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  • An Eye Opening Shabbat

    11 October 2013

    By Amiee C. Kushner, October 2013

    As a young woman who grew up in the ’80s with a feminist mother in the Bay Area, discrimination was always something that was to be strived against, but rarely did I actually experience it. As an adult there was always an orange on my Seder plate, women on the bimas in my spiritual homes and a mechitza was something from old dusty books about sheltl life.

    This past July I embarked on my long delayed first trip to Israel. Through my involvement in NIF I knew of the institutionalized gender discrimination that occurred in Israel, but I was thoroughly unprepared for the pain of experiencing it first-hand.

    People talk of their “ah-ha” Israel moments and mine began the minute I stepped up to the entrance of the Kotel for Kabbalat Shabbat and saw the signs indicating separate entrances for women and men. The bold, black lettering over the gates began a profound, almost physical, shock at the realization that a significant portion of the Jewish men I was surrounded by saw me as lesser and unworthy of same level of spirituality connectedness to my faith as they.

    Oddly our group was granted entrance through a third gate, not segregated by gender, or I doubt I would have been able to enter. I made it a few feet past the mechitza into the tiny women's’ section shrouded under a scaffold, before turning back and awaiting the rest of my group to finish their prayers, desperately wanting to flee. I was told by our tour Rabbi prior to walking to the Kotel that I would experience a deep spiritual connection to Judaism and my ancestors, but all I could feel was spiritual deflation.

    Upon returning home my first act was a donation to Women of the Wall. I then reveled in rediscovering the joy of my home community where girls are called to the Torah alongside the boys, where women are rabbis and leaders, and the Sabbath bride is greeted is among equals.

    Amiee C. Kushner is an active leader in San Francisco's Young Adult Jewish community, including as a New Gen Leadership Council Member for the New Israel Fund.

     

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  • Approaching 100 Days of the (Third) Netanyahu Government

    01 July 2013

    By: Shatil Center for Policy Change

    June 2013

     
    This is the fifth installment of the "rolling document" series examining political developments in the nineteenth Knesset and in the thirty-third government. It aims to illuminate the connection between the political arena and our social one. This document highlights opportunities as well as concerns of relevance to the political work toward social change.

    The Netanyahu government is several days away from its 100th day. This grace period, as it is customarily called, has done anything but depict the Prime Minister or his entire government with grace.

    The period's focus has primarily been one of seeking to understand the arena. The government has eight (!) new ministers and the same number of deputy ministers. None of them have ever served in such complex or high positions, and some of them have yet to fully internalize the package of power, capabilities, circumstantial forces, and needs of the realms entrusted to them. Around them are more than thirty new Members of Knesset in both the coalition and opposition who are also learning firsthand about the wonders and complexities of Israeli politics and the Knesset.

    This set of facts helps to understand why, after such an impassioned electoral campaign, with such surprising results, it is still difficult to assert anything about the abilities or aspirations of the new government. One thing has already become clear: the glue binding the coalition parties is weak. The parties' heads and members are different and diverse. They differ in their values and represent different extremes of Israeli society. With such wide ideological gaps, it is hard to foresee any dramatic changes in the various arenas of life. That assertion, however, must be qualified when discussing the economic realm. Netanyahu and Bennett, Lapid and Livni – all share (almost) the same economic views and have a similar take on how to address the current economic crisis.

    The Prime Minister would prefer to identify the contested arenas and let the "brothers" (i.e. Lapid and Bennett) fight it out, creating distance and division, to avoid any harm coming to his own standing, and avoid the public criticism. This is certainly the case regarding negotiations with the Palestinians, but also with economic issues such as monopolies, housing and others.

    The Prime Minister would prefer to identify the contested arenas and let the "brothers" (i.e. Lapid and Bennett) fight it out, creating distance and division, to avoid any harm coming to his own standing, and avoid the public criticism. This is certainly the case regarding negotiations with the Palestinians, but also with economic issues such as monopolies, housing and others.

    The significant processes in this government are still in the trial phase. Few of the previous government's priorities continue, but the broader missions, for which the new and veteran players have now been chosen, have yet to get underway. In contrast, larger processes such as reducing centralism in economic control; cutting the State's investment in its citizens; preparing for the new budget; or managing the State's natural resources – have been dealt with extensively, under internal and external political pressure from many quarters and broad media coverage – sometimes biased and problematic – but with too little public or civic involvement.

