Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I am a Freedom Rider


     When you hear the term "Freedom Riders" you probably think back to the great activists of the Civil Rights Movement. However, I'm here to tell you about a different type of Freedom Riders but with the similar mission of paving the way for equality.

     The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) Freedom Riders travel on bus lines through religious communities that are known to practice gender segregation. These riders serve "as models of non-segregation [and] inform other travelers that it is illegal to force segregate based on gender" (IRAC). Gender segregation in daily life is a religious rule of modesty in the Ultra-Orthodox community. However, adherence should be of choice and not forced upon through socially constructed norms.

     This past Thursday, I had the opportunity to meet the Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, Noa Sattath. Even more, I had the opportunity to personally be a Freedom Rider. First, Noa talked to the group about IRAC's mission: "advancing pluralism in Israeli society and defending the freedoms of conscience, faith, and religion. Today IRAC is the preeminent civil and human rights organization in Israel focusing on the issues of religion and state and is the leading Jewish organization that advocates on behalf of a broadly inclusive Israeli democracy, infusing social justice advocacy with the spiritual energy and humane worldview of Progressive Judaism" (IRAC).
     She also explained that "The first step to change is knowing the truth," saying that she believed our love for Israel could withstand the disturbing challenges in Israeli society. She revealed that gender segregation on bus lines has been occurring for years with only two segregated buses in 1999 and 98 segregated buses by 2010. Still, although IRAC has achieved court regulation in stating that segregated buses are illegal, the public pressure persists.


     My own experience of being a Freedom Rider began when I boarded Egged Bus No. 56. Four female and two male students boarded the bus with Noa. Each girl took a window seat up front, in the hopes that our presence in this section would give Ultra-Orthodox women the courage to utilize their legal right of sitting in the front as well. With a girl in each row, the front of the bus was almost full, with little room for the Ultra-Orthodox, observant men to sit segregated. With butterflies in my stomach, the journey began as the bus came to a halt. I looked out the window, realizing that although I was inside of the bus, I felt like an outsider in this religious community. I was nervous for what was to come. On one hand I felt as though I was infringing upon their religious beliefs, but on the other hand, I reminded myself that this was a public bus. Women needed to know that seating was their rightful choice.

     Some men came on, and I could see their eyes glancing around for a seat. Some walked to the back of the bus to separate themselves while others stood in the front. Still, no men spoke up. At our third stop, a teenage girl approached a fellow student of mine who sat one row ahead. The girl explained in Hebrew how the women were supposed to sit in the back while the men in front. Gesturing to her seat, my friend replied, "Zeh beseder", meaning "This is okay". Out of all people, I could not believe that it was a female who spoke up. At another stop, a mother nudged her daughter to continue towards the back, after the girl could be seen questioning the perceived abnormality of us women. Nevertheless, our presence strived to demonstrate how sitting in the front is permissible for those who choose.

     The most memorable moment is when one religious woman slowly gained the courage to sit down next to the student in front of me. Wow! What a moment! I observed from behind and was consumed with pride: pride for the woman and pride for our group. It is my only hope that one day, more women will recognize the boundaries that lie between religion and equal rights.

Joshua Mitnick, The Wall Street Journal author of "From Back of the Bus, Israeli Women Fight Segregation" offers another perspective in his article:

'It's a slippery slope. What starts with women boarding the bus in the back because of modesty can end up with women not voting,' says Mickey Gitzin, the director of Be Free Israel, a nonprofit that promotes religious pluralism. 'It could turn Israeli society into a segregated society in which women don't have a place in public life' (2012).
     Although I am still forming my own opinions on this matter, with new questions to be answered, I am so appreciative that I had the chance to be a Freedom Rider. I was able to join this great organization as part of Yerushalayim Sheli (My Jerusalem) a program through Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. The program's layout offered different ways for students to see Jerusalem through different perspectives. For me, the experience taught me how to embrace all of Israel, including its many challenges.

Just as freedom rider Rosa Parks once stated, "I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free... so other people would be also free."




 Reflection
     If we are a peoplehood, why can't we see each other as one people? Isn't there enough hatred against our people? Why do we need to look for differences?  We love to be heard and to sing out loud with all our soul. Why can't every one's voice be heard equally? What are you afraid of? ...afraid of the brilliance of women--afraid that their voice might actually be more than a sound...might actually be a catalyst for change?

We want to mend the wars with our enemies, but what about starting with the wars within our own people first?

What would happen if we all just took a second to truly LISTEN, and attempt to find room for common ground--where we can join together in a pluralistic society--where we can be the Jewish peoplehood I thought we were.


Works Cited

"IRAC - Israel Religious Action Center." IRAC - Israel Religious Action Center. N.p., 2008. Web. http://www.irac.org/.

Nitwick, Joshua. "From Back of the Bus, Israeli Women Fight Segregation." The Wall Street Journal.Dow Jones & Company, 5 Jan. 2012. Web. <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204368104577136253309226604.html>.


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