Cuban Jazz Meets Klezmer : Flashmob on the Streets of Paris

The above video was a joint project of the JewSalsa dance school, TanJoe art Gallery, the Jewish Agency, et le FSJU. The concept and dance routine was an initiative of dance professor and musician David el Shatràn.

According to an article in the French JSS News, the dance routine is divided into four sections each representing different types of Latin dance rhythms in honor of the four questions from the Passover seder:

The flashdance itself is also meant as a kind of metaphor for the seder as well because it welcomes all to join in.

For more information:

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Exclude Women from the Circus Ring? Modiin Says No

South African Modiin residents picnic in Modiin Park (Shabbat haGadol)

According to HaAretz (Hebrew version) during Chol haMoed a female volunteer was asked to leave the stage in Modiin when a Haredi women from the audience complained and asked that the circus use a male volunteer. The woman had gone backstage and told Rafi Vitis, the host of that a woman volunteer violated the sensibilities of “most” of the audience. In fact “The Shambuki Show” was being performed in Anabe Park in Modiin.

Modiin is a mixed secular and religious town, but the religious in Modiin primarily come from Progressive (Reform), Masorti (Conservative), and National Religious camps rather than Haredim. Non-haredi orthodox believe separation of men and women belong only in the synagogue and have varying opinions about hearing women sing. Non-orthodox relgious give men and women equal access in all areas of adult religious and secular life. One Modi’in religious resident told haAretz,

Instead of enjoyable time out with the family we received an alarming example of how normal it has become to take women off stage and marginalize them in the public sphere, even in a city like Modi’in where the population is not predominantly Haredi, and where Haredi politics don’t prevail,…It was striking to see such a flagrant case of exclusion of women from the public sphere. Here in Modi’in, it is unacceptable.

A Modiin official and the city council took swift action to prevent future attempts by self-styled police to segregate women. The Modiin city council told HaAretz

As soon as the incident was brought to the attention of the director of cultural activities he rushed to the scene and gave a specific order that it was unacceptable and that the show would go on as usual. Afterward we circulated specific instructions that all changes to shows at Anava Park cannot be approved by anyone other than the city council.

Avi Elbaz, city council member, told haAretz:

The incident with the acrobatic show didn’t take place in Modi’in Illit, Ramat Beit Shemesh or another Haredi city. If it doesn’t suit you to see women on stage, don’t come. It’s unbelievably rude to go to a show in a secular city and make these demands. This place is not owned by the Haredim

Avi Elbaz is also chairman of Free Modiim , a group that defends the rights of secular Israelis . Modi’in Illit is a nearby town that is predominantly Haredi. Members of the nearby Haredi town sometimes come to the park and have caused problems in the past when they’ve insisted that park events and other park visitors act according to their values.

Different spins in different languages

The Hebrew and English haAretz versions of this story have different slants. The Hebrew version, like this article, stressed the action of the city government and local officials. The English version stressed the conflict between Haredim and Modiin residents. In Hebrew the article summary in bold at the start of the article says “Modiin city hall: we gave instructions that an incident like this shouldn’t happen now or in the future”. The English version says “Modi’in residents angered by ‘unacceptable’ act. “.

This difference in coverage may have been motivated by the assumption that English readers are predominately out of country and will not care about municipal details. However, downplaying the governments quick response also leaves the mistaken impression that non-Haredi Jews are a beleagered and defensive minority in Israel. In reality, the majority of the population supports women’s presence in the public sphere and accomodation to secular lifestyles. Most of the difficulties regarding women come from non-enforcement of laws rather than the lack of laws.

Respect for whom?

The haredi woman who approached the acrobat show’s host and the hosts decision also illustrates some common theme in stories about the exclusion of women.

Often the decision to remove women is made by non-Haerdim with the intent of being respectful to Haredim. Rafi Vitis told HaAretz “I was trying to do my best to show consideration for their sensibilities and didn’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings.” The decision of Beersheva to segregate playground at their local zoo one day during Chol haMoed Pesach had a similar goal which they described as “harmony”. However, exclusion decisions are never neutral. If there is a single event, there is no way to both include and exclude at the same time. Being sensitive to a person who believes in excluding women is going to offend women who want to be included as well as bystanders who believes women should not be excluded.

The MC’s lack of awareness that he was going to offend someone no matter what he did may be related to the way Israelis typically view religion. There is a tendency in Israeli culture to view religion as a continuum with secular antagonism at one end and Haredi extremism at the other. There is only one way to be religious and it involves becoming more and more like the Haredim. Objection to Haredi lifestyle can only reflect either a lack of religious passion or even anti-religious intolerance.

This contrasts with the more pluralistic view found in the Diaspora and in academic study of Judaism. These later perspectives see religious Judaism as something more like a tree with many interpretations branching out of a core trunk of common texts and history.

