Esty Shushan: Israeli feminist, liberal haredi woman fighting for change

Esty Shushan is a symbol of tensions within an ultra-Orthodox community that is slowly evolving but uncomfortable with change.

 Esty Shushan on September 21, 2022, at 1868 restaurant (photo credit: Laura Cornfield, MediaCentral)
Esty Shushan on September 21, 2022, at 1868 restaurant
(photo credit: Laura Cornfield, MediaCentral)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

“Being criticized does not mean I have to leave my community,” said haredi women’s right activist Esty Shushan. “It means I have to stay and try to fix it.”

Sitting among a group of women journalists at the “1868” kosher meat restaurant near the city center only days before Rosh Hashanah, Shushan shared her journey to feminism. 

Shushan’s story is the focus of a new documentary, “Women of Valor,” which is available on HOT and has been shown at several movie festivals. She herself is a symbol of tensions within an ultra-Orthodox community that is slowly evolving but uncomfortable with change.

In 2012, Shushan launched the Facebook protest movement “No Voice, No Vote,” which called on haredi women not to vote for the haredi parties that not only refused them a voice on their city councils or in the parliament, but even membership. 

That movement in 2015 became the first and only haredi feminist organization in Israel, Nivcharot. The organization promotes the equal representation of women in haredi society and politics through leadership training and advocacy. She also started the Meoravut forum through which haredi women can discuss these issues. Nivcharot together with the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) petitioned the Supreme Court in 2015 demanding that the Agudat Yisrael Party amend its bylaws forbidding women in its ranks. Three years later, the court issued a ruling in the women’s favor. 

Moreover, 22 haredi women who took part in Nivcharot’s leadership training recently registered to become members of Israel’s two ultra-Orthodox parties, Agudat Yisrael and Litvish Degel HaTorah that run together as United Torah Judaism and the Sephardic haredi party Shas. They were so-far denied and the women have taken their cases to district court.

 Shushan tells her story to a group of women journalists through MediaCentral’s Salon Project (credit: Laura Cornfield, MediaCentral) Shushan tells her story to a group of women journalists through MediaCentral’s Salon Project (credit: Laura Cornfield, MediaCentral)

“The common thing about these parties is that they have no women at all – not only not in the Knesset, but not in the municipalities,” Shushan explained. “Everywhere there are tables around which decisions need to be made – no women, only men. Imagine it.

“But there may be some good news in the future,” Shushan added with a smile. 

Two million people by 2033

Haredim account for around 10.5% of Israel’s Jewish population, according to data released in September by the Central Bureau of Statistics, and the sector is growing. 

In 2009, there were approximately 750,000 haredim in Israel compared to 1,226,000 in 2021. CBS forecasts the community will account for 16% of Israel’s population by 2030 and number as many as 2 million people by 2033.

This growth is due to high fertility rates – 6.9 children per family – with a 4% annual growth rate, higher than any other population group in the OECD.

“For women in the haredi community, the most significant role is to be a mother – to have children and get the joy and happiness of watching your children grow up,” Shushan said. “So, I did this. I married at 19 and became a mother for the first time at 20.”

By 26, Shushan, who grew up in Safed as the eldest child of 12, had four children of her own.

Living in Tiberias in northern Israel, she took a job as secretary in a small Haredi organization. She had little education having grown up in a system that did not encourage girls to take their matriculation exams. 

According to the “Annual Statistical Report on Ultra-Orthodox Society in Israel 2021” prepared by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), only 14% of students who studied in the haredi stream attained a matriculation certificate in 2018-19 compared with 81% of students in the State and State-Religious education streams. 

The poverty rate in haredi society stood at 44% in 2019, compared to 22% among the general population, with the average income of ultra-Orthodox workers at 59% of other Jewish workers, the report said. 

“The only way to work is to work in a small organization. Sometimes you cannot get paid. The conditions for women workers are very hard,” she recalled.

But the gates opened for Shushan. 

She always liked to draw and decided to take a graphic design course. One day, a local haredi newspaper was looking for a designer and they tapped Shushan. Quickly, she saw the paper did not have enough content. So, she started to write political commentary under the pseudonym A. Bashan.

“Only my family knew,” Shushan said. 

Several years later, she was offered a design position at the much larger, national publication Mishpacha.

“It was my dream to write for this paper,” she said. “Before my first column, I had a conversation with the editor and he asked me what name I was going to use for my byline.”

