years.

When Yasin was let out of prison, he was sent to a kibbutz to work for a while. He eventually made his way to Tel Aviv, where he settled in South Tel Aviv around the central bus station. He worked a series of odd jobs and started the process of trying to rebuild his life and seek out ways to reunite with his wife.

When word that Yasin was alive and well in Tel Aviv finally reached Fatima, she began the long journey to find him. Traveling in the Sinai for a young women alone is dangerous under any circumstances, but the Bedouin smugglers are all too aware that these Sudanese women have no one to protect them and any abuse they would show to them would most likely go unpunished.  For this reason, it became common for them to take the money from the women traveling towards Israel (usually several hundred dollars) and, once they were close Israel, hold the women hostage until the Sudanese community on the other side of the border would pay many times that amount just to have them released. Stories of violence and rape are widespread.

Yasin would stop as he recounted his wife’s terrible journey to meet him. He’d seem lost in his emotions, looking off into the distance. I did not push him on the details, but it become quite evident that Fatima experienced hell on earth traveling from Sudan to Israel.

After many years apart, the two are thankfully reunited now in South Tel Aviv. A little over one year ago, they welcomed a son into their family. Little Zanoon is a friendly and precocious toddler who is clearly the center of their world. Because of the ambiguous status of his parents in the state of Israel, Zanoon has no nationality and no legal connection to Yasin.

Seven years after Yasin first entered Israel, the couple struggles every day to earn enough to support their family while also fighting to become legal residents in Israel or elsewhere. Since they are from Darfur, which is in North Sudan, they cannot go to the newly independent South Sudan. Because North Sudan continues to have no diplomatic relations with Israel and the North is still classified as an enemy state, they are stuck in limbo. If the anti-infiltration bill becomes law Yasin and Fatima face indefinite incarceration. Zanoon’s fate is unclear, as he has no other family in Israel.


Opponents of refugee rights will say that is it not Israel’s responsibility to take in every person who comes from a nation in conflict. They will claim that this jeopardizes the unique character of the Jewish state. So many of the fears are baseless or are a result of the Israeli government’s own inaction. Fortunately, many individual Israelis and Israeli non-governmental organizations are stepping up to fill the gap in services that still do not exist. Without the goodwill of many Israelis not blinded by fear and xenophobia, the situation for the refugees would be even worse.

While it is true that a large refugee population presents challenges economically and socially, the price of doing nothing is even worse. Under the best of circumstances, refugees’ lives will be hard in Israel, but human beings who have been through the trauma of fleeing from genocide should be able to expect some level of empathy from the Jewish state. The government must develop procedures and policies that lead to refugees’ eventual integration into Israeli society, or the orderly transfer to a third-party country that can guarantee them the safety that refugees are entitled to by UN convention.

Jews were once stateless, wandering from place to place. Our physical survival often depended on the kindness of those who had no real reason to show kindness toward the Jews living among them. From the tragedies of Europe and elsewhere, the Jewish people built an independent state and are masters of our own destinies for the first time in two thousand years.

I still believe that in spite of its daily struggles, Israel as a state and Israelis as a people truly want to live up to a higher ideal. After all we Jews have suffered in achieving national autonomy, Israel must be a “light unto the nations.” One of the most important lessons from our own history is that injustice to anyone is injustice to everyone. The Jewish state must show comfort and compassion to these refugees in the name of our own Jewish values.

How do you say “I do” in Greek?

Written by Emily

My name is Emily, I am the Development Associate at IRAC, (a fancy way for saying assistant), and for my first IRAC bog entry I am going to complain.

I made aliyah to Israel over two years ago, right after I finished my BA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I wouldn’t say that I was idealistic, I knew what I was getting myself into and I knew that Israel was not the perfect country. But that was part of the reason I wanted to come, to help make things better, and I think that by working at IRAC I am staying true to that desire.