The notion of a continuum leaves little room for disagreement since relgion is viewed as additive rather than diversifying. If Haredim see exclusion of women as a positive religious goal then inclusion must represent the absense of commitment to that goal rather than a religiously motivated opposition based on a different understanding of Judaism and human dignity. The person opposing segregation must either be (a) indifferent and happy to comply (b) anti-religious (c) assimilated to a world of non-Jewish values (d) selfishly trying to go beyond her God appointed role. Most people want to think of themselves as nice people. Compliance is the only option that doesn’t have some sort of negative connotation.

A second common theme is the belief that “most” people agree with the Haredim. This was the argument given by the Haredi woman who approached the acrobat show’s host. She believed her objections to the female volunteer were shared by “most” of the audience.

The HaAretz article doesn’t give any attendence numbers, but there have been many incidents where Haredi sources have grossly overestimated their numbers or general agreement with their valeus. In 2009, Hiddush did a study of Israeli attitudes towards segregated buses. They found that 50% of the general public did not want to ride a segregated bus. Haredi men and women had put the estimate at less than 30%. In February, when the Tel Aviv city council decided to work towards making buses available on Shabbat, local rabbis told the press that 80% of Tel Aviv was against it. Tel Aviv is a predominantly secular city. Furthermore several national studies show that 60% or more of the country is in fact in favor of making public buses available on Shabbat.

This tendency to overestimate may be related to the psychological process of salience . We tend to overweight something that attracts our attention. There is little doubt that the distinctive dress of Haredim can dominate one’s perception of a space even when there are not many present. Additionally, many Haredim live in a self contained world so they may simply be unaware of the diversity of viewpoints outside of their communities.

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Beersheva Zoo Segregates Visitors by Gender, Requires “Modest” Dress

Turtle at Negev Zoo

Ynet reports that when Avigail Kanterovich and her family showed up at the Negev Zoo in Bersheva, they couldn’t get in. Even national religious visitors couldn’t get in.

The ticket sellers told them that the zoo was closed to non-Haredi visitors. The zoo management says that this was a special event arranged for the Haredi public, however no prior announcements had been made to the general public and there were no signs in place at the zoo when the family arrived Later in the day the zoo affixed a sign at the entrance announcing the special visiting requirements.

After the family confronted the zoo management, the zoo agreed to let them and other non-Haredi visitors in. However, even children’s activities at the zoo were segregated by gender. All visitors were required to dress to a Haredi standard of modesty as well or they could not be admitted.

The Beersheva municiplity said that this event was an example of seculars and religious living in harmony.

According to Wikipedia the Negev Zoo receives funding from the city of Beersheva, the Israeli Ministry of Education, the Housing and Construction Minister of Israel and private contributors.

Attempts to segregate public spaces by gender have failed when challenged in the Israeli Supreme court. In September, 2010, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected the right to segregate city streets by gender. In June, 2011 the Israeli Supreme Court rejected public enforcement of gender segregated buses.

Nonetheless municipal governments from time to time cooperate with Haredim in sponsoring publicly funded gender segregated events in public spaces. Last Hanukkah, Petach Tikva enforced gender segregated seating at municipal Hanukkah shows.

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Seders around the Jewish World

Beijing at night

On the first night of Passover as the sun moves around the world Jews from all countries begin one after another to celebrate the seder. The particular way each family and group of friends celebrates differs from table to table, time zone to time zone. Yet we all tell the same story on the same night.


In Tablet magazine Dan Levin talks about his seder in China. He writes

For most of the year, our Jewishness hovers in the background; our primary identity here is “foreigner.” But Passover forces us to confront our shared religious heritage—and how it resonates in a Chinese context. The Haggadah features tales of villains and heroes, tyranny and dissent, and when we distill the Seder’s morality play through the dark realities of China, it reads as subversive political commentary. After all, we are celebrating freedom in a country that is not free.


An Israeli chef and his crew prepared 900 chickens, tubs full of salad, and over a 1000 boiled eggs with the electricity going on and off. Over 1,100 people came from all over Nepal to attend the seder. Each year about 10,000 Israelis visit Nepal. The seder in Katmandu is one of three seders in Nepal.  For more, see 1,100 Pounds of Matzah in the Himalaya Mountains .


Last year seder Gilead Shalit’s family marked the seder in the tent the family had erected outside of the prime minister’s house. This year for the first time in six years the family is celebrating Passover with Gilead Shalit in their own home.

Soldiers from the HaRuv brigade arrived expecting a festive seder meal. Instead they got cold matzah and salami. IDF kitchens must serve kosher food. The rabbi in charge of supervising the kitchen insisted that the planned meal be thrown out because it was improperly heated.

Several Russian Jewish oligarchs celebrated an unremarkable seder in a Jerusalem hotel this year, but the way they prepapred for the seder was anything but usual. The week before the seder they traveled 200 kilometer through the Aravah desert northward to Jerusalem accompanied by camels without their usual modern conveniences . The trip organizer told the Moscow Times that the journey presented “a serious spiritual and physical challenge to the particpants.”

