Fifty Shades of Black

Fifty Shades of Black

An Interview with Chaim Steinberg featured in Ariela– Ariel University’s Student Journal of the School of Communication. 

By: Yoni Lichtman 

Haredi activist, Chaim Steinberg, believes that a brighter future can be achieved in the delicate relationship between Israel’s Secular and Ultra-Orthodox communities. He is not here to “convert”, but rather to have genuine dialogue between the two sectors: “My goal is not to explain the religion, rather to be a Bridge.”

The goal is not to change people. The goal is “to influence the perception of people and make them think more critically. It’s important to understand that according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Haredi population in Israel is close to one million. Naturally, one million people are not one shade, and not everyone is the same. There are many shades to the Haredi sector. It’s not all black and white, although it may look that way.” So says Chaim Steinberg who is only 26, but in the past three years has managed to guide dozens of discussion groups and workshops between Haredi and Secular Jews. The discussion groups as well as the workshops and tours are conducted through the SIACH** Project, which he is active in. In the last month, he was appointed as Gesher’s Director of the SIACH Project for advancement in dialogue between the various sectors in Israel.

Whether it be the conflict of passing the draft law in the Knesset or the split in Haredi society, it’s important that we hear from those fighting to mend the rifts in Israeli society as well as change our perceptions of the Haredim.

Introducing Chaim Steinberg, Director of the fascinating SIACH Project of Haredi and Secular and everything in between.Within the Program framework there are 25 Haredi activists from throughout the country. They lead dialogue groups and workshops for the Secular public. As part of the meetings, the Haredi facilitators try to introduce and acquaint the participants with the different shades of Haredi society and through this, shatter stereotypes that exist about them. He meets with influential groups from the public sector such as IDF and police officers as well as with high school students. “I think that in the future, each one of these young boys will get to wherever he is destined. The Secular society is still the majority in Israel and since the majority sits on the throne of the trading power and the leadership, when a big part of them don’t know the Haredi society or prevent these stigmas and stereotypes, then this is what we’re left with.” he says.

What does the schedule of a High School meeting look like?

“Every class has a Secular advisor from Gesher’s Education Department, together with a Haredi advisor of the SIACH Project. That means that even upon their entrance to the classroom there are already stigmas surfacing. Sometimes a Haredi man with a black hat and suit will walk in with a Secular girl in pants. All the students sit in a circle, there is no such thing as sitting behind a desk with us. Nothing is structured- we’re just talking.”

“At this point we introduce ourselves and write the word ‘Haredi’ in the middle of the board and tell the students to call out what associations come to mind when looking at this word. Nothing is off limits –not serving in the IDF, carrying the Haredim on our backs in terms of taxes, exclusion of women and much more.

A high school student is familiar with all the things you just mentioned. Are they interested?

“That’s exactly it. Turns out a high school student of 15 or 16 recognizes these issues. It’s true they are far less emotionally charged than adults. When you run these kind of programs for people between 40 and 50, of course it’s completely different.  But high school students aren’t shy either.” As noted during the meeting with the students, Chaim and his colleagues go over the different areas of Haredi society, as well as the different, sometimes conflicting, views of religion in their sector.

In the end what is your message to these students?

“I tell them that when you hear the world Haredim or are exposed to them through television, in a newspaper or on Facebook, be more critical. When someone says ‘Haredim are this and that’, be smarter, understand that it’s not that simple. If someone specific does something specific on a certain street in Beit Shemesh that doesn’t mean that a million people scattered throughout the country are behaving in the same way.”

Do you think a one-time meeting is enough to convey such a message?

100% yes. I also think that if there were a 2 or three hour event only once, there would be a change in perception. This doesn’t mean that everything the student thought is suddenly erased, but that the path is reimagined. I see it both among the high school students and among the adult groups. People ask different types of questions at the end of the meeting than at the beginning.

