Freedom Riders in Israel: “We Did This For Her”



by Nechama Namal

I’ve never been much of a rebel. Instead, when I feel strongly about something, I do my best to act wisely, sensibly, and sensitively to show my support. I have found that in Israel, opportunities arise frequently for me to advocate for Reform Judaism, social justice, plurality, equality, and respect for all.

Today was one of those days to speak my mind without saying a word. My friend Diane (also an olah chadashah who made aliyah with her husband on the same day as my husband and me) had been in touch with the Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem, or IRAC, and she invited me to join her as a Freedom Rider on a Jerusalem bus. IRAC has instituted a program whereby women volunteers ride the buses that are known within our country to be segregated by gender:  men sitting in the front and women in the back. “Freedom Riders” sit in the front of the bus, thereby demonstrating their disapproval for the segregation.

We met with Tali, an IRAC attorney, who gave us a brief explanation about the process for taking the bus, the expected reactions, and how to handle any confrontations. She was exact and professional, and we felt very safe with her. Tali also explained the role of IRAC and its important part in advocating for pluralism and equality of all people in Israel. In its own words, IRAC’s role is to be “the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel … Today IRAC is the preeminent civil and human rights organization in Israel focusing on the issues of religion and state and is the leading Jewish organization that advocates on behalf of a broadly inclusive Israeli democracy, infusing social justice advocacy with the spiritual energy and humane worldview of Progressive Judaism.”  I encourage you to read more about IRAC and its amazing successes.

Under the beautiful Jerusalem sky, we took a cab to Ramat Shlomo, a religious area in northern east Jerusalem. I was slightly nervous. Would someone yell at me? If a person yelled at me in Hebrew, I probably would not know what they were saying! I took a deep breath and figured I could handle it with Tali and Diane by my side. We waited only a few moments for the bus to arrive, and because we got on at the beginning of the line, there were still plenty of seats – in the front. Diane and I sat on one side, Tali on the other. There were men in front of us, but only women behind. One man had two small boys and a young girl with him, and Tali said, “We did this for her, that she could see that women can sit in the front – not just her father and brothers.”

The ride was pleasant and uneventful. No one seemed to care about us. No one said a word to us. The bus was crowded, and I couldn’t help but wonder how the riders could be comfortable with heavy jackets, felt hats, long sleeves, and closed shoes while I felt every degree of the Jerusalem heat in a sleeveless top, capri pants, and sandals. Diane and I spent most of the time chatting, so we were surprised when we got off the bus and Tali reported that a religious man had used his phone to photograph her. Tali also told us that she noticed that there was no sign stating that people are entitled to sit wherever they wish; this sign is required by law. We saw the “No Smoking sign” but did not know the other was missing. Tali spoke with the driver, got his name and the bus number, and will follow up with placement of the sign.

As Diane and I stared out the windows today at our beloved Jerusalem, we pondered how a country so magnificently beautiful could have this underlying turmoil of which many outside of Israel are not aware. Rosa Parks fought the same fight in the 1960s in America; how is it possible that in the year 2012, we are waging this same battle in Israel? It’s unconscionable. But, if we don’t act, who will? Don’t we all deserve to sit in the front of the bus?

Nechama Namal (formerly Nanci) lives in Modi’in, Israel, and is a congregants at Kehillat YOZMA, the Reform congregation.

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