The morning commute is tough on some Israelis. Some fight massive amounts of traffic to drive themselves to work in the morning.
Others fight less traffic to get as far as the train station, leave their cars in the free parking for train commuters, and let Israel Railways do the driving.
The train schedule is not always convenient for those who want to pray a traditional Shacharit service with a minyan. So on a number of the morning train lines, the last car has become the place where men gather to pray with a minyan. Sometimes the minyan is announced on the train intercom for those who might want to take advantage of the moving minyan but don’t know about it.
That is not to say that every person, particularly women, know about it. I never heard about it until recently. When I also learned that on some of the longer routes, Tel Aviv to Haifa for example, volunteers bring a Torah scroll on the train for the Monday and Thursday morning Torah readings. How cool is that?
Not everyone thinks it is as cool as I do.
A Jerusalem woman who sat in a train car in December 2018 running from Jerusalem to Ben-Gurion Airport that was hosting a Shacharit minyan is suing Israel Railways after, she says, a train attendant asked her to move to a different car because her presence was “disruptive” during prayer.
The woman, identified as Maya Melitz, was upset and humiliated to be asked to move because men wanted to pray, and sent letters of complaint to Israel Railways that went unanswered. And when she did receive a response, Israel Railways denied that the incident occurred the way Melitz said it did.
A train is a public space and not a synagogue, and Melitz has a right to sit anywhere she wants. So with the help of the Israel Religious Action Center of the Reform and Progressive movement, and the Israel Women’s Network, Melitz is suing Israel Railways for gender discrimination and $20,000 in compensation.
This is a case where both sides have behaved incorrectly, and with a little bit of Israeli love and understanding all of this could have been avoided.
The minyan is unofficial –not officially sanctioned by the railway and not forbidden either. That being the case, no employee of the railway should have asked any woman to switch cars or seats or anything. In this case it appears that the railway employee, who apparently wanted to pray with the minyan as well, took it upon himself to make the request, giving it the imprimatur of the railway.
I understand that Melitz does not want to have to move her seat or be asked to just because she is a woman. But perhaps a little understanding that these men do not pray in a mixed-gender setting and that this might be their only opportunity to grab a morning minyan, would have made her agree to move. Not because she was being forced to, but because she wanted to help them out. Who knows, maybe one of the men needed to say kaddish with a minyan and this was his only chance? There are several double-decker train cars on the morning routes and it is rare there are no seats available in every car for commuters. Finding a seat would probably not have been an issue.
The men in the minyan, of course, should not have expected the woman to move herself for them, though they could have asked nicely, once.
And, being upset with the railway – understandably – for first not receiving an answer and then not receiving the apology that she felt she deserved, does not seem to be a $20,000 offense in my opinion.
Israel definitely has a problem with gender discrimination and the marginalization of women. I am just saying that I think there are much bigger and more serious examples of such marginalization.
Women should be allowed to pray at the Western Wall, on the women’s side, in a manner that is comfortable for them, and men should keep their eyes on their side of the mechitzah. Women should not be banned from walking on public streets, even in haredi Orthodox neigborhoods, so men do not have to walk past them. They cannot be told what kind of clothes to wear on those streets either. Women’s faces should not be removed from photos or from advertisements in the public sphere. In the realm of transportation, women should not have to switch seats on an airplane because a man does not want to sit next to her, though she should not be upset to be asked by the potential seat mate as long as she is not pressured if she says no. Women should not be asked to sit in the back of a public bus, while men sit in the front, or be told that she cannot board a bus because it is full of men.
But this case does not feel the same. It feels like a genuine misunderstanding that has been blown way out of proportion.
I know there are advocates who say that we cannot allow even one incident that smacks of marginalization to pass us by. But I think a little bit of good will and understanding on cases such as this would go a long way.
Marcy Oster is a former Clevelander who covers the Middle East for the Cleveland Jewish News from Karnei Shomron, West Bank. To read more of Oster’s columns, visit cjn.org/oster.