Haredi women get symposium of their own

Haredi women in the workforce are not such a novelty anymore.

At the symposium on ultra-Orthodox women and the 21st century (photo credit: ISRAEL DEMOCRACY INSTITUTE)
At the symposium on ultra-Orthodox women and the 21st century
The relatively small conference hall at the Israel Democracy Institute in the Talbiyeh neighborhood could not hold the remarkable number of ultra- Orthodox women who had come to attend the symposium on haredi women and the 21st century.
“We suggested they watch the debates on the institute’s website, and that’s what many did,” explained Racheli Ibenboim, who together with Dr. Lee Cahaner of Bar- Ilan University, initiated and organized the very successful recent symposium.
One of the event’s impressive achievements was that the debates and lectures were given and presented by haredi women, rather than scholars from outside their community. Ibenboim says this was precisely one of her goals – to enable the women, active in many fields, to bring themselves and their experiences to the conference.
“We wanted to talk about employment, about education, about professional training for haredi women – and we brought the women from that sector who experienced all that and could tell about those experiences,” she said, already on her way to building and promoting another project on the life of the ultra-Orthodox population in today’s society.
Haredi women in the workforce are not such a novelty anymore; however, Ibenboim and her colleagues at that symposium say that even now, after years of openness in professional training and employment, things are still not so easy or to be taken for granted.
“We have special needs, special conditions, that require special attention and special solutions” she says.
Ibenboim herself, in her early 30s, a mother of two daughters and whose husband studies in a kollel (full-time advanced Torah study group), lives in Mea She’arim, while constantly enlarging the spectrum of her activities – from her beginnings, 10 years ago, as director-general of Meir Panim, one of the largest soup kitchens in the city. Today, she is heading the haredi women’s department at the Shaharit Institute.
She is an activist in a long series of groups and organizations to promote dialogue between the ultra-Orthodox and secular public; on haredi women’s issues, including supporting and promoting the election of women to the Knesset on haredi lists.
“We still have so many struggles to overcome,” she adds, “the symposium was just one of the aspects of these struggles – so many issues to address – from the very fact that a haredi woman has to leave her community to get a job. Her salary, her working conditions, where she works and in what field – nothing has been gained, nothing is assured, despite all the time that has elapsed since these changes have occurred.
The average haredi woman doesn’t know the world outside her own community.”
The main purpose of the symposium was to reveal to the public the major components of an ultra-Orthodox woman’s life – her home, her community and anything that stands outside these two arenas. How they, in the 21st century, perceive themselves and their tasks, and what are the main problems and obstacles on their way to achieve their goals.
An insider look, from the ideological and theological side, was provided by Rabbi Yehoshua Pepper, who gave voice to the profound need among the haredi world to avoid as much as possible stepping outside familiar lines, and hence the need to find a way to frame and enable the new reality of ultra-Orthodox women in the workplace.
“Inside haredi society, the women have a considerable powerful status,” says Ibenboim, “but you have to see into it with a different view – if you use the consensual occidental view of the women’s status – it seems that haredi women are not equal and perhaps even discriminated against, while in reality, it is exactly the opposite.”
According to Ibenboim, the fact that these women have to make decisions about almost every aspect of their family’s life – from financial issues to their children’s education to their daughters’ empowerment – is immense and gives the women, in a very different way than it might look from outside, a very powerful status – whereas some aspects are still missing (like the right to be elected to public office).
In her lecture, Fayge Cohen, an inspector at the haredi branch of the Education Ministry, opened with a short part from the well-known “Eshet Hayil” (“Woman of Valor,” a liturgical song taken from Proverbs), and moved from there to the message provided by the education system to girls in the haredi sector.
“From kindergarten, the girls are prepared for the expected guidelines – songs, stories and proverbs, to introduce them to their future task – to be the ultra-Orthodox women and mothers of tomorrow, according to Torah laws.”
But then, the deep changes occurring inside the haredi system and society have not left its women behind – and that was the main purpose of the symposium, which revealed the depth of these shifts.
While many speak about haredi men, army service and professional training or academic education, the studies presented at the Israel Democracy Institute revealed that the changes and the quality of these changes inside the haredi women’s sector are not smaller.
As Ibenboim put it, “The changes in the haredi world in Israel are getting through because they occurred first among the women. It wouldn’t happen without the women.”