Gilad Shalit’s family have left their tents, but the residents of Machpelach house in Hebron have just set up theirs. They were evicted the week before Passover by the IDF. The residents claim that they had bought the property fair and square and had the right to live in the house. The IDF says that property has been set aside for military use and they can’t be there. Their claims will be reviewed in the coming months. In the meantime as a protest they have set up a tent nearby and held their seder in the tent.

Four years ago Chef Alon Goren of the El Barrio restaurant in Tel Aviv realized that many of his staff were foreign workers who had no place to go for seder night. He invited them to the restaurant for a small seder. The next year he invited workers from restaurants run by friends. The third year the number of people coming to the seder grew so large that he could no longer hold it in his restaurant. He moved it to a villa owned by a high ranking police officer and friend of his. This year the seder was held in a Flamenco studio in south Tel Aviv. Describing the children at his seders Goren said “It’s just amazing. The kids who come speak Hebrew fluently. They’re Israelis! Their parents are from another world, but these youngsters are so Israeli. They know the songs, and they have such a good time,”.


In Egypt was the seder that wasn’t. Every year since the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, the Israeli embassy in Cairo has held a seder. This year the seder was canceled due to deteriorating relations with Egypt. Because of problems protecting staff, embassy personnel have been returning home to Israel each weekend . Because the seder fell on Shabbat this year, the ambassor was in Israel with his family rather than in Cairo.


Ruth Ellen Gruber from Budapest writes:

At Pesach, I made a “seder crawl” that took me to the Bet Orim seder and two others on the first night and one additional seder on the second. I had been invited to all of them, and seder hopping was how I dealt with the dilemma of having to make a choice about which to attend. Each was a big communal affair for dozens of people, organized by one of Budapest’s plethora of different Jewish groups and congregations. They all took place in and around the city’s downtown old Jewish quarter, in venues ranging from a modern JCC auditorium to the formal dining room of a popular restaurant to a funky basement youth cafe.

United Kingdom

Angie Jacobs writes in the Times of Israel about the prepackaged McSeder plate in her local supermarket and the challenges she and her sister had with creating a seder plate that was acceptable to the vegetarians in the family.

USA, East Coast

At the Garden, spending Passover with Springsteen : Long Island resident Warren Rosen didn’t want to miss Bruce Springsteen’s opening concert at Madison Square Garden in lower Manhatten. Since there was no way to get from his Seder Table in Massapequa Park, to the Garden, Rosen decided he’d bring the Seder to Springsteen. He rented a room in a restaurant across the street from Madison Square Garden; printed up special Haggadot with Bruce Springsteen on the cover; and invited his friends. They began the seder with “Matzah Ball”, a song written by his wife and set to the tune of Springsteen’s song Wrecking Ball. When the seder was over, everyone crossed the street and went to the Springsteen concert.

College student Alan Meskin writes in the Forward about his family’s efforts to maintain their Russian roots duing the seder. Obviously there are Russian dishes at the meal, but more than that the seder has special meaning for Russian immigrants to the USA. He writes:

To Russian immigrants especially, the holiday is a moment when they can think about the recent attainment of independence from the former Soviet Union and how they were let go after years of oppression and hatred.

USA, Moab Desert, Utah


Several families gathered in the Moab desert in Utah for a day long pre-seder and seder program. In memory of the Jews having to walk their way out of Egypt, they began their pre-seder celebrations with a hike to the Corona Arch, a giant natural made stone arch, an hour long hike from the nearest road. At the arch they read the story of the Exodos from the Torah. After the reading, following Miriam’s example, women danced with tamborines. The group returned to their camp site to complete the evening with a traditional seder. The annual desert seder is lead by Reform rabbi, Jamie Korngold. Next year, she will leave leadership to someone else. Korngold plans to be in Jerusalem.


USA, West Coast

In the Los Angeles Jewish Journal a morrocan Jewish father describes how Arabic and his Morrocan heritage shaped his understanding of the seder and the world around him.

Growing up in a French-speaking Sephardic-Moroccan home in Los Angeles, my sisters and I were never taught that Arabic was the “language of the enemy.” That is, unless we considered our parents “the enemy” — they spoke it between themselves when they didn’t want us to understand what was being said. I have vivid memories of Judeo-Arabic being spoken in my home. … Throughout my upbringing, the first chant at the Passover seder that really made it feel like Pesach for all of us around the table sounded like this …. Although my parents are no longer alive, my family continues our Judeo-Arabic chanting at the seder. These chants continue to tell the story of Pesach — my Moroccan ancestors’ Pesach — to my children, in the original language of their ancestors.

