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Women & Judaism


Chareidi women are becoming involved in peacemaking


prime Minister Winston Churchill pronounced it “not solvable.” Margaret Thatcher, the chemist-turned-prime minister, used a laboratory term, calling it “insoluble.” If they had spoken Yiddish, they would have called it a “plonter.” Were they referring to the Middle East? No, they were describing the decades–old struggle between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Their prognostications, however, were wrong. This fact was ascertained by a group of chareidi women from Jerusalem who recently participated in a mission to Belfast to see how well the conflict in Northern Ireland has been settled and to determine if it might be a model for the Israelis and the Palestinians. Two years ago Rabbanit Adina Bar Shalom, the eldest child of Rav Ovadia Yosef, zt”l, and founder of the Haredi College of Jerusalem (Michlalah Chareidit Yerushalayim), added a new course of study to the dozen degree programs offered by the school. The new option was a master’s degree in conflict management and resolution in conjunction with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU). A total of 24 chareidi women were ultimately accepted into the two-year program. Practice What You Preach The menu of classes included, as appetizers, “Introduction to Conflict Resolution” and “Theories and Methods in Prevention and Intervention”; for the main course there were choices such as “Conflict Between Groups and Reconciliation”; and for dessert there were electives like “Multicultural Mediation in Narratives Perception.” This is fairly typical as degrees in conflict resolution go, and such programs are not new. They are currently offered in 40 out of 50 states and can be obtained in dozens of universities throughout the world.

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Unusual here, though, was that the degree was being offered for the first time to ultra-Orthodox women, who will hopefully go on to play a unique chareidi role in Israeli conflicts on both the local and national levels. From the start there were conflicts within the program itself due to the fact that it had three different “parents”: the Haredi College, which provided the students; the (secular) Ben-Gurion University, which provided the academic teaching staff; and the United Nations, in charge of supplementary staff, trips and excursions. Typical of the students is Ruth Ben-Chaim, who saw this as a career advancement opportunity now that her children are grown. Mrs. Ben-Chaim was happily surprised to see that the “shoemaker’s children weren’t barefoot” and that the program successfully resolved its own conflicts among students and staff,in keeping with the Talmudic dictum “Na’eh doresh, na’eh mekayem (practice what you preach).” For example, in the beginning many women felt that the United Nations influence on the program was too strong and too leftist.

The course was supposed to be teaching them skills for resolving conflicts in families, neighborhoods, communities and organizations; the participants weren’t interested in politics. So the non-academic aspects and political nuances were toned down, and the opposition subsided. Another conflict arose in the interface between lecturers, most of whom were secular in outlook, and the chareidi students. There simply aren’t enough religious academics to staff an entire program in this field. The Haredi College was wary about interfering with the academic freedom of the Ben-Gurion University faculty members. The conflict was resolved on several levels. The BGU women lecturers agreed to wear sleeves and skirts of appropriate length, although head coverings weren’t mandated. And when sensitive or controversial subject matter was taught by the secular staff, supplementary lectures were given by Dr. Daniel Nasi, rabbi of the Haredi College, who spoke on such topics as Jewish tradition and conflict management, psychological blocks and motivation. Mrs. Ben-Chaim related that one of the most important skills cultivated in the program was the ability to listen to the narrative of the “other.” The students practiced being exposed to different perspectives through academic readings, assignments and writing papers. “Seeing the other side of a story had the effect of making us more moderate. It’s a process,” she said. “And the trips we took allowed us to meet people with very different approaches from ours.

All of this had an impact.” One subject studied was the “contact hypothesis” of sociologist Gordon Allport, whose premise is that under appropriate conditions, interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination between majority and minority group members. After studying this topic, the group had a chance to test the hypothesis during field trips organized by Zachi Gabay, program coordinator for the Interpeace UN Development Program (UNDP). “In a two-day excursion to Nazareth we met educated Arab women,” continued Mrs. Ben-Chaim, “and we saw that we have some commonalities.”  Head coverings and modest attire, respect for parents, elders and teachers, and seriousness in prayer are values shared by the Muslim and Jewish religious communities.  “An excursion to the Lebanese border provided us with a geopolitical perspective, and a trip to the seam line near Modi’in and Modi’in Ilit brought us right up to the barrier between Israeli and Palestinian Authority jurisdiction.” The women carried a heavy load since many continued to work while pursuing their degree. One of the most memorable courses for Ruth Ben-Chaim was in creative thinking. The lecturer showed the class an animated film about a family of squirrels in which the parents leave a note for their sleeping children saying that they are going away forever.

No one could figure out what this had to do with understanding the narrative of the “other.” At the end of the film, it turns out that the mother and father squirrel are going into Noah’s ark— the lucky pair that would be saved. “The instructor pointed out to us that although we may have read this parshah dozens of times, we probably never thought about what it meant for the animals’ children that drowned. It was a fascinating example how an episode can have different narratives.” Another student, Mrs. Nofar Danan, described her gradual shift in the way she analyzed problems. In particular, she found the field trips around Jerusalem revealing. “I’ve been living in Jerusalem for two decades, yet when Interpeace organized the field trip to East Jerusalem and the Muslim quarter, I discovered a new whole world in my backyard with which I was not at all familiar. Then I realized that one minority, we chareidim, can better understand another minority, in this case the Arabs.” Nofar had a BA in special education and had almost given up hope of obtaining an MA because she wanted to study in a chareidi atmosphere. She enrolled in the program and discovered that she had never given much thought to the Arab-Israeli dispute and the narrative of the “other.” “The program opened a small window for me on the subject of identity and memory. I asked myself how it could be that I was unaware of the living, breathing reality of our neighbors.

