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What happens when a haredi family from Bnei Brak is forced to live on the same floor as a secular family of immigrants from Moscow? In reality, a clash of cultures might impede a "neighborly" relationship. In the new television mini-series, Merhak Negia (A Touch Away), things aren't much different.
The program, developed by Tzafrir Kochanowski, is sponsored by Tzav Pius (which best translates as "an imperative to reconcile"), a non-governmental organization that tries to bridge the gap between haredi and secular Jews. Created in 1996 after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, it is supported by the Avi Hai Foundation, which also works to bring together these polar communities through a variety of media activities.
Merhak Negia, which airs every Tuesday night on Channel 2 until March 20, promotes mutual understanding through a Romeo and Juliet inspired love story. Zorik, a young non-religious Russian-born construction worker, takes interest in Ruchale, his ultra-Orthodox neighbor whose marriage has been preordained.
Awarded Best Dramatic Series at the last Haifa Festival, the first episode in the eight episode series delivered all-time high ratings for Channel 2 in this category, with 672,000 viewers and record numbers among teenagers, Russian immigrants and religious viewers.
"We've decided to support the production of this series because of the quality of the project," Aliza Gershon, a Tzav Pius spokesperson, tells The Jerusalem Post. "The ultra-Orthodox community and Russian secular immigrants are living worlds apart, and religious and secular Israelis generally avoid contact with each other."
Gershon, who was involved in the creation and development of the program for the past two and a half years, insists she "never tried to impose a message [on the public]. However, we constantly made sure that the series would reflect the diversity of the Israeli society."
Avoiding stereotypes was also a prerequisite. "The scriptwriter did not know the ultra orthodox community from the inside," she admits. "We discouraged her from putting unconvincing expressions in the mouth of a haredi woman."
THE ISRAELI non-profit sector has become increasingly involved in the sponsorship of television programs broadcast on mainstream channels.
The trend was introduced by ex-director of Jerusalem's Maaleh film school, Udi Leon, who is currently in charge of special programs and cultural diversity at Keshet production company. A couple of years ago, Leon succeeded in persuading Gesher, another organization dedicated to narrowing the divide between the secular and religious, to build a foundation for multicultural cinema. The result was Me'orav Yerushalmi ("Jerusalem Mix"), a TV series which examined a traditional family whose children adopted very different Jewish identities.
"The narrowness of the Israeli market is an obstacle in promoting quality TV series with multicultural content," explains Leon. "Therefore we have no alternative but to turn to NGOs to fund these programs."
Tzav Pius has launched a multifaceted effort to create dialogue between the different sectors of Jews in Israel. "Our message is not 'let's compromise' but rather, 'let's get to know each other,'" Gershon stresses.
Several months before the disengagement from Gaza, the organization launched the "flag campaign." Using a graphic concept that showed a star of David whose blue triangles were separated before rejoining, its motto was: "Let's not allow this to cut us off from each other."
Tzav Pius is also responsible for sponsoring several shows, including Sof HaDerech (The End of the Road), a successful prime-time religious/ secular challenge show; Mishehou Diber (Somebody Spoke), which confronts young viewers from various backgrounds on the Education Channel; and the talk show Yesh Dibur (There is a Debate), which airs the contrasting viewpoints of haredi columnist Kobi Arieli and his secular colleague Eyal Gefen on the religious-oriented radio station Kol Hai.
The organization also funded the documentary On the Frontline (2002) which examines a mechina (a year-long military prep school) that enrolled a mix of secular and religious students in the district of Gilo during the the second Intifada.
However grass roots movements are really at the heart of Tzav Pius's efforts. Seminars, trekking and soccer games between the secular and religious are among the initiatives designed to promote dialogue.
Compared to the unlikely love affair between Zorik and Ruchale, Tzav Pius has a far greater chance of success.