Pnina Pfeuffer is Charedi, but about as different from the stereotype as you can imagine. We are at a Jerusalem hotel where she is organising a demonstration, and the nationalists in her sights probably have no idea that this placard-waving left-winger in a short skirt and fitted top is even frum, let alone that she aims to be the first Charedi woman to hold political office in Israel.
“I wouldn’t want to be prime minister, but I’d like to be foreign minister, and the first step is to get elected to Jerusalem city council,” explains this bold and ambitious woman whose tumble of curls and tendency to giggle make her seem younger than her 38 years. “I’d be the first Charedi woman to represent any municipality in Israel, so I’m leading the women in my community into politics.”
Pfeuffer was born in Israel to devout but worldly American parents: “We have rabbis in our family but books and theatre were always part of our lives, my mother went to university and worked as a speech therapist, and expectations for me were to marry, have children and a career.”
She remembers wanting to have influence since she was a little girl, despite feeling a sense of separation on account of her gender. “I always wanted to change things I didn’t think were right, like the fact that the level of my religious education and my position in society were bound to be different because I was female.”
We first met during Mekudeshet, Jerusalem’s mind-expanding culture festival, where her home was the second stop on a magical mystery tour introducing visitors to Jerusamelites who confound stereotypes. She explained to the group that her home doubles as a place to study.
“The group meets every Wednesday evening whether I am there or not, because the Torah says it’s important to set a fixed time and place for study,” she tells me when we reconvene at the hotel.
“We have a young male teacher because there are no women learned enough to lead us; we don’t get to study Talmud at school. He chose to lead us because he feels it’s important women should be able to achieve the same level of religious understanding as they do in their secular pursuits.
“There are about 10 of us in the group and I would love to have more, but it’s very hard to get more women to join because of the backlash from husbands and brothers as well as time constraints for women who work as well as look after their children.”
Pfeuffer’s father is certainly not among the disapprovers — he bought books for the group when it started up nearly two years ago, and inscribed them with a dedication.
Pfeuffer embraces traditional religious beliefs, even if they ban women from joining the rabbinate. She insists her garb on demonstration day complies with Charedi rules for modesty: “My knees and elbows are covered, as they’re supposed to be,” she says, tugging at hem and sleeves. “In fact the top would not be tight if I hadn’t gained weight, and I wanted to wear something I could pull a T-shirt with slogans over once the demonstration gets under way.”
Politics are her passion. She has a master’s degree in organisational behaviour and works for Darkanu, a group campaigning for a two-state solution, but keeping a kosher home and raising two daughters who go to a religious school as she did, is her priority. She says her divorce, after nearly 10 years of marriage, was not down to her activism, and she continues to wear a sheitl; she hopes one day to remarry and believes Charedi society in Jerusalem now accepts high-flying working wives.
“In Israel it’s impossible to live on one salary, and nearly 80 per cent of Charedi women work. Most are in low-paying jobs — they’re taken advantage of — but an increasing number are going into higher education and have become doctors, lawyers, IT executives. Their husbands increasingly help at home, bringing the children from kindergarten, taking them to the doctor or dentist and feeding them lunch, especially if they’re not working themselves.
“But although Charedi women get a better secular education than the men and many become breadwinners, it’s still their role to be the mom as well as work, while it’s the male hierarchy—the religious and political leaders — who make the decisions.”
It’s a situation she hopes will have changed by the time her daughters, now 13 and 11, grow up, even if she doesn’t succeed in getting elected to office. “I’d like them to go to university, have options and make all their own choices without having to leave the Charedi world.”