Learning to Be Liberated

Shas chairman Eli Yishai's wife, Tzipi, is one of a new wave of women affiliated with the movement who are helping to improve the status and ethnic pride of their sisters.

A random survey of eighth-grade girls at the Eli Bazri school in Jaffa, part of Shas' Ma'ayan Hahinuch Hatorani network, concerning their aspirations for the future yielded varied responses. At first, someone said hesitatingly that she wanted to be a clerk, "maybe in a bank or office." And then other answers were confidently fired off, one after another: doctor, nurse, lawyer. The last one in line, Rahel, daughter of the chairman of the Shas faction in the Tel Aviv municipality, Natan Elnatan, mentioned her preference to be a writer, citing the names of famous authors in the ultra-Orthodox community who serve as her models.

None of the girls, most of whom plan to study next year in Bais Yaakov seminaries in Bnei Brak, gave answers that one would expect to hear in the ultra-Orthodox education system: teacher, kindergarten teacher, rabbi's wife − and mother, of course. Perhaps the Eli Bazri school, where most of the pupils' parents are in various stages of becoming more religious, should not be compared to the more establishment Bais Yaakov schools, such as those in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem. For years, the latter have successfully trained girls to fulfill the ideal role, according to which mothers work to support their husbands who study Torah. But it is also possible that the expectations for the future expressed by the girls at Eli Bazri − where the grades on standardized math and Hebrew exams are higher than the national average − reflect a new atmosphere in Shas and the penetration of concepts like self-realization and openness to promoting the status of women.

Though undeclared, the track of advancement for Shas women works in two directions. One direction, at the grass-roots level, is evident in the activity of women, particularly in the periphery. Like the men in Shas, they establish and operate small networks of schools and kindergartens, charitable enterprises or initiatives like Torah lessons and lectures. The second direction is via the wives of the Shas leadership. Once this was personified by Yaffa Deri, who established the Yehuda Ya'aleh nutrition project. Today, in a style that is much less PR-oriented, it is Tzipi Yishai, the wife of Shas chairman Eli Yishai.

Yishai, a mother of seven and the head of an education network of her own, also recently opened a bridal salon that operates on a charitable basis. From a managerial perspective, it is a business in every way. She is personally responsible for dealing with suppliers and staff, and also solicits companies for contributions.

Women from the grass roots as well as those connected to the leadership are constantly active on behalf of their movement. During the election period, they will know how to garner votes for Shas from the constituency that benefits from its services − the traditional women who are growing closer to religion and the ultra-Orthodox women who mainly live in the periphery. In this way, their dedication will translate into votes.

But at the same time, they also operate on their own behalf. Unlike the general ultra-Orthodox community, where women are excluded from political and social positions and concentrate on education, Shas enables representatives of the lowest stratum − Mizrahi women ?(that is, of Middle Eastern origin?) − to develop a place for themselves, to build and manage something from scratch, and even to create for themselves a prominent job in a local authority or within the movement. Thus, for example, Aliza Biton, a veteran Shas activist from Be'er Sheva, who established the Otsar Hahayim network of kindergartens and schools there, was appointed this year to serve as the head of ultra-Orthodox education in the Be'er Sheva Municipality. Rahel Cohen, Tzipi Yishai's right-hand woman, became responsible for all of the logistics for Yishai's schools and their relations with the Education Ministry.

Like Yishai herself, these women amazingly juggle careers and large families, and tread a fine line: They carefully declare that their activities are being conducted behind the scenes, but in practice they do not deny that they have power and influence in the movement.

'A new reality'It is no coincidence that it was Tzipi Yishai who decided four years ago to strive to ensure the promotion of young religious women when she added technological courses to the curricula of the Bais Yaakov schools she founded. It may seem that these courses are marginal, like bookkeeping and graphic design, but this is not so: Her initiative reflects social sensitivity, because her goal is to reduce the unemployment of female teachers in the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox sector. Thus Yishai quietly broke mental barriers and challenged the conservatism of the established seminaries of Bais Yaakov.

In their ideological mission to cultivate ultra-Orthodox women, these seminaries do not award matriculation certificates to their students and refer them exclusively to teaching careers. Thus, hundreds of young women receive such certificates each year, but have difficulty finding work. Due to the discrimination against Mizrahim in the ultra-Orthodox community, the problem is even more severe for graduates from Mizrahi backgrounds. Practically speaking, there was no other alternative because studying in the vocational track in the ultra-Orthodox institutions tagged the girls as second rate. At the Or Hayim seminary in Bnei Brak, for example, where Yishai studied in her youth, subjects like sewing and secretarial skills were taught.

