Members of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community listen to representatives from several political parties ahead of next week’s national election. David Vaaknin for The Washington Post

JERUSALEM — For the ultra-religious Israeli women who recently came out to meet candidates in next week’s national election, the evening was as unusual as the contest itself, the country’s third vote in less than a year.

The women were members of Israel’s insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, and the opportunity to hear such an array of political voices – including representatives from five political parties – was rare.

For years, most in the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community have not openly questioned the directives of their rabbis urging them to vote for one of only two ultra-Orthodox political parties. Now, a group of religious women is actively seeking political alternatives that better represent their interests.

“When you have no political home, you have no power,” said Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the ultranationalist party Jewish Power, addressing the crowd. “We want to fight for your voices.”

The women in the audience call themselves the Nivcharot, or “the elected women.” For the past few years, they have been challenging long-held taboos by calling for more political representation and demanding that the ultra-Orthodox parties add a female candidate to their all-male tickets.

Their efforts have had some success. They’ve drawn support from a growing number of like-minded Haredi women and even some men.

But change is slow in the Haredi world, which strictly adheres to Jewish religious law and long-held traditions, particularly regarding women. The Nivcharot – who dress modestly, covering their hair and donning long skirts, but who refuse to conform to all the restrictive norms – are considered to be outside the mainstream and have even faced a fierce backlash, with some other Haredim labeling them “offensive” and “inappropriate.”

“It’s a grass-roots change. We are digging our way up with our hands,” said Esty Bitton-Shushan, 42, who founded the Nivcharot seven years ago as a Facebook protest over lack of ultra-Orthodox female representation ahead of the 2013 general election. “It’s a bit like running a marathon.”

Bitton-Shushan has remained optimistic, even in the face of opposition. She has focused on turning a lose affiliation of women interacting online into a movement, running leadership training courses and garnering wide attention from the secular media. To date, she says, some 50 women have graduated from various programs, and the Nivcharot’s social media accounts have tens of thousands of followers.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up roughly 11 percent of Israel’s population of 8.5 million. The two ultra-religious parties – United Torah Judaism, representing the Ashkenazi Jews of European origin, and Shas, made up of Jews of Sephardi or eastern backgrounds – are run according to strict rules set by their spiritual leaders. Many of their positions are dictated by the Torah.

The Haredi electorate overwhelmingly votes for these two parties, following instructions from religious leaders. Currently, the parties account for 16 lawmakers in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, with three ministers in the government. The party leaders have made clear for decades that women should not be involved in politics.

There is one ultra-Orthodox woman in the Knesset – Omer Yankelevitz, who belongs to the center-left Blue and White party led by Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main political rival. The Nivcharot say her agenda does not tick all their boxes.

“In the end, the only way to make real change is through the Knesset,” said Efrat Chocron, 34, who joined the Nivcharot a year and a half ago. “Everyone in politics deals with issues that affect them directly.”

Chocron, the daughter of a former Shas politician, was among those who turned out to hear from the political parties running in the upcoming election. She said she is still considering how to cast her ballot.

Moderator Na’ama Idan said that while 70 percent of the Haredi public would vote for the ultra-Orthodox parties, roughly 10 percent to 15 percent were “more liberal.”

“We are here to listen to you and hear what you can do for us. We need a change,” she told the panelists.

The small audience, including about a dozen women, pressed the politicians on several issues, including how to incorporate academic subjects such as math, science and English into the ultra-Orthodox education system, which tends to place more emphasis on Torah study. Other concerns included the labor rights of Haredi women, who often work part time and as contractors, and health issues.

“There might have only been a few women in the room, but even just the concept of Haredi feminism is a revolution of the last few years,” said Lea Taragin-Zeller, a social anthropologist at the University of Cambridge who has closely studied Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. “Fifteen years ago, such a word did not exist in the community, but you can see a change in the discourse.”

In August 2018, Israel’s Supreme Court ordered the ultra-Orthodox parties to include women and last year forced them to revoke clauses in their party constitutions stating that only men could be elected to public office. At the time, a representative of United Torah Judaism said that “the failure to place any women on their roster is an outgrowth of a historic decision by the great rabbis since the establishment of Israel, and the High Court is aware there is no intention to mend this.”

Israel Cohen, a commentator on the ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Barama, said the position of the Nivcharot was simply not accepted by the mainstream Haredi community.

“They are seen as troublemakers,” he said.

“The Knesset is considered too public a position for a woman, and it is not appropriate for a woman to be serving there,” Cohen said. “Women can and do influence the community, mostly in a spiritual way, but they work from the inside and not in the front of the world.”

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