A matter of principle

The story of the courageous woman who defeated gender-based seating on El Al.

Renee Rabinowitz, the Belgian-born Holocaust survivor who in 2006 came to spend her twilight years in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Renee Rabinowitz, the Belgian-born Holocaust survivor who in 2006 came to spend her twilight years in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Almost every woman – Jewish or otherwise – who has been placed next to a haredi man on an El Al airplane has been the victim of gender discrimination. Most haredim claim they cannot and will not sit next to a woman other than their wife or daughter.
Those haredim who prefer not to make a fuss but to suffer in silence are often reviled by others of their ilk who consider such a departure from self-imposed stringency to be a treacherous lapse.
Sometimes women who are asked to move to another seat reluctantly acquiesce for the sake of peace and quiet – and because they know from previous experience that if they don’t agree to move, there is a strong chance that the ultra-Orthodox man, if not already seated, will refuse to take his seat. Chances are he will stand shouting in the aisle, impeding the progress of other passengers and delaying the plane from take-off. It’s simply easier to give in.
A little over 18 months ago, Belgian- born Renee Rabinowitz, a Holocaust survivor who has spent most of her life in the United States and came in 2006 to spend her twilight years in Jerusalem, was on an El Al flight from Newark to Tel Aviv. She had gone to the US to visit family and was returning home.
Rabinowitz, an octogenarian with knee problems, was already ensconced in her seat when the passenger who had been assigned a window seat boarded the plane. His attire indicated that he was haredi, and the hurried but sharply toned exchange in Hebrew that he had with a member of the cabin crew indicated to Rabinowitz that all was not well.
A few moments later, a flight attendant offered to give her a “better” seat and so, gripping her walking stick, Rabinowitz, who is religiously observant herself, got up and moved. But she was far from happy about giving in to prejudice and discrimination.
She later had the opportunity to mention this in passing to the flight captain, who told her that it was policy from higher up. This really annoyed her, because it meant that Israel’s national carrier was in a sense promoting gender discrimination.
A few weeks after her unpleasant incident, Rabinowitz, who describes herself as “open Orthodox,” went to a lecture by Anat Hoffman, the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center. Hoffman, a former Jerusalem City Council member, is best known for her Women of the Wall leadership role, but over the years has been active in trying to stamp out all forms of gender discrimination.
One of the great triumphs of IRAC with Hoffman at the helm was putting an end to women being subjected to sitting in the back of the bus. In 2011, the High Court of Justice issued a ruling that forbade gender segregation on public transport unless it was done on a voluntary basis.
In the course of the meeting, Rabinowitz mentioned what had occurred during her recent flight with El Al. For IRAC, she was a perfect plaintiff. Hoffman asked if she would be willing to go to court on a matter of principle.
It was exactly the right question to put to a fair-minded lawyer. The case was won, and El Al flight attendants are no longer permitted to ask women to move to another seat simply because a haredi male passenger does not want to sit next to her.
After the verdict, Rabinowitz was quoted as feeling “exhilarated.” Speaking this week to Metro, she said that it wasn’t a personal victory, but a matter of principle. As a company that engages in serving the public, “El Al is obligated to not discriminate on the basis of gender,” she said.
In fact, Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court Judge Dana Cohen-Lekach asked El Al’s lawyers whether a passenger who felt uncomfortable seated next to an Arab could ask the flight attendant to move the Arab passenger to another seat. The El Al lawyers replied in the negative, saying that it would be illegal because it was discriminatory.
“So is asking a woman to move,” ruled the judge.
Following the ruling, Rabinowitz was inundated with congratulatory emails. The story before and after the victory had been featured in international electronic and print media.
Several of the emails she received were from people with whom she had lost contact years ago, such as the former president of Colorado College, where she had been the in-house lawyer for 14 years. He had read the story in The New York Times and had written to tell her how happy he was for her. “And he’s not even Jewish,” said Rabinowitz.
There was considerable discussion on social media, with the overwhelming majority of participants agreeing wholeheartedly with the ruling. Some also added malicious statements about haredim.
When it was put to Rabinowitz that El Al could have saved itself a lot of time and trouble over the years by simply designating a bank of seats for men traveling alone, thereby ensuring that all the haredim would be sitting together, she didn’t think it would work, because a number of secular males would be included in such a seating arrangement, and they might not feel comfortable hemmed in by so many haredim.
She also foresaw additional problems if all the seats allocated for male passengers were not filled, while there were not enough seats elsewhere in the plane for female passengers.
El Al has six months in which to implement a new non-discrimination policy.
This presumably means training staff to politely decline haredi demands that women be asked to move.
Rabinowitz conceded that if the haredi man had asked her politely if she would mind moving, she might have considered doing so – but not before asking him why he wouldn’t move.
After all, if he’s the one who’s bothered by the fact that there’s a woman in the next seat, even though there is absolutely no physical contact between them, he’s the one who should get up to find a solution to his problem. What irked her most was that the flight attendant asked her to move, pretending to offer her a better seat.