For Gary Smith’s vegan family the shank bone was only the beginning of their problems with the traditional seder. None the less they found a way to adapt the seder to integrate both their connection to Judaism and their commitments as vegans. He writes in the Jewish Journal about their “veder” or a vegan seder:

Our veder is really not much different than most others except that as vegans and animal rights activists, we see animals as fellow innocent victims. We decide to include and remember the 10 billion animals who are killed for food each year in the United States, the hundreds of millions in vivisection laboratories, the animals enslaved in zoos, circuses, racetracks and water parks for human entertainment, and the millions killed for fur, leather, wool and silk. Although being vegan is still outside the mainstream, it is in no way a rejection of the values we grew up with. In fact, the very teachings of Judaism encourage us to question authority, protect those who are most vulnerable, and take action against oppression and injustice — qualities that are common, if not necessary, to vegans and animal activists.


And finally we reach Hawaii where blogger Lorraine Gershun writes about her family’s second night seder:

My husband and I set the table this afternoon for our second night Seder. When we finished I realized that we were both wearing our bathing suits. He was still in his board shorts from his morning surf session and I had just returned from the neighborhood pool after swimming some laps. “Now that is being Jewish in Hawaii I thought.”

Update: 2012-04-15, added stories about seder in Katmandu, Nepal and Moab Desert, USA.

Several families gathered in the Moab desert in Utah for a day long pre-seder and seder program. In memory of the Jews having to walk their way out of Egypt, they began their pre-seder celebrations with a hike to the Corona Arch, a giant natural made stone arch, an hour long hike from the nearest road. At the arch they read the story of the Exodos from the Torah. After the reading, following Miriam’s example, women danced with tamborines. The group returned to their camp site to complete the evening with a traditional seder. The annual desert seder is lead by Reform rabbi, Jamie Korngold. Next year, she will leave leadership to someone else. Korngold plans to be in Jerusalem.

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Non-orthodox religious leaders: Israeli Hotels Refusing Torahs to Egalitarian Minyanim

Torah service at Moreshet Israel, a Masorti congregation in Jerusalem

The directors of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism and The Masorti Movement  have sent a letter to the government complaining that hotels are refusing to allow egalitarian minyanim to use hotel rooms and Torahs for fear of losing their kashrut certificate.

The Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism and the Masorti Movement represent the interests and religious needs of non-orthodox religious Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews visiting Israel. The letter was sent to both the ministry of Tourism and the ministry of Diaspora Affairs. According to Ynet, the letter concluded:

We ask that you find the proper public manner in which to make it clear that this is an invalid policy that is not compatible with the law, a policy that damages relations with Jews in the Diaspora and the image of the State of Israel as a Jewish democratic state.

The complaint follows an incident last month when a group of American high school students were refused a Torah for their Shabbat minyan. The hotel belonged to a non-religious kibbutz and advertized itself as a place that would meet all the needs of bar and bat mitzvahs. However, when the group asked for a Torah for their morning Shabbat service, the hotel religious supervisor informed them that they couldn’t have the Torah unless they agreed to a service with a mehitza where only boys read from the Torah.

The rabbinut denied that this was an official policy but did concede that local rabbinut may have different rules and that these may be responsible for the difficulties.

Loss of a kashrut certificate has severe economic implications for hotels. Hotels have little recourse when a local kashrut supervisor threatens to withdraw their kashrut certification.

At least two cases complaining against the policy of bundling non-food related behaviorial requirements with kashrut certification have gone before the Israeli Supreme Court.  The Kashrut (Prohibition of Deciet) law prohibits a food-service establishment from claiming it is kosher unless it receives a certificate from the state run rabbinut.

In the 1980’s the rabbinut tried to withhold kashrut certificates from establishments that allowed belly dancers on the premises.  In 1989 the Supreme Court ruled that it was not the intent of the Kashrut Law to empower a rabbi to force a business or its customers to act in compliance with religious law on non food related matters.    They could not use kashrut to prohibit belly dancers, New Year’s parties, or even Christmas parties.

In 2009, the Supreme Court found that a kashrut certificate could not be withheld from an Ashdod baker even though she believed Jesus was the Messiah.  The court ruled that “The Kashrut Law states clearly that only legal deliberations directly related to what makes the food kosher are relevant, not wider concerns unrelated to food preparation,” .

The bundling of rules about how a Torah may be used with kashrut certification is clearly against the Supreme Court ruling.   However fighting a loss of kashrut certification in the Supreme Court is a potentially lengthy process.   In the meantime the restaurant risks loss of revenue from kashrut observant clients.

Even with a successful suit, it may be difficult to get the relevant ministries to comply with the Supreme Court decision.   It is not uncommon for civil rights organizations to have to file additional Supreme Court suits when a ministry fails to follow through on an earlier Supreme Court decision.  Thus many establishments prefer to play by the local rabbinut’s rules regardless of their legal rights or the rights of their customers.

Related articles in Jacob’s Bones:

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A Step Backwards: Kol BaRama allowed to limit women to 4 hr/wk

This morning HaAretz reported that the Sephardi Haredi radio station Kol BaRama will be broadcassting women’s voices for only four hours a week with the blessing of the the Second Authority for Television and Radio. The Second Authority is responsible for issuing radio station franchises and ensuring that radio station practices conform to Israeli law.

