‘Exclusion of women’ makes waves for conference

Puah Institute helps religious couples with fertility problems, slammed for lack of female speakers.

Another brouhaha related to rabbis, haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and the exclusion of women has broken out – this time over the Puah Institute for Medicine and Halacha and its all-day annual conference to be held in Jerusalem on Wednesday on “Innovations in Gynecology and Halacha.”
After Kadima MK Rachel Adatto, a trained gynecologist, learned that women doctors had not been invited to speak from the dais, she objected and called to invite such speakers. On Friday, opponents of the exclusion of female lecturers maintained that half-a-dozen male doctors canceled their participation after identifying with Adatto’s position.
Then on Sunday, the Puah Institute said doctors who nevertheless wanted to speak to the audience were “threatened with boycott of their services” by self-described “pluralistic” and “feminist” groups.
Later, more than 40 such organizations demanded that the Health Ministry, which doesn’t fund the conference, “change the conference” so female lecturers are invited to speak. In previous years, the ministry did give subsidies to Puah, but not this year. Thus the ministry decided not to comment on the controversy.
The non-profit institute was established in 1990 at the initiative of then-chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu to promote assistance to religious couples with fertility problems.
It annually provides information via its website to 50,000 couples – religious and secular – around the world.
It also trains male and female religious counsellors to the about-tobe- married – and women as in-vitro fertilization supervisors at hospital fertility units to make sure that donated gametes and the resulting embryos are implanted without errors in the women they came from.
Every year during the week of the reading of the first Torah portion in the book of Exodus (which mentions the two midwives, Puah and Shifra, who saved Moses from Pharaoh’s decree of death) a thousand participants come to the conference.
The mostly national religious and haredi audience of women and men – are separated by cloth dividers, with the women directly facing the dais and closed-circuit TV giving a clear view of the speakers.
National and city chief rabbis and rabbinical arbiters present halachic views of medical issues. Participants also hear and see top medical specialists present intimate medical matters in the clearest terms never used in the haredi media. The male doctors come not only to educate this unique public – which previously was unable to access such information via participation, tapes and CDs – but also to attract patients who consult them via Sharap (private medical services at Jerusalem hospitals).
Women participants, some of whom take care of their infants and knit during the lectures, are invited to send notes to the dais to ask questions.
The conference, said Puah’s Rabbi Gidon Weizman, is basically geared toward rabbis, rabbis’ wives, mentors to brides and bridegrooms, mikve (ritual bath) attendants and professional men and women interested in medicine and Halacha.
“Thanks to the Puah conferences throughout the years new halachic rulings have been instituted to benefit women’s health in the religious sector. In light of these aims, it is of major importance that all rabbis and professionals be able to attend the conference. Those who are sensitive to the needs of the religious sector are aware that many will not attend other medical conferences because of the differing modesty standards, which they consider a serious halachic problem.”
Therefore, the late-Rabbi Eliyahu ruled from the outset that Puah “should allow attendance to men and women with separate seating and to invite [only] men lecturers.
This directive was reinforced by all the major rabbis from the haredi and national-religious sector.”
The Jerusalem Post, which has covered the central annual conference for more than 10 years, noted that the issue of women doctors on the dais was never raised publicly before, and only now had it become an issue following the current conflict over the exclusion of women.
“We are sorry that instead of appreciating the great advances we have merited to see in women’s health in general, and in particular within the religious sector, as a result of our conferences, there are cynical, aggressive elements who try to block us by using the prevailing public ambience.
These elements are riding on the back of the Puah Institute in order to advance their personal agenda,” the institute charged.
Behind the scenes, the Post learned that the reason why women are not invited to lecture from the dais is that it would cause members of the more extreme Eda Haredit from attending – whom Puah wants to include in the audience.
Adatto told the Post on Sunday that she made a point about no women speakers for the first time because the issue of exclusion has become one of great public interest and that she feared a slippery slope beginning with women soldiers’ singing in the IDF to calling women who sit in the front of haredi-used buses “prostitutes” or “Nazis” to even worse attitudes and actions against women.
The “pluralist” and “feminist” organizations that demanded female representation among the speakers, include Shatil, Wizo, Na’amat, the Israel Women’s Lobby, Agenda and Kolech. They urged the ministry to take action and use its authority to “ensure that women will be at the front of the dais as experts and lectures” on the medical subjects at the Puah conference. The organizations said they would “campaign” against the discrimination, but it was not known whether there would be any demonstrations by these organizations at the conference, which is always held at the Nof Yerushalayim events hall in the capital’s Bayit Vagan neighborhood.