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Invoking Rosa Parks, Haredi Women Move to Back of the Bus

Haifa, Israel — Leaders of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate are calling on women to keep out of men’s eyesight whenever they travel by bus — by making their way to the back of the vehicle.

OUT OF SIGHT: Women keep to the back of a bus from Or Akiva to Bnei Brak.

TAKING A STAND: Naomi Ragen wanted segregated buses to be outlawed.

The directive, issued by the so-called Rabbinical Transportation Committee, is being distributed to thousands of schoolgirls and seminary students and posted on public notice boards in ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, neighborhoods. It represents a new phase in a decade-long campaign by Haredi rabbis to introduce gender separation on bus lines commonly used by the Haredi community.

The transportation committee is an offshoot of the long-established Modesty Committee, which represents leaders of various Haredi factions, including the Hasidic rebbes; the so-called Lithuanian or non-Hasidic yeshiva heads; the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox, and the militant, Jerusalem-based Eida Haredit.

For the past decade, the transportation committee has been pressuring bus companies to segregate Haredi-trafficked bus lines along gender lines. The committee’s quest has enjoyed considerable success, rendering more than 35 bus lines what it calls mehadrin — a talmudic term denoting something that is kosher to a particularly high standard. On these lines, men use the front doors and sit at the front, while women use the back doors and sit at the back.

“In every public place there should be separation between men and women, and a bus is no different,” said a transportation committee spokesman, Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Shafranovitch, in a brief statement to the Forward.

Recently, however, the pace of compliance by bus companies has slowed, with just two new routes rendered segregated since the start of 2008. Amid mounting impatience, the rabbis have taken matters into their own hands. Women are now being asked to treat even nonsegregated buses as if they are segregated, in order to “cause the transportation companies to come to their senses, hurry up and make these lines mehadrin,” the committee’s notice reads.

The twist is that to advance the cause of modesty, the request would propel Haredi women — arguably Israel’s least politically active demographic, due to rabbis’ concerns that female involvement in public affairs is immodest — to the forefront of a controversial direct-action campaign.

It also has sparked a row over who may lay claim to the legacy of Rosa Parks, the African-American civil rights activist who famously refused to obey an Alabama bus driver’s order to give her seat to a white passenger. Opponents of segregation say the mantle is theirs. But enthusiasts for segregation have begun to argue that by making their way to the back of the bus, they are actually Parks’s heirs.

“I see Haredi women who sit at the back as being the Israeli Rosa Parks,” said writer Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, one of the leading proponents of segregation. “We see it as a stand against the deterioration of standards in the public arena, and view the chance to sit at the back without men gazing at us as a form of empowerment.”

The first mehadrin buses started running in the late 1990s, operated by small Haredi firms. Shortly afterward, the main state-licensed bus company Egged began running mehadrin services. Several smaller firms followed suit.

In February 2007, the segregated buses became the focus of national and international attention after New York-born novelist Naomi Ragen claimed that while riding home in Jerusalem seated at the front of the bus, she was threatened by self-appointed enforcers from the Haredi community. Ragen, who is identified with the Modern Orthodox community, began a public fight against what she called the “Taliban lines.”

Joined by four other non-Haredi women who had run-ins on the buses, and with the backing of the Jerusalem-based Israel Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, she brought a case to the Supreme Court this past January. While she wanted to outlaw the segregated buses altogether, she believed she stood on firmer legal ground demanding that a nonsegregated option exist wherever segregated buses run.

The judge ordered the Transportation Ministry and bus companies to come up with a coherent policy that satisfies Haredim and non-Haredim alike. This process is still under way, accounting for the bus companies’ reticence to segregate more lines this year.

Ragen believes she is taking a stand on “an important issue which is frightening and a slippery slope,” she told the Forward. “Soon it will be separate streets, and then women will need to wear veils.”

A co-petitioner, Chana Pasternak, director of the Modern Orthodox women’s organization Kolech, said it was “impossible in the 21st century to justify discriminating against women like this.” She added, “I feel the need to take a stand, like Rosa Parks.”

Pasternak depicted the segregation as absurd. “One time I was at the front of a bus,” she said, “and a Haredi man told me I sit there to flirt with the men and that I’m a sinner. I said that if I, a grandmother, can even make you think about sin, I’m glad.”

But to the rabbis and their followers, segregation equals progress. According to the recent notice, those who make their way to the back of the bus take part in a holy endeavor. “Thanks to the preservation of the modesty and sanctity limitations, we will gain the inspiration of the divine presence of creation, an abundance of wealth and happiness and everything good,” the rabbis’ notice states.

Schmidt said that Haredi women view the practice as a form of social protest. A translator and writer from Kiryat Sanz, a Haredi neighborhood in Netanya, she said that Haredi women “get on the buses and have to look at advertisements for condoms and listen to licentious music. We are activists, and this is one thing we can do to enact a change to the slipping standards in the public sphere.”

Members of the Haredi community are not uniformly supportive of the rabbis’ initiative. Dov Epstein, a resident of Efrat in the West Bank, believes that the onus should be on a man “to be mature enough to handle his base nature,” according to his wife, Varda, a self-declared Haredi feminist. She, on the other hand, favors segregation, maintaining that it helps to “place women on a pedestal.” The rabbis act “knowing that men can be stimulated by women, ensuring that they don’t view them less as human beings and more as sexual beings by avoiding seeing them,” she claimed.

In addition to feminism, Varda Epstein is able to frame her support for segregation in decidedly non-Haredi terms of Zionism. For example, Pasternak argued that “observant women have been riding public transport alongside men for many years and still do outside Israel, making this a move to the extreme without basis in Jewish law.” Asked for a response, Epstein retorted that Jewish statehood in Israel creates new opportunities for the development of Jewish life.

“In America, there are all different religions and the aims [of the Jewish community] are different,” Epstein said. “Here, we are a Jewish state, and that means that we can push the boundaries of proper observance.”

Ragen is dismissive of women who defend segregation. “You will always have a segment of the population who side with the oppressor,” she said, “but they are siding with those destroying our religion and should be ashamed of themselves.”

Whatever one’s view of the Haredi principles, this campaign seems destined for considerable success. Egged, the main target of the public action campaign, told the Forward that this kind of pressure can swing its decisions. “Public transport in Israel is less of a monopoly today than it was, and we deal not with travelers but with customers,” company spokesman Arieh Frankel said. “And if Haredi customers want mehadrin lines, we will give them to them.”

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