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  • What My Rabbi Taught Me

    23 October 2013

    By Naomi Rivkis, October 2013

    When I think about equality in Judaism, the rabbi who comes to my mind first was male. His name was Arnold Jacob Wolf, and I'm told now that he was famous. All I knew was that he was my rabbi, my teacher; the person whom I turned to for advice and inspiration.

    One of Rabbi Wolf's biggest themes was that Jews cannot stand idly by in the face of bigotry and injustice. Not among gentiles, and certainly not among our own people. He publicly upbraided other rabbis in the 1960s, suggesting that the place where they belonged was not at a rabbinical conference eating bagels and discussing Halakha, but out in the streets of Birmingham, helping to fight for racial equality in the United States. Because that's where the need was. Because he believed the place for every Jew was where the need was.

    I never spoke with Rabbi Wolf about the Women of the Wall, but I don't have to in order to know what he would have thought. For they are standing in the place he wanted us to be -- on the front lines of the fight for equality. I honor them because he would have honored them, and I will do everything I can to support their cause, and the overall effort for gender equality in Israel. Because Rabbi Wolf would want me to; because he taught me to. Because Jews cannot stand idly by in the face of bigotry and injustice.

    Naomi Rivkis is a licensed massage practitioner in Seattle, Washington. She attended college at the University of Chicago, and was fortunate enough to encounter Rabbi Wolf there. For ten years she attended his synagogue, KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation, in Hyde Park. She is now a member of Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle.


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  • Where there's a Will there's a Wall

    10 October 2013

    By Roberta Harris, October 2013

    I was a (very small) part of that initial movement to bring women and Torah together at the Western Wall all those years ago. Without being an active feminist, I have always believed it is a woman's right to be the equal, legally and socially, of anyone in the world. Not to be part of the Women of the Wall would be an anachronism.

    I have spent my work life teaching the Bible in one form or another - mostly the archaeology and history that can bring so much more out of the narrative; but also its Hebrew and its link to rabbinic Judaism.

    Today, well beyond retirement age - I shall be 68 next birthday - I have just begun rabbinic training, with the idea of becoming a chaplain to and advocate for the Jewish elderly in the UK. I hope that I will be able to attract others to join me in this ambition, and that together we will be able to make a difference for people coming towards the end of their lives.

    The determination of the Women of the Wall has always been and will always be an inspiration in my life.


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  • Why I Give

    05 December 2013

    Giving to NIF lets me know that I am supporting individuals and communities in Israel who truly need my help.


  • Why New Israel Fund Is Marching For Israel

    11 April 2014

    On June 1, tens of thousands of New Yorkers will gather for the annual Celebrate Israel Parade. As in previous years, we at the New Israel Fund (NIF) will be there, leading a group of progressive, pro-Israel activists. We will take our rightful place alongside the many others dedicated to the Israel that is, as well as the Israel that ought to be.


  • Window to a New World

    05 August 2011

    Last Saturday night, at the demonstration in Jerusalem, I looked around and I saw a red river flowing in the streets. There were thousands of people there, people who haven’t raised their voices for years, people who had lost all hope for change, people who had closed themselves off inside their troubles and despair.

    It wasn’t easy for them to join the rhythmic shouts of the young people with the speakers. Maybe it was the embarrassment of someone who isn’t used to raising a voice in public, a person who is afraid to shout out loud and even more afraid to shout out as part of a large group. For a few moments I felt that we, the marchers, looked at ourselves with a fair degree of wonder and some uncertainty, not entirely sure of ourselves,  or in what is bubbling up from within us: are we really “the masses,” an angry mob, fists in the air, like we saw recently during demonstrations in Tunis, Egypt, Syria and Greece? Do we really want to be that kind of mob? Do we really mean what we’ve been shouting rhythmically, “R-E-V-O-L-U-T-I-O-N”? And what will happen if we are “too successful,” and the fragile bands of this country start to crack? And what if this protest and the heat turns into anarchy?

