Natan Sharansky (second left) is met upon arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport in November 1986 by his wife, Avital, then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir (right) and then-deputy prime minister Shimon Peres..
(photo credit: GPO)
The Long Island Orthodox synagogue has reputedly invited only three women to speak from the podium. The first was Avital Sharansky, who fought a successful campaign that freed her husband Anatoly/Natan from Russian prison in 1986. The second woman speaker was Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel, an acclaimed Torah educator and advocate for Jewish unity, whose son Naftali was kidnapped and murdered together with Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah by terrorists on June 12, 2014.
And just recently, there was a third woman: Tzili Schneider.
Less well-known, Schneider is the founder of the Jewish Connection (Kesher Yehudi), an organization that links some 8,000 nonobservant Jews with 8,000 extremely religious study partners. Sixteen thousand, as she wryly points out, is almost enough votes for a Knesset seat.
I point out that the number is approaching that of the students of Rabbi Akiva (c.40-137), whose death by plague is remembered in the mourning period after Passover.
Twelve thousand pairs of study partners died for not treating each other with respect. I suggest that she is providing the corrective correlative. Mutual respect is the core of Schneider’s program.
I first met Schneider in 2007 when she was already two years into making study-partner matches under the aegis of an outreach organization. Headquarters was an apartment in a religious neighborhood of Jerusalem, where a cluster of modestly dressed women toiled in front of computer screens, making matches between observant and nonobservant women who would study Torah together. The program, which would become the Jewish Connection, would later expand to do the same for men and to create other opportunities for bringing together groups that were suspicious of, and antagonistic to, each other.
Schneider grew up in a hassidic family in Mea She’arim and continues to live a strictly observant lifestyle. She found an outlet for her inborn creativity and outgoingness within her community by becoming both a filmmaker and social activist.
The Jewish Connection was born in a hospital maternity ward. An instant sorority is created among the women in the emotional days after childbirth.
Talk goes quickly from shared tips for diaper rash to deeper conversations.
Schneider was interested in the dreams and aspirations of her roommates, who were equally curious about hers. They didn’t only want to know about exotic elements of religious life, but to know more about Torah.
Schneider, who has 11 children and works full-time, believes that even the busiest person can find half an hour every week to have a Torah-based study session by phone with a partner – hevruta – who has a different life perspective. Meaningful friendships frequently evolve, and phone study partners often decide to meet.
Her first religious participants came from among her own relatives and friends. A requirement was to understand the reciprocity of the connection.
No preaching. Each partner would learn from the other.
“Torah is superglue,” Schneider says.
“Nothing else can hold like it. Sometimes nonobservant Jews will suggest we spend half the time on Bialik and Shakespeare and half on Torah. But my point is exactly the opposite: the Torah we share belongs equally to all of us. If a king has two sons, and one is studious and loyal and the other interested in travel and adventures, don’t they both inherit from the king when he passes away? Of course they do!” The Jewish Connection won the 2016 Jerusalem Unity Prize, created in memory of the aforementioned kidnapped youngsters whose plight brought together the hopes, prayers and efforts of the nation for the 18 days until they were found brutally murdered. It’s awarded in the presence of the president to those who not only practice and encompass unity in their own lives but who “drive inclusive imitative forward, in influencing the lives of others.”
Although the phone study program is the Jewish Connection’s flagship, a relatively new initiative was recognized for the Unity Prize. Schneider was recruited to link young men studying in nonreligious pre-military academies – where they prepare for service in the IDF – with yeshiva study partners, in person, not by phone.
The connection seemed unlikely: the idealistic soon-to-be front-line soldiers and officers studying with those who have opted out of military service. But it worked.
In Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 war in Gaza, Schneider’s cellphone rang with an unfamiliar number. A soldier would be getting a few hours off not far from the action. In addition to seeing his parents, he wanted to study with his hevruta, but he wasn’t able to get in touch. Schneider found the study partner in his yeshiva.
“I wish I could say that the student immediately agreed to race down to strengthen his study partner,” she said.
“Truth be told, he didn’t want to go. So I called the head of the yeshiva. He personally called a taxi and ordered the student to get into it.”
Schneider’s connection to the New York synagogue? Her schism-mending program has reached the shores of America, where nonobservant former Israelis are studying in pairs with religious American Jews.
She’s confident that even those suffering from family breaches and high levels of animosity after the last election could reconcile over mutual Torah study. “It can never be that our only connection is through conflict. No matter how bitter the disagreement, superglue will help.”
Mending the world two persons at a time. The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.