Hannah Kehat (photo from New Israel Fund Canada)
A crowd of 100 people – mostly women – filled Temple Sholom’s sanctuary on Feb. 23 to hear Dr. Hannah Kehat, a prominent feminist religious activist in Israel.
Kehat’s Kolech, founded in 1998, was the first Orthodox Jewish feminist organization in Israel. The group’s aim is to create awareness around gender equality and women’s rights in the religious and public spheres, and advancing women’s engagement with Jewish and civic life in Israel.
In her address, which was moderated by Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, Kehat underscored that Israeli women, religious and secular, face different challenges than women in North America.
One major difference, said Kehat, is the lack of separation between religion and state in Israel. All marriages, divorces, conversions and burials go through the rabbinate; their ultimate authority means you cannot have a non-regulated lifecycle event, no matter your level of religiosity. Women may have equality under the Declaration of Independence, she said, but this equality is aspirational in reality. The aim of religious Jewish feminists is to reframe women’s rights for the Orthodox community, but also to integrate the daily concerns of secular women into their fight for representation and legal-halachic equality.
The obstacles to full equality for Israeli women start with being seen and heard in public. In the last several years, women and girls have been systematically erased from advertisements, billboards, books, pamphlets and textbooks, and they have been subjected to segregated seating on buses, enforced modesty codes, street harassment and violence. Meanwhile, there are still people – women and men – who assume feminism and religion to be mutually exclusive.
“We’re tired of apologizing,” said Kehat. “We want to stay religious. Don’t ask us why are you still religious if you are a feminist, and don’t ask me why are you a feminist if you are religious. It was acceptable until maybe the last 20 years that it doesn’t work together, either you’re a feminist or you are Orthodox….
“We say in Israel, ‘gam v’gam.’ It’s very complicated. We know it’s very complicated. It’s hard to hold the both together. It’s very painful because you have all the time to fight and you have a lot of battles in the family, in the synagogue, in the community, but we don’t want to give up any part of our identity…. We knew in the beginning [of the movement] that it’s not halacha that is against feminism…. It’s social power. It’s political….
“We started from the place that we know Torah. We’re all lecturers, rebbetzins, we know Torah; we know the truth that it’s not the problem, that we can have an equal society, even if we’re religious.”
Kehat said that, today, Israeli women are raising their voices and claiming their space, and Israeli courts have been supporting legal challenges to the status quo. Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that it is illegal to harass women on buses or on the street, and those abuses have almost all but stopped, she said. Legal challenges have proved successful and are one major strategy to create institutional change, she added.
Kehat described growing up the daughter of a rabbi in the Jerusalem Charedi enclave of Meah Shearim, a world she consciously left as a young woman so that she could advance her education and follow her own path. She became modern Orthodox, got a PhD in Jewish philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, married a rabbi and had six children. She is a lecturer, an academic, a writer, an activist and a Torah scholar. And, while she started her movement from within the modern Orthodox world, she sees more and more Charedi women taking up the feminist mantle – progress that cannot come soon enough.
“Charedi women, I can use the example of myself. To grow up as a Charedi girl, I think it’s the lowest level in Israel. You’re silent, you don’t have any voice. You come to the world just to serve the man since you are very, very young. You can see it in Jerusalem, B’nai Brak, like me, girls, 6, 7, carrying their brothers and the babies and doing all the [house]work. Really, the aim, the mission of [a woman’s] life is to serve the man … the father, the husband. So, Charedi women are still really very depressed. They have a lot of pressure in their lives.
“When I started Kolech … I got a phone call from the minister of health…. He said, ‘I heard about you, the leader of the Orthodox feminist movement. Finally, I have an address to address my problem.’” He told her the alarming statistic that the death rate for Charedi women with breast cancer was 30 percent higher than for other Israeli women. Today, that statistic is even worse, Kehat said, and may be closer to 50 percent higher. The minister continued, “‘Do you know that the expectancy of life of Charedi women is the lowest, the worst in the country?’ It’s unbelievable,” Kehat said. “They did research in B’nai Brak. The Charedi men are in the second level of life expectancy, and the women are [at the bottom]…. Even though Kolech is not a Charedi group, [we] try to raise the consciousness of Charedi women to take responsibility for their health and educate them about resources.”
The main obstacle to women’s equality is the conflation of religion and politics with the rabbinate.
“In Israel, we have another problem – that the rabbinate is a political institution, part of the government. This is really unbelievable and it’s really an historical mistake. The rabbinate became such a political powerful part of government and it’s worse than the government because we are not choosing the rabbis, only the politicians choose the rabbis and we don’t have any influence over who is going to be the rabbi…. Everyone knows that the rabbinate and the chief rabbis are not really the ideal people that we’d like to be our religious leaders, they’re political rabbis, we know that. So, it’s not so hard for us to go out and say, ‘Something is wrong over there, something is corrupt and we have to change it.’”
The visibility of women’s rights activism is growing. “The feminist issues are on the agenda for the religious community all the time. Every seminar, every yeshiva, we have a lot of yeshivot for women … synagogues are much more open to egalitarian ideas. I think there are more than 20 synagogues that are egalitarian…. The last two years, there is a big change. Something is going on in the Charedi community. It’s very exciting.”
One of the bright spots is the number of women joining Facebook groups dedicated to women’s activism. There are groups like “Feminists under the wig” and the group wryly named “I’m also a religious feminist and I don’t have any sense of humor,” both of which have growing membership and provide an online space to share experiences, gain empowerment and strategize.
Kehat was brought to Vancouver by New Israel Fund Canada. NIF in Israel supports at least 800 nonprofit, government-certified organizations with priorities to “strengthen and safeguard civil and human rights, bridge social and economic gaps and foster tolerance and religious pluralism for all its citizens.”
NIFC’s national outreach associate, Atarah Derrick, spoke at the top of the program. “Thirty years ago, NIFC was established in Canada to address Canadians’ desire to address the needs of Israelis in a way that no other charity was doing,” she said. “Every year, Israelis have told us what it is that they need to create the kind of world that they’d want to live in, a place where all Israeli residents are equal, where they have the freedom and the voice to improve their status … regardless of race, gender or ethnicity.”
She added, “I work with New Israel Fund of Canada, with NIF, because I am passionate about making Israel an even better place than it already is and, in my work with New Israel Fund, I get to see firsthand the kind of change that we are able to make when we get together.”
Basya Laye is the former editor of the Jewish Independent.