Our whirlwind trip to Israel is winding down and I have been remiss in not communicating since last week. Our days have been full of serious work and lots of great relationship-building among all of us on the trip as well as the many partners we have met with in Israel. I last communicated at the end of our first full day last Wednesday and, needless to say, each day since then has been packed with many meetings, visits and, of course, good food! So, I begin with that!
Thursday November 12
After a very informative briefing by our guide on the roof of the Hotel Mamila overlooking all of Jerusalem about the history of the city, the conflicts, the old and new tensions and the opportunities for the future, we proceeded to Machne Yehuda, the outdoor market in Jerusalem, for a culinary tour and cooking class with a local chef. The sights, sounds, and tastes in Machne Yehuda are a delight to all one’s senses. We were guided by a local culinary expert and treated to all kinds of visits and samplings in the shuk with the various stall owners. From the Yeminite herbal healer to the king of Halavah with over 100 varieties, we experienced the tastes and smells of the market. We then gathered in Restaurant Shem Tov where we broke into “cooking teams” and proceeded to be guided in the preparation of what would be our delectable lunch: Kale and Feta Burekas in rolled dough, Shakshuka, and fresh fish ceviche. We had fun and enjoyed eating the fruits of our labors. We were joined at lunch by new Knesset member Rachel Azaria who was a member of the Yerushalmit movement and elected to Knesset in March on the Kachlon party slate. Rachel discussed with us the three major issues facing women from her perspective: 1. The economic gap in wages 2. Personal status issues and 3. Prostitution. She explained that while the trafficking of women from outside of Israel has largely been stopped, the issue of forced prostitution within Israel remains a problem and the ending of trafficking only has increased the demand which she fells must be stopped. The good news is there are now 32 women in Knesset (out of 120 members); the bad news is they are not all working together as a caucus on these issues.
From there most of the group had free time to explore (and, of course, shop) before we gathered together to meet with Yerushalamit (the Jerusalem movement) at city hall in Jerusalem. Yerushalamit is a grantee of NCJW’s IGP program where we funded the bus posters and now fund a women’s co-existence project. Rachel Azaria (mentioned above) was one of the founders of the Yerushalamit movement as was Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz who is now a member of city council and chairs the Committee on the Status of Women. Rabbi Leibowitz is a modern orthodox rabbi in the Nachalot neighborhood where he has managed to unite the local neighborhood across class and religious lines in order to help build a civil movement for change. Shira Katz Winkler, the lead organizer of the movement introduced two women who have been leaders in building what has become a powerful movement for social change in Jerusalem.
The first woman, who spoke to us, was a co-founder of the movement who comes from the Orthodox Jewish community and shared with us the experience of using the courts to effect change but feeling like more needed to be done to create cooperation between people with common interests. She explained that the initial goal of the movement was to organize people to “love the city more than they hate one another.” She added that women tend to understand collaboration and cooperation better than men and have been leaders of many of the community projects.
The second woman is a newcomer to the Movement who is part of the LGBTQ community who became involved since the stabbing during the Pride parade and is one of the organizers of weekly dialogues among all sectors of the community that are held in Zion Square on Thursday evening. She talked about the importance of recognizing “the humanity of the other” and cutting through the “theology of politics and gender and religious differences in order to find common ground. She is leading an effort to try to take what happened at the Pride March and turn it into an opportunity for building dialogue and understanding.
The project NCJW funds brings together Haredi (ultra-orthodox) and secular women to teach them to take power and strengthen the community by “turning disadvantages into advantages”.
Some of our women went to Zion Square in the evening to witness first-hand the dialogue in action and a few of us went to see an organizing training conducted for the Movement which has been selected by Shacharit (an Israeli NGO funded by NIF and Cummings Foundation)as one of four places in the country to participate in extensive community organizing training by two of America’s most renowned community organizer trainers: Simon Greer, former CEO of the Cummings Foundation and Bend the Arc; and Arnie Graf, Lead Organizer of the Industrial Areas Foundation. I was honored to be asked by these two former colleagues of mine to speak to the group about the success we had in Boston using community organizing techniques to advance our social justice agenda and make it a national model for social change. It is something we have embraced in our new Strategic Direction and my hope is we can use a similar model to transform the work we do to advance social change in the field on local, statewide and national policies.
Friday, November 13th
Our day started very early as we made our way to the Western Wall to join the Women of the Wall for their monthly Rosh Chodesh service at the wall. It was quite moving to pray together wearing our tallit and not to be harassed or arrested by the police as was the case in the past. We did get hissed in spit at but nothing happened that disrupted the spiritual beauty of the moment on a glorious, sunny Friday morning at the Kotel. We were honored with two aliyot during the Torah service and we sang and dance together in celebration of winning our right to be there. Women of the Wall, is another one of our IGP grantees and we are proud to support them in their efforts to not only win the right for women who are not orthodox to pray at the wall but also to be able to come together in an egalitarian manner at Robinson’s arch which is yet to happen, but will in the future.
