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.

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.