“My feet is tired, but my soul is rested,” a 72-year-old woman told Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1956 during the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.
This battle cry of social activism is echoed in Israel. Community leader Miri Shalem, who planned and executed last January’s flash mob in Beit Shemesh — viewed by more than 200,000 people around the world — has established an international organization advocating for full gender equality, Women Dance For a Change.
After the story of the 8-year-old girl in Beit Shemesh who was spat on for supposedly immodest attire made international news in December 2011, Shalem, who is Orthodox and directs the town’s community center, wanted to do something more lasting than a demonstration.
“I thought of protest in an artistic way,” she said in an interview in New York last week, during a brief stopover after speaking on a panel at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Baltimore. She called a few friends, raised some money and soon had more than 250 women from different backgrounds and ages dancing together in the city’s main square to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.”
“We were protesting women’s segregation but also against all that is happening in the Orthodox world — that women can’t sing, can’t dance, that women in the Orthodox world are being pushed further back,” she says.
In October, she staged a 300-dancer flash mob on the Tel Aviv pier to raise awareness of breast cancer, and in February she is planning major participation in an international protest of violence against women. She also hopes to also do a flash mob with Arab women and plans to create events around the world. When asked if she’s a dancer by training, she shakes her head and says, “I dance in flash mobs.”
“We seek to counter the disappearance of women from the public space simply by reappearing there with energy, impact and joy,” she says.
Next month, Shalem is returning to the United States at the invitation of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to participate in a two-week program, “Civil Society: A Cornerstone of Democracy.”
Shalem also wants to work toward getting more ultra-Orthodox women involved in politics. “This is a rebellion,” she says, “against people who want to keep women in closed boxes.”
She grew up in Ashdod, the daughter of Tunisian immigrants, and attended Orthodox schools. Now a mother of four, she covers her hair with fashionable headbands. She is studying toward a master’s degree in gender studies at Bar Ilan University and has to ride a gender-segregated bus — there are no others on this route — back and forth. She’s a brave and outspoken woman, but for now she’s afraid to sit at the front of the bus.
Since moving to Beit Shemesh 20 years ago, she has witnessed the city’s population grow from 20,000 to more than 100,000, with more than half the population ultra-Orthodox. She established the Women’s Council of Beit Shemesh four years ago, bringing together women from different backgrounds. “We tried to make a normal place within our crazy city. Our purpose was women’s empowerment, and also breaking the barriers between communities.”
And perhaps dancing can help.
“Dancing is a magnet for all women, across the spectrum. After we dance together, we can talk and forge a common ground,” says Susan Reimer-Torn, the U.S. director of Women Dance For a Change (womendanceforachange.org). “The ultimate idea is they can consider voting in their own interest.”
Shalem adds, “Dance gives you the feeling that you can do everything.”