"There’s no greater value for a Charedi woman than modesty.”
So said the former chief of staff for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, Rabbi Dov Halbertal. He was explaining why posters raising awareness of breast cancer screening in Charedi society were inappropriate for the very population they were crafted to reach. No matter how carefully posters talking about women’s health are worded, he explained, the fact that they address women at all makes them inherently immodest.
How, then, does one convey a message about women’s health to those who have no access to the internet or television, and where “kosher” radio stations won’t utter the words “breast cancer”? Doesn’t the very absence of information in these women’s lives mean that they are the ones who most need to hear it?
Three major Israeli medical studies in the past decade have revealed that, despite the fact that Charedi women develop breast cancer at a lower rate than the general population, they suffer a 30 per cent higher mortality rate from the disease.
There are numerous unofficial theories as to why they are disproportionately dying from breast cancer. Ashkenazi Jews have a one in 40 chance of carrying a BRCA mutation, which significantly increases the risk and aggressiveness of the disease. Socioeconomic, health and lifestyle factors, such as poverty, poor diet and lack of exercise increase risk. In addition, too many are diagnosed in later stages due to lack of awareness about screening.
Charedi society values modesty as a high priority. The word “breast” is rarely uttered, even in women-only settings. When heightened modesty is coupled with a cultural reluctance to discuss “negative things” plus the need to appear as healthy as possible for potential marriage matches, and compounded by an overall reluctance to medical testing, it creates a population unaware of the risks and signs of a disease whose survival rate decreases rapidly the longer it is left undiagnosed. I’ve written about this extensively and lectured about it at the JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) conference in New York. It will be the topic of one of my upcoming UK lectures in July.
Ruth Colian of U’Bizchutan, a movement to get Charedi women into the Knesset, embarked on a campaign to raise awareness of breast cancer screening within her community two years ago. Recognising the sensitivity of the subject, she created a campaign designed to meet the needs of Charedi society.
Her billboard poster — a pashkevil, as they are known in Yiddish — called on women to “perform the Torah commandment of guarding one’s health” and to call a number for more information about mammography. She got rabbinic approval for her wording and set to work hanging the posters in Charedi neighbourhoods. Chochmat Nashim, an organisation of religious women that spotlights issues facing the Jewish community, raised funds for the campaign.
This year, 2,000 posters, 2,000 fliers and an enormous highway billboard broadcast the message. So far, Colian reports that 250 calls have come in, with men and women calling in nearly equal numbers. She tells them about the issue and gives them the current medical guidelines appropriate for their age.
When Colian tried to bring her campaign to the city of Bnai Brak, the majority of whose 182,000 residents are Charedi, she was told the posters would create panic and were immodest and inappropriate.
Halbertal echoed these claims in a television appearance with Colian, saying that public streets are not the place to discuss women’s issues but failed to suggest a viable alternative. Previous campaigns had attempted to raise awareness with brochures placed in mikvahs, that most private and feminine space, but were nixed by rabbis who claimed women would become fearful about their health, which in turn would ruin the mood on a night when husbands and wives were meant to be together.
In a segment of society where women’s health cannot be discussed, where internet campaigns don’t exist, where pink ribbons mean nothing, where health care clinic pamphlets are censored to remove women, where there are no women MKs and none of the male MKs attend women’s health committees, and where Charedi women from within the community like Colian are blocked from disseminating life-saving information, how exactly are women supposed to discover the need for the proactive, preventative care that can save their lives?
We need to make education and awareness accessible to all.
Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is a writer and activist