Renee Rabinowitz was born in Antwerp in 1934. Her father was a Belgian native and her mother came from Frankfurt, Germany. The family, including Rabinowitz’s younger brother, who now lives in Israel, remained in Antwerp till 1941. Following the Nazi invasion of Belgium, the family somehow obtained visas to Cuba, but it was not easy to get there.
They walked through parts of Belgium and France, sleeping on the ground, and eventually got to Barcelona, from where they were able to board a ship bound for Cuba.
Rabinowitz doesn’t remember too much about that period in her life, except for the fear. Her parents were terribly afraid and this fear transferred itself to her. As close-knit as they were, she was always anxious that she would be abandoned, possibly because they never stayed in any place long enough to become familiar with it.
The ship they boarded was a freighter and the journey to Cuba took a whole month – but once they disembarked, they knew they were safe. The young Renee adapted quickly to her environment, picking up Spanish with ease, but speaking Yiddish most of the time. The family spent five years in Havana, where she attend the Yiddish Folk Shule.
After the war ended, the family moved to New York and settled in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which was heavily populated by ultra-Orthodox Jews. The parents operated a business importing household goods and signed up with some large wholesale distributors, and did very well for themselves.
Renee, 12 years old when the family moved to Williamsburg, was enrolled at the Bais Yaakov High School from which she graduated at age 16, by which time her English had no trace of a foreign accent.
She barely managed to complete a year of study at Brooklyn College, when she was married at age 18 to a very devoutly religious man, who had some secular education.
Eager to improve her own range of knowledge, the young bride asked her husband if he would mind if she went back to college. He raised no objections, but stipulated that nothing in the house should change just because she was studying. The couple had two children, a boy and a girl.
As time passed, her thirst for knowledge grew, and after the family moved to Virginia, she went to study at William and Mary College where she earned a BA in history. Three years later, in 1967, she set out to pursue a PhD in psychology and human development at the University of Chicago, after which she taught psychology at Indiana University from 1972 to 1979.
“In the mid 1970s, the academic market was terrible,” she recalls. She didn’t have tenure and she was stuck, because her department at Indiana State was full, so her chances of getting tenure for herself were very slim.
Instead, she began studying law at the University of Notre Dame and received her degree in 1982. For the next four years she worked as an associate at two large Chicago law firms.
With hindsight, she says that her marriage began to go sour when she did well in her studies. “My success was a problem for him. He married a naïve, innocent, young girl, and I had changed. He couldn’t live with that. I was a threat to him.”
Nonetheless, they stayed together for 33 years before they divorced. He is now married to “a very nice woman” who is good in business but less educated than he is.
Rabinowitz moved on to Colorado Springs, where she landed a job as an attorney at Colorado College, negotiating disputes among faculty members and students. She was also responsible for real estate acquisitions by the college and advising senior faculty on how to proceed on various issues.
She also developed a sexual harassment policy after learning of several marriages between faculty and students and determined to stop such relationships.
At one of the weddings of the large hassidic Twersky family, Rabinowitz was introduced to Rabbi Stanley Wagner, the rabbi of Beth Hamedrosh Hagadol, the oldest traditional congregation in Denver, founded in 1897.
While serving as a congregational rabbi, Wagner was also a professor of Jewish history at the University of Denver. He was also famous for writing a halachic study which validated the Denver Conversion Program in which Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis worked together to prepare candidates for conversion, with the final authority delegated to an Orthodox Rabbinical Court. Due to strong Orthodox opposition, the program ran for several years before folding.
Like Rabinowitz, Wagner had multiple post-graduate degrees, and the two of them hit it off immediately. They were married in 1989 and Rabinowitz moved to Denver, but she did not change her name.
Assuming the responsibilities of a rabbi’s wife, she answered to his name socially, but kept her own for other purposes. She taught Jewish history as part of the synagogue’s adult education program and started a women’s Rosh Hodesh (new month) prayer group.
Wagner retired in 2000 and the couple began spending summers in Colorado, spring in Jerusalem and winter in Arizona.
It was fun for a few years, but they wanted to put down permanent roots and Jerusalem was an obvious choice.
They came on aliya in 2006 and found a spacious apartment in the German Colony. A few years later, Wagner was diagnosed with lymphoma, and he died in 2013. He was buried at Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuhot Cemetery.
Rabinowitz filled the void in her life by going to lectures at Pardes, where she is a member of the board, the Schechter Institute and the OU Center.
Her son and his family live in Jerusalem and her daughter lives in the US. She also has an excellent relationship with Wagner’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
As much as she loved her apartment, she was lonely and she wanted to be in an environment where she was surrounded by people of her own generation. Beit Moses, which is right in the middle of a neighborhood shopping center and not too far from the synagogue she attends, was an ideal solution.
Her stepdaughter came from New York to help her move. “You can’t stay here,” she told Rabinowitz. “It’s too small. There’s no room for your things.”
“But I want it,” said Rabinowitz, who reluctantly had to part with many of her possessions. It took a little time for her to get used to the smaller space, but she concedes she’s much happier now.