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Hilli Wurtman Moyal’s Reflections on the Etz Chaim Community

18 Cheshvan 5769, Motzei Shabbat Parshat Vayera, the story of the the binding of Isaac, we were the children and I was with my mother when we discovered the terrible massacre that took place in the community of Etz Chaim. The next morning Pittsburgh was still in the headlines, but my Facebook was mostly about the municipal elections, and very few of them related to what happened in the United States.

I asked several friends if they also felt there was a certain indifference for the event, and one after the other, they confessed that they also felt nothing about what had happened. This has prompted me to think that as Israelis who have experienced wars and terrorist attacks, we have developed an armor of some indifference, or perhaps what is far from the eye is far from the heart, and the Jews of the Diaspora are moving away from us? Or is it a cultural disconnection and perceptions that dwindles over the years?

I have already told you that in the early 2000s, shortly after the outbreak of the second intifada, I flew to the various Jewish communities around the world in order to strengthen ties to Israel and to conduct information workshops on campuses. A few years have passed since then and reality has changed drastically. In the United States, where about six million Jews live, there is about 60 percent assimilation. Every one out of three children has a non-Jewish parent. If in the past, the establishment and building of a Jewish state, especially after the Holocaust, was a common goal, today the Zionist dream is dissolving. Even the greatest Jewish donors and philanthropists such as Ron Lauder and Bronfman (who founded Birthright) speak of a deepening rift between Diaspora Jews and Israel. A crack that turns into a pit. The conference of the Heads of the Jewish Federations in North America that was recently held in Israel (the GA conference) dealt quite a bit with this rift and its title – “We must talk about it!” – attests to the magnitude of the crisis. It’s not pleasant to admit (and this we whisper softly so “Uncle Sam” doesn’t hear) but it’s not really all that disturbing.

A year ago I flew again to London, together with a group from the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and Gesher. We travelled as a group representing different and populations of Israeli society to get to know the Jewish community outside of Israel. After the delegation, I met with a friend who was an active instructor at Hanoar Hatzioni and had spent a lot of time in Israel. It pains me to discover that today he feels that the State of Israel has become the state of Israel and not the state of the Jewish people, and that the youth movement in which he was active hardly exists anymore. “The feeling is that Israel has given us a cold shoulder,” he said sadly, adding that among the younger generation, Zionism is almost never spoken about.

This situation is disturbing, not only because these are our brothers in the Diaspora, not only because we are a small people and not only because Diaspora Jewry have always been significant and influential factors in the State of Israel. There is another reason that is not usually taken into account: On the trip to which I left last summer, I arrived not as an emissary, but as a “listener” and on the way I discovered that we had a lot to learn from the Jews of England. For example, about the ability to build an open society that does not categorize people according to their way of life, as the Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Efraim Mirviz, said, “The struggle between the Orthodox and Reform is yesterday’s news. And this is just one example. Beyond that, I truly believe that when our people are united we have the ability to influence not only the Jewish people but the entire world.

One of my favorite commentaries by Rashi is, “And Israel stood there against the mountain” (Exodus 19), which describes the preparations for the revelation at Mount Sinai: Why is it written in the singular, “Vayachen”? Rashi explains “as one man with one heart”. If we stand as one without fear in the face of conflict, if we meet one another, we will talk to one another and ask the difficult questions. If we find the common mission – then maybe we can escape the slippery slope we are currently sliding on. Perhaps it is time for us too to launch a program such as Taglit-Birthright in which young people will visit the Diaspora communities in order to build connections, to approach, to rediscover mutual responsibility. Perhaps it is time for a new conception of Israel-Diaspora relations.

Contrary to popular belief, the early decades of the state believed Diaspora Jewry was a temporary phenomenon that would soon disappear, we now understand that the existence of various Jewish communities around the world, alongside the largest community in the State of Israel, is a fact. Even if there are many gaps in the worldview of the various streams of Judaism and in the various communities, I hope that at least we can agree on our obligation to connect and care together for the common future of the Jewish people in all its diversity.

After all, from the distorted point of view of the Pittsburgh murderer, there was no significance to the political or ideological affiliation of those worshipers, for him it only mattered that they were Jews. The Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel once said that what is is more terrible than anger and hatred is indifference, and whatever the reason for this indifference, it is frightening and I would like to take advantage of this tragic event as a wake-up call for us as Jews to strengthen our bond and sense of unity with the Jewish communities around the world.

Israeli Citizenship Cannot be the Common Denominator Among the Jewish People

 

A response to an article by Haggai Segal, the Editor in Chief of the Makor Rishon newspaper.

July 6, 2018

By: Ilan Geal-Dor

Last week Haggai Segal, the editor of this [Makor Rishon] newspaper, wrote an article saying that we should not involve ourselves with the Jews of the world unless they want to make Aliyah (immigrate to Israel), or as he puts it: “The Jews of the Diaspora are guilty. The Jewish state can do very little for them as long as they insist on living on the rivers of Babylon. The only thing we can offer them to ensure their continued Jewishness is to move their homes to Israel as soon as possible.” In my view, this position is both problematic and dangerous. It will alienate them from the Jewish people and from the state of Israel. I am not speaking from a theoretical perspective, but rather, from experience.

A few months ago, I travelled with a group of Israeli leaders, as part of a joint program with the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and Gesher, to the Los Angeles Jewish community. On our tour of the UCLA campus we met with a group of students who found it important to speak to the Israeli group.

The words of the head of the entire student union on campus, a young Jew of Iranian descent, still reverberate within me. She noted that her Jewish identity was a central component of her personality. She is a young woman who is likely engaged with her Judaism much more than most Israelis I know. She and her friends ask themselves about their commitment to Judaism, what their connection to Israel means, and how to express these feelings across an American campus. They are American Jews, or perhaps Jewish Americans. Our common denominator with them is that we are both a part of the “Jewish people”, part of a shared heritage and I hope… a shared future.

