Parallels
2:50 am
Tue October 22, 2013

Election In Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Town Tests Gender Norms

Originally published on Sun October 27, 2013 6:29 am

Voters across Israel choose new mayors and city councilors in local elections Tuesday. In one small town, a handful of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women are defying the norms of their community by running for office.

On a recent day, children mob two women in skirts, stockings and purple T-shirts in a neighborhood park in El'ad, or Forever God. The women are candidates for town council. As part of their get-the-word-out campaign, they're blowing up balloons for kids.

"I've been thinking about this for a year. I think it's crucial that women be represented on the town council," Michal Chernovitsky, the 33-year-old leader of the five female candidates running. "Because there are just men now, a lot of issues get lost."

Their slogan is "Mothers for El'ad." The town is young, just 13 years old. It was built specifically as a strict religious community, and the town spends extra money on synagogues and other religious institutions. No one is allowed to drive here on the Sabbath, and few residents have TV or the Internet.

All that is fine with Adina Ruhamkin, another candidate; what El'ad needs, she says, are basic services for children and the moms who take care of their daily needs.

"There's no library, nothing here. ... It's like a hotel," Ruhamkin says. "You come to sleep in town and leave the town. That's what's there — nothing."

Among the Mothers' pitches: Build a library and a swimming pool, increase bus service and add more stops. They also want to create jobs, for men and women. One voter at the park, a mother of nine, is hesitantly supportive.

"I've never heard before of women running for council," she says. "It's a new thing. I hope it will be accepted, but I'm not so sure. Here women who express themselves aren't seen as a good thing."

As the candidates hand out balloons, a car from another city council campaign drives by, touting over a loudspeaker the endorsements it's won from various rabbis. There are many ultra-Orthodox elected officials in Israel; none are women.

Racheli Ibenboim might have become one. She was supposed to be on the Jerusalem ballot for city council, but community pressure led her to drop out.

"My children were threatened that they would not be able to stay at their schools," Ibenboim says. "My husband was told he wouldn't be able to attend our synagogue anymore. His employers even got a phone call saying they should let him go."

She got many messages of support, too, but felt her particular ultra-Orthodox sect just wasn't ready for a woman to run for public office.

"When I had to decide whether to stay a part of my sect or take on this political task, I thought it was more important to try to create change from within," she says.

As Israel's ultra-Orthodox population has grown, its strict gender rules have crept into other parts of society. Rachel Azaria is not ultra-Orthodox, but is devout, religiously observant and an elected member of the Jerusalem City Council. She helped lead a fight against public bus lines that made women sit in the back. Azaria says many ultra-Orthodox women secretly called her during the campaign to thank her for her efforts, albeit in hushed tones.

Azaria believes with time, more ultra-Orthodox women will seek to make their voices heard in politics. Back in El'ad, the Mothers team is hopeful it will win at least one town council seat. But the candidates are in unfamiliar territory, says Ruhamkin.

"It's weird. We're not yet in, but weird," she says. "Because we are women and everybody [else] are men, and it's going to be weird.

After polls close Tuesday night, Forever God may indeed change.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Voters across Israel choose new mayors and city councilors in local elections today. And in one small town, a handful of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women are defying the norms of their community by running for office. The question is whether they can change their town, which is called Forever God. NPR's Emily Harris reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: In a neighborhood park in El'ad, or Forever God, children mob two women in skirts, stockings and purple T-shirts. The women are candidates for town council. As part of their get-the-word-out campaign, they're blowing up balloons for kids.

Thirty-three year old Michal Chernovitsky is the leader of the five female candidates running.

MICHAL CHERNOVITSKY: (Through translator) I've been thinking about this for a year. I think it's crucial that women be represented on the town council. Because there are just men now, a lot of issues get lost.

HARRIS: Their slogan is Mothers for El'ad. The town is young, just 13 years old. It was built specifically as a strict religious community. The town spends extra money on synagogues and other religious institutions. No one is allowed to drive here on the Sabbath, and few residents subscribe to TV or the Internet.

All that is fine with Adina Ruhamkin, another Mothers candidate. But what El'ad needs, she says, are basic services for children and the moms who take care of their daily needs.

ADINA RUHAMKIN: There's no library - (foreign language spoken) nothing here. Nothing, nothing you don't have. It's like a hotel - you come to sleep in town, and to leave the town. That's what's there. Nothing. (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: Among the Mothers' pitches: Build a library and a swimming pool, increase bus service and add more stops. Create jobs - for men and women. One voter at the park, a mother of nine, is hesitantly supportive.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through translator) I've never heard before of women running for council. It's a new thing. I hope it will be accepted, but I'm not so sure. Here, women who express themselves aren't seen as a good thing. It's usually the men who express the women's desires.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: As these candidates hand out balloons, a car from another town council campaign drives by, touting over a loudspeaker the endorsements it's won from various rabbis. There are many ultra-Orthodox elected officials in Israel. None are women.

RACHELI IBENBOIM: Good morning. I'm Racheli Ibenboim.

HARRIS: Racheli Ibenboim might have become one. She was supposed to be on the Jerusalem ballot for city council. But community pressure led her to drop out.

IBENBOIM: (Through translator) My children were threatened that they would not be able to stay at their schools. My husband was told he wouldn't be able to attend our synagogue anymore. His employers even got a phone call saying they should let him go.

HARRIS: She got many messages of support too, but felt her particular ultra-Orthodox sect just wasn't ready for a woman to run for public office.

IBENBOIM: (Through translator) When I had to decide whether to stay a part of my sect or take on this political task, I thought it was more important to try and create change from within.

HARRIS: As Israel's ultra-Orthodox population has grown, its strict gender rules have crept into other parts of society. Rachel Azaria is not ultra-Orthodox. But she is devout, religiously observant, and an elected member of the Jerusalem City Council. She helped lead a fight against public bus lines that make women sit in the back. Azaria says many ultra-Orthodox women secretly called her during the campaign.

RACHEL AZARIA: It always started like this: (Whispering) Is this Rachel Azaria? Thank you. I wanted to thank you for the campaign. I hate sitting in the back of the bus.

HARRIS: Azaria believes that with time, more ultra-Orthodox women will seek to make their voices heard in politics. Back in El'ad - or Forever God - the Mothers team is hopeful that they will win at least one town council seat. But they are in unfamiliar territory, says candidate Adina Ruhamkin.

RUHAMKIN: It's weird. We're not yet in, but it's weird. Because we're women and everybody are men, and it's going to be weird.

HARRIS: After polls close tonight, Forever God may change.

Emily Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.