Orignally the Israeli Broadcasting Association was demanding that they have at least one hour a day of women’s programming (6 hr/wk). Civil rights groups believed that even this amount was too little and filed a suit in the Israeli Supreme Court alleging that the government was not doing enough to fight discrimination against women at Kol baRama.

Israeli law does not allow discrimination except in certain religious situations. However, last May former Sephardi Chief Rabbi and Shas spritual leader Ovadia Yosef ruled that there were no problems with listen to women’s speaking voices on the radio.

Kol baRama’s ownership has close ties with several coalition MKs. In Israel there is a very thin line between the legislative and executive branches of government. Members of the Knesset, the legislative branch, also run the ministries that form the executive branch. They therefore control the ability of the government to execute its laws. This often means that a law that is passed in the Knesset can be effectively nullified as a political favor by the MKs that run specific ministries.

Kol baRama insists that increasing the number of hours of women’s broadcasting would lead to an economic loss. The Second Authority run its own independent study and found that 20% of listeners would stop listening if there were more hours of women’s programming. Kol BaRama claims the potential loss is closer to 1/3 of their listeners.

If this statistic is indeed representative of the Sephardi Haredi population as a whole, it suggests that there is deep rooted prejudice in that community. Given Ovadia Yosef’s ruling one can’t simply claim that the exclusion of women is due to religiously mandated separate roles or some sort of special holiness that sets women apart.

However, it is quite possible that this statistic is not representative. It only reports on current listeners. Given an on-going policy of excluding women, it may be that Kol BaRama is creating a self-confirming illusion. By making women all but invisible it alienates people who want to hear women’s voices. The current listeners are those who already don’t mind exclusion rather than the general public. In that case all the statistic tells us is that 20% of people who don’t care about women’s voices actually dislike them enough to stop listening.

The Israeli Broadcasting Authority defends its decision saying that the differences are not that great and no one should be making a big deal of going down from six to four hours.

Kol BaRama broadcasts 24/6. Four hours a week of women’s voices represents 3% of airtime.

Previous articles on Jacob’s Bones:

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The Malavsky Family Choir

Cantor Samuel Malavsky, born in Kiev, was well known for singing with his sons and daughters in concert in the 1940’s and 1950’s, long before women cantors were accepted even in non-orthodox synagogues. Malavsky insisted on giving his daughters respect due to cantors as well. In concerts Malavsky’s daughters, and not just Malavsky, would sing with tallit and kippah. Several prayer tunes were composed with “boy alto” solos so that his daugher Goldie could sing. Some had soprano solos as well. Malavsky’s music may be some of the earliest cantorial settings deliberately composed for the female cantorial voice.

During World War II, they sang the High Holidays in San Francisco. The family frequently lead Passover seders in the Catskills as well. But in general, opportunties to use their skills to lead prayer were limited. Orthodox synagogues would not allow him to sing with his daughters. Conservative synagogues welcomed the family as a group, but Malavsky did not like the changes to liturgy. He found his solution singing in hotels, music halls. Sometimes the same Orthodox rabbis who would not let Malavsky and his daughters sing in their shuls would come to the concert at the hotel.

The family also did numerous recordings and even cinema shorts, as in this clip below (song starts at 0:56).

  • The family choir, known as “The Singers of Israel” performed ….
  • Malavsky’s cantorial style was known for its strong marked beat and syncopation. (jewish virtual library)
  • Goldie Malavsky : her own album – , singing Ich Baink Ahaim

Some other songs by the Malavsky family:

  • Yedid Nefesh : Malavksy as soloist accompanied by soloist
  • Ribon HaOlamim : solo by Malavsky, no choir, but very beautiful classical chazzanut, shabbat song typically sung between shalom aleichem and eshet chayil
  • Tzur MiShelo Achalnu : Shabbat table song, sung after eating. (clip above)
  • Vchol Boei Olam : solos by both Malavsky, a daughter and the family choir
  • Tzena Tzena – Israeli folk song

For more about the “The Singers of Israel”, see

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A Sign of Change? Police Fight Kotel Bus Segregation Attempt

On Monday after the bi-annual mass priestly blessing, two teens, 16 and 17 stood at a bus stop outside the Old City at the Dung Gate demanding women board at the back of the bus. They said they were hired by two Haredi men who offered to pay them 25 NIS/hr ($7/hr) . Police arrested the two teens for questioning and then later arrested the two men who hired them.  (Sources: Jerusalem PostTimes of Israel )

To accommodate women who wish to sit separately from men, some Israeli public buses, known as Mehadrin buses, allow female passengers to board in the back of the bus. They either punch their ticket on their own with a puncher by the back door or pass their tickets up to the front. Individuals are allowed to voluntarily sit with their own gender of their own accord if they wish.

However, enforced bus segregation is illegal in Israel. Verbal threats and harassment, physical intimidation, or even acts that make it appear that bus segregation is an official policy are all illegal.