    The ruling Likud Beiteinu party has long since become a battlefield where everyone is fighting everyone else. Netanyahu and Lieberman face opposition from members of both parties, where there is strong opposition to merging the two parties. Yisrael Katz and Miri Regev staunchly oppose unification and have marked themselves as a new force not reluctant to confront the weakened Prime Minister. Danon has turned into a serial troublemaker, harassing the Prime Minister from the right in his attempt to lead various Likud institutions, and pronouncing especially problematic diplomatic statements.

    The Jewish Home party is discovering the complexities in preserving the new-young-pluralistic image it cultivated throughout its election campaign, led by its new, young leader. The two streams composing the party do not agree on its objectives, or even its values at times, and the connection among its components is not always clear. Of note is the realm of religion and State: Naftali Bennett has so far managed to lead to internal decisions, but that does not necessarily attest to the way future challenging decisions will be negotiated.

    Yesh Atid also features diverse ideologies. The chairman ostensibly allows freedom of movement for the various agendas within the political space, but in the end they must all rally around one line of leadership. It is expected (and desirable) that Yesh Atid ministers and MKs will challenge the party. The Minister of Social Affairs and MK Ofer Shelach for example do not perceive their role in the party or in politics the way Lapid does. That tension is likely to increase; we will thus see a new accumulation of forces and voices that will try to draw the whole party toward positions more in favor of negotiations with the Palestinians, less antidemocratic legislation, and more opposition to further harming the weaker segments of the population.

    Hat'nua has not managed to make its presence felt in any effective way; its ranks serve as a repository of various ideologies and MKs with essentially fragmented bases and identities. The chairwoman's ability to lead the party is also limited; the Ministry of Justice and the Minister's other roles have yet to find significant expression, and Livni has frequently been overruled in those areas where her influence was supposed to be greatest.

    In the background lies a cautious optimism that stems from the Israeli public's position: a new Channel Ten – Camille Fuchs survey indicates a strengthening of Meretz, perhaps up to ten MKs (the survey asked: if elections took place today, for whom would you vote?); Shelly Yehimovich and Labor gain an electoral vote; Likud-Beiteinu would lose a seat; Jewish Home would add one; and Yesh Atid's would remain unchanged. Tzipi Livni would lose half her strength, according to the survey, while the Arab parties would gain one seat each. There would ostensibly be a Left bloc of 61 MKs, assuming Yesh Atid could be somewhat identified with the Left.

     
    The Diplomatic Arena:

    After various difficult statements by ministers and deputies in the Likud – Elkin, who ruled out negotiations; and Danon, who disparaged the consecutive visits by John Kerry – came Minister Bennett's latest assertion, redefining the chances of true negotiations. There does not at present appear to be a scenario in which Netanyahu could initiate a diplomatic process with the Palestinians without losing the little stock he has remaining in Likud. He has no support within the party, and certainly not with Bennett.

    Shas, which announced in the past it would consider joining the government in the event of real negotiations, now sees a potential new channel through which to gain strength: it proposed to Bennett and the Religious Zionist camp a guarantee not to assist Netanyahu if the former leave the coalition, in exchange for not cutting government allowances for children and reducing the effects of legislation directed at yeshiva students (Slomianski is head of the Finance Committee). Deri has even hinted that together, the Haredim and religious Zionists number 30 seats, a force to be reckoned with. Netanyahu knows this well and will avoid as best he can any testing of that issue.

    In contrast, Yair Lapid, quoted a month ago in The New York Times as opposing evacuation of settlements, this week (20 June) stated in the Washington Post something of a completely different character:

    "I think that eventually we will have no other option but to pull lots of settlements out of the West Bank. What we call the blocs will stay, such as Ariel, Ma'ale Adumim and Gush Etzion, but basically, of course, if you have a two-state solution, you will pull settlements out of the West Bank. There is no other option."

    Yet it remains doubtful that Lapid will adhere to this new line.

    In the background stand Minister Livni and the head of the opposition, Yehimovich, speaking into every open microphone about the urgent need for negotiations and the window of opportunity and other verbiage we know all too well. In practice, there does not seem to be any leverage to force the leadership toward a true pursuit of a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians.

