PEOPLE OF ISRAEL: Dr. Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar

ID: Today she teaches college students at the Sapir Academic College near Sderot

Dr. Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Jerusalem-born Dr. Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar is the granddaughter of one of the most influential rabbis in religious Zionism. She has preserved her strict religious observance while becoming a feminist, as she researches the lives of women inside closed societies. She wrote her doctorate on ultra-Orthodox women, and then started to study Amish women and life for women in closed
How was it to grow up as the granddaughter of the influential Rabbi and Knesset Member Moshe Zvi Neriya?
I had a very close connection with my grandparents, and when I was little, I didn’t understand what it meant to be “the granddaughter of Rabbi Neriya.” Later, in school, every time I misbehaved, the teachers reproached me. “Is that how Rabbi Neriya’s granddaughter behaves?”
I felt my grandparents’ deep belief in God. This was also expressed in their valuing every moment in this world and never wasting time.
Most people would think that radical feminism and religion are contradictory. How did you develop your feminist ideas while living a strictly religious life?
The first time I heard the word “feminist” was in sixth grade. We were studying the Bible recounting of the story of the Garden of Eden. I was irritated by the teacher’s condescending attitude toward Eve. After the fifth time, I raised my hand and made a comment. The teacher said, “I see that we have a little feminist here!” For years, I assumed this was an insult. In high school, I accepted the norm that I’d marry a man who would study and teach Torah and bring up many children. Most of my friends went to religious colleges, but I wanted to study in a university. I went to get my grandfather’s blessing. He told me that the Jewish people needed teachers like me. But I took a deep breath and told him that I’d taken advanced classes in literature in high school, and that they often reported the tragedy of the heroine missing her calling. “It’s not going to happen to me,” I told him. He nodded and said, “Go to the university, and Hashem will succeed through you.” Getting his blessing was important to me.
On my first day of University I met Dr. Tova Lichtenstein, a religious and brilliant professor of social work, and knew I wanted to have a doctorate like her one day.
Was your sixth grade teacher correct ?
I completed a social work degree at Bar-Ilan University without thinking much about feminism. I was exposed to gender studies and books on feminism only at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, when I did my master’s degree. You could say that until then I did not really have any idea what the teacher meant. I moved to the Department of Journalism and Communications and wrote a thesis on “Images of Women in the ultra-Orthodox Press” and then went on to a doctorate. My dissertation was about ultra-Orthodox women and mass media in Israel, and I was interested in the conflict some of the women who wanted careers felt. After a post-doctorate in Gender Studies, I won a Fulbright scholarship and was a scholar-in-residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
You were always interested in learning about the Amish. How did you finally make contact with them?
My doctoral thesis adviser Prof. Yechiel Limor challenged me to read about the Amish and to compare them to Haredi society. I resisted at first because everything was in English, but then persevered and fell in love with this society through the many books and articles I read. I dreamed of doing a fellowship in the US and comparing the Amish with the ultra-Orthodox.
I was disappointed to learn there were no Amish in Massachusetts. At our first opportunity, I drove with my husband, Meir Ben-Shahar, to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. We saw a man driving a buggy. Meir suggested we follow him. I began reciting psalms and entreating God to take me to the Amish and allow me to do my research. Then suddenly a girl came out of a farmhouse to take in the mail. Meir stopped the car and urged me, “Rivka, this is the chance of a lifetime. Go grab it.”
I jumped out of the car and ran after the girl. What would I say? The first thing that came to mind was, “My name is Rebecca, like Rebecca in the Bible. I come from Jerusalem, from the holy land. Can I please speak with you? ”
She was startled, but invited us all to see the farm. Her mother invited us into the house. From the beginning, the conversation with mother and daughter was wonderful.
You wanted to do serious study? How did you go beyond this simple conversation?
I knew that to get any depth, I had to move in with them for a while. I took the address from the mailbox, and when we got back to Boston I wrote the mother a letter. I wondered what could make a mother of eight children take a visitor into her home. I promised to help with the housework.We wrote back and forth and she agreed. The first few minutes were very embarrassing because I promised myself not to mention my research. She asked me what I was looking for, and I told her I wanted to learn from her (that’s research, isn’t it?). The kitchen was a mess from breakfast and the preparation of lunch boxes. I told her that my grandmother always said, “The kitchen sink doesn’s ask what help is needed,” and rolled up my sleeves. I spent an hour and a half washing piles of dishes. Then I swept the floor and folded laundry. When I suggested that I drive her to visit her grandchildren, she was delighted. After 25 hours of washing dishes, folding laundry and driving, I asked her gently if I could ask questions for university work. Of course she agreed. This was the beginning of a wonderful friendship we still share.
How could you experience this lifestyle without being critical?
Although to the outside observer the life of an Amish woman seems difficult and burdensome, they have countless advantages, including tremendous social support and the ability to cope with challenges. What I envy the most is that they live in the secure knowledge that they are doing the right thing, even if outsiders don’t agree. They experience it this way, and that leads to happiness and satisfaction. The woman I got close to has extreme serenity that I don’t have in a world full of decision-making and contradictions.
How do you compare Amish and ultra-Orthodox Jews?
Among the strict Amish I studied, there’s almost no Internet. Every few months someone from the family drives a horse and cart to the public library and orders something on Amazon or eBay. Many ultra-Orthodox women work and use the Internet at work or at home. It opens them up to the world. The Jewish women are far better educated. The Amish men and women only complete eighth grade. However, the Amish women are equal partners in church obligations and choosing leaders. The common denominator is not only the strict religiosity and separateness, but also the patterns of childbirth. With an average of seven children per family, their societies are going beyond preservation to growth. At the same time, the younger generation wants more freedom.
How do you define yourself?
I don’t only teach about radical feminism, I define myself as a radical feminist, even though I wear long skirts and cover my head. I see male domination over women in many aspects of life. My extensive Jewish education is precious to me, but I’m hoping that Jewish law will evolve to a place of greater equality.
What do you predict for the future of these groups?
I think they’ll move in two directions: some towards liberality and others to greater strictness, while they try to influence the 95 percent in the middle in either direction.
Where is your research taking you?
My study of Amish and ultra-Orthodox women is ongoing. I want to get to know Amish from Indiana and Ohio, where the largest communities live and also those who are scattered in the US and Canada. I would like to study Muslim women in Iran and Saudi Arabia, but that dream requires peace to come to our region and other doors to closed societies to open for me.
How does your teaching and researching work out with your husband and children?
My partner is even more of a feminist than I am. I am grateful to him for accompanying me to a feminist Orthodox synagogue Shira Hadasha and his support of my career, as I support his. Our three children grew up in a home of parents who are perpetual students. They knew how to say “syllabus” and “deadline” – words I only knew at university – already in kindergarten. Academic pressure is often difficult. On the other hand, which parents aren’t busy and working hard? They also see our satisfaction in finding the answers to questions and working hard.
Barbara Sofer is the Israel director of Public Relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is ‘The Daughter of Many Mothers’ with Holocaust survivor Rena Quint