What I did not expect upon moving to Israel, and what I was not emotionally or mentally prepared for (and still do not know how to deal with), is how Israel would constantly disappoint me, over and over and over again. Yes, there have been many times that I have been proud to be Jewish and newly-Israeli, and have felt reaffirmed in my choice to move here, but there have been far too many instances recently where I have questioned, at the most basic level, “what is going on here?” and “is this a downward spiral that I really want to be a part of?” Thomas Friedman explains my feelings well (as he often does) in his recent NY Times article. I am confused.

A recent, personal, exemplification of my confusion and disappointment in Israel came this past November when I decided to get married. I know that the lack of a civil marriage option in Israel has been discussed here before, and this is just one more story of two Israeli citizens who have been denied a basic right by their government.

Neither my partner nor myself are religious Jews, and the thought of having a wedding that does not reflect who we are, but instead forces someone else’s religious observances on us, was out of the question. Instead, we had the pleasure of spending a bundle of money to leave Israel, a country we are both citizens of, but denies us the right to get married in a civil ceremony, and travel to Cyprus. There is a whole marriage industry that has sprung up in Cyprus as a result of this situation and we paid a travel agent to organize everything for us: the flight to Cyprus, the transportation to the Aradippou City Hall and the awkward “ceremony” where the Mayor spoke in such a thick accent that we had trouble understanding him, but said yes anyway.

Am I happy that I had the chance to spend a few days in Cyprus? Yes, it is a nice country and we made the best of the situation by renting a car and traveling a bit, but am I happy about the “wedding experience” that I was forced into? No. Not one bit.

Though we are planning a real wedding in Israel with our family and friends, I will always know that my legal wedding was awkward, lonely and a little bit sad. True, I could have forgotten about my values and given in to the Israeli Rabbinute, but anyone who knows me will know that this was never an option.

Israel has disappointed me on numerous occasions but this time it was personal, and I will never forget it. I can only hope that I will still be around to see the day when all Israelis are given the basic right to have an Israeli wedding ceremony that fits who they are.

Cheapening the faith

Written by Katie

As I start the process of applying to Rabbinical school next year, I am continually inspired by the rabbis I meet. I always knew they were leaders of various communities but until the past few years I never knew them on such a personal level. Not only are they smart and spiritual but they are doing acts of social justice in the world. My friends in Rabbinical school are involved with Occupy Wall Street, Encounter, soup kitchens, and so much more. My rabbi at home is incredibly knowledgeable, a mensch, makes sure that our synagogue has a 24 hours 365 day a year homeless shelter, and is involved in lots of interfaith work. That is the kind of rabbi I am aspiring to become.

That is why when I first started learning about the issues of racist incitement by rabbis in Israel I was shocked. These rabbis have said some of the following things:

  • “It is reasonable to harm a child if it is obvious that they will grow up to harm us, and, in such a situation, they will be deliberately harmed (and not merely damaged in an attack aimed at the adults)” The King’s Torah by Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur
  • Again and again it emerges that ostensibly cheap Arab labor actually wreaks the heaviest of prices on us, in blood. The murderous tractors driven by Arabs from East Jerusalem are merely the tip of the iceberg of a national problem that has long since become an existential danger that threatens the well-being of the nation dwelling in Zion, as sources of livelihood are usurped and Jews are displaced at every turn. Through the creeping seizure of Jewish neighborhoods, through insolence and audacity, through increasing verbal and physical violence, through the systematic and deliberate offense to the honor of Jewish women, and up to the point of intermarriage with Jewish women who fall into their net…The time has come to tell the truth: Providing a livelihood for our enemies leads to grave consequences…”        A response to blood spilled poster
  • “The letting of real estate to a non-Jew… is an act of treason against the Torah and the Holy People… A Jew who transfers possession of land to a Gentile, from the date of this ruling, shall not be able to serve as a public emissary [in the synagogue], is not to be included in the prayer quorum, and is certainly not to be called up to read from the Torah.” The New Sanhedrin Group Halachic ruling

This is not what someone who is well versed in Torah should stand for.  This is not what rabbis were meant to be. Rabbis should be preaching tolerance and love of the stranger. After all G-d tells us to love the stranger as ourselves 36 times in the Torah because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. The Bible is horrified by child sacrifice of other religions of antiquity because the sanctity of life is so important. In the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin 37a it says “whoever preserves a single lifeit is as if he has saved an entire world.”  I could go on and on.

