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Orthodox Women as Agents for Social Change

On the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth, the story of two strong Jewish women who took their destiny – and that of the Jewish people into their own hands. So it was fitting that in the days leading up to the holiday, which celebrates the giving of the Torah, SHATIL's Pluralism Project had a "peak week" in its efforts to empower Orthodox Jewish women.

Over the past few years, Orthodox women activists have been intensifying their efforts working for the economic, professional, social and religious advancement of Orthodox women. However, these women don’t necessarily know of one another's existence, let alone their efforts. SHATIL invited them to gather on May 19 to connect, network, examine possibilities of collaboration and to see they are not alone.

"We hit on something that was a real interest and need," said SHATIL's Pluralism Project Director Shira Ben Sasson Furstenberg. "They don’t have a SHATIL of their own. They haven't been organized by anybody."

Within the last several years, as it became clear that Orthodox women can be important agents for change, NIF and the Cummings Foundation offered grants to Orthodox women's initiatives in Israel. After announcing the grants in  out of the ordinary places (such as weekly Torah Portion sheets distributed in Orthodox synagogues and religious newspapers), more than 100 women applied, most of whom had had no previous contact with NIF or SHATIL. While only seven received grants, Furstenberg saw a vast potential in the other 93 women. Thirty of them attended the conference.

The day began with a "fair" in which each woman brought a display describing her project. The hall was alive with color and creativity – hanging fabrics, music, candles.  Among the initiatives: an intergenerational Jewish study house (bet midrash) called Mother Tongue for women from Kavkazi and Ethiopian communities (aimed partially at preserving the wisdom of illiterate grandmothers); a Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) group for Jewish and Arab women in the North; a film school for Haredi women; and several mind/body, movement and performing arts groups. SHATIL will publish a booklet describing each project soon.

Scene From the Fair

"There was such a variety of projects and so many new faces," Furstenberg said. "The women were excited to be meeting and connecting with one another. They wouldn't leave until we promised them there would be a continuation of this initiative."

She continues: "I wanted the women to get a feeling that we are a sector. If you're from Bet Shean and I'm from Bet Shean and you have a group for Orthodox teen girls and I have a group for mothers, we should know each other."
The event was the epitome of networking. As one woman described a web site she is planning – with rabbinical permission - for Haredi girls to help them make critical life decisions, a participant who has worked as a guidance counselor in a religious girls’ high school for more than 10 years said, "This is exactly what my girls need!"  Names and numbers were exchanged throughout the day.

The excitement at the conference itself, the responses to the NIF grant announcement and the call for steering committee volunteers point to both a groundswell of Orthodox women's activity in Israel and a thirst for more knowledge and connection.

Also last week, SHATIL ran a two-day workshop in Facilitative Leadership for 15 leading Orthodox women in Israel's NGO community. Additionally, the International coalition for Agunah Rights (ICAR) organized a demonstration, with SHATIL's help, in front of Justice Minister's Ya'akov Ne'eman's home to protest the Minister's intentions to widen the authority of the rabbinical courts, which typically sacrifice women’s rights to a narrow interpretation of Jewish law.


$250 million to Israeli social change groups since 1979.