"I keep seeing pictures of you on Facebook surrounded by women who cover their hair."
"What's with you and these dati women?"
"Are you turning Charedi on us?"
I get these question all the time. The answers, in order:
I'll get to that in a minute.
Given the great divide between the religious and secular populations in Israel at large, and in the Jerusalem area specifically, why do I continue to push those boundaries and grow closer to the many communities of frum women? To the point of being friends with Charedi (ultra-orthodox) women who won't eat in my house?
The answer to that question begins in 2004 with The Vagina Monologues. Brand new in Israel (and still exceptionally unhappy here - the first seven years are the hardest) I was seeking cultural events which could make me feel like less of a foreigner. Hebrew Union College was putting on a presentation of this particular show which I had wanted to see in New York but never got the chance. Bingo! I bought my ticket and off I went, expecting to feel empowered, at home, and very I AM WOMAN HEAR ME ROAR!
In typical Hilary fashion, the following night I attended an entirely juxtaposed show - I went to a women-only Raise Your Spirits production of Noah. Before the show, they sang Ani Maamin together (kind of the religious Hatikva) while I squirmed in the corner. I was the nonbeliever (still am.) I expected to feel like an outsider: unwelcome, uninvited, unincluded.
I assumed I would feel one way at the first performance and another at the second. But we all know about assuming - and I was wrong. Dead wrong.
Religious Jewish women often segregate themselves from the men in their communities, and it starts young. Single gender schools, single gender socializing, single gender celebrations. One would think that this segregation would lead to rule-breaking, resentment, inequity. And maybe it does. But my experience is that this segregation builds women's relationships in a way that we're often missing in secular society. They bolster each other, reach out to each other, offer each other support, validate, recommend, refer and strengthen. And I've seen this time and time again across the entire spectrum of observant women.
Yesterday, I spoke at the Temech Conference for Women in Business, an annual gathering of 600+ (religious) women entrepreneurs from all over Israel. Yes, I had to dress the part. Yes, my presentation slides needed to dress the part too. But it was reasonably clear that I didn't come from their world. And nobody blinked. I was welcomed warmly, asked infinite questions about my chosen topic (content marketing, duh) and even seated with the Cool Kids at lunch, an opportunity that eluded me all through school.
Women (who I just met!) referred clients to me. Women I've seen before but didn't know well greeted me with hugs. Women helped each other. Even people in the same field (competitors!) discussed best practices, debated rates and contracts, shared ideas and networked. While I'm confident that this phenomenon exists in professional secular circles, I have never experienced this feeling at a secular conference.
It was the feeling of unity.
Back to 2004. I was shocked to walk out of The Vagina Monologues feeling distant, disillusioned and disappointed. I wasn't wearing what most of the crowd was wearing, I didn't use the slang they used, I didn't come from the financial background/social status they did. And I felt it. At the Raise Your Spirits production, however, I felt unified, empowered, and elevated. I felt I belonged, even though it was clear to everybody that on the surface, I didn't.
No, this doesn't mean I'm going to keep kosher. It doesn't mean I'm going to cover my hair. I'm still solidly in the "I'm not sure what exists and what doesn't, and I'm fine with that" category. But I know where I feel uplifted and accepted. And that's where I will continue to go.