Ten Ways Israeli and Jewish Women Cracked the Glass Ceiling This Past Year

From a record number of female Knesset members, to the first Orthodox female rabbi, here are substantial reasons to celebrate International Women's Day.

Daniel Bar-On

International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to review some breakthroughs made by Israeli and Jewish women worldwide this past year. Here are our Top 10 picks:

1. Record number of women in the Knesset.  Following the national election last March, 30 women were sworn into the Israeli legislature, a record number. Since then, following several resignations by men, two additional women have entered the ranks of Israeli parliamentarians – for the first time pushing the share of women in the Knesset over the one-quarter threshold. Today, except for the ultra-Orthodox parties, women are represented in all of the political parties serving in the Knesset. But only in one party, the left-wing Meretz, do they comprise a majority of the parliamentary delegation.

2. First Orthodox female rabbi. Canadian-born Lila Kagedan became the first Orthodox woman to adopt this once exclusively male title. Kagedan, who grew up in Ottawa, is a graduate of Yeshivat Maharat, the first institution to ordain women as Orthodox Jewish clergy. Other female graduates of this progressive New York-based yeshiva have taken other titles, such as “rabba” (the female of rabbi) or “maharat,” but none have dared push the envelope as far as Kagedan in using "rabbi." The Rabbinical Council of America, the main association of Modern Orthodox rabbis, last year passed a resolution that bans hiring women who carry clergy-like titles. Nonetheless, Kagedan managed to land a job as a member of the spiritual leadership team at an Orthodox synagogue in New Jersey.

3. A space at the Western Wall for Reform and Conservative Jews. Last month, the government approved a landmark agreement to establish a special space at the Jewish holy site where men and women can hold mixed-prayer services. Taking into account mounting ultra-Orthodox opposition, it is far from a done deal. But if this new space is eventually created, much of the credit will go to Women of the Wall, the feminist prayer group that has been holding a monthly service as the Western Wall for the past 27 years. Were it not for the frequent clashes between these women – many of whom defy strict Orthodox practice by wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries when they pray – and ultra-Orthodox worshippers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might not have felt pressure to resolve the controversy over prayer regulations at the Jewish holy site once and for all.

Members of Women of the Wall gather at the Western Wall on Jan. 31, 2016.
Emil Salman

4. Finalists for top European award in innovation. Two Israeli women are among nine finalists competing for this year’s EU Prize for Women Innovators. The names of the winners are to be announced later this month. One of the Israeli finalists is Dr. Kira Radinsky, the co-founder of SalesPredict, a company engaged in predictive analytics solutions that help businesses improve their sales. The other Israeli finalist is Professor Zvia Agur, the founder of Optimata, a company that developed medical software technology for oncology personalization.

5. A first in Israeli aviation. Pilot Smadar Schechter and First Officer Merav Schwartz made Israeli aviation history several months ago when they found themselves, by pure coincidence, operating the first El Al flight with an all-women cockpit. The duo flew passengers from Tel Aviv to Larnaca, Cyprus. Schechter had already broken through the glass ceiling in 1998 when she became the first female commercial pilot to be promoted to captain.

6. Prestigious Sundance award. Jewish-Israeli filmmaker Elite Zexer won the top prize for a foreign film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Sand Storm, her directorial debut, won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Dramatic section. The feature-length film, which is in Arabic and received rave reviews, tells the story of a Bedouin woman forced to welcome her husband’s new and much younger wife while coping with a rebellious daughter.

7. First Arab woman to head Knesset panel. With her appointment as chair of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, Aida Touma-Suliman became the first Arab woman to ever head a parliamentary panel. A longtime Communist party activist, she began her Knesset stint last year as a member of the newly formed Joint Arab List. Touma-Suliman has long been a trailblazer for Arab women in Israel. She was founder of the Arab feminist group Women Against Violence and served as editor-in-chief of Al-Ittihad, the Arabic-language newspaper run by the Israeli Communist party.

8.Fighting sexual harassment. May Fatal is the rare case of a victim of sexual harassment to come out publicly against her offender. While serving in the army, Fatal was harassed by her superior, a battalion commander. After she complained, the story reached the press, although she remained anonymous. After a plea bargain deal was struck, her commander was suspended from the army but avoided criminal charges. Outraged by the deal, Fatal went public in a Facebook post. Her courage prompted more than 300 IDF reserve officers to sign a public letter apologizing to her.

9. Empowering Orthodox women in the U.K. A recently announced initiative will create a new designation for British women in the Orthodox movement. The program, conceived by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, will train women to serve as family purity advisers and adult educators in Orthodox synagogues. Women completing the 18-month program will hold the title of “ma’ayan” – the Hebrew word for “fountain.” Graduates of the course will be certified to advise on such matters as contraception, miscarriage, abortion, infertility and mikveh use.

10. Women better educated than men. Figures published this week by the Central Bureau of Statistics show that a majority of students seeking higher education in Israel are women. The trend is even more pronounced among Arabs than Jews. In the last academic year, 58.1 percent of the students in post-secondary institutions in Israel were women. That compares with only 43.3 percent in 1969/1970. Among Jewish students, women accounted for 56.5 percent of the total, and among Arab students, for 68.5 percent. Women comprised 57.5 percent of those studying for a bachelor’s degree, 60.8 percent of those studying for a master’s degree and 52.5 percent of those studying for a doctorate.