    But after a few steps something happens, gets into the blood. The rhythm, the movement, the togetherness. Not a threatening, faceless “unity,” but rather unity-not-unison, mosaic-like and messy, like a family, with a strong feeling of—here we are, doing the right thing. And then the shock comes—where were we up to now? How did we let this happen?

    How could we have made peace with the fact that the government we elected has turned out healthcare and our children’s education into luxuries? How could we not have shouted and screamed when the Finance Ministry crushed the social workers, and before them—the disabled, the Holocaust survivors, the elderly and the retirees? How, for years, could we have pushed the hungry and the poor to soup kitchens and to charitable organizations for a life of humiliation, how could we have abandoned foreign workers to the people hunting and chasing them? How could we have abandoned them to trafficking in workers and women? How could we have made peace with the destructive displays of privatization while at the same time breaking down everything that was important to us—solidarity, responsibility, mutual assistance and a feeling of being connected to another nation?

    It is well known that there were many reasons for this apathy, but the deep split surrounding the question of the occupation, in my view, is the thing that disrupted more than anything the control and warning systems in Israeli society. Our evil and diseased qualities as a society rose to the surface, and we—perhaps because of our fear to stand, eyes wide open, opposite the full reality of our lives—we enthusiastically dedicated ourselves to all kinds of people who would dull our senses, who would cause us to suppress the reality. Sometimes we looked at ourselves: some of us really liked what we saw; some of us were appalled. But even those who were appalled said, “well, that’s the way it is.” They called it “the situation,” as if it were fate or a heavenly decree. In addition, we allowed commercial television to fill up our collective consciousness and to dictate for us the terms of our fights for survival and predation, to split us apart from one another and to denigrate anyone weaker than us or different and “not pretty” and not rich. It has been many years since we have spoken to one another, and certainly many years since we have listened, because how—in this atmosphere of “catch what you can”—can we do it without trampling one another, without violence. Isn’t this what they’re telling and showing us, in every possible way—that it’s every man for himself?   

    And the more we exhausted ourselves with unending denials, so we have become better fodder for control and manipulation and stupidity, victims of a subtle and effective “divide and conquer.” And thus, from money to money, from money to power, and to the press, our dealings with critical questions took a dive and became questions like “who loves this country and who hates it,” “who is faithful to it and who is a traitor,” who is a “good Jew” and who has “forgotten that he is Jewish.” Every rational discussion has been buried in a thick dough of kitsch and sentimentalism, the kitsch of patriotism and nationalism, the kitsch of self-righteousness and of victimhood, and slowly the ability to analyze soberly what is going on here became blocked, and at the end of the day Israel finds itself acting and behaving—towards its own citizens —in complete contrast to the values and the world view that were once its very soul and its inimitability.

    But here, all of a sudden, and in contrast to all the predictions, something is rising up. People are waking up, opening up to something that isn’t entirely clear yet, where it is all going, and there are no words yet precisely to describe it all, or completely to understand it, but it is becoming more clear and crystallizing while calling out these slogans, which are all of a sudden blossoming from a cliche into live feelings, “The Entire Nation Demands Social Justice!”, “We Want Justice, Not Charity” and other sayings taken from other times, and once in a while there is a feeling in the air that there is a path to recovery, to mending, and this forgotten thing comes back to us,  our self-respect, of the individual Israeli and of Israelis as a whole.

    There is an unbelievable power, a power which is also a bit deceiving and intoxicating, in this awakening. It is enticing to be swept away by euphoria— and in the renewal of youth—that the new movement has inspired. It is easy to err with the misconception that once again, we are destroying an old world to the very foundations.  But that’s not exactly right: the old world wasn’t all bad. There were great accomplishments, too, some of which will make it possible for the current protest movement to achieve some of its goals, as well as the freedom to express these desires. Therefore, this struggle must use entirely different language than struggles we’ve had here previously. Above all, it must be based on dialogue; it must be inclusive rather than exclude people, ideological and not sectoral and opportunistic. It shouldn’t be “every tent for itself.” This is the way for the protest movement to maintain the widespread public support it currently enjoys. A certain amount of vagueness by the protest movement makes it possible for every group within the movement to hold different and opposing political opinions and beliefs but still—for the first time in decades—to form a common human, civilian platform, and even to feel pride about being part of this community. Who in Israel can allow himself to relinquish these precious resources?

