It is said to be better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. On Wednesday, January 4, eighty Modi’in residents chose to light such a candle, together. Over the past few weeks, Israel has been in a whirlwind about a social issue that has been burning on a low flame since – well – maybe forever. One by one, stories of the exclusion of women (or in Hebrew, “Hadarat Nashim”) kept popping up in the news. Soldiers walked out of a ceremony in which women were singing on stage. High ranking army officers and the Minister of Defense had a laugh at the expense of women soldiers. Ultra orthodox communities in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh maintained separate sidewalks for men and women. Advertisements were censored to exclude pictures of women. The final straw – when a man spat on an eight-year old girl on her way to school because he thought she was not properly dressed, people took to the streets to demonstrate.
In a situation that could dangerously become a social rebellion, Limmud Modi’in, coordinated by Melitz with support from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, launched its 2012 program by bringing together individuals from a wide range of the Jewish spectrum to discuss tough issues together and hear one another out. Through learning texts and quoting the Mishna and John Lennon, a group of people who care enough to not only voice their opinions but also listen to others, heard various representatives of each side express their views. Rachel Azarya, a member of the Jerusalem Municipal Council known for voicing opinions against the exclusion of women seemed upset by the latest turmoil in Israeli society but said she was pleased that the term “exclusion of women” has finally found its place in common conversation, and not only in university gender studies courses.
Esther Salmon, an ultra orthodox social activist, remarked that when you attack a group, they will react in defense. “In the past, the ultra orthodox lived in a closed society, but in recent years we’ve seen great development in the form of attending academic institutions, going out to work in the general society and serving in the army,” said Salmon. “Attacking us now can set us back fifty years.”
Ma’ayan Cohen, an ultra orthodox member of the Beit Shemesh Women’s Council, added that the latest events brought out the extreme radicals from each side. In her words, “The fools on either side got the courage to speak up.” Levana Shiffman, a member of the Modi’in-Maccabim-Reut municipality, could not hide her dismay at what she called “the radicalization of the righteous. “When a religious group decides that you need kosher for Passover toilet paper, you can’t let that extremism enter the public space.”
The only male participant of the panel of five, MK Uri Orbach, retorted “You speak of the public space as if it were exclusively secular, or exclusively yours – but public means everyone. On one hand we have religious newspapers that do not portray any pictures of women – whether three years old or eighty. On the other hand, general media portrays women scantily dressed in various advertisements and on television shows.”
The evening, gracefully led by Gadi Levi, concluded with questions and remarks from the enthused audience. Peri Sinclair, a senior educator at Melitz, summed up the evening while looking toward the Limmud Modi’in events to follow. “Limmud offers a platform for discussion that does not exist elsewhere, and we managed to gather this evening an audience that otherwise would not have come together under the same roof. If this is just a taste, I can’t wait to see the turnout and success of Limmud Modi’in 3, which is scheduled to take place on May 17th and 18th 2012.”