In the beginning I avoided confrontational questions, like who started the conflict and who is the victim. But slowly I developed the ability to listen.” Mrs. Danan did her practicum work in the Center for Epilepsy. “You might think this is far from the subject matter of the course, but it isn’t. People with this condition are often stereotyped. They are also an ‘other’ and suffer from delegitimization in many sectors of society. For my research project I studied the chareidi discourse on epilepsy in our media.” The wife of Chief Rabbi David Lau, Rabbanit Zipporah Lau, also did her practicum there and was instrumental in helping chareidim develop a more positive attitude toward the challenge of living with epilepsy. The program had both social and political components. As a result of her studies,Mrs. Danan came to see how the Israeli– Arab dispute affects the chareidi sector. “It isn’t only about territory.

There is a large religious facet, and more importantly, [there is] the fact that we are both minorities.” Ben-Gurion University’s Perspective The program was a learning experience from the viewpoint of the teaching staff as well. Dr. Shulamit Fischer was one of the BGU faculty members in charge of the field work, or practicum. (An internship, by contrast, is done after graduation.) Every student was required to volunteer six hours a week in a conflict resolution context outside of her usual work. “The women had to keep a diary and submit an entry to me each week describing issues as they arose. Then we would analyze problems and possible ways of coping in class, applying theory to practice.” Various techniques for discussing problems were taught such as sharing, brainstorming, consulting and reflecting. Dr. Fischer learned that her own stereotype of chareidi women had to undergo revision. Having had little contact with them before, she assumed them to be passive and unassertive. By the end of the year, though, she had a completely new understanding of them as empowered, articulate and curious. “I myself had preconceived notions and prejudice about ultra-Orthodox women as closed and lacking in opinions,” she admits with a laugh. “We developed a mutual understanding.” Not many of the women chose the Arab-Israeli issue for her practicum; rather, they selected social conflicts within chareidi society.

For example, one team went to a girls’ seminary where the only option the students saw for themselves was teaching. After gaining the complete cooperation of the seminary’s administration, the women introduced other career options to the students. In their field diaries, many noted that their work as agents for change had two effects. Some of the seminary girls felt confused because until then they had had one clear path: to become a teacher. Others, though, were relieved to learn that there was a spectrum of legitimate professions open to them. The UN’s Motivation As a body, the United Nations believes that various sectors have been overlooked in the worldwide attempt to manage conflicts. Zachi Gabay, the chareidi activist who arranged the field trips for the master’s degree program, explained that the UN pinpointed three groups in Israel that were previously “under the radar”: Russians, Arabs and chareidim.

According to Mr. Gabay, the international body wishes to expose opinion-shapers in the ultraOrthodox community to the PalestinianIsraeli conflict so they can participate in the public discourse from a knowledgeable stance. Until now, he says, the “left” has essentially been talking to itself and was unaware of the range of views in the chareidi sector. “It isn’t logical to conduct negotiations about issues such as the status of holy sites while ignoring the chareidim, only to present them at the end of the process with a fait accompli. It dawned on the UN that they should hear the agenda and concerns of this important sector.” Expounding upon the value of the field trips he said, “The women were able to see the implications that the separation barrier, for example, has for daily life in these regions and helped them visualize the theoretical knowledge they had acquired during their classes.” In other words, the chareidim cannot simply sit on the fence (double entendre intended) and let others determine history. As a result of the outing to East Jerusalem, one of the master’s degree candidates who works in the Jerusalem Municipality became aware that funding that should have been going to legitimate activities in the eastern (Arab) sector weren’t being transferred there. She looked into the matter and rectified it. “Right now the Arab sections are under our aegis and we have to be knowledgeable about them,” she said.

For many women in the program, East Jerusalem just wasn’t on their maps and they simply avoided the area. Acknowledging its existence was a step towards coexistence. Gabay also arranged for a course on the art of debate: how to present an argument, articulate a rebuttal and make a summation. Also working with the UNDP is Mr. Itzik Sudri, Interpeace program officer for the ultra-Orthodox population for the past eight years and former spokesman for the Shas Party. (He is also the brother of Yehudit Yosef, a daughter-in-law of Rav Ovadia Yosef, zt”l.) Mr. Sudri organized and accompanied the mission of chareidi women to Ireland. He believes that the ultra-Orthodox are the key to reaching a political-diplomatic modus vivendi. Many diplomats are starting to think similarly and consult him. “The voice of the halachic religious leadership must be heard in any agreements, since such agreements will have religious components.

When I told Rav Ovadia, zt”l, about our projects to familiarize the chareidim with borders and have them meet military experts, the Rav quoted the famous statement in the Talmud, ‘Sages increase peace in the world’ (Berachot 64).” In recent years the chareidi community has been less allied with the settler movement than it was in the past. International bodies with similar political views now realize that they have ignored this demographically growing influential group for decades. “The world doesn’t distinguish between ultra-Orthodox Jews and settlers. They both wear skullcaps and are considered to be on the extreme right. The fact is that the differences between these two groups are enormous. World leaders are now starting to realize that the ultra-Orthodox are not an obstacle to peace but the key to peace. In the past, the ultra-Orthodox as a group were considered irrelevant to the diplomatic process, so this is a big change.”