Is it because they do not live in Israel that we need to cut off communication? Is the common denominator of the Jewish people today exclusively Israeli citizenship, everyone else is outside the camp? It seems that some people have replaced the common denominator of the Jewish people from being Jewish to being Zionists. Is that so?

Here we need to ask another question: To whom does the state of Israel belong? The state of Israel is the largest project of the collective Jewish nation. Jews from all over the world concentrated their efforts, political influence and of course their resources to help establish the State of Israel. The building of the State was a collaborative effort of many good Jews and lasted over 50 years.

The Jews of the world saw, and still see themselves as part of the State of Israel through their continued support in establishing new infrastructure, facilitating international partnerships and philanthropic donations. It was and still is a team effort of all the parts of the Jewish nation, with the exception of marginal groups, who see the establishment of the state for the Jewish people as the fulfilment of a dream and the realizing of a vision. Therefore, now that the State is built, rejecting parts of those who helped and continue help in its establishment and existence – would be unfair and unwise.

But that’s not all. I will go out on a limb and say that Haggai’s statements in this context are themselves proof of the Galut (Diaspora) mentality that he himself preaches against. For also during the time of the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) there were Jews living abroad for various reasons. You do not find anyone accusing them of “Diasporaism” or doubting their Jewishness, as long as they remained loyal to Judaism. The reason: A strong nation with a strong State does not need to constantly disqualify a group of its people based on their place of residence. First and foremost, because it makes no sense, but also because a disqualification like this attests to an insecurity that comes from being a young nation that has just arrived on the stage of history.

We must remember that most living today in the world were born into a reality in which the State of Israel was already established. For them it is their second homeland and their loyalty to it is very great.

Questioning the legitimacy of their affiliation to the Jewish people based on their place of residence or their citizenship is, in their view, a strange phenomenon at best. It certainly does not bring them closer to the State, to Judaism or to their decision to make Aliyah. Also, let us not forget that in the face of this strange criticism hurled at them, they also have alternatives in the form of radical leftist organizations who offer a different and no less attractive set of values. Criticism like this presented by Haggai pushes them into these circles more than it brings them closer to us. It causes the state of Israel to be viewed more as an exclusive group of friends and less as a large and important nation that they would like to be a part of.

The State of Israel must continue to establish itself as the world center for the Jewish people, and this is how Jews around the world should view it. It is the fulfilment of our vision and dream- theirs and ours together, even if they are thousands of miles away. The great change that I see in our generation is the need for us in Israel to take responsibility and extend our hand to our brothers and sisters overseas as a significant ingredient in their own Jewish identity. The State of Israel should be a “light unto the Jews” even if immigrating to Israel is not part of their plans. It has already been proven that the Jews of Israel and the Jews of the world can be a strong and united nation across all borders. Let’s not give up so quickly on parts of our own family. It is national and Jewish duty.

Ilan Geal-Dor is the CEO of Gesher www.gesherusa.org

Choosing Judaism

By: Daniel Goldman, Gesher Chairman

I have just returned from a very intense trip to New York. I cannot overstate the privilege it is to join the fellows of our leadership programs during the section of the program that we immerse ourselves within a Diaspora community.

There are things which are common to all of our groups. When they are exposed together and with the intensity of a full week of morning to evening meetings and discussions with local leaders, educational, lay, spiritual and professional three things inevitably happen.

  • The first is that having been a group made of representatives of the different “tribes” in Israel, they become a group of Israelis. That is of course not to say that they lose their tribal identity, but the understanding that once outside the borders of Israel those differences seem somewhat narrower.
  • The second and much bigger thing is the awakening that as Israelis (and this really applies to religious, secular and Haredi alike) they are part of something bigger – the Jewish people.
  • The third and more subtle effect is the journey overseas becomes a journey home, that’s to say that while the stated purpose of the trip is to listen and learn about what is happening in the Diaspora, the participants discover many things about themselves as Israelis.

Senior Educators

This group (that we called “Gesher Olami”) was made up of men and women each in charge of the education department in their local authority. Although fulfilling the same role professionally the group was classically eclectic, as you might expect for Gesher. Men and women, secular, religious and Haredi, representing large and small towns and regions, with mixed and homogenous populations. From Haifa in the North to Sderot in the south, Herzliya with zero Haredim and Beitar Ilit and Elad with between 80% and 100% Haredim. The group was created in partnership and with the support of the UJA-Federation of New York, who like Gesher are dedicated to deepening the ties between Israel and world Jewry, and calling to action those in positions of influence to raise awareness and be involved.

It is the Best of Times, It is the Worst of Times

What is there left to say about American Jewry. Well the first thing to say is that whilst it is often referenced in the public discourse in Israel, more often than not it appears here in a stereotypic and often demagogic fashion. All non-Orthodox Jews in the USA are “Reformim” – a word typically used here as curse word, and that the entire community (except for the Orthodox) will have disappeared within a generation. And whilst the majority of Israeli Jews and American Jews see each other as part of the same family (to varying degrees) and mutually see each other’s community as vital to the other’s long term future, the latest survey performed on behalf of the AJC shows growing divides as well. Two-dimensional (at best) conversations only lead to greater gaps between us.

There are definitely some big question marks hanging over the future of liberal American Jewry. The demographic studies are showing a generational shift and negative growth. But it is important to point out that there are still millions of Jews engaged actively in Jewish life, and this will continue to be the case for many decades to come, even according to the most severe predictions. On the other hand our group found a vibrant, passionate community, with a leadership (or at least parts of it) fully focused on the big challenges.

All this is happening on the backdrop of the strongest position, personally, economically and politically we have ever seen for the Jewish people, in Israel and beyond. Our history (as far back as the Tanach) teaches us that we are at our most vulnerable when things are going well. Along with the great success of American Jewry comes the enormous draw of the American ethos as a replacement for Judaism as an ethnic and religious commitment. In 2012 Prof. Jack Wertheimer made specific his concerns that “Jews (unlike their Christian counterparts) tend to be tongue-tied on matters of belief and religious observances but speak with great certainty about their responsibility to help repair the world. For many, indeed, the imperative of social action defines the essence of Judaism.”  On the other side of the spectrum and in a time that Israel seems at its strongest, growing sections of liberal society in the US identify it as being of the oppressors and not the oppressed. In an era when the progressive youth, including many young Jews are interested more in intersectionality than particularity, Israel and Judaism fall on the wrong side.

