Landing A Charedi Woman In The Knesset
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Landing A Charedi Woman In The Knesset

Racheli Ibenboim acts as if she’s in a rush, repeatedly checking her phone before hurrying off to her next appointment exactly 30 minutes after the current one begins.

The way Ibenboim tells it, she’s not just trying to keep up with a tight schedule but with a rapidly changing world.

Two years ago, her campaign to include women in charedi political parties failed. But times may be changing. This year, the chasidic 29-year-old’s effort has garnered national attention and 5,000 supporters on Facebook since it relaunched less than a month ago.

“During the last two years, charedi women have been in academia, have gotten employment, are getting senior positions,” Ibenboim said. “We’ve had discussions on charedi women that have never happened before.”

In a campaign called “No female candidates, no female voters,” Ibenboim is urging charedi women to boycott Israel’s charedi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, in the March Knesset elections unless they include female candidates. Neither does so now.

The effort, which Ibenboim terms a “protest,” has received wide coverage — some of it critical — on charedi websites, newspapers and radio programs.

“There’s a lot of support and a lot of concern, and there are a lot of people who are threatened by it,” Ibenboim said. “I think the protest has already succeeded in terms of a public discussion. There’s no charedi who doesn’t have an opinion about it.”

Raised in the Ger chasidic sect, Ibenboim grew up in a chasidic enclave in central Tel Aviv, where she became familiar with secular Israel and was inspired by watching protests on Rothschild Boulevard.

After earning a degree in education, she became CEO of Meir Panim, one of Israel’s largest social service agencies, at age 23. Last year she resigned to further charedi women’s rights.

“I took care of the poor and hungry in the state, but I forgot who I was,” she said.

Charedi women, Ibenboim said, could better advocate for services like employment counseling, health education or child subsidies from within the Knesset.

Charedi politicians have begun responding. In December, the Shas party announced a women’s council that will compose bills and advise Shas lawmakers.

“There’s a growing demand for charedi women to be more involved,” Shas spokesman Yakov Betzalel said. “There are certain things only they know how to do.”

The party, however, has ruled out running female candidates this year. And some charedim feel the movement is unnecessary.

Aharon Kravitz, a charedi journalist and activist, said current charedi lawmakers already represent women.

“We live in the same house,” Kravitz said. “We know what they need, what bothers them. Most charedi women don’t feel a need to be parliamentarians. We’re talking about very dirty work, and there are men that can do the work for them.”

Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, director of the Rackman International Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University, noted that charedim boycotted elections in pre-state Zionist institutions because women were given the right to vote.

Today, charedi parties control 18 seats in the Israeli parliament.

Ibenboim and her supporters say it’s only a matter of time before charedi women gain representation.

“There’s only so much you can hold back,” Halperin-Kaddari said.

“There’s no doubt that there’s something called charedi feminism,” Ibenboim added.

In 2013, Ibenboim ran for Jerusalem City Council with the Modern Orthodox Jewish Home party but dropped out within weeks after threats of excommunication.

This time, Ibenboim said, she is undeterred.

“I see myself as an activist,” she said. “This is the mission I live for today.”

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