     
    Social Justice:

    At present, all the coalition delegation heads adhere to a certain consensus (with slight exceptions), regarding the ways out of the economic crisis. While critical voices have been heard from the Minister of Social Affairs, opposing the cuts to his ministry's budget – or from Orly Levi, Miri Regev, and Gila Gamliel – those voices alone are hardly sufficient to affect the advancement of such an anti-social budget.

    Civic and public action focused on the proposed budget and on alternatives. It has encountered difficulty in penetrating public opinion and moving the public to show more pronounced opposition. Difficulties are also present in influencing the various committees or the ruling party insiders to reassess their overall conception of the budget.

    It would seem more effective and proper to examine ways to divide the campaign into focused issue areas - housing, employment, health, cost of living, and education. Those arenas could serve as a focus around which to build ad-hoc, narrowly defined, political and public partnerships through which to pursue support on both sides of the coalition-opposition aisle, support that crosses communities and audiences.

     
    Democracy, Racism, Shared Society:

    One of the most significant changes in the current government is that whereas in the previous government the extremist voices – those Likud MKs who spoke out or acted to pursue racist, discriminatory legislation – Danon and Akunis for example – were relatively "junior" MKs, today they have attained seniority and leadership within the party: Minister of Defense Yaalon; Deputy Minister of Defense Danon; Coalition Chairman Levin; or Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Elkin. They are the same extremist voices, but this time heard from among the party leadership.

    These ministers this represent the "new legitimacy," the space to maneuver ever rightward, and the phenomenon they represent is likely to remain.

    At the conclusion of the elections, we and many others predicted that Yesh Atid, with its variegated constituents and new MKs, would not permit the advancement of discriminatory or antidemocratic legislation. Lapid's team is made up of "good people" who have worked for positive democratic action – see Shai Piron and Ruth Calderon, Tamno-Shata, and German, Ofer Shelach and many other worthy names. At present the picture seems more complex. The Yesh Atid MKs have not rushed to oppose dangerous measures in the government. Just this week we saw how a government-sponsored bill by Yariv Levin regarding preference in hiring and other benefits for those who served in the military/national service - was easily passed in ministerial committee, despite opposition from the Attorney General.

    The ministerial committee, which includes four Yesh Atid ministers, has been unable to exert influence on the other, rightist, committee members, and sometimes even joins them. When Yesh Atid offers support, that problematic legislation is seen as receiving public imprimatur – Yesh Atid, after all, is ostensibly liberal, and they signed off on it.

    Coupled with that is the fashionable, automatic, weak denunciation of other racist phenomena, such as "Price Tag" vandalism, that have spread like wildfire, or continued discrimination against Mizrahi students at institutions of learning. These incidents all prompt automatic condemnation or a solidarity visit, which have zero political impact. There is no consensus to label Price Tag acts as terrorism, and the penalties for other acts of discrimination and racism are insufficient.

  • Be the Change

    24 October 2013

    By Cantor Linda Shivers, October 2013

    I have lived through a lot of change. I have felt a lot of the growing pains through the changes, but I am proud of all that has been accomplished for Jewish women in the majority of American synagogues. I have seen changes in the treatment and attitudes toward women in my family, my shuls, my seminary, and in me.

    When I was at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the women were barely tolerated. We had women's services just once a week in the basement. No professors, not even female professors, ever came that I can remember. Now there are egalitarian services that draw the largest numbers of worshipers. Now synagogues require tallit and kippot for the girls at their bat mitzvahs, and every girl wants a beautiful tallit. More women than not have their own tallit that they wear proudly. After 30 year of role modeling, I seem women in my synagogues trying out new roles - shilchot tzibor and ba'alot kriah. Their experiences bring the holy closer to them and become renewed in their Judaism. They are awestruck with the power of Jewish ritual.

    I have been saddened by the lack of opportunities and appreciation for women's spirituality in Israel. I have been ridiculed for wearing a tallit and have had dirty water thrown at me. People have assumed motives and intentions that I don't have and have been unwilling to engage with me with an open mind. I know that many of my sisters and brothers in Israel are working hard to change this and I am trying to support them any way I can.

    Cantor Linda Shivers has been a congregational leader for 30 years.

     

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  • Being the First Bat Mitzvah at Shaare Zion Synagogue

    24 October 2013

    By Marion L. Usher, October 2013

    [image - Marion L. Usher]

    I grew up In Montreal, Quebec in a mostly Jewish neighborhood. I say mostly, since we had no contact with the families of other faiths. My father helped build the first Conservative congregation in our new neighborhood. Both parents were totally immersed in synagogue life. Our parents kept us close to them with weekly Shabbat celebrations, and inviting our friends over after dinner to play ping pong or watch a movie. Our friends enjoyed good food and fun times at our house.

