It’s like homecoming weekend for Orthodox Jewish kids in Israel, minus the football game. The young members of the religious youth movement/scouting movement Bnei Akiva spend a full month preparing for what can only be described combination of a pep rally and a color war, culminating in a big ceremonial performance on Saturday night. It is called “Shabbat Irgun” – literally translated, that means “Organized Shabbat.”
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The kids love the tradition. The parents – the ones that I know – have a love/hate relationship with it. (On one hand, the intense planning keeps their children engaged in wholesome activity and away from television and the computer; on the other, it can be demanding on the families of active movement members and distract kids from schoolwork.)
But this year, some parents have a bigger problem with the annual festivities: They are up in arms about an element of the big final show that has become traditional in some Bnei Akiva branches across the country – girls performing dances onstage in the dark with the use of ultraviolet light.
In these dances, the girls are dressed in all black – with parts of their body in white – feet, hands and face, creating an undeniably cool effect that makes their jazz and hip-hop moves visually interesting and dramatic. The black background makes it seem as if their white body parts are somehow floating in space.
The fun effect also, conveniently, completely hides the girls’ bodies, presumably making it possible for those who are so Orthodox that they wouldn’t dance in front of men to do so, allowing men – fathers – who wouldn’t allow themselves to watch teenage girls dance remain in the audience.
It’s supposed to be a creative solution to a problem that could potentially create disunity between members of the movement, which aspires to be inclusive of as much of the Orthodox community as possible. The concept, according to Bnei Akiva veterans, is also not completely new: Before the ultraviolet approach, there were more old-fashioned variations on the theme involving flashlights and shadow dancing behind white curtains. However, the ultraviolet approach is the latest modern twist, and one that many enjoy.
Depending on the individual chapter, the movement counselors choose to introduce the ultraviolet light dance for girls at varying ages. That is where some of the controversy has kicked in: While a common “red line” is the Bat Mitzvah age of 12, some chapters are reportedly turning the lights off on girls as young as nine years old.
The protest against the practice was formalized in a Facebook group created as Shabbat Irgun preparations began, called “Say no to ultraviolet: a parent protest,” which garnered more than 600 ‘likes.'
The group was the brainchild of a woman named Vered Mezuman-Aviad, who grew up in Bnei Akiva herself and now has children in the movement. She wrote that her goal was to counteract what is perceived as constant movement to the right and extremism and bring the movement closer to what she remembers as its “warm embrace” when she was young. Ideally, she wrote, she would like to see the Bnei Akiva national leadership speak out against the phenomena in a “sharp and clear” voice. “I’m all for modesty but to interpret a dance by a nine-year-old girl as having any kind of sexual context or subtext is surreal and borders on pedophilia.”
After news of the Facebook page came out and the protest went public with coverage in the Orthodox website called Cipa and television coverage, Mezuman-Aviad said that she received expressions of support alongside violent and threatening phone calls.
Her voice is not the first to reflect an ongoing tension within Bnei Akiva when it comes to modesty issues and the exclusion of women. Similar controversies have flared around the issue of girls singing in public and the extent of mixed activities.
Some have criticized the protest as being unfairly targeted at the national youth movement organization. Danny Hershberg, the national secretary-general of Bnei Akiva, responded in the Cipa article, denying that the practice was widespread, and said that ultraviolet dancing took place only in a few locations where the practice conforms to the local “norms of the communities or their rabbis.” Any debate over this and other gender-related practices, he said, should be dealt with at a community and chapter level. His position is consistent with the Bnei Akiva approach to previous debates – that these were grassroots issues, and isn’t the place of the national movement to take a stand on it.
Without taking a formal survey, anecdotal evidence points to the fact that the practice is not as rare as Hershberg portrays – all of the Bnei Akiva members I asked knew the ultraviolet dances well.
Michal Rudnik, a 17-year-old who lives in the southern Israeli town of Meitar, says that in her chapter, the ultra-violet dancing begins in sixth grade – the age of Bat Mitzvah and that ’’it’s clear that it’s because of the modesty issue.”
She said it has always bothered her, but not enough to make a fuss. “The boys perform in full light – and yes, it bugs me that this is done for sixth-grade girls. It shows there’s a presumption that there is something sexual about watching a 12-year-old girl dancing. I think if an adult man has a problem with that, then they are the ones who shouldn’t be there.”
Because the girls want to perform, she said “they go along with it, and then only afterwards they privately admit it bothers them. Personally, over the years, I chose not to go to war over it and just decided to laugh at the whole thing – others don’t. I personally know some parents who won’t come to the show as a protest against it.”
Reaction on social media has been mixed. On one Orthodox feminist Facebook group, most comments were supportive, but others said there were more important substantive issues to focus on. “It makes feminists look too extreme,” one wrote. Others said that the ultraviolet dancing was creative and artistic and several said that as audience members, they never knew it was being done for reasons of modesty.
But Rudnik said she welcomed the ultraviolet Facebook protest because “it opens up an important dialogue that is badly needed I don’t know that it will change anything, but these kinds of protests, and the discussions they trigger, are good. They do these things like the ultraviolet dancing and they sweep the reasons under the rug. I say –let’s put it on the table, discuss where the red lines are, the changes that Orthodox society is undergoing, and deal with them.”