Despite this, harassment on mehadrin buses is an on-going problem. A January study by the ministry of transportation found that 1 in 20 bus inspectors who tried to sit where they wished on Mehadrin buses were threatened or harassed in some way. About 1 in 3 of harrassment incidents included physical intimidation.

Stories behind the Statistics

Although public reports of this behavior surface from time to time in the mainstream media, they do not indicate the scale of the problem. Most reports never make it beyond a personal circle of friends. Those that make it on line, like this one, quickly get lost in the blogosphere.

They do however serve to illustrate the passions involved and why even verbal threats and bullhorns can imply coercion and not just a simple request. In 2004, author Naomi Regan was verbally intimidated and threatened while the bus driver refused to interfere. In 2005, a woman named Ronit needed to sit in the front of the bus where she could look out the front window because of motion sickness. The bus driver did not force her to the back of the bus, but neither did he tell the men to stop harassing her.

In 2010, Oriyah Ferdheim boarded the 497 bus from Beit Shemesh to Yahud for her first day of National Service. When five zeolots found her in the wrong seat they kicked, spit on, and pelted with various objects. A police officer stopped the bus in a Haredi neighborhood in Ramat Beit Shemesh and told the crowd to leave her alone, but as soon as he left a mob of people boarded the bus and began attacking her. An off-duty soldier defended her with his own body. The police officer was unable to stop the attack without several squad cars for reinforcements. A year later Oriyah was still suffering nightmares from the incident.

Meida access plays a role in our awareness of the issue. At the end of 2011, three more attacks made it into the mainstream media. One victim, Tanya Rosenblit, worked for a TV news organization. Understandably it received heavy coverage, even gaining mention on a New York Times blog. Even politicians got involved. Both Netanyah and then opposition leader Tzipi Livni spoke out in support of Rosenblit.

A second story involved a Haredi woman from the Gur community, Yocheved Horowitz. HaAretz devoted two articles to the story (2011-12-23 and 2011-12-30). But without media allies or police drama to keep the story alive, the story soon dropped off the pages of HaAretz. No other paper picked it up.

But if they want segregation, who are we to Interfere?

Until recently, Israelis have had mixed feelings about bus harassment stories. While most agree that the harassment itself is wrong, the victims are often blamed for having created the situation. If a person doesn’t want to play by the social rules they shouldn’t ride the buses, so the argument goes. If they do, they should respect the fact that most riders are haredi and have different cultural expectations.

The most obvious difficulty with this argument is that many of the women who have been harassed are themselves religious women. Yocheved Horowitz is a member of the Gur community. Oriya Ferdheim is part of the Dati Leumi community. Nor are these isolated examples. According to a Hiddush study in the spring of 2010, nearly a third of Haredim (29% of men, 31% of women) either oppose segregated buses or want to see the number of segregated lines reduced.

Another argument in defense of Haredi buses is the claim that riding in mixed buses violates their religious beliefs. The bus system is subsidized by the state. This includes the Mehadrin bus lines. Since the state must serve all citizens, it must provide suitable services to all of its citizens, including its Haredi citizens.

However, this argument cuts both ways. Those supporting the right to segregated buses are usually very selective in which Jewish rights they believe the state should support. Recognition of marriage, access to the Kotel for prayer, and burial are also services provided by the state, yet the state does not recognize marriages performed by Ethiopian priests or Reform and Conservative rabbis. Egalitarian prayer practices are banned from the kotel and even Rashi’s daughters who wore tallit and tefillin could not show up at the Kotel and pray according to their custom.

If one says that freedom of Judaism is limited to orthodox interpretations of Halachah, the religious freedom argument still falls.   Moshe Feinstein, considered one of the greatest orthodox halachic deciders of the 20th century, ruled that men and women could ride together even on a croweded bus where they were pressing up against each other. If both Feinstein and the Haredi position are legitimate, then there is no grounds for Haredim to say that mixed gender buses discriminate against them. If pro-segregationists say that they don’t go by Feinstein, then the claim that we can have state accommodation to religion without state recognition of sectarian interpretations falls.

A second problem with the religious freedom argument is that accommodation to pro-segregationists excludes anti-segregationists. Many of the Mehadrin bus routes cannot support dual direct bus lines, one segregated and one not.  The alternative non-segregated routes involve multiple transfers, round-about travel routes, more time, and more money. According to Hiddush’s 2011 religion and state survey , 47% of women (50% non ultra orthodox) say they are not willing to ride segregated buses.

Haredim may not be fully aware of how aversive these buses are to the general public.    According to the same Hiddush study Haredi men estimated that only 29% of non-Haredi women would refuse to ride segregated buses, rather than the actual number of 50%. If they were fully aware of how adverse these buses are, some at least might not be so in favor of segregation.

