Single Orthodox women in Israel look towards motherhood

This article was first published on The Forward.

Yael Ukeles always wanted to be a mother. “Growing up, it was just something I thought about,” she said. “Kids were always important to me. But when I hit a certain age and still didn’t have a partner, I had to figure out a different way.”

Ukeles, an Orthodox
Jewish woman, lives in Tekoa, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. A few
years after moving to Tekoa from Jerusalem, Ukeles started doing research on in
vitro fertilization options in Israel. “I read about women who had done it
before, about rabbinical responses, and what my options were,” she said.

The National
Health Service in Israel provides three free rounds of in vitro fertilization for
women up to age 45, and Ukeles started thinking about the possibility of Jewish
donors. “But I was also kind of frustrated,” she recalled. “I was nervous about
doing this on my own, and didn’t really know that many people that were in the
same place as I was.” Even before Ukeles underwent the procedure, she also knew
that there was stigma surrounding her decision, especially among the members of
her insular Orthodox community.

It was during
her pregnancy with her son Amitai that Ukeles started thinking about other
women in her position. In 2011, Ukeles co-founded the group KayamaMoms with
Dina Pinner and Dvora Ross in order to better support other women like them –
that is, observant Jewish women who are single mothers by choice. Kayama is the
Hebrew word for existence, and the group was inspired by a famous passage in
Aramaic that translates to say, “We exist through our seed.”

Though KayamaMoms also hosts public awareness events and talks across the country, it is primarily a group for members and by members. The organization now has approximately 100 participants, and they stay connected even though many of the women live in Israel and the West Bank. The mothers communicate via a WhatsApp group and Facebook page, and plan monthly meetups where they picnic, hike, and hang out with each other and their children.

A lot of time is also spent discussing their faith, and how their religious communities have reacted to their decisions. Though it’s happening slowly, Ukeles thinks that some Orthodox communities in Israel are getting on board. Between 10 to 15 percent of the population in Israel identifies as Orthodox, and there has been a lot of rabbinic discussion about the halachic nature of in vitro fertilization. Generally, supportive rabbis reference a quote from the Book of Genesis, and say “And G-d said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.’”

In vitro
fertilization has long been used in Israel by single secular women, but the use
of it by single Orthodox women is still relatively new. Rabbi Yuval Cherlow,
one of KayamaMoms’s advisors and the head of a modern Orthodox yeshiva in
Petach Tikvah, has become one such advocate for these single mothers. He
advised Ukeles through this process as well, and believes that it’s a decision
that has become less stigmatized. “There are more of us now, and we’re becoming
more accepted,” said Ukeles. Though there is no data to support this theory,
Ukeles also believes the number of Orthodox single mothers by choice is on the
rise.

“I think it’s a
growing phenomenon in a certain niche of modern Orthodoxy,” said Yardena
Cope-Yossef, a halachic fertility counselor, lecturer in Talmudic and Jewish
law, and legislative advisor in the Israeli Ministry of Justice’s Jewish law
department. “There’s nothing in Jewish law that expressly forbids in vitro
fertilization,” she said. “So people are slowly coming around to it, and
realizing that their issues with it primarily lie with their concerns about
traditional family structures.”

While this
acceptance might be taking place in certain communities or spaces, much of the
country still struggles with the idea of single orthodox mothers and in vitro
fertilization. In June of 2018, after a lawsuit, an ultra-Orthodox hospital in
Netanya was forced to allow in vitro fertilization for an unmarried woman.
However, this procedure was only allowed if a male partner was in attendance,
prohibiting the treatment for single women.  

With or without acceptance,
there are still more hurdles to overcome. As more women turn to sperm banks and
in vitro fertilization, the lack of regulations has become a concern for many
of the women in KayamaMoms and around Israel. “At the end of the day, people
are nervous about possible incest,” said Ukeles. The concern centers around the
possibility, however unlikely, that the sperm donor could help produce multiple
children that could eventually meet and form future unions without knowing they
were related.