We then headed to Tel Aviv and enjoyed some lovely “free time” exploring the new Sarona Market on the site of the former Templars community. The market is a wonderful place for families, old and young, to gather, to shop, to eat and to relax on a beautiful erev Shabbat afternoon. Think Faneuil Hall market in Boston or Ferry Building in San Francisco and you will get an idea of how beautiful and fun this marketplace is in the middle of Tel Aviv!
We celebrated Kabbalat Shabbat, Tel Aviv style at Beit Tefilah which is an alternative Israeli-Jewish service of music and prayer. And, lo and behold, the interim rabbi was none other than Liora Kalman Ezrachi the daughter of Nahma Kelman, the first woman dean of HUC in Israel and a third generation rabbi. We then were hosted by five different families for Shabbat dinner where we all enjoyed the conversations and sharing of our insights and theirs about the current state of life and politics and Israel. There was no lack of topics to be covered and no lack of opinions to be shared!!
Shabbat in Tel Aviv
While some of us wondered what Shabbat in Tel Aviv would be like, we all participated and enjoyed a day of learning and rest and relaxation. In the morning we had a heart-wrenching discussion with women from the IGP project supported by the Robin and Stephanie Frank: Hillel, Open Gateways. Hillel supports women who have made the wrenching decision to leave their lives as Haredi Jews and venture out into the world. The stories of rejection by parents, spouse and, in some cases, loss of children, were truly tragic. But, Hillel is working to support these women so they can restart their lives and be free of the bondage of their former lives which, in these (but not all) cases were stifling and isolating.
We all then chose to either do Yoga (let by Shari’s daughter at a woman’s spa) or walk the streets of Tel Aviv, or visit the beach or whatever! One group even chose to play Mah Jong together at the hotel. Whatever we all did we all enjoyed taking in the sights and sounds of Tel Aviv on Shabbat when families join together to rest and relax and be together in this vibrant and beautiful city on the sea.
In the evening we were treated to a lovely Havdallah Service and dinner in the home of Ricki Lieberman (friend of Nancy’s from NYC)in Jaffa and a really fun and informative conversation and presentation on women in Israeli cinema with Galit Roichman, a screenwriter and film critic. She analyzed with great depth and insight the film “Aviva, My love”, which portrays issues of bullying, independence and some of the difficult situations in life women find themselves.
Sunday November 15
Sunday is “back to work” day in Israel as it was for us as well! We began the day with a visit to Ariel, the capital of Samaria in the West Bank. Ariel is part of “Area A” according to the Camp David Accords and is part of the “consensus” in Israel that would be part of an ultimate “land swap” deal with the Palestinians, but not absolutely. We met with Dina Shalit, the former Deputy Mayor of Ariel and former director of the Ariel Development Foundation as well as two other residents. They share why they came to live in Ariel, some for ideological reasons and some for economic reasons and now consider Ariel their home. Ariel is a beautiful city of 20,000 residents in the Judean Hills of the Jordan Valley looking westward to many Arab villages and Jewish towns. We met in the beautiful cultural and art center that was built primarily with private funds raised from Jewish and Christian donors.
We then drove through the city to Ariel University where we met with four Arab students who are studying there. They come from near and far (within the green line) and most of them live in the dormitories. Some of them were Muslim and some were Christian but they all agreed that they were there to get an education (mostly in engineering areas) and not to engage in “politics”. They all consider themselves “Israeli Palestinians” and are Israeli citizens who would choose to stay as Israeli citizens even if there was eventually a Palestinian State. It was an eye opening and interesting conversation with some differences and nuances among them just as there would be if we met with Israeli students.
From Ariel we headed to Dalyat Carmel for a lovely lunch and shopping in this Druise village and then on to Haifa. In Haifa we met with two of our grantees: Turning the Tables and Isha L’Isha. Turning the Tables, with our support, has opened a fashion training studio for trafficked women in shelter that houses women who have left “the life” and are trying to get back on their feet.
Isha L’isha is a women’s collaborative that we are funding for their work on anti-trafficking legislation and advocacy. They are both part of a women’s coalition of organizations trying to advance social change for women. We met with someone of the women being helped by the program and toured the studio.
We then went to meet with Liron Peleg Hadmoni and her partner in Vital Voices, Noa Sattath. Together, they lead groups of Jewish and Arab women to deepen the dialogue and efforts to learn from each other about their respective narratives. We had a thoughtful discussion about the opportunities and challenges presented by engaging in such dialogues and roles women can play to deepen connections and understanding.