Police reaction to Harassment

Although harassment and physical threats are illegal, historically police response has been hands off in these bus confrontations. Even though Ferdheim had already been physically assaulted when the police officer first entered the bus, none of the assailants were arrested or removed from the bus. Nor was this because the police officer felt they posed no further danger. Rather, he suggested to Ferdheim that she move to the back for her own safety. The same thing happened to Tanya Rosenblit. When the bus driver called the police, the police initially tried to convince Rosenblit to be ‘respectful’ and move to the back of the bus.

This trend has begun to change, but it is hard to know whether the chance applies to some well publicized cases or is an ongoing pattern with the Israeli police. At the end of 2011, Doron Matalon, an Israeli soldier on her way back to her IDF base was called a “slut” by a Haredi man who was angered by her refusal to go to the back of the bus. Doron had been harrassed by various passengers on many other ocassions and had even been shoved. This time, with her father’s encouragement, she called the police. The man was arrested and banned from using the bus .

The arrests of the two teens and their Haredi employers represents another step forward in the protection of women’s right to chose their seat on a bus. Rather than wait for an attack to take place, the police intervened when public pressure was being exerted on women riders.

However, law enforcement is a multi-stage process that involves much more than police intervention and arrests. So far people have only been arrested for questioning. It remains to be seen if charges will be filed and if those charges will lead to any sort of meaninful conviction. Without legal consequences it is unlikely that self-appointed police in the Haredi community will stop their harassment.

Categories: Gender Segregation, Signs of Progress | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Dumbing Down Judaism: Mibereshit’s Weekly “Values” Parsha Sheet

Weekly "Religious" Parshah Sheet

Weekly "Values" Parsha Sheet

Mibereshit is a Jewish education organization that aims to “strengthen the bonds between the Jewish people and their land, between Diaspora Jews and Israel, and between all Jews and their shared tradition by revealing our common foundation.” The group reaches out to secular Israelis and hopes to give them knowledge and connection to their tradition. One of their projects is a weekly Torah portion study sheet that parents and children can discuss together.

The sheets are colorful, well laid out, and packed with entertaining stories and games. They share a great deal of information about Judaism that might not otherwise get to secular families There is a lot to praise. None the less the weekly sheet raises concerning questions about how this organization is teaching Judaism and encouraging Jewish connection.

The weekly parsha sheet aimed at 6-12 year olds comes in two versions: a “religious” version and a “values” version.  Their website offers a sample of each.  The rest of this essay is a  reflection on the samples and what they tell us of Mibereshit’s approach to Jewish education.

In the secular world “values education” is an approach to learning that gives students thought provoking material and then asks students to use this material to bring unstated values to the surface and to reflect on how they prioritize values when conflicts occur. Although the “values” version is aimed at so-called secular Jews, it is not in any way “values” education In fact it would be best described as dumbed down Judaism.

In place of a direct encounter with the Torah and its interpretive tradition, the “values” version substitutes stories and sermonettes. Whereas the “religious” version introduces the reader to Ibn Ezra, Rambam and Rashi’s interpretation of God saying “Let us make Adam (humanity) in our image” , the “values” version tells a story about a boy going back in time with the help of his grandfather’s diary. The religious version encourages children to get down and dirty with the text by matching visual riddles with verses from the parsha. The values version has a cartoon strip explaining that the moon is smaller than the sun because she got jealous of having another light (the sun) the same size as her.

Jews are people of the book. No serious engagement with Judaism, whether purely cultural or religious can happen without an engagement with the core texts of our tradition. If Mibereshit’s goal is to create an engagement with the tradition that pulls together all Jews it fails miserably. This kind of education essentially makes secular Jews into second class citizens. It implies that you have to be religious (whatever that means) to wrestle with the text directly. If you chose values over “religion” then all you are given is the interpretation of those core texts by someone religious.

A second problem with the values version is the way it conceives the link between the secular and the profane. In the story of the boy who goes back in time, he sees two scenes (a) the Beit HaMikdash with its musical instruments and copper vessels (b) a conversation between two of Cain’s descendents. Yuval, the music maker, and Yaval the metal worker are talking. They decide their work has nothing to do with Hanoch who talks to God. However, our little boy remembers seeing the Beit HaMikdash. He realizes that music, technology and prayer all came together in the Temple.

Recognizing that even seemingly secular things are needed in the Temple drives home the necessity of secular activities. If it weren’t for technology and music the worship in the Temple would be incomplete. However, it is also indicative of a religious outlook where God is only recognizable in formal religious institutions. It takes a Temple to make music and metalworking into something that is part of prayer. In reality though, God is everywhere. Music is a form of prayer. So is admiring the beauty of something. We don’t need a Temple to make the connection. We simply need an act of thanksgiving.

The formal institutions of religion more often divide than unite. Institutions need a human management. A human management must be chosen and recognized by humans. There is no conceivable way that a humanly managed organization can ever be anything except political. Human institutions are also bound in time and space. They cannot do all things for all people. At the end of the day one group will impose their will on another. The other group can chose to accept it or walk away. Even if they accept it they will be united in name only but separated at heart.