That is why I was glad to join IRAC in its fight against racism. They have been monitoring these rabbis for years and compiling information on them. IRAC has brought 48 complaints to the courts and in only 18 was a criminal investigation opened. In only 5 of these cases was the rabbi indited for a criminal offense and in only ONE case was the rabbi convicted of the crime. His punishment was to serve community service hours in his own Yeshiva. This is unacceptable that the state seems to be saying rabbis are above the law.

Two weeks ago, I got to go to a Supreme Court where it was obvious that the court room was designed with the Torah in mind. Anat Hoffman, our executive director, pointed out all its interesting features to me. There are no corners in the court rooms because justice is round since it is a combination of mercy and judgement. There is a skylight where natural light pours into the room. This is based on a quote from Isaiah 45:8 where he states “Open up, O heavens, and pour down your righteousness.” The walls are made of latticework symbolizes the interconnectedness of all the people of Israel.

The case I was going to see was about Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu who co-wrote The King’s Torah.  The state has been saying for years that it will investigate his racist incitement and has done nothing. I loved watching this case. Our lawyers do not back down for anything and are so justified in their path that it’s hard for others to thwart them. The Supreme court sided in our favor and said the state has 60 days to inform High Court whether or not to indict Eliyahu for incitement to racism. The court was no longer letting the state turn  a blind eye to his activities and was forcing them into action. The justices just like the court room they were sitting in were being inspired by the Torah.

I’ve always had rabbis as role models of who I want to become. Now, I also have examples of the kind of rabbi I hope I will never be.

The wind of social justice

Written by Katie

Last Thursday was lovely. The sky was blue and there were puffy clouds in the sky. Later that evening large drops of rain landed on the streets of Jerusalem. It was a fulfillment of all our prayers of masheev haruach u’moreed hagashem, let the wind blow and  rain come down, that we have been saying during every day since Simchat Torah a few weeks ago.

But those were not the only reasons it was a beautiful day. I had the privilege of riding with 27 women on IRAC’s pilot freedom ride. These women came from all over the United States with an organization called the National Council for Jewish Women (NCJW). These women took a few hours out of their only week in Israel to help us create a more just Israel.

Anat Hoffman, our Executive Director, explained the problem of segregation that is rapidly expanding in Israel, and then all of us boarded a tour bus for Ramat Shlomo, an entirely Charedi neighborhood in Jerusalem. We got off the tour bus and waited at the first bus stop for the #56. This is a bus line I know well after getting harassed on it just a few weeks ago. We decided to go on three different buses to spread out our womanpower. While we were waiting for the bus, the kids in the Yeshiva next to the bus stop, were waving at us. I assumed they had never seen so many women wearing pants with their heads uncovered.

My group of ten women got on the second bus to come. We spread ourselves among the front section of the bus. Every man who boarded the bus was totally baffled at the amount of women in the “men’s” section and none seemed to know what to do with themselves. Many covered their faces with their hats. Most just face the window. A twelve year old boy boarded the bus with his two little brothers who immediatly sat down next to two women. The twleve year old was visibly uncomfortable and could not decide whether to stand or sit. Though he eventually sat, it was a demonstation of how even young kids are being indoctrinated at an early age to avoid women.

The outing was worthwhile for two reasons. One, on every bus women joined us in the front. On my bus a haredi women looked so happy to sit in the very first seat next to one of the NCJW ladies. It reinforced why riding the buses is so important  and powerful because it gives women who feel powerless a chance to “sit down” for their rights.  Unfortnately as soon as we disemarked the bus she moved to the back. Most women feel safe sitting in front while we are there. However, one Ethiopian woman stayed in the front even after we left. This woman and her courage are  my inspiration that things will indeed get better.

