Vera Kreidlin boarded an empty No. 56 bus for the 25-minute ride from a religious neighborhood in the heart of the city to Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave in East Jerusalem.
Dressed in a cotton shirt and jeans on a sweltering July day, Kreidlin opted for a seat near the front, three rows behind the driver. It would have made Rosa Parks proud.
Along the way, the bus picked up fervently religious men in crisp black suits. The vast majority of the women, all modestly dressed, entered through the bus’s center door. And every single one headed for the rear.
For years, the No. 56 route has been known as a segregated line, one of nearly 60 public bus lines across the country where women have felt compelled to sit in the back of the bus while the men rode up front. Although Kreidlin, 25, a student at Hebrew University, appeared relaxed, she was on high alert for passengers who might try to force her — orally or physically — to join the other women at the back of the bus.
In the ultra-Orthodox world, it is religiously immodest for unrelated men and women to interact on a casual basis, even if they are crammed on a crowded bus. In recent years, public Israeli bus companies have tried to woo religious passengers by promoting separation of the sexes.
In January, Israel’s High Court ruled gender segregation must be entirely voluntary.
“I’m here to see whether the court’s ruling banning religious coercion on public buses is being enforced,” said Kreidlin, a secular Jew. “The court ruled that every bus must have a sign stating that passengers may sit wherever they choose and that intimidating someone is illegal.”
The sign was nowhere to be found on the No. 56.
Gazing at the women and girls in the rear, Kreidlin said she has taken many such rides in recent weeks “to show the passengers, and especially the religious women, that they’re free to sit wherever they want. Sometimes, when they see other women already sitting in the front, they decide to sit up here, too.”
On July 7, the Jerusalem-based Israel Religious Action Center, which had successfully petitioned the High Court to ban religious coercion on public transit, officially launched a program to encourage visiting Jewish tour groups to ride the once-segregated buses. Anat Hoffman, who heads IRAC, said the Freedom Rider program, inspired by the civil rights activists who challenged racial segregation in the American South, is a way to share Israelis’ struggle against religious coercion with Jews worldwide.
The volunteer riders will be expected to sit near the front half of buses on the segregated routes, space permitting, and report any harassment by the driver or fellow passengers. Before the court ruling, Israelis and foreigners rode the segregated buses, and their reports were eventually tallied and submitted to the court, Hoffman said.
Like the female passengers who initiated the court petition, some of the volunteers were subjected “to verbal abuse, pushing, name calling and shouting,” Hoffman said.
Since the court’s decision, Hoffman said, the number of bus lines that are segregated has fallen from 56 to 16. “On some of these buses,” she said, “women can’t even go up to the front door to pay for their tickets.”
Still, she noted, reported incidents of violence or of drivers prohibiting women from the front of buses have “decreased considerably.”
Spokesman Ron Retner said Egged, the bus company that runs most of the once-segregated lines, has trained drivers and installed signs on every route to comply with the court ruling. “Except for occasional incidents that interfere with public order, there has been no need for any further involvement,” he said.
Amy Milin, a recent Florida Atlantic University graduate, rode 60 buses during her three-month internship at IRAC. “There were times a group of people crowded around me and said I don’t belong here and I’m ruining their religion,” she said.
But it got better toward the end of her internship, she said.