    This protest movement and the waves of aftermath offer an opportunity for people who haven’t spoken to one another for decades finally to speak to one another. Different layers of society who are far removed from one another. Religious and secular, Arabs and Jews. Inside this process of identifying what unites us, there can also be a renewed dialogue between right and left wing, a discussion based on reality and more empathetic—for example, the left’s apathy with regard to people who lost their homes in Gush Katif, the settlers’ open wound—the type of discussion that could salvage what’s left of our mutual responsibility, something that a country in our current state cannot afford to let go of. In other words, if the spirit behind this movement really is to be found in the words of Amir Gilboa—“All of a sudden a man wakes up one morning and feels he is an entire nation and he begins to move,” then the movement must now continue on and sing, “and he said ‘shalom’ to everything he met.”

    It is easy to criticize the steps of this young movement. And in general —it is always easier to find reasons to say “no” than to get up and make bold, brave steps. But anyone who listens to the mercies of the protesters hearts — not only on Rothschild Boulevard, but also in south Tel Aviv, in Ashdod, in the lower socio-economic neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Haifa and Ma’alot-Tarshiha—understands that we may have opened a window here to a new future. The time is right for such a process, and surprise surprise!—there are people, at long last, who are joining the fight. Maybe that’s what one young woman meant when she came up to me at a demonstration in Jerusalem and said, “look! The leadership is still terrible, but the people aren’t anymore.”

    Originally published in Yedioth Ahronoth.

  • Women and Girls in Danger

    20 December 2011

    For years I have been pondering how to explain to my Israeli friends my attitude that advertisements in the Israeli media are offensive and dangerous to the status of women in Israeli society. These women are always portrayed as sexy and submissive - exposing their bodies in many different poses as if they are asking for sex right here and now. As a feminist and a mother of girls, I have difficulty walking the streets in Israel when billboards and pop up internet ads are full of sexy women trying to sell everything from computers to women’s hygiene products to underwear – it is simply repulsive and overwhelming. I know Israel is not the only place that objectifies women in its media, but saying it does not make the situation less problematic.

    NitsaOnce, my seven years old daughter asked me: “Ima, (mom) why are all these women and girls in the pictures angry? Why they aren’t they happy or smiling? They have this weird expression on their faces.” Amazed by her pure and young observing eye, I giggled and hugged her. I wasn’t able to explain her that they are not angry; they are just trying to look sexy in front of the cameraman who asks them to give him their best sexy look. And these very young models - sometime barely teenage girls - understand that this is what society wants from them - to be sexy and skinny. How is it that my daughter can sense something here is wrong and other adults fail to see that there is even a problem.

    Yes, I admit I have a problem with the advertisements and their degrading attitude toward women and their bodies. And I have to mention that I don’t have a problem so much with ads that are marketed to specific market audiences in discrete places, like the back of newspapers or specific magazines or adult movies. These commercials are targeting markets in a free country for a specific consumers, men or women. The problem begins when these ads appears everywhere for everybody to see, even if they don’t want to. They are unavoidable. These ads are displayed on public buses, huge billboards when you enter the city or even when you read the news on the Internet. That is tasteless aggressive marketing that is no longer just commercial in its nature but has social consequences as well.

    These ads have managed to desensitize the public to the images of half naked women. Women always have to be sexy and inviting sex, even if the ad is trying to portray these women as professionals using a laptop! Be sexy, skinny that is what really counts in life, that is where the real success exists for you, is the message -- in someone’s bed ready to satisfy his sexual needs.

    And the amazing thing is, most Israeli women are so conditioned to see these images that they don’t get what is so wrong with them. So I‘m thinking to myself, Israeli parents who raise these young and intelligent girls are investing love, time and lots of money in a society that tells them sex is more important than anything else. More then career, health, happiness or family, sex is it. Is this message OK to overlook?! What is the point of all the education and all the investment, and the fight for women rights and equality?