Secondly, it was a joy to see how delighted the women of NCJW were to be joining us in this act of social justice. They all said they not only got an opportunity to learn about the situation but felt tremendous power and pride at having changed the culture of the buses at least for an hour.

This winter, may the wind of social justice blow and the rain of equality keep pouring down.

To see more information about IRAC’s Freedom Rider initiative click here.

I refuse to get married in Israel

By Yehonatan

I wasn’t scared of moving in together with Shira, after only a few months into our relationship, it felt like the right thing to do. I wasn’t scared of the commitment of adopting a dog together only two days after we moved in – that too felt like the right thing to do. I wasn’t scared of meeting her family, her friends or her colleagues, nor was I scared of kneeling down and proposing to her – that too felt like the right thing to do. Telling my mother that we’re not planning on getting officially married – now that was scary. And indeed, she was shocked. A Jewish couple, in Israel, living together, raising a baby, and not being married? Abomination. And she’s far from being religious – she’s just a bit old-fashioned. But we didn’t do this to upset her – we just don’t like doing things we don’t believe in, and there simply is no other option for us. You see, if you’re a happy couple who wants to wed, you have only three options in Israel– marry through the Rabbanute, the Orthodox Rabbinical Council, marry in Cyprus in a civil marriage, or marry by Fax (yes, by fax) through a lawyer in Peru. I cannot stress this enough – I am not kidding about the wedding-by-fax-in-Peru thing.

Nonetheless, if you still want to hold some sort of Jewish wedding, you can do so with a reform Rabbi, but you will still have to fly to Cyprus for it to be legally recognized in Israel. In fact, the rabbis make you promise you do so. And who wants to lie to a rabbi? I’m not sure which one of these options means less to us – having an official document in Greek saying that I’m married, having Orthodox rabbis asking me questions about my love life and my great-great grand parents’ love lives before they agree to marry me in a manner I do not believe in, or call my lawyer in Peru and have him get my wedding registered in Lima’s city hall? We chose none of the above – we will wait until Israel wakes up. (By the way, if you know a lawyer in Peru that also happens to be a Rabbi, tell them to expect to be making big bucks in the coming years.)

My mom got over her initial shock – at first she was afraid of what her friends would say, having a son who has a child but is not married. She kept it as a secret for a few days, until she learned that almost all of her friends’ children chose not to marry, and in fact not marrying is getting more and more popular in Israel. The growing popularity of it (thanks, in large extent, to the struggle of same-sex couples in recent years) has caused many of the rules to flex a bit, and unlike previous years, un-wed couples have almost as many rights as married couples do (in terms of mortgage, taxation etc.) This means that other than the symbolic religious act, or the event for families and friends, there really is no need to marry. In a switch that only my mom is capable of doing, she turned overnight into a preacher of civil marriage in Israel. “My son will not bend to the Orthodox monopoly, and will wait until Israel wakes up!” she says to all that ask. Suddenly, from being a rebel son with an out-of-marriage child, I’m at least Che Guevara in her eyes, or at least the romantic version of it, following love without following the rules.

Israel, sit. Time to do some thinking. Think of the message my children will get when they ask how come their mommy and daddy are not married. Think of the polarization you are creating. Think of how many Jews you are pushing away from Judaism by punishing them for not being orthodox. Think of the generations and generations of Jews to come that will lose all touch with Judaism, simply because you refuse to accept the fact that there are many ways of being Jewish. By holding on too tightly to your fixations of what Judaism should be like, you will lose all of us – slowly but surely, we will all go. Some will go to Cyprus, some will go to Peru, and some might even stay there, where they can be free to practice their religion and live their lives with complete freedom according to their own beliefs, not scared of religious fanaticism, not having to live according to someone else’s religion! Oh wait… haven’t we been through this before?

