As The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s latest guest speaker from Israel, activist Esty Shushan confounded many assumptions about women in the Charedi community in Israel — particularly the idea that Charedi feminism is an oxymoron.
Federation’s Imagine Israel Changemakers Series, which hosts community conversations with dynamic Israelis at the forefront of social change in Israeli society, brought Shushan to Maryland for a series of lectures spanning Oct. 4-7. Shushan spoke to audiences about her personal story and the work of her organization, Nivcharot.
In partnership with Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy, Shushan’s speaking engagements included a community event at the Federation building in Rockville, Maryland; a presentation at the University of Maryland, College Park; and Shabbat in Potomac, Maryland, with Beth Sholom Congregation.
Though the word is commonly translated as “ultra-Orthodox,” the Charedi community is not an exact analog to the ultra-Orthodox community in America, but is similar in its commitment to a strictly Torah-observant lifestyle insulated from secular culture. It is also a powerhouse in Israeli politics, due to the Knesset’s parliamentary system necessitating coalitions between political parties.
The founding documents of two main Charedi parties, however, originally forbade female candidates from running for political office. Nivcharot, short for Lo Nivcharot, Lo Bocharot (Not Running, Not Voting), is a Charedi feminist movement advocating representation, equality, and a voice for Charedi women in politics. The movement was a key player in the Israeli Supreme Court’s September 2018 decision that Charedi political party Agudath Israel had to choose between abolishing the prohibition in its charter against women running for public office in national and municipal elections or potentially be disbanded.
The party went with the first option, a victory for the team of secular and religious women’s organizations who brought the case to court.
Shushan's visit was “an opportunity to expose Washingtonians to the dilemmas and change within the Orthodox community in Israel,” said Tzachi Levy, The Jewish Federation’s senior shaliach (Israeli emissary).
Nivcharot began as a Facebook page set up by Shushan, a lifelong member of the Charedi community and married mother of four. Launched in October 2012, the page protested not only the exclusion of Charedi women from their sector’s political parties but their treatment in the public sphere in general. Shushan called on Charedi women to abstain from voting for parties Shas and United Torah Judaism until they allow women to run. She served as a co-founder of Nivcharot when it was registered as an Israeli nonprofit in 2015.
“Extremism on the subject of modesty, separation [of the sexes], all these topics revolving around women have turned into a type of flag for anyone who wants to show how Charedi they are,” said Shushan in a private interview. “All of a sudden, pictures of women aren’t included in the newspaper, even the word ‘woman’ is erased, and all of these phenomena: separation of the sexes on the bus, in the streets, in libraries, in all sorts of public spaces.”
Shushan was emphatic that erasure of women, literal and figurative, was not a previous community standard. “I saw that society was heading to a bad place and I understood that a solution from above was needed ... You can’t fight each individual thing; you need to set your sights on something bigger than all of them. For me, that path is leadership and integration of women into decision-making and the political system,” she said.
When Americans hear about the Charedi community, it is often in the context of protests against IDF conscription, or civil unrest borne of the clash between a religious community and the Jewish yet secular state. Is there sufficient buy-in from the Charedi community in the apparatus of the Jewish State that the involvement of Charedi women in politics will be influential?
Absolutely, according to Shushan. Not only is the Charedi community a significant part of the political system, but many in the current generation, at least in the mainstream, also have a strong sense of belonging in relation to the country, a departure from their predecessors. “They have turned into Israelis,” she said. They may express it by dedicating their learning or prayers to Israeli soldiers in combat, rather than flying a flag on Israel’s Independence Day, but they feel like they are “part of the story.”
This process has led to greater integration of Charedim into the army, the workforce, and academia, said Shushan; and these changes, coupled with the advent of internet access, are behind the reactionary zeal for increased insularity and extremism in the Charedi community.
During her events, Shushan also screened her short film, “Barren,” which was featured in the Short Film Corner at the Cannes Film Festival and UK Jewish Film Festival in 2015, and answered questions from the audience. It showed women distributing pamphlets with halachic discussion regarding the representation of women to men and women in Charedineighborhoods. The literature featured Charedi women communicating how they feel about their place in the public sphere and why representation within their political parties is important.
The women of Nivcharot receive threats to their safety and their children’s access to Charedi schools, have been slandered and characterized as mentally ill by some leaders in the Charedi community, and are fighting against assumptions from within and outside their own society — but they are not giving up.
It was news to Shushan in the interview that the Jewish community in the U.S. is grappling with the erasure of women in religious publications and advertisements as well. She attributed the movement to a similar reactionary attitude to the perceived encroachment of the secular world.
She rejected the idea prevalent among some Orthodox women (and men) that women should avoid public positions due to concerns about modesty, arguing that one can still comport oneself with modesty and be in the public sphere. “We are a minority within a minority,” said Shushan, and the specific needs of women in the Charedi or Orthodox communities won’t be met without activism. She said she doesn’t think there is evil intent in men failing to sufficiently represent the specific needs of the women in their communities. She just knows women have voices and can represent themselves.
By Rachel Kohn