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.

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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.