Freedom Rides and Photos
In early March of this year, my husband and I spend two weeks in Israel. Our guide Muki has been a friend for many years and I trust him to recommend learning experiences that will expand my understanding of Israel and Judaism. A week before we left for Israel, he suggested we try a “freedom ride,” a ride on the public bus that travels through Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem. These buses, funded by the government and provided for everyone, have been turned into buses with sex-segregated seating, with men in the front and women in the back. Recently, a woman sat in the front of the bus and was attacked. Since then, the Israeli Religious Action Center (IRAC) went to court and received the legal opinion that sex segregated seating was not legal on publicly funded buses. As Reform congregations visit Israel, their members often participate in “freedom rides,” with women sitting in the front and men sitting in the back, integrating the bus.
I’ve never cared that the Haredim are so sex segregated. Knowing that Orthodox Israeli writers such as Naomi Ragen had protested the abuse of these sex segregated seats, I felt I was doing my own small part to defend women’s rights in an increasingly regressive age. So one beautiful March morning, Muki and I embarked on our own personal freedom ride. There weren’t many people on the bus when we boarded and took our seats in the front of the bus. Muki sat behind me both to protect and observe.
With very few people on the bus, the ride was quiet for awhile. As we traveled the bus route and more people boarded, I was fascinated to observe and to be observed. As Muki noted, not one person got on the bus without noticing there was a woman sitting in the front. Interestingly, the only person willing to sit next to me was a mentally challenged boy of about 10, who saw the empty seat and immediately sat down. While he and I smiled at each other, the boy’s father did his best to ignore me and the fact that his son had taken the seat next to me. Several other things were so interesting. Many women in their late teens and early 20s entered the bus from the front and, although most didn’t make eye contact as they moved to the back, the ones who did smiled, even if briefly. No men made eye contact, but I noticed several sideways glances. Was there the possibility of a conversation? Not yet. When the bus route ended, we disembarked, hopefully having broken a chip in the segregation mentality.
A few days later, we were in Jerusalem. It was Shushan Purim at about 3 p.m. in the afternoon. If you know Jerusalem, you know that by that hour everyone is anticipating the arrival of Shabbat. My husband Michael, Muki, and I were walking into a park and saw a Haredi family approaching, the children in their Purim costumes. Michael asked Muki if they would mind if he took a picture of the children; the response from the family was very positive. Then the father handed his camera to Michael and motioned for him to photograph his entire family. Michael handed the camera to me, and as I took the photo, I commented on what a beautiful family they were. The parents nodded their thanks and the father—carefully, so as not to touch, but courteously—took his camera back from me.
The three of us were all surprised at how lovely the interaction had been. We talked about how happy this family was, how proud the father was of his family and how respectful he was of us. It all made me think, piece by piece, we can break down these barriers and find the Jew in each of us.