Israel's Education Ministry Shows No Female Role Models in Religious Jewish Schools

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Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Nissim (center) with Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yehuda Unterman and Rabbi Israel Brodie, April 12, 1964.
Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Nissim (center) with Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yehuda Unterman and Rabbi Israel Brodie, April 12, 1964.Credit: National Photo Collection of Israel / Wikimedia Commons

About a week ago, the National Religious Education Administration (Hemed) in the Education Ministry announced the name of the “role model” for the coming school year: Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim, who was the Sephardic chief rabbi. This year too, as in the past nine years, they refrained from choosing a woman.

Each year since 2012, the National Religious Education Administration chooses a “role model,” and provides lessons and activities centered around him. Each year they produce a children’s book with stories about the person’s life, which is distributed to children of kindergarten age. In addition, on Hemed’s official website there are links to video clips, activities and quizzes about the honoree.

During the first years of the initiative, only men were chosen: Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, the first Sephardic chief rabbi; Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, founder of the Mercaz Harav yeshiva and spiritual father of the Gush Emunim settlement movement; Rabbi Haim David Halevi, an arbiter of halakha (Jewish religious law) who served as the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and Rishon Letzion; and Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, an Israel Prize laureate who headed Mercaz Harav after Kook’s death, and is also identified with an uncompromising ideological policy against the evacuation of settlements.

In the following years, as a result of public criticism, Hemed started to choose couples – a prominent rabbi along with his wife the rabbanit. In recent years Rabbi Yosef Kapach and his wife, Rabbanit Bracha Kapach; Rabbi Shlomo Goren and his wife, Rabbanit Tzfia Goren; Rabbi Moshe Zvi Neriah and his wife, Rabbanit Rachel Neria. But at no point was a woman chosen as a central figure in her own right.

In most instances, the rabbanit is secondary to the rabbi in the story; for example, in the book that was distributed in kindergartens about Rabbi and Rabbanit Neriah, two stories are devoted to the rabbi. Only one story focuses on the rabbanit – as a benevolent woman who devoted her time to typing her husband’s writings on religious subjects.

The book that was distributed the year that Rabbi and Rabbanit Goren were chosen focuses only on the rabbi. Of 11 cards with short stories from the life of Rabbi Goren distributed in the kindergartens, only one focuses on his wife.

An exception is Rabbanit Bracha Kapach, who was a prominent social activist who established various charitable projects and even received the Israel Prize for her contribution to society and the country. The book distributed that year gives equal space to the rabbi and his wife.

This year, too, the choice of the role model is ostensibly focused on a couple, Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim and his wife, Victoria. But in the letter sent this week to teachers by the chairman of national religious education, Rabbi Dr. Avraham Lifschitz, there is a link to files with pictures and statements by the rabbi, with no mention of his wife.

“We are pleased with the good progress, which is reflected in the decision to present a rabbi and a rabbanit together,” said Shimon Shatach, who heads the modern Orthodox Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avoda movement, to Haaretz. “Now we have to find a woman who will be at the forefront – not as ‘the wife of’ but as a central figure in her own right.”

An example of such a person is Nechama Leibowitz, Israel Prize laureate for Education and a Bible scholar who taught generations of students as a lecturer in academia, and who was a popular teacher for the general public as well.

Shatach also points out that until now, all the honorees have been prominent rabbis, mainly from the Mercaz Harav yeshiva, which was identified with the central stream of religious Zionism, but has become a bastion of nationalist ultra-Orthodox, or Hardali, Zionism. “We need not only rabbinical figures, but people who combine Torah study and work, who brought about revolutions in many directions,” he says.

In a letter sent by Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avoda last year to the heads of the National Religious Education Administration, they suggested choosing Pinchas Kehati, who wrote a commentary on the Mishna with broad popular appeal, and who worked for a living in the Mizrahi Bank.

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