The suggested solution is somewhat counter-intuitive. “Paradoxically, if a sperm donor’s identity is anonymous, it’s better halachicaly to get a non-Jewish donor,” said Cope-Yossef. “The Jewish identity goes through the mother anyways, and if a woman gets an anonymous Jewish donor, there could be issues with the history of that donor’s parentage, and more. It’s actually better for it to be non-Jewish and anonymous.” The Ministry of Health is currently working on a sperm bank law, and in proposed legislation there will be an anonymous and non-anonymous track for sperm donation for this very reason.

“There is no
where near enough data on these sperm banks, where they’re coming from, and how
it’s managed geographically,” adds Ukeles. “This is our next big struggle, which
is why it is so important to make these conversations less taboo in the Orthodox
community.”

On a Saturday night in March 2019, a few hours after Shabbat had ended, Yael Ukeles and her son Amitai sat on the couch poring over a Jewish prayer book. Amitai, 8, had recently learned the prayer “Anim Zemirot,” and was practicing it with his mother.

“This might be a prayer his friends are learning with their dads,” said Ukeles, after Amitai went to bed. “But in our house, he’s learned it from me. I think that’s pretty special.”

This article was republished courtesy of The Forward.


Ethiopian Jews Protest Police Violence through Art

This article was first published at Religion Unplugged:

SDEROT, Israel – From the walls of an art gallery of a public college here, the portrait of a young black man soberly gazes down as onlookers pass through the gray halls. He is known simply by his Ethiopian mother’s name, as Mamye’s son.

His real name is Yehuda Biadga, a 24-year-old Ethiopian Jew who died earlier this year in a confrontation with Israeli police. His shooting is the latest case to spark demonstrations in Tel Aviv against the discrimination Ethiopians face in Israel.

But the portrait here is another kind of protest, this one in art rather than on the streets. It is part of a new show, “The Color Line,” created and curated by a group of Ethiopian Jewish women artists. Their work is on view until April 24th in the gallery at Sapir College near Sderot, a city a mile east of the Gaza border.

“If there is no racism, I would not be making this art,” said Zaudito Yosef, a 35-year- old artist from Ashdod, who, alongside her cousin, Tagist Yosef Ron, and Dana Yosef, Tagist’s sister-in-law, are curators and artists for the show. Police officers in the Biadga shooting have been cleared of wrongdoing, but Ethiopian Jews, including the Yosefs, see it as yet another case of police brutality in the country.

Mamye’s Son by Tagist Yosef Ron

The show at Sderot is not the first time the family has been featured together. Their work has appeared alongside each others in books exploring issues of Ethiopian Jewish identity in contemporary art. But this time, things are different. An Ethiopian would have full control of the gallery and pick artists to showcase the police issue through the eyes of Ethiopian Jews themselves. After Zaudito was given the go-ahead from Sapir College, she immediately called Ron, who threw her hat in the ring.

Zaudito, second left, and Ron, second right, with other featured artists at the show in Sderot, Sapir College 

Their artistic talents trace back to their mothers and grandmothers, all artists in Ethiopia. “It is probably genetic,” said Zaudito. Like most of the 144,000 Ethiopian Jews in the country, the family’s story is one of displacement, aimless wandering as refugees in Sudan, and finally, a union with the land of their dreams.

But
life in Israel has come with its own set of difficulties. Although they are now
part of the Jewish religious majority, the family continues to contend with
their reality as ethnic minorities in an Ashkenazi and Sephardic dominated
Jewish society. “We didn’t know our color there,” said Zaudito, “It’s only when
we came here we realized we were black.”

According
to Pew Research Center, roughly a third of Israeli Jews say Ethiopian Jews face
“a lot” of discrimination in society. It’s something that’s even felt by Rabbi
Sharon Shalom, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent who leads a partly Ashkenazi
congregation at Kdoshei Yisrael Synagogue in Kiryat Gat, a city about eighteen
miles north of Sderot. As a religious leader who deals with repeated questions
on the authenticity of his Jewishness from congregants, he says race triumphs
religion in Israel. 

The
Yosefs themselves can list a litany of incidents when they have personally
encountered discrimination, from being physically assaulted as children near
immigrant absorption centers to companies turning them away at job interviews.
There are lots of things that worry them in Israeli society, but the main
problem is always the police.

“There
is a lot of pain that should be everybody’s pain,” said Ron, “the whole
society, not just Ethiopian Israelis.”

