US oleh fights to improve Israel's road safety, driving culture

Dr. Michael Goldenhersh: “The Israeli mentality is that ‘the rules of the road are for everyone else, but they have nothing to do with me.’”

 POLICE AT the scene of a bus run off the road at Anava Junction, Road 1, July 18.  (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
POLICE AT the scene of a bus run off the road at Anava Junction, Road 1, July 18.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

Dr. Michael Goldenhersh, a mild-mannered Jerusalem dermatologist, is passionate about driving safety. Growing up in bucolic Belleville, Illinois, he was accustomed to a safe and sedate driving style. “I grew up in the Midwest, where everyone is not aggressive,” he recalls with a smile.

In 1975, after his second year of medical school at St. Louis University, he took a break from his studies and spent a year in Israel at Yeshivat Har Etzion. During that year, he lived in Jerusalem, and he still recalls the daily rides back from Gush Etzion to the capital and the unsafe driving that he witnessed. “I used to ride with Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein and Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the heads of the yeshiva, and I saw how everyone else was driving. It was crazy how they drove,” he says, hastening to add that the two rabbis were exceedingly safe drivers.

At the conclusion of that year, Goldenhersh and his wife returned to the United States, determined to come back to Israel and make aliyah. They also decided that when they returned, they would try to change the driving culture in the Jewish state.

Ten years later, in 1985, Goldenhersh, by then an assistant professor of dermatology at Yale University, made aliyah from New Haven, Connecticut, together with his wife and children, to Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood.

HE CLEARLY recalls the day, almost 30 years ago, when a young schoolteacher was killed by a speeding bus in Har Nof while crossing the street. After the tragic event, Goldenhersh, together with other local residents – including Rabbi Yitzchak Kofman, who taught at Jerusalem’s Yeshivat Yerushalayim L’Tzeirim (Yashlatz) – met to think of ideas to increase safe driving practices. Some residents were interested in implementing changes to the local infrastructure, such as adding speed bumps on the streets.

 IT’S A sad day when it’s Israelis rather than animals one needs to fear on the roads.  (credit: Rebecca Zeffert/Flash90) IT’S A sad day when it’s Israelis rather than animals one needs to fear on the roads. (credit: Rebecca Zeffert/Flash90)

Goldenhersh and Kofman took a slightly different tack and determined that the main issue was education. For 20 years, every Saturday night, the two studied halachot relating to being responsible drivers and pedestrians, emphasizing proper middot (character traits) in both categories. 

“When the experts discuss traffic accidents. They mention three categories – infrastructure, law enforcement and the human element – and everyone agrees that the human element is the main factor in accidents. If it’s the human element, then the main solution is education.”

Dr. Michael Goldenhersh

“When the experts discuss traffic accidents,” says Goldenhersh, “they mention three categories – infrastructure, law enforcement and the human element – and everyone agrees that the human element is the main factor in accidents. If it’s the human element, then the main solution is education.” 

The two long-time havrutot (learning partners) developed an ambitious educational program that would be used in high schools to inculcate the proper values and traits to ensure safe, defensive driving. The program included separate student and teacher versions, trigger questions and stories, all prepared in Hebrew. It was used at Horev and Noam high schools for boys in Jerusalem, he says, but never really got off the ground. Goldenhersh met with officials in the Education Ministry, but they told him there was no time for additional courses in the already overloaded high school curriculum.

The help of Gush Etzion's chief rabbi

GOLDENHERSH AND Kofman’s educational initiative languished until Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon, chief rabbi of Gush Etzion, author, educator and social innovator, became interested in his driving safety program. Rimon heads Sulamot, an innovative, nonprofit institute that develops educational curricula for Israel and the Diaspora. The institute creates immersive Jewish educational experiences to make Judaism more inspiring and accessible. Goldenhersh mentions Sulamot’s interactive Mishnah program for children, entitled Ratzim LaMishnah (Running to Mishnah), which he says attracts an audience of 150,000 children who study the basis of Jewish oral law during summer vacation.

Sulamot is interested in utilizing the program for driving safety that Goldenhersh and Kofman have developed – not to teach driving skills, but rather to teach the personality and mental approach needed to ensure safe driving in Israel. Goldenhersh has developed the plan, and Sulamot has the marketing muscle and skills necessary to take it to the next level. 

In order to create three pilot videos that will be used in 500 high schools, Goldenhersh must raise NIS 100,000. The program will first be utilized in religious and traditional high schools and will later be tailored for secular students. “Our dream,” says Goldenhersh, “is that this should be used in every high school. When I meet school principals – both secular and religious – they are equally interested.”

Goldenhersh is planning a formal study to test the efficacy of the videos and has enlisted the assistance of Prof. Meni Koslowsky, former chairman of Bar Ilan University’s Psychology Department. “We will prepare a questionnaire for the students before they watch the videos and have them answer the questions. After they watch the film, we will ask the same questions and see if the video has changed their attitude.” The ultimate test, he acknowledges, is whether they can change driving behavior – but if they can at least demonstrate a change of attitude and awareness, they will be on the path to success.

SOME PEOPLE think Goldenhersh’s program to improve driver etiquette and road safety is naive. After all, everyone is familiar – unfortunately – with the aggressive and overbearing style of driving so common on Israel’s roads. But he remains undeterred, recalling how the determined efforts of The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), together with the Nature Reserves Authority, succeeded in preserving wildflowers in Israel by persuading members of the public to stop picking them and simply enjoy nature. Likewise, he suggests, people can learn to drive more politely and safely in this country.

The dermatologist turned road safety activist maintains that there is a disconnect between how people behave in their daily lives and how they drive. “The Torah should permeate our lives in everything that we do. When people get in the car, there is a disconnect and a disassociation between what they learned in yeshiva and everything they learned anywhere” else.

“Driving here is aggressive and crazy,” he laments. “Being behind the wheel empowers people, and people behave on the road totally differently from how they would if they were standing next to you on the street.”

Recalling an accident that he was involved in shortly after he made aliyah, someone rear-ended his car after he had stopped at a stop sign. “The man jumped out and screamed, ‘Why did you make a sudden stop?’” The event may not have been humorous at the time, but now Goldenhersh laughs and says, “I had stopped at a stop sign, and he asked me, ‘Why did you stop?!’”

After living in Israel for 37 years, Michael Goldenhersh, sadly reports that he has not seen any improvement in driving etiquette. “In front of my office, there is a ‘No U-Turn’ sign, and I see everyone making U-turns all day long. The Israeli mentality is that ‘the rules of the road are for everyone else, but they have nothing to do with me.’” He hopes that his program of teaching proper middot for driving will eventually reach other areas of daily life in Israel.

Can Israelis become calmer, safer drivers?

While it is unlikely that driving in Israel will ever become as sedate as his hometown of Belleville, Goldenhersh hopes that educating Israelis while they are young can lead to a kinder, gentler road etiquette.

What you can do to help 

The estimated cost to produce three videos for the pilot program is NIS 100,000 ($29,000). To date, Goldenhersh has raised NIS 40,000 and is hoping to obtain the necessary funding in time to begin the pilot program.

For more information: [email protected]

To make tax-deductible contributions:

USD: www.jgive.com/new/en/usd/donation-targets/63198

NIS: www.jgive.com/new/en/ils/donation-targets/63198