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Participation of Women in Religious Affairs in Israel is Gaining Ground

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The participation of women in religious affairs is gaining ground in Israel despite entrenched opposition within the Orthodox establishment. The Knesset’s Interior Committee voted Monday to support the appointment of women to local religious councils.

The Labor Party announced Monday that two women will be included in its delegation to the 96-member electoral college that will choose the next Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, replacing Rabbi Yedidya Frenkl who died last month. Shinui, Mapam and the Liberal Party factions have also agreed to appoint women electors.

The women chosen by the Labor Party faction are Haviva Avi-Guy, a member of the Tel Aviv City Council and legal advisor to the Na’amat Womens Movement, and Lily Ben-Menahem.

Although Herut and the religious party factions will be represented exclusively by men, women will be in a majority on the 32-member section of the electoral college nominated by the City Council. The remaining two-thirds are nominated by local synagogues and the religious council.

The Labor Party said candidates for the office of Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi will be questioned about their attitudes on the status of women in Judaism. One of the candidates is expected to be Rabbi Yisrael Lau, the incumbent Chief Rabbi of Netanya.

An Orthodox member of the Interior Committee, Mayor Ovadia Eli of Afula, voted with the majority for the election of women to religious councils. He noted that the councils are State bodies, not halachic institutions. Their function is to provide religious services for all sectors of the population. Eli said he saw no reason to exclude women from the councils.

But it is still an uphill fight for Leah Shakdiel, the first woman in Israel’s history to be elected to a religious council, in Yerucham, a small development town in the Negev. She was elected last January as the Labor Party candidate but was immediately challenged by the Religious Affairs Ministry, Orthodox rabbis and religious politicians.

They continue to block her, and Shakdiel, a 35-year-old teacher and mother of three, who is herself Orthodox, said last week that she will take her case to the Supreme Court.

A less controversial appointment was made in Safad, where Menucha Pantz, a grandmother in her fifties, was named gabbai (warden) of an Orthodox synagogue–on the recommendation of her rabbi.

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