She
focuses on “the boys,” young Ethiopian Jews, like Biadga and Yosef Salamsa, whose deaths protestors say links to
police violence and neglect.

Four years ago, a video showing two police officers beating Damas Pakada, an Ethiopian Israeli soldier, brought the issue to the forefront of Israeli society. After the video was circulated, mass protests erupted at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square and several people were arrested.     

“Many Ethiopians feel insecure in their neighborhoods or out of their neighborhoods when they see policemen,” said Shoshana Ben-Dor, the former Israel Director for the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, in Jerusalem.

“days” Portraits of concerned Ethiopian mothers by Dana Yosef

The community makes up merely 2 percent of the country’s population, but they account for 40 percent of the public discrimination complaints filed to the Ministry of Justice’s government unit against racism. And according to police data, they are also twice as likely to be arrested.

Some
of the family members are a part of closed Facebook groups where young
Ethiopian Jews talk about their personal experiences away from the gaze of the
wider Israeli society. “They compare it to the African-American experience in
the United States,” said Ofir Abu, a researcher into Israeli policing in
minority communities at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

In fact, some of the inspiration for the art and protests comes from the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. “A lot of young people saw that, and felt a connection,” said Batya Sisay, a 35-year-old Ethiopian artist also featured for the gallery. There are many pro-black themes at the show: women flaunting their natural kinky hair, little girls holding black dolls, and older women in traditional Ethiopian clothes are prominent throughout the paintings.

The
name of the art show itself, the Color Line, borrows a concept coined by the
African-American writer W.E.B. Du Bois, and worries on the policing of their
young men sound similar to fears often raised in the United States. “I’m
concerned for my children,” said Dana. She follows police issues closely, and
when reports of incidents flood in, she lays her three children to sleep and
channels her anxiety through watercolors.

Their
hearts ache for the mothers of “the boys.” In a perfect world, they say their
art would not exist. But for now, it’s their sole way of fighting back.

“We’re different because of the color of the skin,” said Ron. “We will always be different.”

Some quotes have been translated from Amharic.  

Top photo: “days” Portraits of concerned Ethiopian mothers by Dana Yosef

This article was republished here courtesy of Religion Unplugged.


Druze Women In Academia Are Breaking Barriers

BEIT JANN, Israel — When
Sawsan Kheir, a PhD student at the University of Haifa, was presented with the
opportunity to conduct research with Åbo Akademi in Finland, she was elated.
Until she found out that it would involve 10 days of travelling abroad by
herself. 

“They were trying to entice me with
this travel, but I was immediately put off,” Kheir said. “I was imagining my
father’s face and him telling me no.”

As a Druze woman, Kheir is not
supposed to travel alone. Religious Druze women are not supposed to travel
without a male guardian, or a mahram. Traditionally, a woman’s direct
male relative assumes this role, whether it be her brother, father, uncle or
grandfather.

The Druze are a religious and ethnic
group spread across the Middle East and make up almost 2 percent of the Israeli
population. One of the basic tenets of the Druze faith is state loyalty — the
people are loyal to the country they reside. This pushes Druze people to become
heavily involved in Israeli civic life, including enlisting in the military and
running for office.

Today, three years after she took that
initial trip and then accepted an offer to work with a research project on
young adults and religion in Finland.
Now, Kheir works and lives in Vaasa, Finland, thousands of miles away from her
family home in Israel.

Kheir is one of many Druze women who
are redefining the traditional role of the woman in Druze society. In the 1990s
in Israel, Druze women started enrolling in universities and higher education
programs. Since then, academic pursuits and opportunities in higher education
have enabled women to bypass some of the restrictions placed on Druze women,
including travelling, driving cars, and moving away from home.

While Kheir grew up in a religious
household in Beit Jann, a Druze village in the north of Israel, she chose to
follow a secular path. She does not wear a headscarf or dress in traditional
religious garb, but does not wear earrings -- something that Israeli Druze
women do not do.

As a secular Druze woman, Kheir does
not have access to Druze religious texts and is not bound by the traditional
gender roles set by the Druze faith.

“When you become religious, you have
to abstain from certain things in life,” Kheir said. “You’re supposed to focus
on religion and prayer.”

Although she grew up with a
non-religious father and a religious mother, Kheir has become even less
religious over the course of her life. She still considers herself a Druze
woman, despite not following their religious traditions.

