View from Galilee: Why a Woman of the Wall Joined a Kibbutz

  • Email
  • Print
  • Share
December 18, 2009

After thirteen years of living in Jerusalem, my husband Jacob and I decided this summer to pack up our family of eight and move to a kibbutz in the Lower Galilee. This was not an easy decision. It meant leaving the home in Bakah—a uniquely religiously pluralistic neighborhood–we built ten years ago, leaving a number of friends who had become like family, and leaving a city we care very much about.

I am a rabbi. My ordination (smicha) is a private ordination from an Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem. Getting that smicha was a huge struggle, as was fighting for women’s access to religious education, ritual, and spiritual expression in the Orthodox environment that dominates Jerusalem. I have been involved in Women of the Wall—a group of women working towards the right for equal prayer for women at the Kotel, the Western Wall–since before we even moved to Israel. And I am on the board of Rabbis for Human Rights, a Jerusalem-based organization of rabbis presenting a voice for human rights for all residents of Israel.

Jacob has been involved in Jerusalem city politics, urban planning issues, and civil and human rights issues since we moved to Israel. He founded an investment fund called “Jerusalem Capital” to help Jerusalem companies get off the ground, and he was one of a team of three who brought wireless internet to Jerusalem. In addition, he volunteered much of his time to the current Mayor Nir Barkat’s campaign and to various other causes to help make Jerusalem a more livable city for everyone, not just ultra-Orthodox Jews. He has been involved in various projects to promote better living conditions for Jerusalem’s Arab population, as well as for better urban planning in general—making sure this city includes more green space, bike paths, pedestrian walkways, etc.

Nevertheless, we felt it was time to move on—not out of a lack of devotion to Jerusalem, but out of a desire to leave the city, live in nature, and experience a different part of Israel. Moving to Jerusalem was a life-long dream come true. And we lived out that dream. But we also realized the longer we lived there that Jerusalem is its own world. Especially Southern Jerusalem, where we and many many other “Anglos” (as Israeli immigrants from English-speaking countries are referred to here) made our home. In order to experience living in greater Israel and to have an impact on Israeli society as a whole, we came to understand that we would have to leave that safe cocoon.

View Larger Map

We talked about leaving Jerusalem, but did nothing practical to make that happen. Then we heard about a group of families with similar ideological values to ours (although certainly varied) who were moving up to a kibbutz in the Lower Galilee that had gone bankrupt and was in the process of privatization and revival. The kibbutz, Hannaton, was founded in the 1980’s by members of the Masorti movement (Israel’s version of the Conservative Movement) and underwent years of ups and downs until the past few years when it was on the verge of collapse. These families were a last ditch effort to breath some life into the kibbutz and to save the land from being turned over to the Kibbutz Movement, which would certainly have turned it into a secular or mainstream religious community, rather than keeping it in the hands of egalitarian, pluralistic, liberal types like us.

View Larger Map

So we joined this group. This was an ideological move. We felt that it was important to maintain a liberal religious Jewish presence in the Lower Galilee, which is made up mostly of Arab villages, some secular Jewish yishuvim (planned communities), and a smaller number of mainstream Orthodox Jewish yishuvim. There are two other yishuvim that identify as liberal religious in the area, but they are mostly a graying population. We and these other families felt it would be a shame to close down Hannaton without making an effort to make a go of it at least one last time. So we joined the kibbutz, which we turned into a pluralistic religious community rather than one that is necessarily identified with one particular liberal movement. Actually, we have ten rabbis among us, with representatives from the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Jewish Renewal worlds. I myself identify as post-denominational.

Deciding to move to a kibbutz in the North was not a simple decision. Jacob and I have six children, ages 16 to 2. And we were used to the conveniences and excitement of city life. But Hannaton is only a two-hour drive from Jerusalem and a one-hour drive from Tel Aviv. So, for work purposes, it is not so remote. And our children would have to go where we went, we decided. They would make new friends and adjust to a new life style–hopefully.

I know I also thought, somewhere in the back of my mind, that life in the Galilee would be less tension-filled and less combative than in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, I often felt that I was fighting the ultra-Orthodox, misogynist, racist powers that be. I was tired of fighting. I wanted to give of myself in an atmosphere that wanted to receive what I had to offer. And I wanted to stop fighting for women’s religious rights and simply experience life in an egalitarian community that takes women’s knowledge, expertise, and equality for granted.

Well, I was somewhat naïve. Life here certainly is calmer. People seem more relaxed and easy-going. Yet, some of the same struggles exist here as they did in Jerusalem. For example, I am the director of the kibbutz mikveh (ritual bath), which is in need of repair. But when I turned to the governmental religious authorities for money to fix the mikveh (which is standard procedure for all other mikvaot in Israel), they denied our request because they do not agree with our pluralistic policy of letting anyone who wants to use the mikveh use it, for whatever purpose they choose—no questions asked. Similarly, when we turned to the government for funding for our synagogue and a salary for the rabbi of our yishuv, we received the same negative answer–despite the fact that non-egalitarian synagogues automatically get government funding and that all religious yishuvim have a rabbi who is paid by the government.

And then there are struggles here that did not exist in Jerusalem. For instance, our kibbutz is part of a larger “yishuv kehilati” that consists of us and the bordering neighborhood (which was built on land taken by the government from the kibbutz when it went bankrupt), which is made up of secular residents who have little or no interest in participating in the religious life of the kibbutz. Most of the year, they have no interest in participating in anything religious all together. Then, when the High Holidays come around, suddenly they become too religious for us. Or we not religious enough for them. They claim that our egalitarian prayer service is not authentic Judaism, so they invite in a Lubavitch rabbi from the closest city (Upper Nazareth) to run a non-egalitarian prayer service in one of their homes.

Of course, when the Lubavitch rabbi asked to use the kibbutz mikveh, I was more than happy to comply. Until I discovered that he suggested to the boy on the kibbutz who showed him the mikveh that the posters I had hung inside were inappropriate and that he should take them down. One would think I had hung pornographic photos on the mikveh walls, when actually what this rabbi found problematic were posters with inspiring biblical verses and rabbinic meditations and thoughts about ritual immersion! It seems that, in this rabbi’s opinion, it is inappropriate to have any words of Torah in a place where people get naked. This is not an outlandish approach, in my opinion. But it is not my approach, and I am the rabbi in charge of this particular mikveh. It is to me he should have turned, rather than using that boy as a pawn. But turning to me would mean acknowledging me as a woman rabbi, which would not be within his realm of possibility.

So it seems there is no escaping misogyny in the name of God and extremist religious coercion. It’s in the Galilee as well. So rather than escaping struggle, I have simply added more struggles to my list. I am not sorry we came here. There were many other reasons for our move, such as being part of an the exciting project of building a pluralistic liberal religious community in the Galilee and experiencing life in a pastoral setting with the opportunity for regular, daily contact and interaction with nature. So even if the world around me is still stormy and tense (and it always will be, it seems), at least here I feel a sense of inner calm that was harder to achieve living in Jerusalem. I take long morning walks in the fields and star-studded walks at night and appreciate the beauty of God’s world each and every day. With this sense of inner calm I can garner the strength to keep on fighting.

ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by