Hannah Kehat is a modern Orthodox Israeli academic, teacher and the founder of Kolech: Religious Women’s Forum, the country’s first Orthodox Jewish feminist organization, which she established 17 years ago. Kehat spoke last month in Toronto and Vancouver at talks sponsored by the New Israel Fund of Canada.
The CJN spoke with her prior to her Canadian appearance about her foray into feminism, Kolech’s activist and educational activities, and the key issues that she feels women in Israel – and particularly religious women – are facing today.
Did you grow up in an Orthodox community?
Yes, I grew up in the haredi neighbourhood of Mea Shearim. It was not considered acceptable for women in this community to go to university, but I decided to do it. This was one of the reasons for my leaving this style of life and changing to a more modern way of life, because I wanted to study and not to give it up.
I left the community when I was about 20 and, other than my parents and siblings, with whom I still have relationships, I cut my connection to it. I went to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and studied Jewish philosophy and Bible studies. I later did a doctorate at Hebrew U in Jewish philosophy. Now I’m writing, researching and teaching Jewish studies. I teach at some academic colleges in Israel.
Had you always identified as a feminist?
I didn’t identify as a feminist at that time when I first left the haredi community. I just wanted to go on with my studies. But in retrospect, I see it was a feminist act not to give up, to fulfil myself and not to become a haredi woman who has to stop her studies and have a big family… Later, at about age 35, I identified as a feminist and started the feminist movement of religious women in Israel. That was about 17 years ago.
What are the biggest issues faced by women in Israel today?
I think, because in Israel there’s no separation between church and state, that is the main problem of women in Israel, especially the religious. There’s the problem of agunot, and of women who want to convert to Judaism. There’s a huge gap between the situation of women and the rabbinic establishment. In the last two years, we’ve had a bit of success in the Knesset, with members like Aliza Lavie, from Yesh Atid, who tried to change a little bit the laws, but it’s really a big challenge. It’s very political.
We recently helped a lesbian religious woman that a rabbi had shamed and discriminated against, so we took him to court, and he [eventually] had to pay her. We’ve had some achievements in the Supreme Court. For example, it’s now illegal to make a woman go to the back of the bus. I personally sat in the front of a bus between two haredi men this week, and nobody dared say anything, because they know now if they did, the driver would call the police. So we can say we changed that. Kolech was fighting in the Supreme Court for that. We helped to do it. And women at the Western Wall can now pray and nobody bothers them. So there are some achievements.
Aside from the types of activism you mentioned, what are Kolech’s main activities?
We have many positive activities, both cultural and educational. We have a lot of workshops and programs in schools to empower young women, teach them and talk to them, and for boys, too, about gender issues, sexual issues. It’s a lot of listening and talking to them about issues that bother them as teenagers. We do this in religious, but not haredi, schools, and sometimes in non-religious schools.
We’ve also published books, newsletters and academic articles.
How many members does Kolech have?
We have about 2,000. And in our Facebook group, we now have about 10,000 people. It’s very alive and dynamic.
And last year, a new movement of haredi feminists started to be active on Facebook and we’ve started to meet them. They come to our meetings. It’s the beginning of a change in the haredi world.
What kinds of resistance, or pushback, has Kolech encountered?
Most of the time we’re not attacked, but supported, and the dialogue hasn’t been too aggressive, though there have been times when it became aggressive.
For example, on the issue of sexual abuse by rabbis, when we started to demand and investigate the issue and deal with complaints against rabbis, we became a target for threats. And there was pressure put on my boss to fire me, on my family and friends. My boss did try to fire me because of these battles and my decision to complain against rabbis, and I was in court for five years and won.
It was hard for the rabbis. We had broken a taboo. Nobody before had talked about sexual harassment or domestic violence in religious communities. There was this idealization that the religious society was a super model, that everyone was OK and that there were no such problems in that community. Kolech was the first organization that started to talk about this and to say, “We have to take this seriously and go to the police.” At the end of the day, most rabbis changed their attitudes, and today they really participate and ask us to teach them about these issues.
How do you best get through to women in haredi communities?
There’s now this big group of haredi feminists and we meet with them and they admire us and learn from us, come to us for guidance. These women have computers. They’re smart and very interesting.
To what extent, if at all, do you draw on Halachah to argue points about feminism?
Sure. We have to use the same language as the rabbis. So, when we fight against a rabbi who has been abusive, we speak about “lo ta’amod al dam reyecha” – that you can’t just stand by the suffering of another.
We publish a lot of books and articles about these issues.
Women in Israel, maybe not haredi, but religious Zionist women, today are part of the halachic discussion and write halachic books, responses. Now in Israel we have women who are real scholars in Torah.
What do you see as the best way to create change for women in the haredi world?
I don’t know. In the haredi world it will take time, though it has started.
When we first started Kolech, even to say the word ‘feminist’ among religious women was forbidden, taboo. Every religious woman had to say she was not a feminist. But now, it’s not a forbidden word and a lot of young women say they are. There are a lot of interesting processes in the haredi community now having to do with rabbis, yeshivot, political parties. I think that in 10 years, we will see a different society.
I know in modern Orthodox society in Israel, it’s also a dynamic process. We have a lot more egalitarian synagogues now in Israel than we did a few years ago. Women are taking part in more duties, like davening, reading Torah.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.