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.

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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’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.