Law and Order SJU: Special Jerusalem Unit

Written by Katie

Two weeks ago, I saw my first live court case. The real version of Ally McBeal or Law and Order. I got to accompany two of IRAC’s lawyers Einat and Orly  to their case against the Jerusalem municipality on behalf of the Jerusalem Open House (JOH), a community center for the LGBT population of the city. They provide counseling services, rapid HIV/AIDS tests, leadership training, support groups and general services to the community regardless of religious background or nationality.

I’ve had many friends volunteer with them and use their services over my 2 years in the city and have heard very positive reviews. This Shabbat I had lunch with two dear Orthodox friends of mine who are new immigrants to Israel, have both volunteered to serve in the army and are both lesbians. They are extremely dedicated to human rights, feminism,  the state of Israel, and each other. I want them to be able to go to a community center that serves their needs just like any other Jerusalemite.

The Supreme court agrees with me and last year, after a 8 year court case, decided that the Jerusalem Open House is considered a full community center in every sense. In Israel community centers are heavily subsidized by the city and the court ruled that JOH should get equal funding from the municipality. That was a big victory for LGBT rights in Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, the municipality only ended up giving the Open House about a fourth of what it gives other community centers in Jerusalem. IRAC represented by Orly and Einat were bringing the case to court saying that the municipality was discriminating against the Open House in spite of the ruling of the Supreme Court and were asking for JOH to be fully funded.

The whole experience was fascinating for me. Lawyers in Israel wear the same black robes the judges do. While we were waiting for the judge to finish his previous case, the municipality’s lawyers were chatting very cordially with Orly and Einat. But entering the chambers was the biggest shock for me. We all stood up when the judge came in. The judge called the lawyers “sir” and “ma’am”. No one interrupted each other. The lawyers only stood when spoken to. It was a level of politeness I had not seen in this country.

The case itself was more frustrating. The municipality lawyers seemed to be arguing that the Open House is not a normal community center and doesn’t deserve full funding. This is in direct contradiction with the Supreme Court ruling. They also argued that because it serves a smaller population it doesn’t deserve equal funding. However, the Open House serves the entire LGBT community of the whole city which is potentially thousands of people. They also spoke about changing the criteria for funding community centers for next year. This is a ploy they have been using for years. If the criteria keep changing then magically  the Open House always seems to qualify for less money (if at all). As of now, we are waiting on a judgement from the judge of what amount of funding the Open House will receive for this year.

Rosh Hashana (which is coming up on Wednesday) is also known as Yom Hadin, the day of judgement. I can only hope that there will be a fair judgement for the Open House that will give them the funding and equal rights they deserve. Shana tova.

I’m an abomination and a sinning Jew

Written by Katie

The past two and a half weeks have been a whirlwind for me. At the beginning of September I started as IRAC’s new Communications Fellow and have hit the ground running. I’ve been doing a lot of “getting to know you” and learning about all the amazing work that IRAC does. I’ve sent out a newsletter, learned how to update twitter, and seen a court case.

But yesterday was a very different sort of day for me. I got to be a freedom rider and ride one of the segregated buses in Jerusalem for the first time. IRAC’s wonderful field coordinator Motti, drove me and two others to a neighborhood called Ramat Shlomo which is almost exclusively Hareidi and dropped us off at the bus stop.

And that’s when I got to learn some new things about myself. Apparently even when wearing a skirt and covering my shoulders I am still too attractive to be in the same vicinity as Haredi men. While waiting for the bus, four Haredi men stood in the hot afternoon sun so that they would not need to wait in the bus shelter with us.

I also learned that I am an abomination because I refused to sit in the back of the bus and sat in the front with the men. When we sat down in the front we were instantly approached by a young man who refused to look at me and my female companion but told us very forcefully that we immediately had to move to the back of the bus. We told him calmly that what we were doing was entirely legal but he refused to hear and told us that we were shayetz, abominations. Luckily we had a male companion who had joined us who told him to quiet down.