However, even Druze women that identify
as religious are using academia to push against their traditions.

Eman Khateeb Slalha, a student at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, is the daughter of a Druze sheikh, the Arabic word for leader. In the Druze tradition, a sheikh is a religious leader in the community. She considers herself a religious Druze woman, one that has chosen a path of faith.

Unlike Kheir, Khateeb chose to follow
a more religious life path, in line with her family’s background. However, this
has not stopped her from going after what she wants.

“My dreams are big,” Khateeb said. Eventually, Khateeb wants to
get a doctorate degree and go into politics.

Earlier this year, Khateeb
participated in a 24-hour hackathon at her university. With a team, she was instructed
to come up with an issue and a solution.

“If you want to see change in the
world, you have to start from your own environment,” Khateeb said, speaking to
the reason why she decided to participate in the Hackathon.

Khateeb’s
group came up with its own issue: media bias. Together, her team came up with
the idea for an application that connects people around the world based on
their own interests. Regardless of their geographical location or language
capabilities, people on the app can speak to each other about the things they
love.

“Studies have shown that children find
ways to find things in common even without sharing the same language,” Khateeb
said. “Why can’t we do the same?”

Khateeb’s
team ultimately won first prize.

Outside of giving her the opportunity
to develop an app, academia has allowed Khateeb to pursue her goals and
continue to follow her religious faith.

In March, Khateeb was presented with
an opportunity to travel to the University of Girona in Barcelona, Spain, with
a delegation from her university.

Although Druze women are not supposed
to travel alone, Khateeb decided to go.

“I do uncommon things,” Khateeb said. “It’s
a different personality.”

Khateeb’s
trip to Barcelona  was the first time she had ever left Israel.
However, she clarified that she was surrounded by other students from the
university. In June, she will be traveling to Germany and in September, to the
United States.

“It was so weird at first, but then I
got used to it,” Khateeb said.

For both Khatib and Kheir, their
decisions to go abroad relied on the opinions of their male family
members. 

Both of them credit the men in their
lives for providing them with the tools to be able pursue their careers and travel
abroad.

“My father was so supportive,” Kheir
said. “I was travelling for education, not with a friend for pleasure.” Education,
being so important in the Druze tradition, was a good enough reason for Kheir’s
father to allow her to travel by herself.

“He and my husband put the wings on my
back and said go and fly,” Kheir said. “Without their support, I would never
have been able to do it.” However, it was Kheir herself that agreed to take the
research job at Åbo Akademi.

Khateeb also credited her male family
members for supporting her career choices and ambitions.

“She’s very smart,” said her father,
Sheikh Jameel Khatib, after he introduced her to a group of students from
Columbia Journalism School. He did not mention her trips abroad.

Ten years ago, Khateeb married Hamoud
Slalha, who identifies as Druze but is not a religious man.

“He is my support,” Khateeb said. “It’s
not a matter of whether he allows me to, but he supports me.”

Despite having the support of her
immediate family, Khateeb still faced criticisms from her community in Beit
Jann.

“My husband told me to direct all criticisms to him,” Khateeb said. “They’ll have to go through him.”

Top photo: Eman Khateeb Slalha in her home in Beit Jann. Photo by Eleonore Voisard.


Christians bathe in a dirty, holy river. Some drink with faith.

QASR AL-YAHUD -- Surrounded by the desert’s vastness, and flanked by the hulks of abandoned Christian monasteries and chapels, the Jordan River flows placidly into what many Christians call the baptismal site of Jesus Christ, where John the Baptist performed the ritual.

On a recent bustling
morning, pilgrims sang hymns from a wooden deck overlooking the river. People
filtered in and out of the water as a woman in pearls bobbed up and down,
gasping for air before immersing again. Naked children screamed and cried as smiling
adults handed them to others in the water.

The spirit
of religiosity was very much alive at Qasr al-Yahud.

Just ask Zelalem Gerbermariem,
29, a self-declared “believer” in the Coptic Christian Church. A Jerusalem
resident of Ethiopian descent, Gerbermariem just completed  his fifth baptism at Qasr al-Yahud, where
other believers come in droves each year to drizzle, wade or plunge themselves
into the holy water, colored a mocha brown.

