Today, I boarded the #56 bus in Ramat Shlomo – the first neighborhood in Jerusalem (really more like a close suburb) that was planned solely for Ultra-Orthodox residents – as part of the “Freedom Riders” initiative of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. We were riding to enforce the law that people can sit anywhere they want on the bus – as these buses, which are funded with public money (meaning: my taxes) have become segregated lines in which women sit in the back and men sit in the front. We were the first ones on the bus and I noticed the sticker at the front of the bus and over a door in the middle of the bus reminding the passengers of this law.
I was full of tension – would there be violence? (I have experienced Ultra-Orthodox people shouting obscenities and throwing potatoes at us when I walked with the Women at the Wall) The ride did pass quietly, but our presence was certainly felt. One man turned to Steven, who works at the IRAC, and asked him: “Who’s paying you to make this provocation?” He answered, “I just bought a ticket and got on the bus, like everyone else.”
I sat near the front where there are four seats that face each other. No one sat next to me and most of the time no one sat facing me. Men in black jackets and black hats crowded the aisles, preferring to stand crowded in the front than sit or move to the back. Many ultra-Orthodox women paused, hovered, stood next to the seat for a few moments, and then moved to the back. A woman who looked about to give birth sat next to me, also looking hesitant, until her husband found her a seat in the back.
Noa, the vice-director of the IRAC, said this was one of the tensest rides she has taken in awhile. Though it was quiet and restrained, our presence was certainly felt on the bus. It was a quiet struggle, one step forward in upholding human rights inIsrael.
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I took this “Freedom Ride” on Jerusalem Day, the day marking the conquering of the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967, the day that the Jewish people returned to the site of the Temple, to the ancient foundations of Jerusalem. Some say this is the day ofJerusalem’s “reunification”. Among the main events of the day is a march led by right-wing nationalistic movements and youth, including settler movements, (lots of knitted kipot and tzitziyot hanging out of the shirts) that will purposely track through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City and through predominantly Arab East Jerusalem.
In a recent meeting of Israeli Reform rabbis, Rabbi Naamah Kelman, the Dean of Hebrew Union College inJerusalem, challenged us to rethink Jerusalem Day and to create activities that reflect our love and hopes forJerusalem.
Since then, I have been trying to formulate my own thoughts on how to answer that challenge.
First of all, I do believe that Jerusalem should be the capital of the State of Israel and is the eternal center of the Jewish people. I too celebrate that all Jews have the possibility to access the holy and historical sites in Judaism.
To start with, I think Jerusalem Day should be a day of getting to know Jerusalem – it should be a day of mass study in Jerusalem, throughout Israel and in the whole Jewish world, on the meaning of Jerusalem throughout the ages – in the parks, in the halls of study, in the malls, in the archaeological sites. By study, I mean texts, tours, plays, and games (depends upon the age). Some of this learning should also be about the non-Jewish residents of Jerusalem, today and throughout the ages. I could support a march to the Western Wall that would be respectful and hopeful, that would sing songs of peace and hope. The march would be coordinated with the representatives of the populations who live along the route. The message would be peace and co-existence. The aspiration would be how to exercise Israel’s sovereignty and control over the holy sites and to live the instruction of the Psalmist (122:6-7), “Seek out the peace of Jerusalem, may those who love you enjoy tranquility. May there be peace within your ramparts, tranquility in your palaces.”
That would be a cause for celebration!