The ancient walls of the City of David have never witnessed such a scene. Over four thousand women gathered outside Jaffa Gate last Thursday for the first ever mass festival of women’s athletics in Jerusalem. Women wearing scarves and long skirts shook their bodies alongside women in tank-tops and Lycra shorts to the overpowering thump-thump of dance-music as instructors shouted out motivating instructions like, “Come on, girls! Move those hips!”
The outdoor festival, called “Jerusalem Going Far”, managed to bring together women of all ages, religious backgrounds, and body shapes. The event, organized by the Jerusalem municipality in collaboration with the group “Athena” that promotes women and girls in sports in Israel, offered free outdoor classes in spinning, step, drum-dancing, and Zumba. It highlighted the multifaceted face of Israeli life, the need for women’s empowerment, and the power of dance and body movement as unifying elements amid the complexity of Israeli society. The festival culminated with a five kilometer march through Jerusalem, and a mass sports-dance on the trendy Emek Refaim Street in the German Colony.
“This is such a great experience,” Tal Chen, a child-care worker who came with a delegation of women from Ashkelon, said. “It’s about women’s strength, about women supporting women in every way.”
“This gives women power,” Marselle Alter, a chef from Kiryat Gat, added. Her community brought an entire busload of women to march in Jerusalem.
Tehilla Solomon, 18, of Teaneck, New Jersey, and Julia Martinez, 18, of Brooklyn, New York, who recently arrived in Israel for the gap-year program Netiv, were enjoying every minute. “I love fitness and I love Israel,” Tehilla said. “I always try and promote women’s empowerment, health and wellness,” Julia added. “I always do breast cancer walks with my mother. So of course I didn’t want to miss this.”
Athena, a publicly funded organization established in 2007 by Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat, has branches in thirteen different municipalities to advance women in sports – and this was their first festival march in Jerusalem. “Our goal is to raise awareness about the importance of women in sports, and to break the stigma that sports is not a serious pursuit for women,” according to Chana Gertler, the Chair of the Public Council for Women’s Sports. “In Israeli society, soccer, for example, is still considered a men’s thing,” added Orly Froman, the Executive Director of the Ministry of Culture and Sports.
For some of the organizers, the message goes beyond athletics. “There is nothing quite as powerful as sports for encouraging women’s strength,” said Yossi Heiman, the Director of the Jerusalem municipality. “Our goal is to bring about complete equality between the sexes, in all areas of life.”
Women from all around the world participated. “We don’t have anything like this in Korea,” Jin Hee Chai said. “In Korea, people would not be dancing on the street – only inside. Outside, people are quiet.”
“And this is certainly not how I pictured Israel,” her companion In Kyung Yany added. “You don’t see images like this on the news. You expect there to be fighting. Not loud music on the street. This is beautiful.”
The festival also highlighted the ways in which women’s experiences can potentially bridge societal differences. Women from all cultures basically want the same things – to live a happy, peaceful existence, enjoying life with friends, family and even strangers. Sports, dance, and movement among women can be a unifying language and experience, a culture that crosses ethnic and religious divides and demonstrates the values that are shared by diverse women around the country, and even around the world.
“I came here today because this is a place for peace, for salaam,” Karina Wazwaz of East Jerusalem told me. Clad in scarves from head to toe, and accompanied by her similarly dressed two teenage daughters, Sardos, 19 and Amira, 17, the young widow smiled and said, “We are all one. We are together. We march together for peace.”