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Special Interview a National Controversy in Israel

In January of this year, an Orthodox 35-year-old woman from Yerucham, a small development town in Israel’s Negev desert, was elected to the town’s religious council, known in Hebrew as Moatza Datit.

The election of Leah Shakdiel, a school teacher and mother of three, was unprecedented: she was the first woman to be elected to a religious council in the history of Israel. Her election was immediately challenged by the Religious Affairs Ministry, religious politicians and many Orthodox rabbis on the ground that no woman ever served on a religious council in Israel. The council is financed by the government and supervises religious services and programs.

For almost eight months, Shakdiel hoped that the matter would be resolved quietly and not become an issue of national controversy. But last month, she decided to bring her case to the media — and since then her name and the controversy over her election has become a household issue.

Three years ago, Shakdiel was elected to the Yerucham town council on the Labor Party ticket. She was subsequently nominated by the Labor Party to serve on the religious council. Her plight since becoming a religious council member prompted the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which receives grants from the New Israel Fund (NIF) in the United States, to provide Shakdiel with legal counsel. Another NIF grantee, the Israel Women’s Network, is conducting a public campaign in support of her case.

Shakdiel, who was in New York last week for a lecture tour sponsored by the NIF, talked to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about her situation.

WILLING TO TAKE THE CASE TO THE SUPREME COURT

“Since my election to the religious council, and until recently, I have been corresponding with the Religious Affairs Ministry about it, but nothing has come of it. Therefore, the Association for Civil Rights and I decided to bring the matter to the attention of the public. We will explore all the legal avenues and we are willing to take the case to Israel’s Supreme Court.”

Shakdiel said her case is now being decided by a special Ministerial Committee. “In Israel, we now have a new Premier and a new Minister of Religious Affairs, and the Interior Minister who have to decide about my case. I am not going to compromise. If they decide to oppose my nomination, we will go to the Supreme Court,” she said.

Shakdiel said one of the reasons given by former Minister of Religious Affairs Yosef Burg for opposing women’s membership in a religious council was that rabbis, who are members of the council, are forbidden to sit in meetings with women.

Shakdiel scoffed at this explanation. “Look, in the last 100 years there has been a revolution concerning the status of woman in Western society,” she told the JTA. “And this revolution includes Judaism. For instance, the fact that women are studying the Torah constitutes a revolution in Judaism. When women started doing so, it was a much bigger revolution than my election to a religious council.” Another case in point, Shakdiel noted, “is a landmark decision in 1919 by the major rabbis at the time that permitted the election of Jewish women to public office. When they undertook this ruling, they knew that they were changing Jewish tradition — but they understood at the same time that this was the new direction of Judaism. In a way, they were much more ahead of their times by giving Jewish women the religious permission to vote and to be elected to public office long before many European women were given these rights.”

PART OF A BROADER FIGHT

Shakdiel said that her right to serve on the religious council of Yerucham is part of her fight for a better Israeli society. “Since I moved to Yerucham in 1978, I have devoted my life to the advancement of Jewish society in Israel in the direction that will bring out the light in Judaism,” she said.

“I came to Yerucham because I believe that it represents and reflects the struggle of Israeli society as a whole for integrating people in a kibbutz galuyot (melting pot), for bringing together Jews from different traditions and communities. In a small town like Yerucham, one can feel the struggle for a new society, for democracy, and for the search for a way to combine Jewish tradition and modernity.”

Shakdiel said that her case has attracted the support of many women and civil rights groups and also of many religious individuals and some religious groups. She said she has been receiving many letters and telephone calls from religious Jews encouraging her to continue with her struggle. “I also received the support of the religious kibbutz movement,” she said.

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