Educators and leaders of the Jewish community are grappling with the fact that to be Jewish in 2018 means to choose to be Jewish in 2018. In the market place of ideas, where tweets and Instagram pictures replace in-depth discussion, organized religion in general, and within that Judaism has an enormous task. Modernity continues to challenge traditional societal models, and Judaism, in its many forms has to continue to create strategies in its shadow. Across the spectrum this means different communal and educational choices – from the Haredim who fend off modernity to the maximum extent, with physical and virtual walls, all the way to the nominal Jews who remain Jewish in name alone, having embraced alternative identities of which the Jewish identity is one small part.

Our educators repeatedly saw this. At the wonderful Heschel Schoolcatering to the wealthiest Jewish community on the planet, part of their solution is a deep religious pluralism, but also deep commitment to Judaism and Israel. For those that can afford it, this commitment comes at a heavy price, $46,000 pa. At the other end of the spectrum we visited Harlem Hebrew, a very moving experience, if one that takes some time to assimilate. Harlem Hebrew is a public school run under the charter system. This means government funded (following the start-up phase) but private management. This allows for a curriculum with a very particular slant. In the case of Harlem Public, Hebrew and some Israel specific content. Given the strict constitutional restrictions of the separation of religion and state, the charter school must closely watch that it does not cross the line. Whilst the charter school model cannot replace the provision of Jewish identity the same way as a Jewish Day School (in addition to Hebrew emphasis on Jewish calendar and ceremony etc) for those for whom the alternative because cost is public school, it can provide part of the solution, with some supplemental Jewish education elsewhere. The backers of the Hebrew Public charter network have taken a bold step in trying to be creative in the education arena. In Harlem, 40% of the students would seem to be Jewish (legally they are barred from asking), and obviously the hope is that this will give enough grounding to form a lasting Jewish identity for those children.

The challenge of Jewish education and providing a rich Jewish meaning for the next generation crosses the spectrum of Jewish life, perhaps excluding the Haredi community that by its choice to remain somewhat detached from the mainstream American life and culture holds a much more traditional line. If anything their educational challenge is the opposite, how to stay within the law whilst teaching the minimal secular requirements. Along with marriage at younger age and much larger families, they are beating the global trend away from organized religion. We met with a senior leader of the Haredi community, and his response to our question, what keeps you awake at night, it was complacency. The very fact that in their own eyes (and objectively from a demographic point of view) everything is rosy in the Haredi firmament in the US it itself a possible cause for concern

The Paradox of American Jewish Life

Wherever we went we heard of the strength and weakness of the Jewish community. Our educators were exposed for the first time to the rich communal life and infrastructure. Synagogues, communities, JCC’s, Jewish Federations, the IAC and the community of American Israelis and an independent Jewish media reporting on both the Jewish community and Israel.

However we heard about the challenges. The position of Israel within the community and in particular with the younger generation and on campus. The cost of Jewish education and whether the day school model is sustainable. On the flip side the absence of enough day schools and lack of demand for an immersive Jewish education. The beauty of Tikun Olam as a major pillar of how the Jewish community acts in helping the outside world, within the USA and beyond. The problem of Tikun Olam though is that too often is has become the exclusive proxy for a uniquely Jewish life.

And of course we heard about the liberal Jewish community (not restricted to the non-Orthodox, but mainly) and their relationship with the current US administration (mostly disgust) and the affect this is having on already strained relations with Israel.

Celebrating Israel

Prior to leaving for the El Al flight home we all participated along with our UJA-Federation New York friends in the “Celebrate Israel” Parade – an authentic outpouring of love and support for Israel. For Israelis who hear a very particular story of American Jewry this was a rousing experience. People were personally very moved that one of the busiest avenues (5th) in one of the busiest cities (NY) in the world would be completely closed for the over 100,000 people of all stripes and colors to parade and cheer on behalf of Israel.

Given the difficulty of getting people off screens in 2018 it is a genuine testament to the Jews of New York and those community institutions that arrange the parade, among them of course our good friends at the UJA-Federation New York.

Looking forward

Our leaders were not here to accept the narratives they heard, nor felt the need to be defensive of being Israeli. What was achieved was open and respectful dialogue and a lot of listening. It is only now, upon return that we can start to think about how the experience of the program affects how they deliver education in their respective towns, cities and settlements.

Without needing to make any dramatic conclusions (for which we are not really qualified) about the near or distant future of the Jewish community or its relationship with Israel, everyone came back with two connected feelings:

  • There is a tremendous awareness gap between us, which defines our current relationship. As educators it is an imperative to close this gap, by bringing the Diaspora story to the classroom.
  • A feeling (for some for the first time) that they really are part of something much bigger, the Jewish people, which in 2018 has 2 main centers, Israel and North America. And the story is much more complex AND interesting than they realized. This has ramifications for them as Israeli educators and many questions about the definition of Israel as the national state of (all) Jews.

When Gesher takes the responsibility of bringing together leaders from across the Jewish Israeli spectrum we do so in the parallel knowledge that we need these different viewpoints to build the complex perspective that truly represents Israeli society, and at the same time that same variety of views and background makes the meeting with the Diaspora communities so much more interesting and alive.

I know that Israel has much to learn from the experience of world Jewry, a living breathing set of communities continually adapting to meet the challenges of life as a vibrant minority. I also believe that a vibrant and healthy Israel is part of the underlying strength of the future of the Jewish people around the world. Recognizing that each is part of a greater whole and making that realization into a call to action to strengthen the Jewish people, wherever they lie, is a key part of the Gesher Leadership Institute, and I am proud to say that in addition to building awareness in Israel of the Jewish Diaspora, it is also making our leaders better leaders for Israeli society.

