July 22, 1999
More than 1,000 Orthodox women this week attended Israel's first conference on the status of women in their community.
Amid growing frustration on an array of issues, participants at the conference, sponsored by Bar-Ilan University and a nascent organization called Kolech, the Religious Women's Forum, grappled with subjects that ranged from the role of women in the synagogue to the difficulties in obtaining divorces.
Immigrants from North America played a prominent role in boosting awareness in the Israeli Orthodox community. Until recently, the Israeli Orthodox community was less concerned with these problems than its counterpart in the United States.
"This is a growing phenomenon," said Shira Breuer, principal of the Pelech School, a liberal religious girls high school in Jerusalem. "Religious women want their voices to be heard."
Breuer said the struggle was inspired by Orthodox women's movements in the United States, but she said there were significant differences in the experience of the two communities.
For example, she said, Israeli society never experienced a feminist revolution. Furthermore, the intricate links between religion and state in Israel have created the need for more urgent solutions on issues such as divorce.
Orthodox women cannot divorce unless their husbands issue a bill of divorce, or get, which is a problem for Orthodox women in other countries, but is the state law in Israel. Women who cannot obtain a get are known as agunot, or "chained," and are unable to remarry.
"There is also a difference because we are trying to build a society here and not just a synagogue," Breuer said.
Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, a specialist in family law at Bar-Ilan University, said another difference is that women in the Orthodox movement have focused less on creating women's prayer groups than their American counterparts.
"This is probably because, in the Diaspora, the role of the synagogue in religious life is much more significant than in Israel," she said.
Instead, she said, Israeli Orthodox women have focused more on issues such as Torah study.
But although participants said the heavy turnout marked a turning point for Israeli Orthodox women, few expected concrete solutions to emerge from the discussions.
Although some sympathetic Israeli rabbis did attend, Israel's chief rabbis declined invitations, even though Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi, did attend another event at the same hotel where the conference was taking place.
Nevertheless, Moshe Kaveh, the president of Bar-Ilan, urged the chief rabbis and other Orthodox authorities to consider changes in religious law to solve some of the pressing issues, such as divorce.
"It is inconceivable that solutions cannot be found within the framework of halacha," or Jewish law, he told JTA in a telephone interview after appearing at the conference. "If solutions are not found, there is a danger that many Orthodox women will leave the community."
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