'I May Become Everyone’s Enemy’

Religious feminist Nili Ben Gigi Wolf, the only woman serving on Jerusalem's Religious Council, is maneuvering between the city’s secular and ultra-Orthodox populations.

Ido Kenan
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Ido Kenan

What’s it like to be the only woman among a multitude of men?

It’s terrific, but also a great challenge. As the first woman to hold a position on the Jerusalem Religious Council, I face a difficult challenge. I might become everyone’s enemy. Most of the council’s members will probably be from the ultra-Orthodox community, and I suppose they will not be enthusiastic about my presence there, as a woman. Similar attempts made [by a woman some 20 years ago] in Jerusalem did not work out; I imagine I will be something of an obstacle. I’m also not sure that my appointment will please the secular side of the map – Meretz – even though I represent everyone. My approach is that the council is a municipal service provider in every respect, for the whole range of populations in Jerusalem, no matter what their background or what they think about the council or how they manage their private lives.

What are the major challenges that face you?

There are a number of urgent issues in this city. To begin with, as a religious feminist woman, one subject of concern for me is the mikveh (ritual purification bath), including the salary of the attendants and the service received by women who want to immerse themselves there in the way they are used to. On the subject of kashrut, there’s just been an announcement [by the Chief Rabbinate and the Religious Services Ministry; on February 3] of a revolution in this area. The present situation is far from ideal. We have evidence concerning incidents of corruption, about kashrut certificates that are not granted to people who are entitled to them, or that are given and taken away in a way that is improper. In regard to Shabbat, we have to find solutions involving cooperation through dialogue between the different population groups in Jerusalem, so that everyone can be part of the city’s public domain. We don’t want anyone to feel that Jerusalem is not his place or that he has to leave in order to feel at home.

Haredim demonstrated when Café Bezalel opened on Shabbat, and there’s a controversy over whether the new Cinema City complex will be open on Shabbat. How do you see this?

I represent the Hitorerut [Awakening] faction, and we support the general concept of “leisure-time activity yes, commerce no” [on Shabbat]. In terms of visibility, we have to ensure that this kind of activity does not happen next to a Haredi neighborhood, that regulations concerning hours of work are upheld, and that religious employees [who do not work on Shabbat] are not discriminated against.

Do you think the Religious Council is necessary, or that it would be better for each part of the population to manage its own affairs according to its beliefs?

Happily, that question is not part of my mandate. What you are talking about is a policy decision, and I don’t see legislators getting involved in this. Religion is not about to loosen its grip on the state, and the state is not about to loosen its grip on religion. So I will pass on making decisions relating to vision and policy, and will make do with the practical, concrete present.

Nili Ben Gigi.Credit: Doron Wolf

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