Gesher Olami is a program supported by the UJA-Federation NY

Employment: The Paradox of Haredi Happiness

By: Avraham Yustman

Is wealth a necessary ingredient for happiness? We all know the quote from Pirkei Avot: “Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot”. A report from the Central Bureau of Statistics seems to agree with the passage above.

According to the data presented in the report, the percentage of Haredim who are satisfied with their lives and their economic situation is higher than the rest of the population. The sense of poverty in the Haredi sector is only 8% (one percent more than Jews and others). The average gross income per Haredi household is NIS 13,658, compared to a similar income for a secular household of NIS 22,061 (meaning, the Haredim earn about 40% less).

Other data also show that the secular public has a much higher standard of living than the Haredi public. Only 50% of the Hardim went on vacation in Israel in 2016, compared to 65% of the secular. Regarding vacations abroad, the gap is increasing: 17% of the Haredim went abroad in 2016, compared with 60% of secular Israelis.

These gaps and data point to different worldviews regarding the connection between wealth and happiness. The question taps into the discussion of how Haredim should be integrated into the employment market. When the lack of physical sustenance – perceived as the main catalyst for going to work – does not constitute a sufficient incentive. The push for integrating Haredim into employment must be rephrased, as this incentive is no longer linked to insufficiency.

In examining recent history, the absence of Haredim from the workforce was mainly due to the connection between military service and employment. A Haredi who did not serve in the army could not fit into the work envirenment. The loss on the part of the state was doubled – neither military service nor employment.

For that young Haredi, the dilemma was relatively simple. He will not do military service, and if that means that he will not be able to bear the burden of supporting his family, he will continue to sit and study and not go to work. In recent years, there has been a realization that the two must be separated and that more Haredim should be able to enter the employment market unconditionally.

In order to further increase Haredi participation in the workforce we must continue to remove those barriers that prevent their integration and offer a variety of solutions suited to the different audiences, based on an understanding of the needs and constraints of the various streams in the Haredi sector.

So too, with regard to the dilemmas that always stand in the way of the Haredi job seeker, will employment in a non-Haredi workplace require assimilation into an open and pluralistic society? Will he have to give up his identity? This problem is shared by both sides and its solution cannot be solely mathematical or economical, but an understanding of the need to bridge worldviews for the common goal of a thriving Israeli economy in the global community.

The original article appeared in Yisrael Hayom on July 4, 2018 and is translated by Gesher. Avraham, a Vice President at Kemach is a Fellow in the Gesher Leadership Institute and participated in Project Community #5 in March, 2017.

 

Who Made Their Mark During Israel’s 70th Birthday?

By: Daniel Goldman, Gesher Chairman

Daniel-Goldman2-medium

A couple of weeks have passed since the big celebrations. Enough time for some reflections.

Allow me to describe the event based around the people who made the headlines. I have picked Israeli journalist Yisrael Cohen of Kikar (a leading Haredi website); Minister of Culture Miri Regev, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and the Prime Minister; the 12,000 people who participated in a special Kululam (if you haven’t heard about this yet, read on); author and Israel Prize winner David Grossman, Minister for Education Naftali Bennet and another Israel Prize winner Miriam Peretz.

Let us begin…

Haredim and Israel’s Holy Days

Yisrael Cohen is a Haredi journalist. In the lead up to Yom Hazikaron (the 24 hours prior to Israel’s Independence Day) he released a video op-Ed on one of the most visited websites in the country. In it he rather clumsily set out the “classic” position of the Haredim with respect to the Holy Days in the eyes of most of Jewish Israeli society. Whilst his main point was that, in the spirit of respect for multi-cultural values, non-Haredi society cannot and should not expect Haredim to mark Remembrance Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers in the way the State requires, what actually came across was the message that Haredim do not mourn for those lost in Israel’s wars. As you can imagine this created an immediate storm on social media. The backlash was swift and harsh, condemning Cohen and those whom he claimed to represent. The response among many Haredim, journalists and activists alike was similarly harsh.

There is an annual debate (almost ritual) as to what degree Haredim participate, respect, are apathetic or openly against Yom Hazikaron and Yom Hatazmaut. I have been following this social dynamic for some years, and in contrast to Cohen’s claims there is a growing respect and developing modus vivendi between Israeli society and the Haredim around these days, with respect from most Haredim avoiding publicly offending therituals of the rest of society on these special days, and also increased events arranged by Haredim themselves to acculturate these days in a more Haredi style and environment.

After Yisrael Cohen went viral many of us involved in building trust between the Haredi and general society were concerned that this would set the relationship back years. The reality is that Cohen proved that the dynamic has moved to such an extent that the reaction to him was temporary and the process of gradual rapprochement was not harmed. Closer to my “home” I was very proud of the partnership Gesher repeated with the Haredi group Dossim enabling over 100,000 chapters to be said specifically in the named memory of each and every one of Israel’s fallen soldiers. In addition Gesher Fellow and friend Rabbi Menachem Bombach went viral with the video of the memorial ceremony that he led in his Haredi Yeshiva High School.

The last word on this topic should go the Hasidic Haredi Deputy Health Minister Rabbi Yaakov Litzman, who represented the government at one of the hundreds of memorial ceremonies around the country – “We all, every one of us, share a joint fate. We live here together, side by side, and not one at the expense of the other. If we have unity and solidarity as a people and a society, then this is the best way to remember the fallen, and achieve victory over our enemies.”

Har Herzl Becomes a Political Circus

One of the annual centre pieces for the Yom Haatzmaut celebrations is the ceremony on Har Herzl, connecting the end of the Remembrance Day with the opening of Independence Day. If this event is central every year, it was to be a showpiece for Israel’s 70th birthday. Sadly the political jockeying the led up to it, reduced it to the level of a circus. Political arm-wrestling pitted Miri Regev and Benjamin Netanyahu in the blue corner and Yuli Edelstein in the red corner.