The capacity for prayer and awe, on the other hand unites us. Shared moments of beauty and wonder break down barriers. They help us recognize both the humanity and the divinity in each other.

The third problem is that neither the religious nor the values version encourages actual dialog with the text. The value version simply tells the child and parent what values Judaism teaches and hopes they will agree those values are wise.

The religious version encourages some discussion but then immediately constrains it. Parents and children are exposed to classic commentary by Ibn Ezra, Rambam and Rashi, but they are never asked if they have their own additional interpretations.   They aren’t even asked what they think of Ibn Ezra, Rambam, or Rashi.

Dialog with text cannot happen unless people are free to question the text in their own way from their own perspective. Yet even the process of questioning the text is constrained. The reader is told “There are two important questions regarding the creation of man” rather than “these are two of many important questions we could ask, what are some other questions?” or “these are the questions that inspired Rambam, Rashi, or Ibn Ezra, what are your questions?” The bottom line message of this section is that “70 voices of Torah” refers to the fact that there are many historic commentators.

There is no hint of an alternate reading of “70 voices”, i.e. the idea that Torah is so rich that it can be defined and redefined by generation after generation. Each generation engages with the text in its own way and from its own reference point and still the text does not exhaust itself.

Any true engagement of Jews in Diaspora and Israel has to account for the fact that some forms of religious Judaism encourage personal engagement of the text.  Additionally, texts like the Torah belong to all Jews.  All Jews have a right and even responsibility to read them and personally engage with it on their own terms.  True shared engagement  requires a willingness to accept that we share a text but do not necessarily read it the same.   If we wish to bring everyone together around tradition we need to allow everyone to deal with the text directly and respect the diversity.

When all three issues are taken together, the underlying goal of the weekly parsha sheet is clear. Although it purports to build bridges and unite people in the name of a shared tradition, in reality, it is a subtle method of retaining controlling ownership of that tradition. Viewing the 70 voices of Torah as something solely in the past constrains the tradition and closes it to new interpretation. Teaching people to see God in institutions rather than through awe and wonder coupled with thanksgiving allows a political in-group to control how God is experienced and perceived. Handing warmed over interpretation to Jews and calling it “values”, ensures that no one who has rejected the authority of traditional religion even has a chance to directly encounter the text and form their own values based interpretations.

True bridges respect the integrity and equality of all parties. True Judaism seeks to help all Jews find a personal connection to their tradition and cultural heritage. There can be no true respect of a Jew’s personal and religious integrity without granting them equal access to core texts and an equal right to interpret them.

Categories: Exclusion of Jews | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Fathers Excluded from Ramat Gan Bat Mitzvah

Group Bat Mitzvah: 20 Girls in Ashkelon

When the sixth graders at Noam-Haro’e religious school in Ramat Gan celebrate their Bat Mitzvah, the fathers won’t be there. The school is excluding the fathers because the Bat Mitzvah celebration will include girls singing and dancing. Since these 12 year old girls will now be adults in the Halachic sense the school says that fathers can’t watch them.

Father Ram Gal and other fathers wanted to see and celebrate with their daughters, so Ram Gal’s wife approached the school with a compromise that would allow fathers to be present during the parts of the ceremony that did not involve singing and dancing. The school would not budge, so this Sunday morning, Ram Gal’s daughter had her Bat Mitzvah without her father present.

Ram Gal, who himself grew up going to religious schools, says he does not remember schools being so segregated when he was a child. He admits that the neighborhood around the school has changed in the last several years, but he feels the segreation policy is the result of a few vocal parents. His feeling is that the school’s policy does not reflect the desires of the “silent sane majority” of parents.

Ram Gal’s feeling that the religious schools are changing is not his imagination. Today 65% of elementary religious schools have some form of segregation, some starting as early as first grade and some starting in third or fourth grade. Just ten years ago, in the early ’00s, only 25% were segregated

This change not only annoys some parents, it also costs money and sometimes violates Education Ministry policy. Education Ministry policy is that classes should not be split up until there are more than 40 students per school. Schools with gender segregated classrooms split up students regardless of whether or not they have reached the 40 students even though this goes against policy. Segregated elementary school classrooms cost the school system an additional 11m NIS according to HaAretz sources.

However proponents of the segregated school insist that they are want parents want. The principle of one school told HaAretz:

The vast majority today accepts the separation because being a part of the Torah education system is a label. This population is truly leading today … The national-religious education system is a mirror of religious Zionism as a whole.”

With all sides claiming the majority, it is impossible to know who is correct. However, that may be beside the point. Rabbi Avi Gisser, head of State Religious Education Council, says the Ramat Gan school was mistaken and acted against the State Religous Education Council policy. The council believes Bat Mitzva events are meant for the whole family and is opposed to excluding fathers as was done by the school.

Mistake or not,Ram Gal was not able to see his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.


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Categories: Extremism, Gender Segregation | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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