The Case of Rebbetzin Renee Rabinowitz
by Fran Gordon
On my most recent flight back from Israel, I watched an old classic, Forrest Gump. As contemporary American history reeled before me through the life experiences of this simple everyman, I chuckled at how, once again, like Forrest Gump, I was a participant/observer to modern history.
Rosh Hodesh Av 5770 found me directly witnessing Anat Hoffman’s arrest for carrying a Torah in public, at the Kotel; Adar I & II 5776, find me in a very similar situation to Renee Rabinowitz, the woman suing El Al for gender discrimination. While I do not think I am in a position to sue United Airlines, I certainly understand the feeling of humiliation and degradation that Rebbetzin Rabinowitz suffered as a result of being asked to move in the name of “Jewish law.” My first blog post, Martin Luther King, Monsey and 17D, is a very raw description of my inner landscape in the wake of being asked to change my seat to accommodate ultra-Orthodox law.
In March of 1975, I was elected to serve as President of Central Region United Synagogue Youth, the six-state area covering Ohio and her neighbors. Although I followed my brothers in leadership roles, I was only the second woman to achieve the highest elected office. The ripples of feminism were beginning to be felt throughout society and although many of the practices of Conservative Judaism were yet to evolve, women were taking leadership roles. To find myself, once again, in a leadership role on behalf of women, feels like nothing short of a spiral through time. I did not ask to be behind the leader of the Women of the Wall six years ago when the world began to pay attention to the plight of women at the Kotel. Nor did I ask to be assigned to 17C last January when the Men from Monsey took up so many of the seats on the United Airlines flight. With a nod to the One Above, I acknowledge the synchronicity of the Israel Religious Action Center bringing the case of Renee Rabinowitz against El Al at exactly the same time I experienced and wrote about very similar facts on a United Airlines flight.
As most engaged Jews know, the power of Sh’ma Yisrael lies in our simple expression of being a witness to a Power greater than ourselves. Being Jewish is complicated; again, an educated Jew knows that we navigate both a religion and a people so one can be a passionate Zionist and not feel commanded in the slightest to rest on Shabbat. Conversely, there are those who speak Yiddish, observing detailed interpretations of Jewish law and await the coming of Moshiach before accepting the political reality of the modern Jewish state. Then there are the 3 million American Jews who are neither monolithic nor predictable yet who feel some type of connection to the Holy Land. Again, we are witnesses to something greater than ourselves.
It is with that sense of being a witness to moment in Jewish history when the winds of social change are blowing, that I invite those interested in the case of a Woman’s Right to Sit to listen to a contemporary take on Sh’ma. Naomi Less and I have composed “Sh’ma Yisrael — Listen Israel” as a call to action. This song is part of “Sacred Rights, Sacred Song” — A Concert of Concern. To the issues of public buses, marriages, divorces, equal prayer space at the Kotel we add imposition of Jewish law on seating assignments. With thanks to Renee Rabinowitz for speaking up — this is the way we make change in a Jewish democracy.
4 Av 5777 (July 27, 2017)
18 Tammuz 5777 (July 12, 2017)
19 Tishri 5777 (October 21, 2016)