And
Gerbermariem drinks the water. By the plastic bottle, in fact.

“It’s
holy water,” he said, shaking his head before flashing a grin. “It’s not dirty.
It’s blessed.”

What Gerbermariem doesn’t know — like most other visitors — is the levels of fecal-derived bacteria at Qasr al-Yahud have long surpassed the acceptable quality standards imposed by the Israeli government, which administers this part of the West Bank. The levels have been climbing lately. The devout continue to visit — and some, acting in faith, choose to imbibe.

Data obtained by the
nonprofit EcoPeace from Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority shows that fecal
coliform bacteria has been on an upward trajectory since September 2018, at the
onset of heavier rainfall and colder temperatures in the area. The most recent
levels available, recorded in February 2019, on Valentine’s Day, showed 3,500
counts of fecal coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters, referring to the larger
bacteria group to which E. coli belongs.

But is
it too dirty?

By the Israeli Ministry of Health’s standards, yes. According to a 1999 regulation for Jewish ritual baths, anything higher than 10 general coliform bacteria, which includes fecal coliform, for every 100 milliliters is too polluted to bathe in — the legislation is displayed in Hebrew on the ministry’s website.

The holy water was so
filthy in February, it surpassed health ministry standards by 350 times. And
some believers drank it.

Graphic
by David Mora.

“Everybody here can drink the
water”

Gerbermariem was not
alone in his holy-water-drinking that day. His preacher, Mabta Gabrieal, 41,
was also there. Dressed in khakis and a crinkled, white shirt, a cross draped
around his neck, Gabrieal weaved through the crowds to the leftmost edges of
the rectangular deck. He removed his clothes and stepped down into the water,
holding on to the metal railing.

His eyes and gleaming
head were lost from the surface as he baptized himself, completely immersed in
the Jordan River.

A lively group was
nearby, many of whom wore white robes that one could buy for $8 from the site’s
gift shop. He returned to the metal railing, climbed back onto the wooden deck
and approached them. Facing the faithful, smiling and dunking themselves in the
water, he scooped some into a plastic bottle. Then he drank it, too.

“We drink the water
because it’s holy,” he said in Amharic, translated by Gerbermariem. “After we
drink the water, it gives us healthy [sic], peace, and blessings.”

While fecal coliform
bacteria is not a direct indicator of disease, it is an indicator for
pollution: a red flag suggesting there may be harmful pathogens present,
explained Alexandra Heaney, who recently received her PhD from Columbia
University’s Mailman School of Public Health. As a doctoral student, Heaney
published an academic paper alongside two veteran researchers on the
relationship between climate change and waterborne diseases, with a special
focus on diarrheal disease.

“For
some diseases, it means that if you ingest just one pathogen, you’ll get sick,”
she said.

Gabrieal said that he
has baptized himself at Qasr al-Yahud “several of hundreds of times.” It wasn’t
his first time drinking the water.

“Jesus is God and he’s
our holy savior,” Gabrieal said. “When you baptized here, you called by his
name: Christians.”

His
congregant, Gerbermariem, insisted that he has never gotten sick from drinking
the water.

“Never,”
he said. “Everybody here can drink the water.”

The cleanliness of the
waters at Qasr al-Yahud have long been scrutinized by researchers and activists
as well as some visitors, skeptical of its quality from a glance. The baptismal
site has been closed intermittently to visitors, including a period in 2010,
following public health concerns then attributed by the health ministry to
sewage and agricultural chemicals.

The
data says that 2010 had the highest levels of fecal coliform bacteria in recent
years.

But the site has continued to welcome visitors, in spite of occasional closures in the last decade. Gidon Bromberg, founder of EcoPeace, an organization run by Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmental advocates, said in a 2010 article in The Guardian that they would sue should the site reopen without addressing health concerns. Bromberg did not to respond to emails inquiring request on whether they followed through.

Nadav Tal, a hydrologist
and water officer at EcoPeace, said the Ministry of Health was in the process
of developing new quality standards for the baptismal site, purportedly
following a government investigation into the water’s quality. The standards
have yet to be published, said Tal.

“It’s well known that
there’s pollution in the water,” Tal said. “I don’t understand why it takes so
much time for them to publish.”