    When I turned 13, my father turned to me and asked me what I thought about having a Bat Mitzvah. I was totally surprised since there had never been one in our synagogue. Our Rabbi, Maurice Cohen, had approached my father to see if I might be interested. I was totally delighted. The event was celebrated on a Friday night. At that time, 1955, we still had separate seating and women were not able to have allyiot. A Friday night service was the compromise solution.

    I did my Haftorah, a D'var Torah, sang some of the liturgy, and ended with Adon Olam. It was one of the most important experiences in my life. I felt empowered, something I have held onto always. What a gift Rabbi Cohen gave me when he suggested that I become the first Bat Mitzvah in our congregation, actually in Montreal!

    Marion L. Usher, Ph.D, Clinical Professor, Dept. of Psychiatry, George Washington University School of Medicine, Creator of "Love and Religion: An Interfaith Workshop for Jews and Their Partners."
    www.JewishInterfaithCouples.com

    FaceBook: Love and Religion

     

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  • Belief in change

    13 March 2012

    8 March 2012
    By Ruth Eglash

    Ronit Heyd, director of Shatil, is of the opinion that "hope should and could be the driving force behind our decisions and actions."

    RH100Ronit Heyd, Age: 37
    Profession: Director of Shatil – leading social change, an initiative of the New Israel Fund.
    Place of birth: New Jersey (By chance. My parents, both Israelis, were there for my father’s PhD work)
    Current residence: Ein Kerem, Jerusalem



    What issue gets you out of bed in the morning? My two‐year‐old daughter calling in my ear: “Ima, pita” (that’s her favorite breakfast). And knowing that a full and exciting day is waiting for me, working with amazingly inspiring and creative people who are dedicated to making Israel a more just, democratic and shared society. Following last summer’s protests, we’re seeing an incredible awakening of civil society, with more and more people wanting to take part in creating social change. We have a lot to do.

    What issue keeps you up at night? How to continuously improve the work that we’re doing, making it clearer, more impactful, and how we can reach out to new communities that share our goals. I am gravely concerned about the effect of what seems to be a growing trend of nationalist and religious extremism which could fundamentally change the face of our society. We’re seeing more and more legislative efforts that are aiming to limit freedom of expression, the rights of the Arab minority in Israel, or the very basic rules of the democratic game. But apart from that, I’m usually dead tired after a jampacked day that includes work, spending some time with my kids, and then more work, so I fall asleep fairly quickly.

    What’s the most difficult professional moment you’ve faced so far? Having to cut programs and staff due to ending of project budgets.

    Why do you do what you do? I believe in people, and I believe in change. That’s why I’ve always wanted to work at Shatil. It’s the place where change happens. I can’t see myself doing anything else. I love working in an organization that is a microcosm of Israeli society, with staff who are Jews and Arabs, veteran Israelis and immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, gay and straight, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi.

    If you were prime minister, what’s the first thing you would do? [Big sigh...] There is so much to do. I would anchor civil, social and human rights in fundamental laws, in order to secure religious freedom, the democratic nature of Israel and the right to live in dignity for all citizens. I would ensure that every child gets free and good quality education, an education that respects and encourages pluralism of thought and liberal values, and puts more emphasis on respect of all humankind – love someone as you love yourself – instead of only constantly striving for excellence and achievements.

    Which Israeli should have a movie made about him/her? My mother‐in‐law. She made aliya from Morocco in the early ’60s, raised eight children plus six foster children and was (and still is, at the age of 65) a child caregiver. Like so many women, she has worked extremely hard in very poor conditions for many years in the most “transparent job” – caring for children and doing housework. Besides, she’s an excellent cook and I love her.

    What would you change about Israelis if you could? I would add to each of us 5 kilos of patience and 50 kilos of tolerance. And I would get people to stop littering and polluting our nature. It drives me mad.

    iPad, BlackBerry or pen and paper? BlackBerry. It’s the best way to multitask. Without it I feel almost crippled.

    If you had to write an advertisement to entice tourists to come to Israel, what would it say? Beautiful country, great weather, wonderful people, and the best place to understand the existential meaning of the word “balagan [muddle].”

