Women to watch

Six Jews who have proven they are forces to be reckoned with.

US Gymanst Aly Raisman (photo credit: reuters)
US Gymanst Aly Raisman
(photo credit: reuters)
Aly Raisman flipped her way into the hearts of Jews the world over when she performed her show-stopping floor routine to “Hava Nagila” at the 2012 London Olympics. The captain of the “Fierce Five” US women’s gymnastics team took home the gold for the floor exercise, the first American woman to do so, and helped bring her team to an all-around gold medal. The 18-year-old Jew from Needham, Massachusetts, dedicated her routine to the 11 Israeli sportsmen who were murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich games. While she’s focused now on competing in the 16th season of Dancing with the Stars, she’ll head back to the gym this summer to prepare for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Jill Jacobs, a Conservative rabbi who directs T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights-North America), is a strong advocate for Jews “living our Judaism publicly.” Her organization mobilizes rabbis from all streams on issues of human rights, including slavery, African migrants in Israel and issues in the Palestinian territories.
A prolific writer, Jacobs has written There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition (2009) and Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (2011). Newsweek has listed Jacobs, 37, on its list of Influential Rabbis in America every year since 2009.
Jacobs graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary where she also received an MA in Talmud, and wrote a landmark legal position for the Conservative movement that says Jews should pay their workers a living wage, create dignified workplaces and hire union workers when possible.
Michelle Rojas-Tal, 28, a New York native, says the experience of living through 9/11 inspired her to strengthen her commitment to Zionism and to educating others about the Jewish state. As the director of Diaspora education for StandWithUs, an Israeli advocacy organization, Rojas-Tal has met with thousands of high school and college-aged students during their visits to Israel, travels around the world – from South America to China – meeting with Jewish community leaders about advocating for Israel and speaking to the media about misperceptions of Israel. Rojas-Tal, who joined the organization in 2005 and made aliya in 2007, helps shape Jewish and non-Jewish views of Israel and gives students the tools to confidently face anti-Israel rhetoric on their university campuses.
Adina Bar-Shalom has been described as an anomaly.
The first-born daughter of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Bar-Shalom, 67, is trailblazing a path for haredim to pursue higher education and be more inclusive of women in public life, and for Israel to achieve peace with the Palestinians.
The founder of the Jerusalem Haredi College, the first academic college for ultra-Orthodox women, boasts over 350 female graduates since its founding in 2001. Bar-Shalom says the poverty she witnessed in the ultra-Orthodox community motivated her to prepare more haredim to earn a living.
Bar-Shalom famously traveled to Ramallah in 2011 to meet with PA President Mahmoud Abbas on an Israeli delegation, a year after her father wished him dead. “I’m coming to listen,” she told JTA on the bus ride to Ramallah. “I wanted to know those on the other side.”
She also spoke out against gender-segregated bus lines in Jerusalem, taking an unpopular view among haredim, saying excluding women from the public domain “violates Torah,” as “Halacha treats women with the utmost respect.”
Zoe Kravitz, the 24-year-old progeny of rock star Lenny Kravitz and actress Lisa Bonet, is carving her own path to fame in fashion, music and film. The upcoming star of M. Night Shyamalan’s 2013 film After Earth has been featured on Showtime’s Californication and in the 2011 film X-Men: First Class.
Kravitz, a model, whose parents are both half African-American and half Russian Jews (her paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother are Jewish), isn’t just a pretty face. She also fronts punk band Elevator Fight, which performed at the SXSW music festival in Austin in 2011. This year she released a jewelry line with Swarovski Crystal. She has said she identifies as a secular Jew, and joked with Rolling Stone in 2011 about her Jewish start to performing. “I’d stage performances in my grandparents’ living room, charging them and their friends $1 admission,” she said. “Real Jewy, huh?”
Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo, the Bahraini ambassador to the US, does not fit the Western world’s stereotype of women from her home country. For one, she is Jewish – one of some 38 Jews in the small Islamic kingdom – and she received her MBA from the International University of Europe. When Bahraini ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa appointed Nonoo, 48, to the position in 2008, despite her lack of diplomatic experience, she became the only Jewish ambassador from an Arab country, and the first female ambassador from Bahrain. While she has expressed a strong Jewish identity, she denies any connection to Israel, with whom her country does not have ties, though she said she hopes there will be a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She founded the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society in 2004.