Monday, June 10, 2019

D'var Torah on The Book of Ruth

By Sue Beller, Boar Chair

The below post is the D'var Torah given by Board Chair Sue Beller at the recent Board of Directors Meeting on June 3-4,2019. 

One of the special things about the Hadassah Foundation is that we work within a Jewish framework deriving from Jewish values.  Shavuot is coming up soon  – Sunday June 9 and Monday June 10 – and I found some inspiration surrounding one of the holiday’s traditional readings – the Book of Ruth.

The fact that the Book of Ruth exists to begin with is special because there are only two books in the Bible named after women – the Book of Ruth and the Book of Esther.  In both cases, the women are truly the heroes of those stories.

A quick overview of the Story of Ruth
There is famine in Israel.  Naomi, along with her husband Elimelekh and their 2 sons, migrate to the land of the Moabites to escape starvation.  They are there for 10 years and during that time, the 2 sons marry Moabite women – Ruth and Orpah – who happen to be the daughters of the king.  Towards the end of the 10 years, tragedy befalls the family, and all 3 men die.

Naomi is devastated, and she decides that she needs to go back to the land where her family is from in Bethlehem.  Naomi knows it is going to be a hard life and she urges her 2 daughter-in-laws to stay in the land of the Moabites where they are from.  Orpah complies. However Ruth refuses with the famous verse of devotion:
Photo credit: 
"Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me." 

Together, Naomi and Ruth go back to Bethlehem, and it is a hard life. One day when Ruth is out in the fields working, she happens to meet Boaz, who is related to Naomi’s deceased husband.  He is the owner of the fields and wealthy, and takes a liking to Ruth.  With Naomi’s coaching and help, Boaz ends up marrying Ruth.  Together Ruth and Boaz have a son, which is significant because this son will become the grandfather of King David.  This union starts the line of David – a time in Jewish history, of great peace and prosperity.

What can we learn as a Foundation
The story of Ruth is an amazing example of women supporting women! Ruth’s devotion to Naomi is legendary.  In the Bible, which is filled with stories of jealousy and betrayal, this story about women’s support for each other, really stands out.

Over the years, when Ruth was Naomi’s daughter-in-law, Ruth must have developed a real respect and a bond with Naomi.  So when Naomi loses her husband and her sons – and in a male-dominated culture this is everything – she just wants to return to her people and she is willing to do this alone.  It’s unclear whether she would even survive the journey by herself.  Ruth is unflinching; she pledges to stay by Naomi’s side, giving up everything, even when Naomi urges her not to go.  In turn, when they return to Israel, Naomi seeks out the best for Ruth.  This is truly a remarkable story of sisterhood – a powerful example of women lifting up women.

The Story of Ruth also gives us a great example of social change and it far reaching impact, in the way it raises the status and the respect of the convert.  Up until this point in the timeline of the Bible, we hear about different biblical figures who marry spouses from foreign lands.  But in general, these partners are side-lined.  We hear very little about them.  This is the first time when the convert becomes the star of the story.

When I think about some of the social change indicators that our Foundation uses, this hits squarely on a several of them.  The Story of Ruth redefines the meaning of a convert from one who is a follower to one who is an equal and in fact, even a leader.  This story also serves to change community behavior.  Rather than treating the convert as a marginalized outsider, this story exemplifies the need to embrace the convert in the way that Naomi embraces Ruth.  If Naomi had not embraced Ruth, the implication is that the line of David never would have happened.  And we still hear the story of Ruth referenced today, as the model for how to treat the convert.

There are multiple interpretations of the story of Ruth that draw strong parallels between Abraham and Ruth, and their common leadership traits.  I believe these comparisons are particularly important because they highlight a different kind of leader.   Both Ruth and Abraham are characterized by their tremendous chesed or kindness.  They also are both portrayed as courageous migrants who left the land of their fathers, casting away their religious and national bonds, to embark on unknown and very dangerous journeys.  In Abraham’s case, he is propelled by faith.  And in Ruth’s case, she is propelled by love and loyalty.  Ultimately, both Abraham and Ruth are portrayed as important leaders, and instrumental in establishing the future course of the Jewish people.  As a Foundation, as we focus on broadening the definition of leadership, I love the fact that the Bible makes this association.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Excluding and Segregating Women: Israel Women’s Network Fights Back