    What is the most serious problem facing the country? Instead of seeing ourselves as sovereign, we still relate to ourselves as victims. It makes us constantly – as a nation and as people – feel under threat. There is a new generation now, a growing number of people who believe hope should and could be the driving force behind our decisions and actions. I’m one of those.

    How can it be solved? We have to ensure Israel continues to have a strong and vibrant civil society. That is the essence of our democracy, of our unique ability to hold such diversity while maintaining social cohesion at the same time. We need to continue supporting and strengthening the leadership and groups who are committed to working toward diminishing social and economic gaps, achieving full equality between Jews and Arabs, and maintaining our democratic character. There are so many of us out there doing this. We need to join forces and take these values down to earth by translating them to social action and to new politics.

    In 20 years, the country will be: I really, really, really hope we will manage to hold the tensions we have within us, and ensure this country is a place where each person can live in dignity and according to his or her values and beliefs. Otherwise, we’re in deep trouble.

    This article originally appeared in Jerusalem Post, click here to view the article as published.

  • Belonging: A Transformative Journey

    14 October 2013

    By Paula Jacobs, October 2013

    As I write these words, I’ve just returned from Jerusalem where I prayed with Women of the Wall for Rosh Chodesh Heshvan. With this experience still fresh on my mind, it's an inspiration for personal reflection.

    Growing up in Boston in the 1960's, I was privileged to receive an intensive Jewish education. Yet by age 12, I already felt excluded from Jewish life even though my family's Conservative congregation was one of the most progressive in the U.S.

    For my Friday night bat mitzvah, I memorized a haftarah portion. I envied the bar mitzvah students who learned to read Torah and lead prayers in their exclusive male-only "tallis and tefillin" club.

    In the late 1960's, when I graduated from Hebrew College, the only career path open to me in the Jewish community was Hebrew teaching. The concept of a female rabbi, Jewish communal leader, or even a Hebrew school principal was inconceivable.

    Fast forward twenty years later. At her bat mitzvah, my daughter, wrapped in her tallit, led morning Shabbat prayers, chanted from the Torah, and delivered a d’var Torah. Now she is a Conservative rabbi and executive director of a human rights organization.

    By the close of the 20th century, I finally became a full participant in Jewish life. I learned to chant Torah, began attending daily minyan, learned the morning service, and started wearing a tallit. The defining moment occurred when I was invited to lead an all-male minyan. That’s when I knew I truly belonged.

    Today I gaze at a favorite family photo of my then three-month old granddaughter wearing a sign, "Ha-Kotel l’Kulanu," "The Kotel belongs to us all." It's now four years later and I fervently hope that she and her baby sister will soon realize this dream.

    Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area. Her articles have appeared in digital and print media, including The Jewish Week, The Jerusalem Post, Moment, ritualwell.com, and myjewishlearning.com.

     

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  • Bigger than Feminism, Better with Feminism

    29 October 2013

    By Susan Silverman, October 2013

    When I became a Woman of the Wall, I became more fully Jewish.

    I had been a rabbi for almost 20 years the day I was rounded up, with nine other women – including my seventeen-year-old daughter – by police for wearing a tallis and praying out loud at the kotel. That day was followed by a lot of forced introspection – the media requests for interviews came flooding in.

    I knew in my heart why I was there. My Jewish practice called me to it, the desire to join the historic flow of Jews at that place called me to it, feminism called me to it.

    But over the weeks of forced introspection, I realized something much deeper and more existential. Judaism was at stake for women and men. For all our children. For the Jewish future. I had always felt that the centuries of missing women’s voices had created a skewed Judaism – like a tree that had been deprived the right balance of sustenance. Now a narrow, idolatrous view of God and covenant was being codified in civil law! Mitzvot were more and more the jurisdiction of Hareidi Jews, becoming ends in themselves, not building blocks for a society in which the prophets could rejoice.

    With WoW, I realized that my feminist, progressive fight was for the deepest purposes of our nation.

    Rabbi Susan Silvermanis a writer and activist. She and her husband, Yosef Abramowitz have five children and live in Jerusalem.

     

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  • Boston's Iftar Break-Fast on the 17th of Tammuz

    17 July 2014

    If more of us could step out of our regular routines in similar ways -- and in baby steps -- I can't help but wonder what might eventually be accomplished.

    Read more...