Shushan was perplexed and said she wanted to write under her real name. But the editor warned her, “Esty, you know our people. The part of the paper you are writing for is for the men. You should hide the fact that you are a woman if you want to be taken seriously.”

And so, she did, continuing to write as A. Bashan. 

“I had tricks in my writing to make sure no one knew I was a woman, but I also did not want to be a man. I was a no-gender creature,” Shushan said.

At the same time, the haredi community was changing. The Internet and social media started to creep into society. People were using networks under fake names and in hidden spaces. It was in a forum in a haredi chat room that Shushan made her first friends – two women who shared her concerns. 

First, they spoke in private chats. Then they met in person. 

It was a few weeks before the January 2013 parliamentary election and the women were frustrated. 

“We are smart, we have an opinion about everything, and the men don’t even come to ask us to vote for them, let alone our thoughts on the issues. It is like we do not exist,” Shushan explained. 

Her friends told her to go into politics. She decided to start a Facebook page instead. The page and Shushan quickly garnered the attention of the media.

“I was young and chutzpadik and I called on haredi women to stop voting for these parties that don’t give them a voice,” she said. “That is how it all got started.”

Systemic solution

Some 12.8% of all votes cast in the 2020 elections were for United Torah Judaism and Shas, according to the IDI. Today, the two parties hold 16 seats in the Knesset and are expected to maintain around that after the November 1 election, polls show. 

“As a haredi, feminist, liberal woman, I do not want this reality to stay,” Shushan said. She refuses to call herself Religious Zionist or to join a Religious Zionist party, although she did transfer her children to Religious Zionist schools after they received threats.

“I am a real haredi, even if people argue that I am not.”

Esty Shushan

“I am a real haredi, even if people argue that I am not,” Shushan stressed. “I want to take care of my children, my community and my family. I want to stay here and make the changes the community needs from within the community, not from the outside.”

Shushan believes she is not alone. Trust in haredi institutions is on the decline, with only 34% of the Israeli public reporting they trust the Chief Rabbinate, according to a “Statistical Report on Religion and State” published by IDI in September. 

Only 32.5% trust Rabbinical Courts, 28% the Religious Councils and 14% the Ministry of Religious Services. 

Shushan said that in her circles and elsewhere, there are men and women who say they want their children to receive a secular education in the core subjects alongside their Torah education.

Over the last decade, according to IDI, haredi education has undergone several systemic and structural changes, including the establishment of the haredi Department within the Ministry of Education and the development of the state-haredi education stream. Today, only about a quarter of haredi students are enrolled in schools that are completely exempt from all Education Ministry standards and requirements. 

There is also growth in the use of computers and the Internet, although the numbers are much lower than among the general Israeli community. 

Some 62% of Haredim use a computer compared to 79% among other Jews. Internet use spiked from 28% in 2008 to 64% in 2020, but is 29% lower than among other Jews.

There is also a difference in how the Internet is accessed, IDI showed. More than 40% of haredim use a home computer and 30% a cellular phone, compared to 26% and 72% among other Jews.

Around 50% of haredi Internet users are on social media and nearly as many (46%) uses WhatsApp.

The concept of “modern haredim” appears to be growing, according to Gilad Malach, director of IDI’s Ultra-Orthodox in Israel program. However, he said not enough data exists and more surveys need to be taken to fully understand the shift.

He said that today only around 9% of haredi society is “completely modern,” meaning they embrace the “whole package” of what modern society has to offer, from higher education to leisure activities and values.

Another 31% dabbles in modern society, accessing opportunities for higher education or using technology, for example. 

He called Shushan and her efforts “marginal” at best and said he does not believe that electing women to city councils or parliament is something that Israel is likely to see soon.

“I do think modernity is growing and will grow, but not in all ways,” Malach said. “Part of the haredi worldview is that women are not at the forefront, they are not elected officials, and I don’t think this will change.”

Two years ago, Shushan got divorced from her husband, Maimon. “I cannot say I got divorced because of my work, but it is not something that helped,” she said.

The haredi community is like a shtetl, she said: You can make a call to this rabbinic leader or that Knesset member and get help with a personal problem. 

“Now it is time for the haredi leadership to give a solution for the people,” she said.

“I know a lot of women and men who are suffering,” Shushan concludes. “We want a systemic solution.”  ■