Ultra-Orthodox women are making history: For the first time, a group of haredi women is running for a seat in a city council. The women, from the religious central city of Elad, have set up the haredi sector's first "party of mothers" and are running in the 2013 municipal elections, which will be held across Israel on October 22.
The new list, called Ir Va'em (mother city), is comprised purely of haredi women. Faction head Michal Chernovitzky told Ynet in a first interview that the new party was formed after attempts to integrate women into existing lists in the city were turned down.
"The real question," she says, "is not why are you running, but why aren't you running.
"At the end of the day," she adds, "the city's women are the ones who spend more hours in Elad, the ones who use public transportation more often, the ones who spend many hours in parks and playgrounds, the ones who connect with the staff and management at the kindergartens, daycare centers and schools, and the ones who take care of their children's activities in the afternoon and during vacations.
"The mothers here are the ones who go to infant welfare centers, and in most cases to HMOs too. So it's only natural that women and mothers will be the ones to take care of all these issues at the council. And let us not forget that these are the fields which constitute the basic infrastructure of services to the resident in the city."
Until the list was submitted, the decision to form Ir Va'em was kept under a thick veil of secrecy for many months of preparations. During that time, rumors were spread about new candidates planning to enter the race, and there were dozens of spins alongside failed attempts to expose those behind the initiative.
A day after the list was submitted to the local elections official, a copy of the list's documents and the identity of the candidates were quickly leaked to haredi media outlets.
The main fear of the young list's activists was of a pressure campaign against the candidates, after seeing haredi women in other cities quit the municipal race one after the other. The Elad women were saddened to learn that the intimidation and pressure managed to get other haredi women candidates to stay at home when the lists were submitted.
Haredi social activist Racheli Ebenbaum, CEO of the Meir Panim organization which fights poverty in Israel, is one of these women. Other notable figures are Ruth Kolian, who tried to run in Petah Tikva, and Marilyn Wenig from Jerusalem.
Ebenbaum was placed in the third slot on the Habayit Hayehudi list in Jerusalem, but was forced to quit the race several weeks ago after she and her family were subject to pressures and threats from haredi elements.
"Ir Va'em strengthens the understanding that haredi women and politics are not a slogan and not demagogy," Ebenbaum says. "It's a reality which can no longer be changed or canceled through a concrete attack. A women's list in a haredi city is a refreshing, courageous and hopeful innovation. The woman heading the list is a positive, wise and focused person. There are no attempts here to create headlines or revolutions, but a net desire for action."
What appeared until recently an almost unachievable target – collecting the required number of signatures on time while keeping a low profile – turned out to be a tremendous success. According to the candidates, within several days they collected all the signatures they needed.
The campaign will not include any signs or posters with big pictures of the candidates. Ir Va'em candidates chose to use the "one member brings another" method and let the platform and the direct contact appeal to voters.
The list will run independently, without the political backing of a certain party, but has already managed to recruit supporters and activists, men and women, who are working for the list's success.
Hasidic woman, single mother
The five candidates on the list each represent, according to the activists, the feminine variety in the city of Elad: Ashkenazi women alongside Sephardic women, haredi women alongside national-religious women, women from the Lithuanian sector alongside a Hasidic representation, and even a single mother representing the needs of single-parent families.
The list is led by Michal Chernovitzky, 33, under the slogan "Mothers for Elad." Chernovitzky works as a software inspector at a high-tech company and is a graduate of the Beit Yaakov school for girls.
She has been living in Elad for the past eight years and is a social and political activist, including in the Democratic Workers' Organization struggling for workers' unions and appropriate social conditions, and in an association which helps haredi and religious women who suffer from domestic violence.
Malki Habshush, 30, represents national-religious women, who are not even represented in the national-religious list running in the elections. Habshush, a former academic counselor for students at the Jerusalem College who has an MA in business administration, is a well-known figure among the religious public in the city and is active in parents' committees in local educational institutions.
They are joined by Feigi Greenberg, 28, who belongs to the Hasidic sector. She is a business administration and psychology graduate and works in the field of human resources and recruitment. Adina Ruhamkin, a single parent and an education professional, has chosen to remain behind the scenes and is working vigorously to voice the needs of single-parent families in the city.
Women and children first?
In accordance with its name, the new list's platform focuses mainly on the needs of families in the city, centering on mothers, children and youth.
"The other candidates want to work in favor of the city's female residents too," Chernovitzky says, "but the bottom line is that women will always do the best for women and the best for children. They are simply familiar with these needs up close and understand them.
"There are many issues on the agenda, like setting up employment centers in the city for women and men, as well as helping improve employment conditions, handling cases of violation of workers' rights in educational institutions and other workplaces in the city. It is precisely in a religious and haredi city that there should be female council members who can be approached by the city's women on sensitive issues when they need help from the municipality."
According to Chernovitzky, there are other sectors whose voice is not heard in the haredi city: "The local youth, some of whom encounters difficulties; single mothers; older parents who come to live next to their children. Here too the city's women have a clear advantage, being much more familiar with the issue.
"The bottom line is that the municipality is the daily life: Income and expenses, education, welfare, transportation, leisure, culture, cleanliness, employment. In all these issues there is a clear shortage of the feminine and motherly aspect, and we are here to fix that.
"We are not working for a certain community, a specific synagogue or a certain educational institution. The communal diversity within the list was very important to us."
Despite the optimism conveyed by the list's leader and candidates, they are still in for a tough battle ahead of the long awaited target, as the haredi street is not used to female public figures. Until then, they have no intention of letting anyone drag them to a smear campaign and negative messages.
"We choose to convey good energies and positive deeds," one of the list's members says. "The result," she promise, "will come at the end of the road, with God's help, and will be expressed in the ballots."