It used to be, said Hannah Kehat, that only Orthodox women appreciated the value of Kolech, “the first feminist organization of religious women in Israel.” In recent years, however, women from all sectors of Israeli society are turning to the group for help.
Kehat – who holds a Ph.D. in Jewish philosophy from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem – is one of Israel’s leading experts on the interface between feminism and religion. She founded “Kolech: Religious Women’s Forum” in 1998.
Describing it as a “movement of feminist women in Israel acting against discrimination and the exclusion of women,” she noted that with incidents such as those in Beit Shemesh increasingly in the public eye, the activities of her group are receiving wider attention.
While the organization has 700 paying members, thousands of women participate in its activities. The group’s most recent convention, for example, attracted some 2,000 people. “We’re now recognized as a very big organization,” she said.
On Feb. 13, Kehat will come to Teaneck’s Congregation Netivot Shalom to discuss Kolech and the challenges facing Orthodox feminists in Israel.
Among other issues, she will discuss mutual respect between men and women; equal opportunities for women in the public arena; women’s rights and women’s leadership in religious and halachic spheres; matters of personal status, such as marriage and divorce; and gender violence.
According to Nathaniel Helfgot, rabbi of the congregation, a number of his congregants have been involved in parallel organizations for years – in JOFA, for example, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, headquartered in New York. In addition, some have attended programs in Israel sponsored by Kolech.
Kehat, however, stressed that there are significant differences between the situation of Orthodox women in Israel and in the United States. “Some of the issues are the same,” she said, “but the differences begin because here [in Israel] there is no separation between religion and state. In Israel, we must deal with politicians, the Knesset, the government – not only for Orthodox women, but for all women.”
She cited, for example, the problems of discrimination in public areas, “not just in our communities but…in the army, government, other places. Everything is very political,” she said. “All the women are [now] looking to us and asking for us to help them oppose this.”
As a result, she said, Kolech increasingly works as part of coalitions that include secular organizations.
What happened in Beit Shemesh did not take Kolech by surprise. “For us this is not new,” she said. “We’ve already been fighting these issues for years.” Her group, for example, has long fought against segregated bus seating.
“At the time, the secular women did not pay attention,” she said. But now that the problem has become more widespread, “They look toward us. We now have about 50 buses like that all over the state, from Rechovot to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv to Beit Shemesh. Suddenly, they are looking around and seeing what’s going on. In the beginning, the feminists didn’t want to participate with us, religious women. But after a short time, they started to see a lot of our achievements.”
In working with coalitions on issues such as the discriminatory treatment of women soldiers, she said, “We can write halachic articles because we are connected with Jewish law.”
While the charedi generally oppose Kolech, “Charedi women come to us and ask for help,” she said, noting that a growing problem is coming from what Kehat called the “charedi nationale,” who are increasingly participating in public institutions, but “don’t want to be modern.” Therefore, they seek to exclude women from the spheres they enter.
“As more charedi people become involved in social life – starting to go into the army, or the workplace, or political life – they say, ‘We’re ready to be more involved, but let us bring our manners and values.’ They demand that women go to the side. It’s a very serious fight. They’re welcome, but they must respect the status of women.”
Kehat said Kolech has made significant progress in the area of agunot (“chained” women, the term used for women whose husbands refuse to grant their wives religious divorces, thereby preventing them from remarrying), fighting for legislation disengaging the link between a get and economic issues.
“Until a few years ago, they were connected and women couldn’t get [any] money until [they got] a get, which gave power to the husband,” she said. “Now, they can request and receive a decision to divide the money without any connection to the get.”
Kolech also has made progress in the area of sexual harassment, especially when it involves leaders in the community, such as rabbis, teachers, and managers. The organization has developed anti-violence curricula for schools, including workshops for girls and boys, as well as programs “empowering women for leadership.”
“Sometimes we feel very lonely,” she said. “We’re working with volunteers and a small budget. But we’re not just fighting for us but on behalf of medinat Yisrael [the State of Israel] – what kind of state it will be. It’s a big target. One of the goals of this trip is to tell Orthodox people that they have to join us if they care about this state.”
“There’s not enough connections with groups like JOFA,” she said. “We need a bigger coalition of women to stand against the idea of pushing women back again.”
Acknowledging that women in Israel are less independent in terms of status issues, Helfgot noted that in the United States, the Modern Orthodox community has generally accepted prenuptial agreements, ensuring the giving of a get when a marriage dissolves.
(The Conservative movement places the requirement in the ketubah, or marriage contract, itself, then has the couple sign a statement agreeing that the clause may be enforced by a civil court.)
In Israel, the couple would need the approval of the rabbinate, Helfgot said. “We’re a bit ahead of the curve,” he said.
The rabbi also noted that Israeli women face some challenges in the area of education.
“At the higher levels, women in Israel have more opportunity for Talmud study, but at the grassroots level – elementary and high school – they have less opportunity. There’s a different culture, different attitudes.”
|What: A dialogue with Hannah Kehat
Where: Congregation Netivot Shalom, 811 Palisade Ave., Teaneck.
When: Feb. 13, 8 p.m.
For more information, call David Montag at (201) 281-2190 or e-mail email@example.com.