From Edie Joseph, Meretz USA “Intern in Israel” scholarship recipient and summer 2010 intern at the Israel Religious Action Center of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism
I received a generous grant from Meretz USA this past summer in order to serve as the Communications Intern for the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) in Jerusalem, Israel. The IRAC is the public and legal advocacy arm of the Movement for Progressive Judaism in Israel. I worked under the Director of Overseas Development and Communication. My responsibilities included communicating IRAC’s vision and current activities to the Diaspora by writing and producing IRAC’s weekly newsletters that reach over 15,000 people around the world, as well managing and updating their new English website. The website includes petitions and letter writing campaigns, blogs, issue papers, and information on IRAC legal and advocacy activities past and present. In addition to working in the IRAC offices, I also had the unique opportunity to observe IRAC’s staff arguing in the Israeli Supreme Court, lobbying in the Knesset, and hosting press conferences.
IRAC’s mission is to infuse social justice advocacy with the spiritual energy and the humane worldview of Progressive Judaism. This mission, to build a more just society, is exemplified in the various actions that IRAC takes on behalf of disenfranchised minorities and other underrepresented groups in Israel, especially non-Orthodox Jews– Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist. As the Communications Intern, it was my goal to merge my personal and academic interests with a full time volunteer job, and share my passion for these issues in Israel with the broader English speaking Diaspora community. I worked on two major projects this past summer that illustrate my role in the organization. The first project was to spread awareness of gender inequality and the lack of religious freedom for women at the Western Wall. At Jerusalem’s Western Wall, women are legally prevented from wearing traditional ritual garb (kippah and/or tallit), praying aloud together in a group, and reading from a Torah scroll – all things which men are allowed and encouraged to do. Many women have been harassed and even arrested because they have been deemed by Orthodox bystanders to be immodestly dressed and to be engaged in prayer in the “wrong” place or in the “wrong” way. IRAC has supported the rights of women to pray as they see fit, and is dedicated to keeping the Wall a holy place for all Jews.
In July, IRAC’s Executive Director Anat Hoffman led a group of women to pray at the Western Wall, following all the designated rules, and carrying a Torah only once outside of the Wall area itself. She was harassed and arrested by police, taken to jail, and charged with not following the “customs of the place.” I stood with Hoffman at the Wall, coordinated the response of the rest of the women to peacefully march and pray outside of the jail where she was held, spoke with Israeli and American press, and wrote about this issue in IRAC’s weekly newsletter and blog to explain its importance. Outrage over Hoffman’s arrest spread to Jewish communities around the world, and because of IRAC’s efforts, there was a special day in the Knesset to address religious pluralism and women’s rights at the Western Wall.
The second project I worked on was advocacy against a major bill in the Knesset that dealt with the question of “who is a Jew” in Israel. This bill would grant the Chief Rabbinate of Israel – the ultra-Orthodox religious authority that enforces religious law in Israel – sole responsibility in the field of conversion. This would seriously undermine the ability of the non-orthodox movements in Israel to convert people to Judaism, and quite possibly would also prevent the recognition of non-orthodox conversions performed in the Diaspora. It would effectively tell people that their way of being Jewish is not respected or even recognized in the state of Israel – ironically, the traditional Jewish homeland would radically limit the scope of who is considered Jewish.
Along with IRAC and leaders of the American, Canadian, and Australian movements for Progressive Judaism, I coordinated efforts to block the bill, wrote emergency response newsletters, started an email and telephone campaign to various members of Knesset, and received over 7,000 names for a petition that was delivered directly to the Prime Minister’s office. Because of these efforts, a compromise was reached and the bill was put on hold indefinitely in its current form, and a working group including representatives of non-orthodox streams of Judaism is now working to amend the bill.
In addition to these two projects, throughout the summer I attended a Supreme Court hearing in which IRAC protested gender-segregated buses, represented IRAC at the Jerusalem Pride Parade for Equality and Tolerance, and led volunteers in distributing food for the underprivileged gypsy community in East Jerusalem. Through all of these incredible experiences, I gained invaluable career development and skills. I learned first-hand how a non-profit operates in Israeli society, and with that, learned the basics of fundraising and working as a team player in an office environment. Most importantly, my writing skills improved dramatically–I learned to write press releases, thank you notes, newsletters for audiences around the world, letter-writing campaigns, and opinion pieces. I left Israel feeling empowered that a non-profit can make a difference in government and society, and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity that Meretz USA provided me.