Yishai, who grew up in Netivot and was educated at a boarding school that is not highly regarded, ended up creating a new reality in the ultra-Orthodox community, which regards its seminaries as sacrosanct. She acted wisely in striving to maintain a high level of academic study and a sound reputation.

"It hurt me," she says, "when I saw a teacher working at odd jobs, as a salesperson or cashier. I said to myself, we are in a new era and there are various occupations, why not exploit the talents of ultra-Orthodox girls and provide them with additional information that is appropriate to the current period? This is an alternative for them. What is important for me besides the academic studies is to prepare them in high school for a profession, so that when the girls get married and do not continue to study, they will have a certificate in hand and the possibility of earning a decent living."

The Or Margalit school in Be'er Sheva was the first one that Yishai took under her wing. It is also the only one that sends its students, most of whom have parents who are newly religious, to matriculation exams − contrary to the policy at schools in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, where the rabbis prohibit this. Yishai created a partnership with the Atid vocational network, which includes two other schools that are part of her network: Ateret Chen in Jerusalem and Ateret Rahel in Bnei Brak. The collaboration with a secular network was severely criticized in the ultra-Orthodox press during the first year. Like most of the Shas schools, the physical conditions are rundown. For example, the school in Bnei Brak is crammed into a commercial structure. The seminary in Jerusalem, whose premises were taken over by the College of Management, is operating for now from a community center. But, as in Shas, all this is temporary and does not deter people.

The fact that a selective seminary like Ateret Rahel, which only accepts girls from devout homes, and is considered closed and conservative, has opened its gates to change is crucial in changing ultra-Orthodox public opinion. Indeed, Rabbi Meir Mazuz, the head of the Kes Harahamim yeshiva and one of the most important rabbis in the Shas movement, has extended his patronage over this process. Yishai was not even deterred by the requirement of providing a course in art history, a rare subject in the ultra-Orthodox education system.

With a mop in handOn Monday, in a 12th-grade bookkeeping class at Ateret Rahel, the teacher checked whether her students had learned the concept of progressive taxation. "A tax that is aimed at reducing the gap between the rich and poor," answered one girl. Will an understanding of this concept open their eyes to social awareness? It seems that the chances are not very high, because in this school, which sanctifies practicality, general knowledge is viewed as a necessary evil. Tzvia Bukhris, the school's principal, also downplays the influence of art history studies on the student body. In any case, she says, problematic pictures and inappropriate content are censored.

But still, there is exposure to subject matter that does not happen in other institutions, and perhaps also a different type of social awareness. In Tzipi Yishai's schools, there are only Mizrahi students. This is a result of the discrimination in ultra-Orthodox seminaries, where Mizrahim are not admitted beyond a certain quota. This fact is exploited to teach the girls pride in their Sephardi heritage. Bukhris, who does not hide her disgust over this discrimination, says that her school is designed for "true Sephardim who love themselves and do not want to be an add-on at the table of others." For this reason, she says, she herself did not send her daughter to the large seminaries. Instead, despite the difficulty, her daughter studies at her school.

This is expressed in the style of prayer and blessings, in rules of behavior and observance of halakha ?(traditional Jewish law?), in accordance with halakhic authorities such as Rabbi Mazuz and, of course, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Since this is an innovation − in the other seminaries the religious and halakhic hegemony is Ashkenazi − and there are still no study materials, Rabbi Mazuz's daughter, who is a teacher at the school, regularly studies with her father and passes on what she learns to her students. The first class graduated last year, so it is too early to predict how its students will develop and in which direction they will go.

Rahel Cohen, who has a master's degree in education, has no doubt that women in Shas, including young women, can express their strength, even though they always operate behind the scenes. "From the time they are born, they put a mop in the hands of Mizrahi girls. The Sephardi boys grow up pampered, with their mothers running circles around them. This is what leads the Sephardi woman to become very dominant and spread out into many fields. They will never be members of Knesset or CEOs sitting behind a desk in a large office. They have to be at home. But, in practice, they are very powerful. They don't get the headlines, and a rabbi will usually head their schools, but those who manage [the institutions] in practice are the women below him, the office manager or educational supervisor. And there are many examples."

According to Cohen, women personally advise Eli Yishai, run charitable enterprises and schools, and direct an array of volunteers come election time. "The women's staff that Tzipi assembled during the last election was the most dominant and attracted the most votes to the movement."These women are beginning now to recruit their friends, but they are careful to maintain their traditional roles. The women, who have six or seven children, conduct meetings until the afternoon hours, when the children return from school. Here and there, in their house dresses, they answer a few cell phone calls and distribute meals via remote control. This is their revolution.