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.