Who Will Defend ultra-Orthodox Women's Labor Rights?

Haredi establishment seeks to scuttle pioneering kindergarten teachers' union, founded by woman.

Judith Klein is a humble, shy woman and a pioneer of workers' rights in the ultra-Orthodox community. Klein has created the first women's workers union in her sector - and in the process incurred the wrath of many of her peers.

For over 30 years, Rotem has worked at a Rehovot kindergarten, part of a school network run by the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party. But when she and other veteran kindergarten teachers were laid off five years ago, she took action and formed a workers' union. Management, however, fought back and tried to bully Rotem and other union leaders by denying them pay. Ever since, the dispute has dragged through labor courts. Rotem and her associate, Simha Bossi, have held on to their jobs only due to a court injunction.

Some 200 kindergarten teachers have joined the workers union since its formal foundation a year ago. Last December, a labor court ruled that the kindergarten's management must increase salaries of veteran teachers and take back some of the employees it fired. However, this was not the end of the story.

During the first week of the school year, the management informed parents of children at Klein and Bossi's kindergarten that it was no longer part of their network. As a result, the kindergarten is not insured and now operates on money provided by parents and the kindergarten teachers themselves.

Yossi Bininfeld, director-general of the kindergarten network, said in response that the Rehovot kindergarten is independent of them, and as such they will not be paying the teachers' salaries. Anat Shani, a lawyer for the teachers' union, says that though the network has severed ties with the kindergarten, the teachers are still its employees. She added that no effort has been made by the management to relocate them to another kindergarten.

In April, Judge Neta Ruth of the Tel Aviv Labor Court accepted the teachers' claim and ruled that Klein, Bossi and another teacher should be paid their salaries. In addition, it ordered the management to reinstate a kindergarten teacher it had fired. However, the Agudat Yisrael-affiliated management has since ignored the ruling.

Meanwhile, the teachers union's ability to withstand pressures has waned. In the past few months half of its members have left the organization. Some received threatening calls from management members, warning them that their pay will be withheld unless they quit the union.

An attempt by the President of the National Labor Court, Judge Stephen Adler, to broker an agreement between the kindergarten teachers and the existing Agudat Yisrael teachers union failed. Members of the Agudat Yisrael union told Adler that they plan to hold the organization's first election in years before January, but that in accordance with Jewish law, women cannot vote.

The National Labor Court is currently debating the kindergarten teachers' request to become a recognized union, but Klein fears her union may not survive the onslaught against it. "How long can we hold out without being paid?" she asks. While women's livelihood should be a top priority among the ultra-Orthodox, the kindergarten's struggle has been largely ignored. Haredi papers remain mute on the issue, as a women's organization is considered too rebellious to be given a voice.

Last week the silence was broken when a radio station aired a taped conversation between Klein and a management official. In the recording, the man shouted at Klein that her actions were "not Jewish" and were "depraved." After all, how dare she form an organization protecting women's rights and ask for court protection?