Justice League, Israeli-style: Orthodox Groups Team Up With Unlikely Ally to Right Wrongs

The Reform movement is increasingly setting aside denominational differences to help Orthodox groups tackle causes like offensive modesty signs in Beit Shemesh and the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly on conversions in Israel

Women tearing down a banner calling for modest dressing in the central Israeli city of Beit Shemesh, December 2017.
Gil Cohen-Magen

Last week, a group of Israeli lawmakers piled onto a bus and set out for Beit Shemesh – a city at the forefront of the country’s battle over religious radicalization. Their aim was to figure out why the municipality was having such a difficult time complying with a recent High Court of Justice ruling, ordering it to tear down offensive modesty signs plastered around town.

When they arrived at their destination, the Knesset members were joined by several local women, all Modern Orthodox, who have been spearheading the campaign against the modesty signs. The women were introduced by representatives of the Israel Religious Action Center – the local advocacy arm of the Reform movement, which has been fighting their battle in court for the past five years.

That Orthodox women would join forces with the Reform movement to fight other Orthodox groups might not seem immediately obvious. But as spokeswoman Nili Philipp explains, when she and her fellow Beit Shemesh activists initially sought assistance, no one else was willing to lend a hand.

Some of the modesty signs that were inflaming these women instruct them on how to dress and require them to wear long sleeves, long skirts and no tight-fitting clothing. Other signs order them to keep off the sidewalks near synagogues and yeshivas, where men tend to congregate. For violating these rules, these women and their daughters have been cursed and spat on. Determined to fight back, their first stop was the local police. But as Philipp recounts, that did little good.

They then reached out to an organization that represents Orthodox feminists in Israel, Kolech, which they assumed would be a natural ally. Indeed, Kolech was extremely sympathetic to the Beit Shemesh women, but it informed them it had no resources to spare, not even for its own causes.

So when IRAC reached out to the group and offered to help with their legal battles, Philipp and her friends were genuinely moved, but also a bit hesitant. After all, in certain parts of the Orthodox world, Reform Judaism is not considered a legitimate movement and such cooperation might reflect badly on them.

Nili Philipp, a spokeswoman for the women fighting the modesty signs in Beit Shemesh. "We realized there was no way we could fight this battle on our own."
Tomer Appelbaum

“We realized, though, that there was no way we could fight this battle on our own,” Philipp explains. “We knew we were going to have to pay a price in terms of public opinion, but we just didn’t care.”

The collaboration between the Beit Shemesh women and the Reform movement has proven fruitful – at least on paper. IRAC’s legal department has won every single case it brought to court against the modesty signs.

The modesty signs in Beit Shemesh are but one example of how Orthodox groups have joined forces in recent years with the Reform movement – as well as secular organizations – to fight perceived injustices. Sometimes, as in this particular case, these collaborations take the form of legal battles. In other instances, they involve cooperative lobbying efforts in the Knesset or joint public opinion campaigns.

Sometimes, as in the Beit Shemesh case, these collaborations are above board. Often, though, they are not. For example, IRAC petitioned the High Court in 2007, demanding an end to gender segregation on bus lines that run through ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) communities. That followed complaints from women who had been forced to sit at the back of the bus and enter through the back door. The High Court ruled in 2011 that gender segregation on buses was illegal without the consent of the passengers.

An ultra-Orthodox man alighting from a bus in Jerusalem. The High Court ruled in 2011 that gender segregation on buses was illegal without passengers' consent.
Emil Salman

Not only were women’s rights groups cheering the victory. As Orly Erez-Likhovski, the head of IRAC’s legal department, recalls, she received some unexpected phone calls at the time. “Of course, it was all very hush-hush,” she says, “but there were quite a few Haredim who reached out to say they were thankful for the Reform movement because we’re the only ones out there fighting their battles.”

In a related case, IRAC is representing Kolech in a class-action suit against an ultra-Orthodox radio station, Kol Barama, which refuses to put women on the air. A ruling has yet to be handed down.

According to Erez-Likhovski, a combination of factors can explain why such alliances, which transcend the usual denominational divides, have become more common in recent years.

“Within Orthodoxy, there is far more focus today on women’s rights, especially among certain more progressive streams,” she says. “At the same time, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has become more and more rigid, forcing many people into a corner.”

Another recent example of the IRAC going to bat for Orthodox individuals and groups involves kashrut regulations. In 2014, it petitioned the High Court on behalf of two Jerusalem restaurant owners to fight the Rabbinate’s monopoly in awarding kashrut certificates. IRAC lost the case, but when the High Court handed down its ruling last September, it said restaurateurs are allowed to tell their clients they serve kosher food even if they don’t have kashrut certification from the Rabbinate.

An owner fixes an "alternative" kashrut certificate to his cafe wall.

The Rabbinate’s nemesis

Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of ITIM – an organization that helps individuals navigate Israel’s religious bureaucracy – has become the Rabbinate’s nemesis in recent years. He has been a driving force in the battle to break the Rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage and conversion in the country. And last July, he helped expose the fact that the Rabbinate maintains a blacklist of rabbis from abroad, whose rulings on the Jewishness of people it does not recognize.

People are often surprised, Farber notes with irony, when they learn he is an Orthodox rabbi. “The other day, I got a call from somebody at one of the local religious councils who was convinced I was part of the Reform movement,” he reveals.

In recent years, ITIM has worked closely with both the Reform and Conservatives movements in trying to break the Rabbinate’s monopoly on conversions. This has included waging legal battles together and joining hands in lobbying the Knesset.

“Often, we have found we have parallel agendas with Reform and Conservative Jews,” Farber says. “The big difference, however, is that they are trying to get recognition for their respective movements is Israel, whereas for us the main goal is to make the State of Israel more responsive to all Jews.”

Emil Salman

Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah – an Orthodox-Zionist movement that is more moderate in its approach to Judaism than the larger and better-known Bnei Akiva – has also time and again found itself on the same side as the non-Orthodox movements in critical matters concerning religion and state.

Last summer, for example, its leaders launched a video campaign in which they urged the Israeli government not to turn its back on Diaspora Jews and to fulfill its pledge to provide an egalitarian prayer space at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Of course, as Orthodox Jews they would not want to pray at this space, but for members of this Modern Orthodox movement, it was the principle that was paramount.

Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah often helps the non-Orthodox movements in their lobbying efforts in the Knesset. “There are many lawmakers who might not talk to representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements, but who will talk to us because we’re religious,” says Tani Frank, who coordinates such efforts for the movement.

The organization broke with convention in the religious world recently when it came out in support of civil marriage in Israel, backing a campaign led by the non-Orthodox movements and Be Free Israel (Israel Hofsheet), a civil society organization that supports religious freedom in Israel.

This would not be the first time Be Free Israel has cooperated with Orthodox groups and individuals. The organization works closely with Chuck Davidson, an American-born Orthodox rabbi who has devoted his life to fighting the Rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage and conversion. Often, couples who wish to be married by an Orthodox rabbi but want to avoid the Rabbinate will be referred to Davidson when they come to consult with Be Free Israel.

“There were a few instances where the parents of couples I was about to marry expressed concerns about my affiliation with Be Free Israel,” Davidson says. “But I explained that I’m not interested in promoting non-Orthodox or secular Judaism. I just don’t want to force things down people’s throats, and I’ll work with any organization that shares those values.”

In the end, he says, he won over the concerned parents.

Rabbi Chuck Davidson holds a wedding service in Ein Hemed, near Jerusalem, December 14, 2017.
Ariel Schalit/AP