August 14, 1997
Caught in a Maelstrom
Brenner, a 57-year-old New York-born social worker, Reform Jew and feminist, is at the epicenter of the latest halachic earthquake shaking Israel. Her downstairs neighbor is Dov Dumbrovich, the Orthodox chairman of the local religious council, who is defying a Supreme Court ruling and refusing to let her take her seat on the council.
The court last week ordered Dumbrovich to admit Brenner, who had been nominated to the council by the local branch of the militantly anti-clerical Meretz. Religious councils are not rabbinic bodies. Their role is to mediate between the religious bureaucracy and the citizen, who has to turn to the rabbinate for such services as marriage, divorce and funerals, even if he or she is not an observant Orthodox Jew. Members are chosen by the political factions represented at city hall.
Orthodox politicians accused the justices of turning the Supreme Court into "a branch of a political party," and they vowed to force through the Knesset legislation that barred Reform Jews from religious councils. Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Arye Gamliel threatened to resign rather than publish Brenner's appointment in the official gazette (a legal requirement). In the convoluted world of Israeli theo-politics, Gamliel is the de facto head of the Religious Affairs Ministry.
Joyce Brenner is an improbable cause célèbre. Her late father, Eli Rothman, was an Orthodox rabbi with a small congregation in Brooklyn and a deep commitment to Zionism. Brenner, now divorced and a mother of three daughters, took her master's degree and doctorate at that pillar of Orthodoxy, Yeshiva University, where she is still a visiting lecturer. She made aliyah in 1976.
But she was a child of the rebellious 1960s as well as of the rabbi's study. She turned to Reform Judaism as a young married woman starting a family. "It was the women's issues," she says. "I wanted full equality in all aspects of expressing my religiosity. It couldn't happen, it wasn't happening, within the Orthodox community."
She settled in Netanya "because it's pretty." It was, she says, the perfect town. "My children were school-age. Here, children walk everywhere, they take their bikes, and there's the beach. What could be nicer?"
It was her feminism that brought Brenner into politics, a feminism that, in macho Israel, had a pioneer taste to it. She was one of a group of English-speaking immigrants who founded a women's psychotherapy center in Netanya. It has grown into a counseling service with offices in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
"Israel," she says, "gave those of us who came in the 1970s a chance to express ourselves in a full and exciting way because these services didn't exist here. We were taking on the issues that we all felt were very important in making a better society, feminism and a liberal Judaism.
"These were the issues that gave us a sense of contributing to Israel and of fulfilling ourselves. People like me, coming out of the civil rights movement, felt Israel was a place we could make things happen. The Reform part was the smallest part of it."
In Netanya, she is "just a regular member" of a small Reform community. She became involved with Meretz on the local level "because they are the voice of the issues I want people to pay attention to."
Why, with all this, does Brenner want to serve on the town's religious council?
"There's a lot of money disbursed," she says, "10 million shekels (about $3 million) in a town with almost 200,000 people. Most of it is city money, and people don't even know how it gets divided. This is a council that gives services to everybody in the locality.
"I'd like to be the address for the people who may need these services and may not know how to approach them, or are turned away by official rabbinical services. Young couples, for instance. I'd like to be the woman who helps young couples approach these services. I'd be very proud to do that."
She would also, however modestly, like to be the women's voice. "I can't presume to speak for Orthodox women," she says, "but I think Israeli women have been treated very unfairly, even within Orthodoxy. There are lots of aspects of divorce law that could be handled differently if the rabbinate would approach them differently."
Many women end up in the feminist counseling centers. "I've dealt with hundreds of problem divorces," Brenner says. "But the really tragic cases we've come across are incest within the ultra-Orthodox world. Young women come to us who are very scared of being ostracized within their communities. They come for counseling, but they ask the therapist not to go to their communities and not to prosecute the fathers, uncles or brothers responsible. This is not the task of the religious council, but it's part of my commitment to change things."
On her way to what should have been her first meeting as a member of the Netanya religious council -- a meeting from which she was politely, but firmly, ejected by her downstairs neighbor -- Brenner was approached by a Russian immigrant who had cut out her picture from a newspaper. He told her that the town's large immigrant community, with all its problems of Jewish identity, was excited "that you're going to be on the council, that we'll have someone who will listen to us."
Not yet, it seems.