From the Hasidic House to encouraging young people to enlist

As we said, Chaim is only 26. He was born into a Chassidic family in Ashdod. As a child, they moved to Bnei Brak and he studied in Stigora Yeshiva in the city. At 20 he married his wife, a professional fashion designer and today he lives together with his two children in Jerusalem’s Ramat Eshkol neighborhood. He works in tandem with several social frameworks aimed at helping integrate Haredi society in Israel. Among other things, He works at the Joint where he runs programs for Haredim in Academia and the IDF and is also a senior employee at the Midresha Hassaidit high school, which combines core studies in the Haredi city- Beitar Illit. As mentioned above, in the last month he has been appointed to direct Gesher’s SIACH Project. In between, he is earning his B.A. in Management and Human Resources at Hadassah College in Jerusalem. In order to set an interview, Chaim had to look at his Google Calendar, “it saves my life, this thing. You’d think I was Prime Minister.” He said jokingly.

He is a Hassidic Haredi who belongs to the Shevet Halevi community, which acts as a place of management for Haredi employees. It’s very interesting. Additionally, many of the employers are always or almost always in distress when it comes to recruitment and there is no doubt that the Haredi society and the centers of guidance can provide help, at least to some of those places.

What is the truth? If you want to get Haredim to work, do we have to make adjustments?

“On a daily level in most types of occupations, there’s nothing that needs to be adjusted. Today Haredim work everywhere. Whether in government, ministries, municipalities or hi-tech companies. Men work with women, women work with men. This is what happens in reality. I know no such place that has a men’s kitchen and a women’s kitchen.”

Employers, according to Steinberg, are afraid of employing a Haredi due to all sorts of perceptions that the business will be required to adapt itself to for a Haredi that comes to work there. In order to resolve the matter, he suggests, managers need to understand that a Haredi coming to them for a job interview, does not need adjustments made for him. “first of all, the very fact that a Haredi man is coming for a job interview in a Secular place indicates that he is willing to go to work in a place like this”, he tells them.

You describe a theoretical process. How do you make sure that after those days of training, those companies will indeed employ Haredim?

Over the last year, Gesher has realized that it has to take a step forward on the issue of employment. The SIACH Project has expanded and has opened another program focused on employment. We are actually meeting with employers and going through a process with them. A process from which they begin at not employing Haredim in general to the stage of Haredi absorption in the workforce. For this reason, we connect them with Haredi guidance centers such as the Joint and the Ministry of Economy. And in fact, they do bring Haredim to work there in order to raise the employment rate.”

Apart from working in a high school, Chaim leads tours of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem to police and IDF officers. The tours in Jerusalem are conducted in Mea Sha’arim and in the Great Synagogue of Belz Hasidism. “We run discussion groups inside the Synagogue- they agree to let us in. There is even someone on their behalf that says a few words about the place. They sit in two rows- men and women next to each other. I doubt that women in the Belz commuity were ever in the actual Beit Knesset. But Secular women are there. I myself, have been several hundreds of times over the years” he says laughing.

In Bnei Brak, he takes everyone on a tour of the area of Ponevezh Yeshiva where they stop to look at the flagship yeshiva in the Haredi sector. He speaks of the culture of these tours in the Haredi communities- he says it’s become a popular trend. “Go to Bnei Brak on Chanukah to the streets that are most crowded and you’ll find that 50% of the reason that they’re so crowded is because of Secular groups coming to visit to see what Haredim are like up close- it’s very popular.”

At the end of the day, Chaim hopes that these tours and discussion groups for students, officers and employers will help Haredi society become more integrated within Israel. Employment rates will rise. Besides that, Chaim believes that even without a clear interest, there is a need for the meeting to take place. “I think that hatred and ignorance are not healthy. Especially on the level of daily conduct. Whether it’s a young boy or an adult.” He believes that the continuation of dialogue between the sectors will help society better understand Haredim and will help both sides continue to develop our country. 

What plans do you have for the coming years?

We are always striving to continue to increase the number of people who are active with us every year in order to truly influence as many people as possible” he says, adding  that “the goal is to break down barriers of hostility and ignorance, and we need more people to do this” he summarizes.

**SIACH Project: The department within Gesher that deals with dialogue between Haredim and the rest of Israeli society.