The Israel Ministry of
Health, responsible for determining water quality standards, did not respond to
requests for comment for this story. Neither did the Nature and Parks
Authority, responsible for sampling Qasr al-Yahud’s waters.

Tal has filed a Freedom
of Information Act request with the Ministry of Health, hoping to eke out the
new standards faster. He hasn’t gotten what he asked for yet.

Has anyone gotten sick?

Not to
his knowledge, Tal said. These things were difficult to track.

He hasn’t seen data on
the number of visitors reporting signs of illness after coming into contact
with the baptismal waters. Though many of the site’s visitors were tourists who
soon left the country, he noted.

“It’s very complicated.
If anyone got the disease from the water, you have to prove it. And it’s very
hard,” he said. “Unless everybody
gets sick. But if it’s only one or two persons, it’s very hard.”

There are, of course,
additional complications. It’s possible for a person to become infected with a
harmful pathogen without showing symptoms, making them asymptomatic, Heaney
said, even in cases of diarrhea. The disease can still be transmitted to
others.

Then there are those who
do show symptoms, after a lag between their first day of infection. Some of
them, too, might wait to go to the doctor.

“There could also be
cultural things,” she added. “This is a holy kind of thing, this is a special
thing. If they do get sick, they wouldn’t attribute it to drinking that water.”

The Israeli government
has through the years vehemently denied that Qasr al-Yahud’s waters are too
unhealthy for religious visitors, many of whom come by the busload. The site
was visited by 800,000 people in 2018, according to government figures.

The site is free of
charge to visiting tourists. Pretzels, iced coffee and tea can be bought onsite,
next to refrigerators filled with soda, water and milk, facing a small, busy
gift shop.

Heaney acknowledged that
it’s possible for a person to drink the water at Qasr al-Yahud without getting
sick. It’s dependent on several factors, including that person’s immune system
and what pathogens were in the water at the time they drank it.

But she cast doubt over
the government’s defenses, saying the fecal coliform levels were well beyond
its own safety standards.

“Unfortunately, all of
the other things we’ve been talking about are complicated,” she said. “That is
not a complicated question.”

Tal simply isn’t there for the Israeli government.

“They don’t want to
close because it brings a lot of tourists. It’s a business,” he said. “... Most
of the pilgrims don’t know the water is polluted. Nobody tells them. They have
no idea.”

Photos
by Michelle Bocanegra. 2019.

“I would not drink the water
here”

Kevin Young, 58, who
works for the Walt Disney Company, traveled with his fellow church goers from
the First Baptist Church Orlando to Qasr al-Yahud, to see what he considered
“one of the most significant places in Christianity.”

But he had just bathed in Yardenit, another baptismal site for Christians that opens into the Sea of Galilee. The bluish green waters in Yardenit had been clear —crystal, even, he said.

“You can actually see
the fish. You can’t see the fish here,” Young said, laughing. “... I would not
drink the water here.”

But for Young and
several others, Qasr al-Yahud remains sacred. Of 129 reviews on Tripadvisor, a
popular travel website, the baptismal site received 4.5 stars, many saying they
were moved by the spiritual experience.

“It’s
an amazing experience to be here as a Christian,” Young said. “This is THE
place.”

Norma Ellardo, 54, a
non-denominational Christian from San Diego, California, was submerged head-to-toe
in Qasr al Yahud’s waters, though she did not drink it.

“That’s mandatory for
the bible, so we can clean our sins,” she said. “But it’s our decision, not
somebody force you… I feel born again.”

This sentiment of
personal choice was echoed by other Christians at the site, feeling a spiritual
connection to the place.

Yet some of the faithful
who came in contact with the water were still vocal about their concerns. Marta
Steinke, 31, a first-time Catholic visitor from Poland, rolled up her pant legs
before standing in the river, shins down.

“For me, this river is a
holy river, but when you see this water, it’s too dirty,” she said. “... I’m
just thinking of all the bacteria.”

Ellardo’s pastor, Marciela Preston, 54, said their tour guide told them the water was fine — just muddy. Her fellow Californian church goer agreed.

“I feel it’s not dirty. It’s clean,” said Ellardo. She clutched her unstained white robe, drenched from the Jordan River. “See?”

Top photo by Liz Donovan. 2018.