Instead of focusing on the content of the event, and the personalities and contributions of those set to light the torches (a central part of the ceremony – 12 torches representing the historic twelve tribes of Israel) we were feasted to a squabble that would have embarrassed most kindergartens. I have no idea who gained or lost politically from this, but we all lost as the TV commentators spent most of the evening with their stopwatches, timing how long the Speaker of the Knesset spoke (Edelstein) relative to the Prime Minister (Netanyahu). In mybook, all three of them receive a failing grade.

Kululam

Kululam is sweeping Israeli society. It is a form of shira batzibbur (lit. communal singing). Quick backgrounder: Israel has over the years had waves of public dancing and singing events. Both form parts of early Israeli culture and have receded over the years. Kulalam is taking communal singing into a new phase. Hundreds (or in this case thousands) buy tickets to a concert where the audience become the performers.

The event is made up of two parts.

First half – rehearsal of a song, sung in multiple voices, and the second half is a recorded series of performances of the song. On the Sunday prior to Yom Haaztmaut 12,000 people gathered in Yad Eliahu arena, normally the place where Maccabi Tel Aviv battles it out in basketball, in order to sing one of the most famous songs in the Israeli repertoire, Al Col Ele, by Naomi Shemer.

The crowd, graced with the presence of President Rivlin reflected a very broad spectrum of Israel society and was an outburst of energy and joy. Those that were there were uplifted by the power of song and the togetherness that harmony in music inspires. It will not surprise anyone to know that the video went viral with over 1.4 million views.

In the wake of the Har Herzl kindergarten, this suddenly felt like a cathartic replacement, a genuine “people’s” response to the politicians, and perhaps a reminder to us (and I would hope to them) that they work for us, and not the other way around.

David Grossman, Father of Uri, or Political Activist?

For the last 12 years there has been an event arranged on Yom Hazikaron that includes the families of Israeli fallen soldiers and terror victims and the relatives of Palestinians who have died in the conflict with Israel, including terrorists. This is undoubtedly a controversial event, and many in Israel find it at best distasteful and at worse a huge disrespect to the families of those who have lost loved ones to Palestinian terror. They feel, with a level of justification that the event makes an immoral comparison between Palestinian terror and the victims of terror. In recent years, and as the event has grown, it has attracted more political comment and there is a protest demonstration held opposite the event, showing their disdain and displeasure.

This year Grossman was awarded the highest civilian award of the State, the Israel Prize (for his literature and not his politics), but was denied the opportunity to address the assembled at the ceremony honoring the Prize Recipients. Instead, he was able to speak at the Yom Hazikaron event described above. Grossman whose son Uri was killed in battle during the Second Lebanon War, made a politically charged speech that was both eloquent and powerful, as you would expect from a prize winning writer. Whilst not knowing what is in any man’s heart or thoughts, it is possible to conjecture that the refusal to allow him to speak at the Israel Prize ceremony pushed him to a more aggressive speech at the remembrance event. Immediately following his speech there were calls at the fringe to disallow him from receiving the Prize the very next day.

To be clear, I do not like the idea of a joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony, and especially one with obvious political overtones.  There were also several things that Grossman referred to in his speech that I strongly disagree with. However, each and every Israeli does have the right to remember their fallen loved ones in a way they feel right. I just wish it were possible to do this without causing so much offence to others.

Miriam Peretz and Naftali Bennett

As mentioned previously the Israel Prize is the highest civil honour that Israel can bestow on its citizens, and they are awarded on an annual basis for those who have excelled in various categories, like science, Jewish scholarship, culture and civic society.

In great contrast to the previous night that sadly focused on the feuding between Regev, Edelstein and Netanyahu the Israel Prize ceremony managed to strike a very different tone.

The Israel Prize comes under the ministerial responsibility of the Education Minister, Naftali Bennett. His speech was replete with calls for unity. For the appreciation of difference and that argument (for the sake of heaven) is the way that the Jewish people has remained vibrant over so many millennia.

In an apparent nod to the bubbling controversy over Grossman and his speech from the previous day Bennett said “Author David Grossman is one of the most talented and leading authors in Israel, and next to him is Professor Alex Lebowski, one of the most important mathematics researchers and a resident of Efrat.,” reflecting the importance of a resident of Judea and Samaria alongside a fierce left wing activist. Bennett’s message was that both (and indeed all of the prize winners) are crucial for the success of Israel – “We are celebrating 70 years, and we have 70 faces,” alluding to the Rabbinic expression that the Torah has 70 faces.

After Bennett rose Miriam Peretz, who was officially awarded the prize for youth work. The full story is much more powerful. Miriam has taken personal tragedy and has turned it on its head, becoming an educator who has inspired thousands of Israelis with her story of inner strength in the face of severe adversity. Miriam lost two sons in combat, 12 years apart. Uriel and Eliraz were both in the Golani Brigade, and her other sons continued in the same tradition. In addition to losing her sons her husband also passed away, seemingly of a broken heart.

Miriam made an inspiring speech representing all of this year’s prize recipients, and it clearly came straight from the heart. Miriam made an impassioned call to action, and again, like Bennett, alluded to Grossman. She specifically referred to other prize winners who have experienced great personal grief and continue to work to contribute to Israeli society, again showing her understanding that each person understands through his or her vision what will make Israel closer to the ideal that we all strive for.

Among many highlights in her speech I think that this quote forms the heart of her clarion call – “If you miss one piece of the puzzle, the picture will not be complete, so I will not give up any part of my people.” It is the diversity of Israeli society and the Jewish people that ultimately gives it strength, it is not a unity of Kumbaya and holding hands, but a unity of multiple voices and views, beliefs and values. At the same as competing, these ideas strengthen and refine our mission statement as the sole Jewish country.

It gives me incredible pride to know that among the many wonderful things that Peretz has achieved she is also a Fellow of the Gesher Leadership Institute. We could not possibly hope for a better and more passionate spokesperson than Miriam.

The Israel Prize Ceremony was a highlight of the 70th anniversary celebration of Israel’s independence, but the day would somehow not have been complete without the politics and the controversy. This is Israel and hopefully through the continued vibrant, rich debate and argument it will reach the new heights and achievements to which every citizen strives, in the physical realm as well as the spiritual, social and cultural realms.

