Jerusalem — Passing through Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station a few months ago, Rachel Jaskow decided to stop at the station’s synagogue and pray Mincha.
Making her way to the very end of the departure level, Jaskow, a Modern Orthodox Jerusalemite, found the synagogue but only men praying there. Then she noticed a tiny room — separate from the shul and the size of a walk-in closet — designated as the women’s section.
When Jaskow, who is active in the Israeli women’s movement, entered the room, she was “absolutely appalled” by its condition,” she told The Jewish Week.
“There was trash; it was dingy, dirty, and there were three huge boxes crammed with old religious newsletters. I was angry and called the rabbi and said, ‘Is this the women’s section or a garbage dump? How can anyone pray here?’”
Although it took the rabbi a bit of time to fulfill his promise to make the room usable, today it’s no longer a storage room. Though the tiny space is still completely detached from the minyan next door, it’s cleaner and the boxes are gone. The shul’s ultra-Orthodox rabbi has been making an effort, Jaskow said, and that’s a step in the right direction.
While no one who knows Jerusalem intimately would call it a tolerant or pluralistic city, there has been some significant progress during the past year, according to community activists.
Much of the change can be traced to grass-roots organizations that have, individually or collectively, challenged the municipality, private companies and institutions to return women to the public sphere.
The most obvious change is the return of women’s images to the municipality’s promotional material, and ads on large commercial billboards.
And thanks to the efforts of the pro-pluralism organization Yerushalmim, which this year sponsored a campaign in which residents hung 140 posters of women from their balconies, Jerusalem buses will soon sport ads with women’s images — for the first time in eight years.
The Egged bus company and Canaan, the firm that handles Egged’s advertising, agreed to permit the ads only after Yerushalmim, which receives funding from the UJA-Federation of New York, petitioned the High Court of Justice.
The companies said that buses with such ads had been vandalized in the past, but the State Attorney’s Office said no vandalism complaints had been filed.
“Despite the concern regarding vandalism … we decided to accede to Yerushalmim’s request in the hope that all sides will treat one another with tolerance and sensitivity,” Caanan said in a statement.
Other small but significant victories include this month’s exhibition in the Jerusalem Theater’s foyer of 100 portraits of women by 60 female photographers.
“The first message … is that women will not be excluded from public places in Israel,” Lior Mann, director of the Women’s School of Photography, which organized the exhibition with help from the New Israel Fund (NIF), said in a statement.
“We are here. We are authentic, and we exist.”
An NIF fundraising campaign for such efforts recently brought in $452,7000, much of it from new donors, to be matched by donor Murray Koppelman.
Tammy Katsabian who, under the auspices of Shatil/NIF, coordinates a pluralism coalition of 30 organizations, said the city’s pro-inclusion activism isn’t new, but it is more organized.
“We’ve been aware of the exclusion for more than 20 years, as exemplified by the struggle of the Women of the Wall” to pray as a group at the Kotel and, more recently, forced segregation on bus lines.
“What I can say is that in the past two to three years, there has been a radicalization of the phenomenon, and segregation has become much more flagrant in places like supermarkets and on streets in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods during holidays,” Katsabian said.
Due to this radicalization, “more and more organizations have become involved in the issue,” and last autumn they formed a coalition that pools information and mobilizes participation in demonstrations and other events.
Working together, the organizations — including religious freedom groups like Hiddush and the Israel Religious Action Center, along with women’s groups like the Women’s International Zionist Organization and the Orthodox feminist group Kolech — convinced the Israel Medical Association to prohibit its members from participating in any conference that has no women speakers (such as the fertility conferences organized by the Puah Institute), and have appealed to the State Comptroller to prohibit a religious public radio station from banning women’s participation for all but four hours a week.
“It’s especially important to show the government there are many organizations behind this issue,” Katsabian said.
Feminist activist Elana Sztokman, interim executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, observed that the momentum for change “is coming from a lot of different directions,” and that seems to have made the movement particularly effective.
“It’s not so much more activist as it is more strategically activist,” Sztokman said.
The result: “The governmental bodies seem to be paying attention and so have some companies that have changed their ads in response to pressure.”
But at the same time, Sztokman said, “within the haredi community, there is also a backlash in the opposite direction. A kind of digging in the heels. The more public the movement becomes, the more signs seem to be going up. Backlash. So it seems to me like there are two simultaneous trends in opposite directions.”
Though they have faced setbacks along the way, Uri Ayalon, a Conservative rabbi and CEO of Yerushalmim, said the activists have been energized by their victories.
In the past, the head of a famous Israeli model was edited out of an ad that appeared in Jerusalem. “Today, a lot of the very same ad campaigns appearing in Tel Aviv are appearing in Jerusalem.
Ayalon is convinced that the majority of Jerusalemites, including those in the Modern Orthodox community are pro-pluralism.
“We are hundreds of thousands and, contrary to the belief of the ultra-Orthodox, they are not the only ones with values. We intend to talk about the values of the pluralistic population of Jerusalem, to bring it into the public sphere through discourse and the arts.”
Ayalon said he won’t rest until he can raise his daughters in “an equal gender society.
“Jerusalem belongs to everyone,” he said.