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June 14, 2024

Kol Isha–The Voices of Women Are Heard in The Land

Angela W. Buchdahl

Kol Isha–The Voices of Women Are Heard in The Land
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl

Last Shabbat, we all entered the book of Bamidbar-the Wilderness.
I was fortunate enough to literally be b’midbar–in Israel– on a women’s philanthropy mission hosted by the Schusterman and Weinberg foundations with 30 women leaders of Jewish organizations and foundations.
Now, Bamidbar is known in English as the Book of Numbers because it begins with counting:
“Take a census of all the Israelite people,” but then it goes on to say,
“According to the number of males, twenty years old and upward, All who are able to go forth to war in Israel.”
So--it’s not actually a census of ALL the people of Israel. Women were not counted.

Our group’s mission was to better understand why this millenia-old paradigm– the patriarchy–is still very much alive today.
Because if you go by the numbers–it’s clear that Israelite women still don’t count. 2% of philanthropic dollars go to women’s issues.
The last government had an all-time high of women but today there are only 9 women of the 64 members of this government. Zero women in the war cabinet. Zero women holding major minister positions. Women’s leadership is regressing. And increasingly dismissed. I could have spent the entire trip just incensed about the depressing statistics.

But numbers do not always tell the full story. I’d love to give you a few snapshots of the amazing women who are shaping a new story: We met with Tamar Zeira, who is working to get more women elected–especially Mayors, who have a lot of power in each city. Currently, of 259 mayors in Israel, only 15 women. About 5%. Forum 31 has a goal to double it, plus one for next year. Tamar learned from those trailblazing 15 that women need to be tapped to run. That they need a peer group because it’s extra lonely. She’s creating an infrastructure for their success. This fall, she helped convince 88 women, a record number, to run for mayor. Then, Oct 7 happened. Suddenly, the men had to leave for reserve duty. And most of her candidates were left to keep the home, take care of the kids and earn a living. They no longer felt they could run. One of her leading candidates, Tamar Kedem was killed along with her family in the Eshkol region on October 7. Eventually, Zeira got every one of them back on the ticket–saying: We will do it for Tamar.

We met with Cochav Elkayam Levy, a leading international human rights lawyer. She understood quickly the extent that Hamas had weaponized gender violence and rape on Oct 7 and, within 2 weeks, had sent reports to every UN agency related to these crimes. She got zero responses. Thinking there was a mistake, she re-sent. She shared her sense of pain and betrayal: Do they not see Israeli women as human beings? She finally came to the NY to the halls of the UN and forced them to confront the stories. For her work heading up the Civil Commission on Gender Violence, she was recently awarded the Israel Prize.

We met with Dr. Safa Aburabia, a Bedouin Palestinian citizen of Israel. She grew up in Beersheva, the daughter of a prominent Bedouin father who was the first doctor in their community. Her parents taught her education was the key to independence and she attended Jewish schools, She went on to get a degree in anthropology from Harvard and a PhD from Ben Gurion University. On Oct 7, some of the first people killed were her Jewish friends in the South.

But Hamas also killed her Bedoin neighbors and Palestinian Israeli friends in hijabs–they didn’t discriminate. Safa holds condemnation of Hamas, joy for the rescue of hostages,  and deep pain and anger for the innocent Gazans who have been killed in the crossfires of this war–knowing there is no place she feels she can share all these feelings at once. She said that in the first months after Oct 7, she lost her voice and was afraid to ask herself who she was. But she reminded herself what her parents taught–that she was human first. And she was determined to not lose her humanity in this war.

We met with Mor Yahalom, the first female navy commander in Israel from Forum Devorah, whose mission is to enlarge and amplify women in national security and foreign policy. Today: women are only 3 of 34 female sr officers 5% of the military generals. Still many of the most elite units won’t accept women. Mor is a modern-day Deborah–the biblical judge who becomes a warrior: Wise, compassionate, and tough as nails. She argued that more women in military leadership is not just about equity. She said–We all know from start ups to classrooms, that diversity of viewpoints makes for better thinking and decisions. Can’t help but think how differently this war would be handled if Mor was in the war cabinet with all the men. And I saw THIS at a Ben Gurion airport gift shop. Progress? 

Went to Kibbutz Kfar Aza, one of the first attacks on Oct 7. When you first walk in, trees, blooming bushes, you understand why they felt this was 99% Paradise. We hear about Livnat, a former hi-tech exec who left that world behind for the bucolic community and slower pace of Kfar aza. She worked with the children and collected detritus like this and then made it into art like this. Livnat was killed on Oct 7, and I want to imagine she flew up to heavenon the wings she created with the children of this kibbutz. 

We saw the fence that was breached by Hamas terrorists, you can see Gaza in the horizon, it’s very close. 

And we met with Vered Libstein. Her Huband Ophir was head of the regional council and was so excited about a new project Arazim, an industrial park for Gazan workers that would employ 10,000 Gazans in tech work. Each would earn an average Israeli salary of 8K shekels,  which would have fed 60 people in Gaza. He said–they are not going anywhere, and we are not going anywhere. We must work to make it better. Ophir was one of the very first names Israel announced dead on Oct 7. His dream for Arazim park died that day as well.

Vered’s young adult son, Nitzan, who lived in his own studio in a section of the kibbutz for young people, was all alone as he was shot and eventually died. She also lost her nephew. But she was back at Kfar Aza, mobilizing the women. “I have no choice,” she said. “I will rebuild our home and keep our community together.”

The day I returned from Israel, we began the holiday of Shavuot. I think of it as a woman’s holiday in a sense because we speak of receiving Torah as like receiving milk– that’s why we eat blintzes filled with cheese on this holiday–And that makes the Torah a nursing Mother. How about that for an image? And while in Israel I met our most ancient Matriarch. 

Our trip began at ANU, the reinvented museum of the Jewish people. They have recently acquired the Codex Sasson, the oldest, most complete Hebrew bible, which during this war is being held in a basement vault, but they brought it out, especially for our group. It was scribed in Israel in the 9th century for a Persian Jewish community. But 600 years ago, at a time when this community was under grave danger, they entrusted this codex to a Muslim family for safekeeping. And for 500 years, we didn’t know where it was. But they guarded and kept it. It reappeared in the 1920’s, purchased by the Sassoon, then Safra families. No longer hidden or in private hands, she has returned to her birthplaceand is now at ANU–the museum of all of us. She looks beautiful at 1100 years old. 

As we looked closely, we saw the earliest cantillation markings in our text. As we stood there admiring it, someone in the group urged me to chant from the Bible. How could I not? I stepped forward and found myself shaking a bit. What to read? Then I saw it– the page was open to the Shema, of course! So I began, and when I started the v’ahavta, the entire group of women chanted with me. And by the time we sang shehechyanu together, we were all crying. Dan Tadmor, the CEO of the museum and the only man in the room noted that this was likely the first time that women’s voices ever chanted from this text in its 1100-year history. The codex Sassoon nursed us with the milk of Torah. The voices of women were heard in our land. And we knew that we counted. Shema Yisrael. Hear O Israel. We are One.

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.