I hope that the message of diversity of opinion, together with acceptance that we have the ability to criticize and argue, without becoming enemies, will win the day. But in order for that to be our social priority, we will have to work hard every day, and not just during the Holy Days of Remembrance and Independence.

What did Gesher do to Commemorate Israel’s 70th?

Last weekend Gesher facilitators led a two-day seminar for 70 high schoolers from all over Israel. In tandem with הצופים, בני עקיבא and השומר הצעיר, the students had the opportunity to familiarize themselves with each other and engage in dialogue. By breaking down the barriers, they were able to harness their previously learned leadership skills and delve deeply into serious questions that often separate different sectors in Israel. Armed with their own experience now, these young leaders can go and promote cohesion within Israeli Society to build a better and more unified Israel amongst their friends and communities.

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Throughout the course of the workshop, one could sense and hear the progression of comfortability, understanding, and respect amongst the participants. As many of the participants pointed out, until now, they had not had the opportunity to sit and interact with those from different sectors in such an informal setting. They were surprised by how much they actually had in common with one another and how they could relate to the other in such a deep and meaningful manner.

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“Incredible Seminar! I had never taken part in such an open discussion like this one between religious and secular. The fact that we are all teenagers- roughly the same age, and facing similar situations significantly added to focus the discussions . The only difference was how we contributed to the discourse on subjects that we don’t usually get answers to. It was an amazing experience that I wouldn’t give up for anything!”

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What a beautiful way to go into celebrating Israel’s 70th birthday! Inspiring 70 new young leaders to cultivate relationships with our fellow Jews and build a better understanding of one another in our beautiful country.

Wishing you all a meaningful Yom Ha’Zikaron and celebratory Yom Ha’Atzmaut. Comment below to let us know you’re fun plans for the holiday!

To learn more about Gesher’s Education Workshops check out our page.  

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Featuring Gesher Alum. Ronit Cohen-Gluzberg

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Ronit Cohen-Gluzberg was a participant on a Gesher Leadership course in 2015. Ronit is the director of Connect Jerusalem and is also a resident of the French Hill community in Jerusalem. In recent years, Haredim have been rapidly moving into the French Hill, creating a very diverse community. Unfortunately, neighborhood residents were not agreeing on many communal issues, making it extremely difficult to coexist.

Inspired by the Gesher Leadership Course, Ronit decided that she can implement change in her community. She created a forum for community dialogue between the secular, religious and Haredi residents with the goal of changing the community dialogue from one of power struggle to one of dialogue, understanding and compromise.  The steering committee of Haredi, religious and secular community leaders meet once a month to continue the positive dialogue and to discuss any issues that might come up.

Ronit’s program has been such a success in the French Hill, that the Jerusalem municipality is hoping to expand the program to other diverse communities in the city. Kol hakavod, Ronit!

Featuring Gesher Alumni: Bitia Malach and Shoshana Becker

Bitia Malach   Shoshana Becker

Shoshana Becker and Bitia Malach met each other on a Gesher Leadership training course in 2015. Shoshana worked for a tourism agency and specialized in creating organized trips to Israel for teens, university students, and adults from all over the globe. Bitia was the principal of a large ultra-Orthodox elementary community school for girls in Jerusalem.

While Shoshana is secular and Bitia is Haredi, the two connected immediately while on the Gesher course. As they were sitting one day during the delegation to New York, they realized that if they can develop a bond despite their differences, why couldn’t other females from different backgrounds do the same?

Shoshana and Bitia were immediately drawn to action. In conjunction with “Queen of the Desert” Tour company, Shoshana and Bitia planned an adventurous, international trip for 28 secular, religious and Haredi women to Georgia. For a week, the diverse group of women went hiking, rafting, biking and rock climbing and explored the beautiful Georgian landscapes. The shared adventure created a natural environment for the women from dramatically different backgrounds to engage in meaningful dialogue with each other. Strong relationships were made and many of the women are still in-touch!

This type of trip was so rare that when Channel 10 News caught wind, they asked to come along with a video camera and created a documentary. Aired on prime time television, the documentary was watched by 161,800 households!

Featuring Gesher Alumni: Raz Tamari and Yael Elimelech

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Raz Tamari and Yael Elimelech met on a Gesher Leadership Institute course in 2014. Raz at the time was the director of the “Golden Care—Mediterranean” Medical Center for rehabilitation of chronic care and geriatric patients. Among other positions, Yael had served as a national training supervisor for Tzemech, an organization that promotes the employment of Haredi women.

It just so happened to be that while they were on the course, Raz was looking to fill a number of positions in his company and Yael was looking to find employment for some Haredi women. Raz and Yael decided to pool their areas of expertise and became the solutions to each other problems. They designed a program that successfully integrated 17 ultra-Orthodox women at the service and sales centers for the largest private health care provider in Israel! The shared work environment provided the employees an opportunity to relate to each other not as “Haredi” or “secular” but simply as co-workers. If it were not for the Gesher Leadership course, Raz and Yael would not have met and they would not have designed such a great program!

Featuring Gesher Alum. Dr. Hila David

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Dr. Hila David is the director of Cultural Affairs for the Rishon LeTzion municipality. She is responsible for the arts education of the entire Rishon LeTzion municipal educational system.  She creates programming for kindergarten through 12th grade students who attend government, religious, and special education schools.

Inspired by the ideals of Jewish unity and dialogue espoused by the Gesher Leadership Institute course in 2014, Hila decided to use the arts as a means to create shared cultural experiences, dialogue, and positive interactions among school age kids from across the religious spectrum. She galvanized the principals, teachers, and program directors of approximately 70 religious and secular schools in the Rishon LeTzion municipality to bring their students to joint programming. For three years now, Hila has planned and executed a variety of cultural and artistic events that have reached over 30,000 students per year! One of these programs include a pre-Yom Kippur song and poem event that 3,000 students attended. These kinds of joint programs help kids understand that, despite their differences, they share a fundamental national bond. If it were not for Hila, these students would be consuming cultural events separately, with no exposure to other types of Jews. Kol Hakavod, Hila!

