Eighteen-year-old Israeli singing sensation Ofir Ben Shitrit is in New York this week to perform at the international conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
The religiously observant Ben Shitrit burst on the Israeli pop culture scene earlier this year with her second-place finish on Israel’s version of “The Voice,” a television singing competition. Her surprise choice of avowed secularist rock star Aviv Geffen as her mentor on the show intrigued viewers and kept them glued to their screens week after week as the two worked harmoniously and productively together.
After Ben Shitrit’s suspension from her religious girls’ school, many are hailing her as a Jewish Orthodox feminist heroine for not being deterred from following her dreams. JOFA not only invited her to sing at its conference, but also put her name and face up in lights on a Times Square billboard celebrating key personalities at the forefront of the Orthodox feminist movement.
Having graduated from high school last spring, Ben Shitrit is currently doing a year of national service. She plans on going to university next year to pursue a music degree. In the meantime, she has begun a professional singing career, performing original compositions as well as covers of Hebrew, English and Spanish songs.
The Forward’s Renee Ghert-Zand caught up with Ben Shitrit shortly after she arrived in New York on her first visit to the United States. We asked her about how being on “The Voice” has changed her life, how she feels about being labeled a Jewish Orthodox feminist, and what it’s like to see one’s face and name in lights high up above on Broadway.
Renee Ghert-Zand: How has your life changed since you appeared on “The Voice”?
Ofir Ben Shitrit: It’s changed completely… If “The Voice” hadn’t happened, I perhaps wouldn’t have given up on my dream, but I wouldn’t have gotten to where I have today. People know me and I now have the ability to sing and appear. That’s something that’s hard to do on your own, especially in Israel.
You’ve been invited to perform and speak at the JOFA conference. How do you feel about being labeled a Jewish Orthodox feminist?
I never thought it would turn into such a wave. When I started the show, I didn’t reveal that I was religious… I was afraid people would only focus on my being religious and forget that I am first and foremost a singer. It was a bit scary. But then I felt better about it when I realized that my being open about being religious gave a lot of girls the courage to go out and follow their dreams. It’s important for them to understand that it’s okay to go after your dreams and still stay committed to a religious lifestyle.
I don’t think of myself as a feminist. “Feminist” is just a very popular label these days. But I do think there is a place to give women more of a voice. I have no problem with people calling me a feminist. I take it as a compliment. I think it’s very important that we as women will have the power to support one another and to make an impact on society.
What was it like seeing your face and name flashing up there above Times Square?
It was really crazy. I was crazy excited. I never imagined my face and name would be up there on the busiest street in the world. I don’t take something like this for granted. It’s a lot of responsibility. I am happy they gave me the “Jewish Orthodox feminist” title. I think its very important for women today to understand that there is nothing wrong with doing what makes you happy. God wants us to be happy. If you know how to happy and combine that with following God’s way, then there is nothing bad with that.
Do you have any lingering bad feelings about being suspended from school for performing on “The Voice”?
The story with school was blown up out of proportion by the media… There were some parents who were extremists and they didn’t want me to be a bad example for their daughters. It’s not that they thought that I was a bad person. Rather, they thought I had done a bad thing and they didn’t want their daughters to do the same thing. They asked the school to do something. Although I was suspended, it was with my agreement. I understand the situation. It’s a school that follows Halacha. I knew that going in to it. It says in the Torah, “kol b’isha erva.” There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s a halachic problem according to the Torah… The school can’t suddenly decide that what’s written in the Torah isn’t important.
So are you saying that “kol isha” is not important to you?
I’m not saying that “kol isha” is not important to me. Maybe one day I will have the strength to keep that mitzvah, but chances are that it won’t happen because as a person, I am very connected to music. I’ve read some articles on the internet, and some rabbis say the issue isn’t a woman singing, but rather that a woman is standing on a stage and a lot of men are watching her and it’s a lack of modesty. So, I understand that as long as a woman is singing modestly and performing in a non-provocative way, it’s okay. I didn’t do anything wrong on the show. I dressed modestly and I performed modestly. I didn’t dance or anything like that.
What is the best thing that has come out of your being on “The Voice”?
I have more self-confidence — both about my voice and to fight for my dream. Beyond what it did for me personally, I think my appearance gave Israeli society a window to see the other side. It brought about more dialogue — not only about feminism, but also on the religious-secular front. It gave secular people a chance to see a religious girl in a different way, and it provided religious people the opportunity to see that a religious girl can move in a secular world without abandoning her religious way of life.
This interview has been edited for length and style.
Photo credit The Voice Israel Productions