    So when I learned that in Jerusalem, where there are many different religious populations that are knowingly sensitive to these kinds of images and find them offensive, that images of women were starting to disappear, it didn’t come as a surprise . But having no offensive images of women on the billboard is one thing - having no images of women at all is completely another! That has nothing to do with respecting women - that has to do with no respect to women at all! That shows no sensitivity to religious women. That shows aggressive domination and wrongful power over a population segment that is unlikely to have the tools to protest against it. De-facto decisions such as these leaves all the power to the men in these societies and is akin to women’s rights in Afghanistan and under Taliban rule. So why should we be surprised that there’s a new trend among Jewish ultra-Orthodox women and girls to cover their full faces in public. Doesn’t that fits all too well in with the message they get from their patriarchal societies?

    Jerusalem, the capital of modern Israel, had an opportunity to say, we respect the different populations in our city and we would like to show our respect to their costumes. But we are a modern democracy that believes in equality. Therefore, women’s images in this city will be respected and honored. Any cheap images of women half-naked will not appear on buses or big street signs. With such a message it would be hard to argue. But instead, Jerusalem is sending another dangerous message that conveys that women have no place in the city leadership, decisions making or power. Women have no place on the public agenda. Women better stay home in their domestic traditional role: the womb, the housekeeper and being the male commodity.

    Israel, a state that is working very hard to advance with the rest of the developed world, is failing to pay attention to the dangerous message that some decision-makers are sending to its youth girls and boys. No matter how hard a girl works in her life or in school, she has no place in this successful society the best she can aim for in a successful career is her boss’s bed. No public office, no economic success and no face! Tell me who in western society with the right mind would raise a girl in such a hostile environment.

  • Women at the Torah

    10 October 2013

    By A man from Houston, TX, October 2013

    One of the great thrills of my life occurred when I was President of a rather small Conservative congregation about 30 years ago. During that period women not only were called up to the Torah but they read from it and carried it. An unheard of activity in Conservatism at that time. I think that it is the norm today.


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  • Women in Zionist Pioneering History

    09 October 2013

    By Nachum Meyers, October 2013

    When Aryeh Malkin left the Bronx, Lisa Engels took over our Hashomer Hatzair (youth guard) education. She too lived on Kibbutz Ein Dor.

    Our separate groups of boys and girls were joined and we had discussions on gender equality that led us young male chauvinists to appreciate the role of women in the new world we were going to create in Palestine. Lisa was probably physically stronger than any six of us scrawny kids put together and that made for gender equality too.

    Women’s role in Jewish life, however unequal it might appear from the practices of the religion, was far more emancipated than in most other religions and societies. Our discussions in Hashomer Hatzair on feminism, the role of women in kibbutz and in politics, and on their capability in the variety of human endeavors, led to a keen appreciation of the difficulties that women faced in achieving equality in the world.

    Even in the supposedly emancipated kibbutzim, women worked in the laundries, the kitchens, and the children's nurseries just as in bourgeois society. Interestingly, they themselves hooted men out of their "women's" domain when some brave male attempted to integrate himself into the laundry work force or the children's houses. The dam of tradition held strong against the currents of gender equality.

    Lisa led her newly post-pubescent charges with aplomb and high intelligence through the intellectual exercises of Marx, Engels, and Freud. We read, discussed, and argued into the nights. We all fell in love with her, boys and girls. She did set our Jewish consciousness straight on so many aspects of what was expected of us in the new society we were creating.

    The real outcome of all this was that being Jewish meant relating to women with a sense of equality rather than with a Victorian sense of respect.

    Nachum Meyers: My life is a Jewish life of equality. Being Jewish, and educating my children as Jews, has been an integral part of my existence as a Jewish man. In Hashomer Hatzair from 1937 to 1948 and living in Israel from 1948 to 1960, and now back in the United States, my life and work, with women in marriage and at my side in equality as I have built many businesses, has made my years full as I celebrate my 87th year.


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