Zev Wolfson, the noted philanthropist who passed away a month ago, once yelled at my boss, the director of Nefesh Yehudi, for spending NIS 11 on a bottle of mineral water in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel. “There is water in the faucet,” he chided him, “what do you need to spend 11 shekels for!?” That same night, Mr. Wolfson handed him a huge check for Nefesh Yehudi.

“That’s my father,” Mr. Wolfson’s son told Rabbi Eli Ilani. “As far as he is concerned, his money is God’s money; it was given to him to help the Jewish people and it isn’t ours to waste.”

I thought of that story last week as I stood in the lobby of the Ramada Renaissance Hotel watching the endless streams of students who poured into the hotel that evening to pay tribute to Zev Wolfson. These were students and former students at all the major universities and colleges in Israel; students of law, film, medicine, advertising and everything in between – with one thing in common. At some point in the past eight years each took part in the Nefesh Yehudi learning program, which offers a stipend to students who commit to four weekly hours of Torah study.

When these students received a call asking them to show their gratitude to the man who had made it all possible, they came – in droves. True, the program included a concert by popular singer Eviatar Banai, and the tickets were only NIS 20 each, but that didn’t explain the tsunami of people pouring out of the buses – from Tel Chai in the North, Beersheba in the South, and everywhere in between. Students who have long since gone on with their lives, who for the most part consider themselves secular, were grasping at the opportunity to reconnect. The whole lobby resonated with warmth, nostalgia and enthusiasm.

You could almost hear the stereotypes shattering into smithereens on the marbled lobby floor, just watching the joyful reunions, the hugs and back-slapping between the bearded, black-suited staff and the young men with the so-short-as-to-be-shorn haircuts, between the bejeaned women students and the modestly dressed female staff.

That the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) were there was to be expected; their presence can easily be dismissed as part of their alleged desire to missionize. But what brought these hordes of secular students out of the woodwork in a country where you can barely gather a few people for a demonstration? What drew them to attend an evening hosted by those black-garbed pariahs of society? It was enough to make you wonder if you had fallen asleep and woken up to the Messianic age.

Who would have believed this? Certainly not I, who still remembers the incredible effort it took to organize our first group of 30 students in Tel Aviv eight years ago. And believe me, it was culture shock all around. You could almost hear the loud creak of cogs turning as people began to realign their thinking. Haredim were supposed to be ignorant, primitive, arrogant people, yet here were intelligent, sensitive, caring mentors, eager to learn together and share their knowledge. Secular students were supposed to be decadent and superficial, living solely for the moment, but here were intelligent, interesting and caring people with a life philosophy of their own.

A sociologist would have a field day analyzing the ramifications of such a culture clash – and the impact is obviously not one sided. The comfortable intermingling of the two groups, the animated conversations, the sheer energy suffusing the hall, make it clear that both sides have been broadened – and changed – by the fallout from the explosion of myths.

The welcome speech by Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, the inspiring talk by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, and the memoirs by the Wolfson family were all greeted with thunderous applause. When Rabbi Ilani, the charismatic, creative dream builder and director of Nefesh Yehudi apologized to the few hundred people standing in the back by explaining that the hotel would only allow 2,100 chairs, his pronouncement that “if there is room in the heart, there is room in the hall” was greeted with roars of enthusiastic clapping that contained not one iota of cynicism, cliché notwithstanding.

Zev Wolfson was a caring man, but he was made of iron. When he insisted that first year that he wanted 1,000 students in the program, we on staff thought he had an excellent sense of humor. Didn’t he understand how ridiculous it was to expect secular students to come to a program run by religious people?

“IMPOSSIBLE,” THOUGH, was not in Wolfson’s vocabulary, and when 6,000 new students registered for this past year, it wasn’t a joke anymore – it was the new reality. This kind of meeting between supposedly disinterested and antagonistic secular students and impossibly stubborn haredim was never supposed to take place! Where are all the social critics and naysayers when you need them?

Apparently Zev Wolfson’s message resonates with these young people. Are we going to give the Jewish people Jewish grandchildren? Are we going to create a generation of educated Jews who have something of substance to pass on to the next generation? The thousands of students at this event are actively taking responsibility to meet these challenges, and to everyone’s immense surprise, it seems those black-garbed religious folk make good partners. Indeed, the entire evening was a celebration of the collective soul of the Jewish people – a reminder of our core identity.

This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of painful and complex issues between the two groups; there are. But the sheer numbers, the warmth and love that permeated the evening were like a flash of lightning on a dark and stormy night. And when Eviatar Banai began singing his classic song “Abba,” I couldn’t help but feel that the recently deceased beloved father of the Wolfson family, as well as our own Father in Heaven, must be having some old fashioned Jewish nachas.

The writer lectures weekly to hundreds of Israeli university students on Jewish thought, through the organization Nefesh Yehudi. She welcomes comments and questions and can be reached at miriamjpost@gmail.com.

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