By Lonye Rasch, Board Alumna

Segregated driving school classes, separate seating for men and women at public ceremonies, inspection of the length of high-schoolers’ shorts, and exclusion of women from opportunities in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have all become part of a modern phenomenon of women’s exclusion in Israel, reports Michal Gera Margaliot, Executive Director of the Israel Women’s Network (IWN), a Hadassah Foundation grantee and the country’s largest advocacy organization for women’s rights and gender equality.
Ultra-Orthodox communities call for gender segregation 
 in public spaces in Israel. (Photo: Fathom Journal)

Women’s exclusion began 22 years ago, she explains, when public buses mandated that the front of the bus would be reserved for men, and women would sit in the back.

Reactionist forces in Israel, she told the Hadassah Foundation board on June 3rd, are responsible for this development and its escalation, but IWN is fighting back. With the support of the Hadassah Foundation, IWN is advocating to eradicate women’s exclusion in both the public sphere and the army. Its advocacy efforts involve writing letters to the men in charge of promulgating gender inequality, media campaigns to raise public awareness about women’s exclusion and gender bias, as well as bringing cases to court to challenge policies that don’t have the support of Israeli law.

For example, in July 2018, IWN gathered the testimonies of 20 women soldiers regarding their experience of gender bias in the Israeli army and issued a publication highlighting the inequities. In addition, IWN met with the “top brass” of the army to discuss the problem and to advocate for the appointment of a special person women soldiers could go to when they experience gender bias or harassment.  At the same time, IWN initiated a “Know Your Rights” campaign to educate women soldiers as to what they can and cannot do, as soldiers in the IDF. 

Ironically, Ms. Margaliot reports, although there are many more opportunities for women in the IDF now—a rise of 400 percent in five years—women soldiers are being pushed out of these new positions, with the excuse that the proper infrastructure is not in place. As she relates, however, the Supreme Court has said that “this is not a valid excuse.”

Examples of gender segregation abound, with countless consequences. Ms. Margaliot cites the case of a woman who was forbidden from taking her son to the library and of the husband who was not allowed to attend a parenting course with his wife. 

IWN often partners with local officials to publicize gender bias and inappropriate sanctioning.  For example, IWN used a Facebook post to highlight the problem of girls being lined up in high school so the length of their shorts could be measured.  Local officials posed in shorts to bring the point home that schools cannot dictate what girls can or cannot wear.

When there were protests against billboards that displayed photos of women candidates for election to public office, IWN approached members of the Central Election Committee to keep the billboards on display.  IWN was successful!

IWN also has had success in the courts in winning civil damages when women have been denied equal access.  For example, IWN defended a woman who was not able to enroll in a driving course in Ramat Gan because it was “for men only.”  Consequently, she had to take the course in another town, 50 kilometers away. The court awarded monetary damages to the woman.

It’s an uphill battle that Ms. Margaliot describes. There are now fewer feminists in the Knesset because fewer women won seats in this most recent election. “We saw that we women are not an electoral power,” she says. Nevertheless, Ms. Margaliot notes that there are many Knesset members who are willing to work with IWN on various issues, such as extending maternity leave and equal pay for women, “even though they don’t wear an ‘I am a feminist’ sign on their foreheads.”

At the same time, there are strong reactionary Knesset members such as Bezalel Smotrich, chair of Israel’s National Union party. He was cited in a recent Haaretz article as saying, “Israel, the state of the Jewish people, will with God’s help once again be run the way it was in the days of King David and King Solomon. The Jewish people is a special people, a people that received the Torah and must live a Torah life.”

IWN, however, is in gear to continue the fight for women’s inclusion and equality. In January 2019, the Hadassah Foundation awarded a $70,000 grant over two years to IWN for its project, “Fighting Exclusion, Increasing Equality,” which works to eliminate gender segregation and the exclusion of women in the public sphere and the IDF. 

At the conclusion of Ms. Margaliot’s presentation, Hadassah Foundation Chair Sue Beller thanked IWN’s executive director for her leadership in “pushing back on the erosion of women’s rights in Israeli society.”