Later I learned that I was still a Jew in the eyes of this man but a horrible one committing great sins.  After studying Jewish texts extensively for the past two years at the Pardes Institute for Jewish studies, I wanted to ask him where in the Torah it says that women can’t sit in the front of the bus, but I restrained myself as I did not want the situation to escalate.

Finally I learned that I was a shiksa, a very offensive term for a non-Jewish woman. After trying to rip down the sticker on the bus stating it’s legal for anyone to sit where they want to, the man came back towards us and with rage told our male companion that it was ridiculous for him to defend two shiksas.  A modern orthodox man sitting next to us defended us and even gave us directions when we got off the bus.

So overall yesterday, I learned that in the eyes of one very angry haredi man, that I am an overly attractive, abomination, sinful Jew who is also a shiksa. I feel bad for him because I feel we really confused his sense of morals. I hope for him that one day he’ll realize there are bigger sins being committed in this country than a woman sitting at the front of the bus and he’ll use his passion to help prevent them.

What I learned myself is that I can stay calmer in tough situations than I expected, that there are good people out there who will stick up for those being unfairly targeted, and that no person can tell me what kind of Jew I am except for myself.

Also,  I can’t wait to see what happens next. Who knows what other things I will have learned when the year is over.

Power in numbers

By Sarah Sullivan, IRAC Communications Intern

Last Wednesday, I had the opportunity to get out of the IRAC office and take part in a “freedom rider” campaign with IRAC staff and student volunteers to launch the “Grab a Spot” initiative. In this initiative, female students from Hebrew University will ride public buses in Haredi neighborhoods to ensure that gender segregation is not being forced on passengers. As an intern at IRAC, I have been aware of many issues of segregation, and I was eager to have the opportunity to actually see the situation for myself.

At 8:15 in the morning, a group of about nine of us met to take a segregated bus to the meeting point, where we would join with the rest of the group. When the bus arrived, it was nearly empty, and all of us selected seats in the front of the bus. As other people boarded bus, we got many strange looks from the men and were largely ignored by the women. I have heard it said many times that there is power in numbers, and for the first time on that bus, I saw how true that could be. Had I been sitting alone in the front of the bus, I would have been very nervous.

In some communities in Jerusalem, women are very much second-class citizens. Nowhere is this clearer than on Mehadrin buses, gender-segregated buses that operate mostly in Haredi communities. On these buses, women are forced to board and sit only in the back. Rosa Parks would be outraged.

Six months ago, the Supreme Court ruled in one of IRAC’s cases that this kind of segregation on public buses is illegal. IRAC volunteers have continued to ride these bus lines to monitor the situation on the buses. While we have generally seen improvement, we are still receiving complaints from women who have been harassed for sitting in the front of the bus.

Seeing segregation happen in person was much more powerful than reading about it. Most of the Haredi men who boarded the bus remained either in the first row of the bus or crowded together by the bus entrance. They would not even stand on the bus in an area where we were sitting. While no Haredi women sat at the front with us, several of them did board the bus from the front door.

On paper, you don’t get the same feeling of discomfort that you get when actually sitting on one of these buses. It is hard to believe that in 2011, in a country like Israel, there is forced segregation on public buses. As a lifelong New Yorker, I am no stranger to public transportation. I’ve spent a lot of time on subways and buses. If segregated buses were a reality for me every day, I would not be brave enough to sit in the front alone. I truly empathize with the women who face this treatment every time they need to take the bus.

We were a much larger group on the way back—there were over 40 of us including press and many members of IRAC’s staff. Because we took up the majority of the bus, the segregation among other passengers was hardly noticeable. I did, however, notice one woman and her child sitting in the very first row of seats. If our being there contributed to her feeling comfortable enough to sit there, that alone makes our “freedom rider” campaign worthwhile.