The organization's objectives include mainstreaming issues such as feminist discourse; the exclusion of women; and women who are unable to obtain a divorce. Kolech seeks to disseminate the values of gender equality and mutual respect; to promote equal opportunities for women in the public sphere; and to advance women's rights in the religious and halachic spheres.
Interview with Hannah Kahat – Founder
First, can you tell us a little about your organization? When was it established and what does it do?
The story of Kolech is very long, I'll try to keep things as short as possible. The organization began as a group of women in 1998, the result of a concrete grassroots need. We couldn't have imagined how great the need was and how the organization will develop. At the time, the word "feminism" was taboo in the religious society and the attitude toward women in the community was appalling. It seemed like men saw us as a passing fad or a joke. I met with some friends one time, and each of us began talking about the problems she encountered, including at home. We poured our hearts out and we began to demonstrate leadership. We attended a conference in New York at the end of 2007 and realized that we went there in search of our own identity.
In August 2008, we established an association, but we were still not fully aware of the real social problems generated by the status of women in the religious community. As we made progress, more and more women joined us and came out of the feminist closet, so that by the time of our official launch we were already approximately a hundred women. We went on to discover more and more crucial needs and we dove into it without planning and without thinking about establishing a movement or an organization. We didn't pay any attention to strategy – things just developed organically.
We began to hear about cases of women unable to obtain a divorce and about incidents of domestic violence and sexual assault – things we had not been used to in our daily reality. And the needs only continue to grow, to this day. We underwent a process of focusing and narrowing our goals in 2002. We had been constantly growing, without ever settling down. We finish dealing with one issue and another one immediately pops up. We are constantly chasing the next challenge.
Is Kolech still perceived as an esoteric group?
Today there are two members of Kolech in the Knesset – Shuli Moalem and Aliza Lavie. That pretty much says it all. Feminism isn't a dirty word anymore, and our struggles are on the public agenda.
Issues such as feminist discourse, the exclusion of women and the problems facing women who cannot get a divorce were not mainstream matters. We feel that they are now slowly getting the attention they deserve and people are beginning to appreciate their importance for Israeli society. It's a very Sisyphean process. There are amazing results, but the work is extremely painstaking.
Kolech deals with all kinds of issues in the outside world, but what about the fact that men and women are not equal at prayer?
We are fighting back against religious extremism, exclusion and ridiculous demands for modesty that constitute discrimination against women. Even if they are not egalitarian, more and more synagogues are aware of discrimination and thinking about equality.
There is a process of considering gender and sexual orientation. This is an important dividing line between the ultra-Orthodox and the "national ultra-Orthodox" on one hand and the modern Orthodox on the other. I do feel that things are changing.
What is the main difficulty you are facing in your society?
The rabbis. The rabbinical establishment in Israel is highly politicized and it is completely unaccountable. It is a corrupt establishment and the rabbis simply try to curry favor with those who appoint them – the religious politicians. The Rabbinate has no connection with the public and it isn't chosen by the public. The politicization of religion has corrupted the rabbinical institution.
This also impacts the rabbis who would like to be more sympathetic, but their dependency on the Rabbinate leads them to toe the line and accept the chauvinistic approach. This explains the difficulties encountered by women at the rabbinical courts, which turn them into victims.
Even among liberal-minded rabbis, only a few are willing to pay the price. The rabbis don't really act as leaders and they lack courage. They are always preoccupied by what people will say about them and how it will affect the next stage of their career. Nothing good will ever come out of the Rabbinate – it will always be negative and cowardly.
Are there any women who stand up to the rabbis?
I think women are playing an increasingly significant role. For example, Rivka Lovitz, Tamar Ross and Susan Weiss are campaigning for women who cannot obtain a divorce.
There are many women who are active and initiate campaigns in Kolech. We wrote materials on issues that were once completely taboo. Women today are demonstrating more independence, and if there is any "holy rebellion" underway, it is the one among religious feminists.
Can you think of any recent development that you found particularly exciting?
We recently dealt with a case involving a legal battle against a rabbi whom we accused of sexual harassments, and at the time the women involved did not want to press charges. Our goal was to make sure that this rabbi will not teach women or teach at all, and certainly not about intimate matters.
The incidents occurred many years ago, but the rabbi recently began to teach again in girls' seminaries, despite the fact that we were constantly going after him. About a year ago, Hanna Beit Halachmi, who published the original complaints against him in the press, wrote a new article on the subject. This inspired some other members to campaign against this rabbi, and he threatened to sue us for slander unless we apologize.
We went to court and the judge referred the case to arbitration. We agreed to go to arbitration because the complainant didn't want to have anything more to do with the case; she wanted to put it all behind her. She didn't want to talk about it, reply to emails or write an affidavit.
In the meantime, another woman came to us to complain about the same rabbi, and we went to court again. This time, the rabbi was nervous and he himself suggested that we take the case to arbitration. Our condition was that he comply with the Rabbi Ariel's directive, stating that he cannot teach women or about intimate subjects.
After a stubborn struggle, we got the result we wanted and the agreement received the status of an official ruling. If this rabbi teaches any of these subjects again – even over the internet – he will be held in contempt of court. The entire story is published on our website.
What are your objectives for the coming year?
Apart from our classic campaigns, we also set the goal of expanding our Leadership Center. God willing, we will develop some new programs, including one for ultra-Orthodox women in Bnei Brak and another for women Torah scholars. Many of the graduates of our study programs need something of this sort. We also expanded the activities of our graduate center.
We greatly developed in the area of educational programs. We are currently waiting for a reply from the Ministry of Education. If the ministry approves our program, we will receive a budget for educational activities and we will be able to reach more schools. The subject of religious leadership of women in general – not only on the congregational level – is an issue of great concern for us.
Can you tell us about something funny that happened over the course of your work?
I don't know, we are always so serious. Since we opened our Facebook group, some of the issues are presented in a more humorous way. There are lots of funny things out there, but we mainly deal with very painful issues.
If a goldfish granted you three wishes, what would you ask for?
To have egalitarian marriages; to be able to achieve many things; and to succeed in establishing an institute for training male and female rabbis.