Gesher Alumnus, Mayor Gil Livne, Gives Speech on Yom Hashoah

By: Gil Livne, Mayor of Shoham

April 24, 2017

 

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The journey of our people – the Jewish people – has been long and tortuous, fraught with challenges and difficulties, a long journey that has passed through years of slavery to freedom, from holocaust to rebirth, from wandering to settling a home and country.

Almost eighty years have passed since the Holocaust of the Jewish people, and the Jewish state, which came shortly after, will soon mark its 70th anniversary.

On these days, between the Festival of Freedom, the Memorial Day for the Fallen of the Holocaust, the Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers, and until Independence Day, I ask myself – and in fact all of us – difficult questions.

After after six million Jews were murdered in World War II the Jews were on the brink of distinction. Yet out of the inferno and the shock arose the State of Israel, which continues to grow and develop from year to year.

Diaspora Jewry, on the other hand, has been struggling for years with assimilation, a threat that endangers its very existence. Within two or three generations, the Jews of the world, including the Jews of the US (ironically six million) are expected to shrink in half, not because of adversity or by the hands of an enemy, but out of choice.

Each year we repeat with astonishment stories of how during the Holocaust the Jews fought not only for a slice of bread or for places to hide, but also for lighting Shabbat candles; They guarded not only their children but also Torah scrolls; They struggled to live and to preserve their Jewishness.

The late President of Israel, Shimon Peres, spoke about his family during the ceremony “Every man has a name” on Holocaust Martyrs ‘and Heroes’ Remembrance Day in 2011:

“In memory of the members of my family who were massacred with their 2,060 community members in the town of Vishneiba in August 1942 by the Nazis and their local henchmen who rounded up the inhabitants of a synagogue made of wood and brutally burned them to their deaths. My grandmother Rivka Melzer, and my grandfather Zvi Melzer – my teacher and rabbi, as we were saying our goodbyes at the train station on my way to Eretz Israel, said three words to me: ‘Be a Jew!’ ”

And now, seventy years later, the future generation of the Jewish people, not out of persecution or manifestations of anti-Semitism, but out of choice, are disengaging from their roots, heritage and history.

We frequently say that there will never be a second holocaust because we have a strong and independent state with resources and a powerful army that can save any Jew at any time and any place.

But even an army, strong as ours may be, cannot save a young Jew who does not remember nor is not aware of his heritage.

How do you save someone who might not want to be saved?

And perhaps this is the most penetrating question of all – how much do we care to be Jews in this millennium, when only eighty years ago Jews did everything in their power to preserve their lives and their Jewish identity?

Judaism is not just a religion. It’s a historical narrative, a national diary with roots planted thousands of years ago. Its foundations in our time are the Holocaust and the Zionist enterprise, and to this, I hope, we all connect.

Israeli Jewish Zionist identity is the basis of our strong relationship with Diaspora Jewry. They are there for us, and we have to be there for them.

Our role as a nation living in the State of Israel, in the home of the Jewish people, is to bring Diaspora Jewry closer, to embrace, to connect, to bridge the gaps – and, above all, to be a model of moral esteem and national pride.

I believe that in memory of the six million who perished in the Holocaust, as well as the memory of the tens of thousands of martyrs who have since been killed in the wars to ensure Israel’s independence, we have a moral duty- a personal and national responsibility to the continuity of the Jewish chain.

And in two words – be Jews!

May the memory of the victims of the Holocaust be blessed.

Gesher Helps Soldiers Deal With Sunday’s Attack

By: Asaf Adler

January 12, 2017

As Gesher’s Director of Education, I would like to share a little about this tragic week in Israel, which in turn led to a humbling week for us at Gesher. As you likely know, there was a horrible terrorist attack this past Sunday at the Tayelet Promenade. An Arab truck driver ran over a group of soldiers, killing four and injuring many more.

The group of soldiers at the attack are in the midst of their sixteen-week training course to become commanders. That day, they were beginning their “Education Week” a crucial part of every commander’s training. The soldiers were planning to continue onto a base near Jerusalem, where they would spend the rest of the week with Gesher facilitators, partaking in Gesher’s IDF Commander’s Course.

Our coordinator for the Commanders course, Shlomit, spent Sunday morning and the rest of the day texting Yael, our logistics contact for the platoon.  When Yael did not answer any of Shlomit’s texts, we knew something went terribly wrong.

Yael Yekutiel was one of the four soldiers killed on Sunday. She was a soldier serving in the IDF’s Education Corps and was Gesher’s interface for our Commanders Course.  Yehi zichra baruch; may her memory be a blessing.

On Monday, the Gesher programming for the group was cancelled so that the soldiers could attend the funerals of their comrades. That night, I received a phone call from a high-level soldier in the Education Corps. He shared their urgent need for Gesher, this week more than ever, to help these teens recover from the trauma. We were in a unique position to fill this role while helping the platoon to continue their everyday routine (crucial for moral). We spent Monday gathering our best and most experienced facilitators while preparing our programming for the following day.

On Tuesday, we met with the entire platoon of 220 cadets, sixty percent of whom were at the scene of the attack just two days earlier. This specific group of soldiers are from non-combat units. For most of them, this was their first experience with blood. On Thursday, our facilitators went to their base near Mitzpeh Ramon in order to continue the Gesher programming. Our meaningful activities and dialogue gave a framework for the soldiers to mourn on the one hand, while on the other hand, continue their everyday lives. We hope that we helped the soldiers through the trauma and encouraged them to continue with their training course.

We are truly humbled to have played a role in the unit’s recovery. This week, our IDF officer’s training course took on a whole new meaning.

 

They are Making a Grave Mistake

By Rabbi Menachem Bombach

November 12, 2016

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During our thousands of years of exile, the secret to the magic of Judaism stemmed from one thing — differences of opinion. Jews first and foremost disagree. It is only due to this collective trait, that we have survived multiple challenges through the ages. Ironically, disputes and disagreements are what enabled us, even in the toughest of times, to retain our inner vigor and vivaciousness and to be absolutely clear as to the path we should take. Disagreement is the lifeblood of the Jewish people.

