While many women around the globe proudly describe themselves as “feminists”, for Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) filmmaker Shoshi Altman the term was foreign.
“I admit that I didn’t really know what the word ‘feminism’ meant,” Altman said in an interview with WIZO last week at the completion of Ha’Nivcheret, WIZO’s trailblazing leadership training program for ultra-Orthodox women, in which she participated.
“The first time I was really exposed to that word was two years ago at the premiere of my documentary film “Achoti Kallah” (My Sister is a Bride) at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. The audience that night was mostly secular. At the Q&A session which followed the screening, one woman got up and said to me, ‘You are a feminist. Your mother is a feminist. All your sisters are feminists. Even if you don’t call yourselves that, you are all feminists.’ Then I went home and Googled the term “feminism” to find out what it meant exactly. It was then I realized that the woman was right. I am indeed a feminist.”
Defining feminism is but one aspect of Ha’nivcheret,” a joint venture between WIZO and "Nivcharot - Haredi Women's Movement". The program, which began last year, just completed its second course with 24 participants coming together for four months of training (12 weekly meetings at WIZO's Tel Aviv Headquarters), to prepare and encourage them to take on public leadership roles in civil society, local and national politics, and in their communities.
Margalit Lev-Tov is a single mother living in Bnei Barak with her four children, including one with special needs. She balances running her own business while raising a family. She joined Ha'Nivcheret to obtain tools to continue her national battle for the rights of special needs children.
“To me, feminism is about equal opportunities for both males and females," Lev-Tov said. It's about giving women their place, so that they can be heard. We all deserve a place at the table. I found the women in this group to be both very powerful and supportive. I found my place here.”
Judy Ben-Gad, a Haredi CPA from Rehovot who joined Ha'Nivcheret to spur her new initiative which helps female Haredi accountants advance in the field, also found support within the group.
“I come from the Haredi community, but I think this is the first time that I met a group of women that I felt really connected to, like I really belonged. All of them are full of aspirations and all of them want to create change. They took this course during their very limited free time to help themselves improve. The desire inside of them is burning. You either have it or you don’t – and they definitely have it.”
"During the course, the participants acquire theoretical knowledge along with practical tools and experience,” explained Sheli Rapoport, WIZO's Director of Development and Guidance for Gender Equality Programs. "They also meet influential women in Israel’s local and national authorities who inspire them to become activists themselves at the social, public and political levels."
"While Israeli women are slowly but surely making strides in leadership roles both nationally and locally, some sectors of Israel’s public, including ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) women, have yet to break through the glass ceiling," said Rivka Neumann, Director of WIZO's Division for the Advancement of Women. "Women's rights and roles in Israel's large Jewish ultra-Orthodox sector are of tremendous importance to Israeli society. The Ha'Nivcheret program promotes involvement in decision-making and influence centers in the social, public and political spheres. The participants deal with the conflicts, barriers, and unique challenges and opportunities of ultra-Orthodox women."
Documentary filmmaker Shoshi Altman (center) receives her Ha'nivcheret completion certificate from Sheli Rapoport (left) and Esty Shushan (right)
“Coming from B’nei Barak, I always thought of myself as a modern Haredi woman with an open mind,” Altman said. “But I was mistaken. In the Haredi community, there is a lot of judgement. People worry about what others will say and what will people think. As much as I thought that I was open, I realized that I was very judgmental. Through this program, from listening to the personal stories of the other participants, I learned how not to be judgemental."
“A person never knows what is behind the action of someone else,” Altman continued. “Therefore, I cannot judge anyone else about their level of how Haredi they are. This changed not just how I view the women in this program, but how I view my family. My husband even says that since I started the program he received a new wife.”
"I never would have dreamed of getting to where I am today if it were not for the guidance and inspiration WIZO’s leadership program for Haredi women gave me,” said Hila Hassan Lefkowitz, who ran for her local city council after completing the program last year. "I encourage every Haredi woman who wants to lead a social change to take part in this program.”
”Change is very important,” says Esty Shushan, the Haredi woman who founded Nivcharot, the precursor to Ha'Nivcheret . ”We are all very excited to begin this journey of empowerment, leadership and independence, a journey so different, and in many cases at serious odds, with the participants’ own worlds at home and in their communities. But we must do this together.”
"Each of the women in our program has a real desire to make change, within the Haredi community and often in the community at large as well, " WIZO Israel Director Sarit Arbel said. "They all came to Ha'Nivcheret with different goals, to promote Haredi female accountants, to fight for the rights of special needs children, or any variety of initiatives. This program gives each of them the tools and support they need to make their goals come to fruition."
“This program went far beyond my expectations,” said Laly Sharlin, a Haredi journalist who was among the youngest participants in the group. “When you face challenges, it’s very easy to fall into a place of despair. You just stay in your comfort zone, which is to do nothing. But here in this WIZO program I met inspiring women, each of them with an amazing personal story . Despite their many challenges, they never gave up. They create and continue to make change for the better. They are all role models for me. I highly recommend this program to any woman who wants to make change or be a social leader or an activist and who is not just satisfied with where she is at now.
Shoshi Altman, who thanks to Ha'Nivcheret now has a new educational initiative and a new subject for a documentarty film in mind, couldn’t agree more.
“I absolutely recommend this program,” she said. “In fact, I would even take it again!”
Left to right: Rivka Nuemann, Sarit Arbel, Yael Elimelech, Tamar Peer, Sheli Rapoport, Esty Shushan and Hila Hassan Lefkowitz,