What Will the Neighbors Say?

Outside the office of attorney Gila Rabinowitz-Naftalin, two women in dark shifts are talking. Around them is a melange of baby carriages, bicycles and playing children. When the door of the office, which faces the sidewalk, opens suddenly, they fall silent and cast an inquisitive glance at the office. The sight of an ultra-Orthodox woman lawyer is still not at all common, and in the heart of Kiryat Belz in Jerusalem, a neighborhood with a large concentration of Hasidim, considered a very closed community, Rabinowitz-Naftalin's presence is provocative. When she drives her car on the streets of the neighborhood wearing her black robes, as frequently happens when she is rushing to court, she is followed by an invisible trail of gossip and glances.

Rabinowitz-Naftalin, 29, and her husband Shaul Naftalin, 30, who is also an attorney, share the same desk in the office, which opened its doors a year ago. Working outside her house provides her with the concentration she needs, but the proximity of the office to the house enables her to keep an eye on her family and to dash home to heat up lunch, while her four children, who range in age from two to eight, are with a babysitter. In fact, in the middle of the interview, her children announce their arrival by knocking loudly at the door and explaining what they want. The youngest asks for a candy and the eldest complains that they are hitting him. Rabinowitz-Naftalin calmly solves the crises behind the door, without rising from her chair. The children are appeased and leave.

She grew up in Kiryat Belz and has lived there all her life, but to a great extent she is an alien, because she is a member of the Chabad Hasidic movement. Among the various ultra-Orthodox streams, the Chabadniks are considered more open in their lifestyle. They have always had more contact with the outside world and had less stringent rules for themselves on various issues, from dress to their daughters' education. For example: The Chabad Bais Yaakov high schools for girls are the only ones in which girls take matriculation exams.

Because of its proximity to the neighborhood, Rabinowitz-Naftalin studied at the "old seminar," the nickname of the oldest and most respectable Bais Yaakov school in Jerusalem, rather than in a Chabad school. She completed the matriculation studies on her own. She was not the only ultra-Orthodox girl in the external study program in which she prepared for matriculation. After her marriage, at the age of 20, she started a business for bridal gowns for a short time, but "I immediately saw that it didn't suit me," she says. "It provided a living, but I was looking for something more intelligent."

Sharing the work load

Education and a career are not something new in her family. Her father is a dayan (a rabbinical court judge) and her mother is the director of an old age home and has a master's degree in business administration. "I grew up in a home where both parents had careers, and they educated me to aspire to personal advancement," she says. When her husband registered for the first law class at the ultra-Orthodox campus in the Kiryat Ono academic complex, she began her studies there a year later, with his encouragement. Now they divide the work between them: She appears in the regular courts, and he in the rabbinical courts.

She is very proud of the tiny office, and it doesn't bother her that it looks like a grocery store or a garage from the outside. It undoubtedly adds color to the neighborhood. Recently, she says, she had clients who really attracted attention: a Jewish couple from Palma de Majorca who wanted to reach a divorce settlement. "Their new Mercedes pulled up, and the woman emerged wearing a stunning dress and high heels," she says. "In all innocence I had invited them to come in the morning - to prevent a crowd from gathering. But of course in no time the entire neighborhood was downstairs."

Little by little, the complaints of people in the neighborhood found their way to the rabbi of the neighborhood synagogue. Unsurprisingly, they were directed at her and not at her husband. The rabbi commented to her, on behalf of the complainants, of course, about the fact that she was sitting immodestly, with the door open. Or about the fact that the light disturbs people when she works at night. "I have to work at night," she told him. "I still have to prove myself." Recently, someone has been stuffing pamphlets into her mailbox that spell out the rules of modesty for women. "I was amazed to see that using perfume was not modest either," she says ironically.

She is conservatively dressed, clearly ultra-Orthodox. She wears light makeup, her wig is not too long, but it's the principle of the thing. They forgive her husband for abandoning the beit midrash (study hall), after all, he's a Chabadnik and is not expected to be a yeshiva student, but for a woman to begin a career under the noses of other women in the neighborhood, and possibly to influence them? For a woman to continue to use her maiden name in the feminist style, heaven forfend? That's already too much. In an environment where women are either housewives or teachers, Rabinowitz-Naftalin conducts her life as a modern woman. She employs a nanny and a cleaning woman, and even a woman who comes to iron. Her sons take swimming, gym and organ lessons, and in the summer they'll also begin an English class.

A well-traveled family

Relative to a young ultra-Orthodox couple, they enjoy economic prosperity, but not in an ostentatious manner. "I salute the families among us who live on bread and margarine," she says, "but I grew up in a home where we lacked for nothing, and I don't scrimp on food for the children." The couple go to restaurants, and a few times a year, on holidays, they travel abroad. "We have to get out," she says. "The work creates an emotional burden." Northern Italy and Switzerland are the preferred locales. Recently they were in Palma de Majorca. As is customary among Chabad members, they stayed with the Jewish community on Shabbat instead of at a hotel, in order to "strengthen the community," as she puts it.

Rabinowitz-Naftalin does not get upset by the watchful eyes or the nosiness, and continues to leave a delicate trail of perfume behind her. "I know that they take an interest in me," she says in understatement, but she has never considered looking for another place to live. "After all, I grew up here," she says simply. "The Kirya is home for me. My entire family lives in the neighborhood."

It's true that the neighborhood has become more extremist, but the location is still central and convenient, near the synagogue and the children's school. The fact that her children attend a Chabad school, where there are many families with a lifestyle similar to hers, helps Rabinowitz-Naftalin to ignore the slanderers. Besides, she said, there are people in the neighborhood who are beginning to discover that there are also advantages to being the neighbor of lawyers. "The office has turned into a neighborhood clinic. They come to me for help. Here a signature verification, there writing official letters and giving advice." She does not charge for that.

Nor is she a feminist. At least not openly. The reason for the fact that she continues to use her maiden name, Rabinowitz, is because of her family pedigree. Her father, Rabbi Haim Yehuda Rabinowitz, is the head of the rabbinical court in Jerusalem. Her eldest brother is the rabbi of the Western Wall. Another brother is certified as a dayan in rabbinical courts. Although she doesn't appear before her father, she says that people come to her because of the family reputation. In her family, she says, they always analyzed legal cases and various halakhot (religious laws) at the dinner table. "I would like to be a judge," she says. "After all, I can't be a dayan."

As far as mesuravot get (women whose husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce) are concerned, she identifies completely with the position of the rabbinical courts and rejects any claim of a humiliating attitude there toward women in general and towards women refused a get in particular. In the cases she represented, she says, the dayanim decided on sanctions against recalcitrant husbands, and would not agree to blackmail on their part.

Soon she will begin studying for a master's degree in law at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She says that she intends to get her doctorate. "In principle, I want a large family," she says. "but I still have an entire decade to fulfill that ambition." At the moment, it would be hard for her, both physically and emotionally, to deal with another child.

Toward evening, two six-year old girls are standing outside the office. Their hair is neatly pulled back into pony tails and they are dressed identically: long dark blue skirts and light-colored shirts. How will they be affected by the presence of a young lawyer in their childhood landscape? Rabinowitz-Naftalin ponders aloud, wondering if she constitutes a positive influence. "I think about my female neighbors," she says, "how they sit outside and chat. They seem happier than I am. I'm busy with the chase. More clients. More cases. It's hard for me to say no. They have no ambitions. Neither shopping nor vacations. Every day the same clothes." However, she knows that they also yearn for change. "Once, when I came out in my robe, a neighbor with five little ones said to me: "I wish I could do what you do."