How is that possible? We never settled at disagreement alone. We always argued our positions, we put down on paper our diverse opinions and we strove to clarify them getting closer to the truth. For time immemorial, Jews argued amongst themselves about how they understand and interpret the Torah. It’s because of this that we today have merited such a wide network of beautiful and elaborate halakhic traditions and different commentaries and explanations of the Torah that broaden our intellect. Jews also argued with the ideas and cultures surrounding them. This is how our predecessors of the Middle Ages bequeathed us dozens of sefarim on Jewish philosophy and thought. One can also contend that the initial and painful struggle between the Hasidim and Mitnagdim caused each group to deepen and sharpen their own philosophy and find sources for many of their minhagim.

Last night, Jews resorted to violence and threats directed at my family and me for the sole reason that they disagree with my methods of education. Last night, at precisely 3:27AM, two Jews who were dressed as very religious looking Jews chose methods of intimidation and threats just because I serve Hashem in a slightly different way to them. I still do not know their identities and whether they were acting on behalf of someone else and therefore I can only address them in public:

First, I want to tell you – I deeply respect that you may think differently than me. I am constantly trying to navigate Hashem’s world and regularly thank Him for the great diversity that He bestowed upon us, for the landscape, for the wonderful world of nature and for all the different types of human beings and their many faces and diverse opinions. In addition, I am a firm believer that precisely to serve our Creator, we must each walk in the way in which our conscience guides us as this is the role for which we were destined.

Secondly, I urge you not to abandon your beliefs, but rather the opposite, allow them space and room for expression. I would more than welcome the opportunity to engage in a serious and substantive discussion on the topic of how best to educate our children – about the challenges facing the teachers of our forefather’s tradition, about the obstacles we all constantly encounter and the most successful ways to deal with them. On the contrary, I would be happy if you challenge me, to make me work harder to prove my ways, to try to elucidate them even more clearly.

Both my points above require me to tell you very pointedly that according to the way I understand our holy Torah, you are committing a grave mistake. Even if your intentions are for Heaven’s sake (l’shem shamayim), your actions are wrong and bad. I urge you to open up your eyes and pay attention to the fact that you are disgracing and embarrassing the name of God, are sinning when it comes to biblical mitzvoth between man and his fellow man, but more importantly, there is zero chance that by following this path, you will achieve your goals. Because even if every single morning I must wake up to my locks being glued shut or to puddles of tar thrown on my floor, I can only relate to these as tests that I am forced to pass in order fulfill my task in this world.

Even if I will not have the opportunity to carry out a debate for Heaven’s sake with those who think differently than me, I will continue to remember that the faces of the G-d fearing Haredi community to which I belong, are multifaceted and diverse and comprised of many, many different people. I will continue with even more resolve to expand the educational projects to which I dedicate my time and attention. I will do all in my power to realize our vision for our graduates to become talmidei chachamim, full of yirat shamayim and men of knowledge and intellect. I will charge my students wherever they are, to exhibit responsibility to all parts of the Haredi community, to identify with it and to contribute to it with all their might.

In conclusion, I owe thanks and blessings to all those who offered their support, encouragement and desire to strengthen the institutions of Torah and service of Hashem through their words, deeds and financial resources. Those circles of supporters, whose numbers grow daily, of quiet yet determined individuals who enable us to continue to adhere to the holy work of educating Jewish children. I know that we are all brothers. There is more that unites us than divides us. And I hope that there will come a day that we abandon the ways of brute force, fear mongering and intimidation to return to the tradition of our ancestors of using the power of disagreement and argument to help spread the word of Torah and make it great.

Rabbi Menachem Bombach, a graduate of the Gesher Leadership Institute and a member of its steering committee, is the Founder and Director of the “Hasidic Midarsha for Boys” in Beitar Illit. He is also a member of the faculty at the Mandel Program for Leadership Development in the Haredi community. He has an M.Ed. in Public Policy from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Following the Suicide of Esty Weinstein

By Michal Prince, Gesher Leadership Course 2015

June 30, 2016

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In the past week we have dealt with analyzing every detail in the life of a woman who was anonymous until a week ago.  We scrutinized the personal, family, and social causes that caused her to take the most awful step.  We go back and forth, at one point accusing the society in which she was raised, her daughters who cut off contact with her and then we immediately turn to the woman herself who did not find the strength to cope and took her own life.

Then we moved to a broader discussion of Haredi society, all aspects of freedom of choice, loss, and community responsibility.  No one is free from criticism.  Everyone is to blame. Those who did not enable and those who did not see.

Enough already.

Enough with investigating the stories in general terms.  Stop speaking about them and us.  And it makes no difference which side ‘we’ are on.  Here is a tragedy that we all have to learn from, to listen to it, to give it some space. It touches upon matters that we all understand and can identify with—motherhood, family, community, religion, and choice.  There is no one who is responsible for what happened and but at the same time we all have the responsibility to stop and think about our part.

The time has come to learn how to listen to the individual.  To give him a place.  To listen to his story and read between the lines.  Living in the society in which she was raised was difficult for this woman, she chose how to live and she chose how to die. We have to listen and ask tough questions but we cannot forget the other who found this place to be a home, protection, and faith. Let us listen to her as well.

When we can listen to everyone’s story, then something will happen, something will touch us and change.

Unfortunately we live in an imaginary world where someone else tells others our story.  We have one perception of a Haredi woman, a settler woman, and a secular woman and this story falls into this world of preconceptions and fulfills all the hackneyed media stereotypes.

Our responsibility is to transform the imaginary woman into a real one.  To clean and do away with the mask of smoke and alienation and let a person pierce our armor.  We do not have the ability to change Haredi society or secular society for that matter (and I for one want to change neither of them) but, we do have the power to turn individuals into people who are seen and heard, and maybe even into friends to whom we can extend a hand before the worst occurs…