Bridging the gap

The widening gap among the different sectors in Israeli society threatens the cohesion of a country for which disunity could quite literally spell its downfall.

Gesher leadership seminar (photo credit: EITAN MORGENSTERN)
Gesher leadership seminar
(photo credit: EITAN MORGENSTERN)
Of the many challenges facing the nascent Jewish state in the 21st century, some say the hastening trend toward tribalism will prove to be the most fateful. The widening gap among the different sectors in Israeli society – chiefly the religious-secular divide – threatens the cohesion of a country for which disunity could quite literally spell its downfall.
A Jerusalem-grown organization, fittingly named Gesher (Bridge), has dedicated its efforts to the rapprochement of secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel through joint projects, courses and workshops that aim to create open and unfettered dialogue about the problems standing in the way of harmonious coexistence.
By bringing people to “sit around the same table,” as Shira Zik, who heads the leadership programs at Gesher, describes it, these efforts “provide the platform to talk these issues over so we can find ways to live under the same roof.”
It is no surprise, of course, that such an initiative would come to life in Jerusalem, the colorful microcosm of Israeli society at large, where different communities bicker over local squabbles that in fact are mere shadows of grander nationwide questions of religion and state. But almost four decades since its modest beginnings as a local nonprofit, Gesher now runs dozens of programs all across the country.
Nearly 20,000 high-school students from the secular and religious state school systems are brought together each year through a joint leadership program for an unforgettable weekend of activities and discussions – for many of them the first meaningful experience shared with a student their age outside their sector.
The hope of Zik and her colleagues at Gesher is to leave a firsthand impression on these young minds that will fundamentally change the way they regard Jews of different denominations and provide them with new and nuanced perspectives on what tend to become black-and-white issues in society. “To look the other side in the eye and just talk – that’s the whole secret.”
The organization has also reaped much success in the IDF, where every cadet in its officers’ training school undergoes a two-day Gesher workshop about Jewish identity. Each platoon of cadets, very commonly an eclectic mix of Israelis of strikingly different backgrounds – from Ethiopian immigrants to secular Tel Avivians to national-religious folk from Judea and Samaria – are guided by a Gesher mediator through a series of dialogues on the very issues where passions promise to rise high in a room full of Israelis.
The ensuing discussion ends invariably in fiery debate, bringing tensions to the surface that remain only implicit and even taboo in the shared routine of army life among these diverse cadets. Yet ultimately, Zik believes, respectable but otherwise fearless polemic is the only way to truly forge a cohesive group – be it a platoon of young soldiers or a country in the making.
“It’s very much like building a healthy relationship.
Without big fights and constant friction along the way, you can never really grow to be a strong couple.”
Perhaps the most consequential of Gesher’s endeavors are the workshops catering specifically to high-ranking figures in Israeli society. Gathering up journalists, public sector chiefs, businessmen, lawyers and academics from religious and cultural backgrounds no less diverse, the organization has tailored a six-month senior leadership program that aims for a prolonged and meaningful process of intimate acquaintance and deep deliberation among key individuals and future leaders of Israeli society.
Graduates of the program, each a leader in his or her profession, are expected to be agents of change in their own fields by initiating a project of their choice to advance inter-sectorial cohesion. One such graduate working for Rishon Lezion City Hall insisted on sending kids from secular and religious schools on combined field trips as a newly established norm. Another graduate formed a roundtable community council of secular, religious and haredi residents in the French Hill neighborhood of Jerusalem to peacefully resolve disputes concerning Shabbat and other religious issues – a step that could easily prove the working model for all mixed communities around Jerusalem and the country.
With its eyes set on the integration of the haredi community into Israeli society at large, altogether a prime national objective for this country in our generation, Gesher has recently concentrated its energies on opening new workshops to connect secular Jews to the realities of haredi life, and vice versa. Young Orthodox men and women who wish to find jobs in the wider Israeli economy are offered crash courses teaching soft skills for a smooth integration into a mixed working environment, whereas high school students in Tel Aviv with little more than a vague concept of life just a few miles away in the haredi town of Bnei Brak are taken to the Ponevezh Yeshiva for a talk with a panel of community leaders.
“Most secular [Israelis] see the ultra-Orthodox as a monolith,” explains Itzik Ernfeld of Gesher. “They are shocked to discover how diverse and pluralistic the different streams within the haredi community are, and how many different opinions exist even about issues like mandatory military service, secular education and other hot topics.”
The winds of change in the ultra-Orthodox sector, rarely brought to the attention of secular Israelis by the mainstream media, have impelled increasing numbers of haredim to search for opportunities in the general workforce and likewise in higher education. Already today a whopping 10,000 haredi students, most of them women, study in Israel’s colleges and universities, and the figures are steadily rising.
Toward this end several graduates of Gesher’s leadership programs have made considerable contributions.
One, a CEO of a small pharmaceutical company, rose to the challenge by integrating 15 haredi women into his workforce, a decision since consistently repeated by his successors. Meanwhile, a pair of haredi graduates designed a short seminar for college lecturers on the ultra-Orthodox community, to better integrate the haredi students who reach their classrooms, often against the odds and at a considerable personal price.
As it happens, as far as integration of all sectors into the workplace is concerned, Gesher itself is a remarkably successful example and a true model for any organization or business in Israel. The vivacious team is composed of Israelis of all stripes, from American Reform Jews fresh off the boat to haredim who grew up speaking Yiddish at home. “All of Am Yisrael is here,” Zik says.
Always aspiring to expand its reach, Gesher has recently decided to engage in the national effort to strengthen the ties between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, yet another challenge of strategic importance to a thriving Jewish state. Having sent delegations to the Jewish communities of New York and London for several years so far, with profound impressions left on both sides, the organization was recently asked by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry to lead several new projects with the same objective: to bring the realities of Jewish life abroad to the present awareness of Israelis and to build strong ties between them and Jewish communities globally.
The driven men and women of Gesher have done much to advance the vision of a healthy, cohesive and harmonious Israeli society that aspires to common values but not to homogeneity. As the organization’s credo succinctly puts it, “Be different. Be together.”
Their work leaves much room for optimism, as previously entrenched sectors come into increasingly close contact and argue over the country’s future openly and passionately.
“All we want is for Israelis to perceive these conflicts not as a fight between enemies but as a dispute among brothers. We are all one people, and can find solutions to make life wonderful for all of us here,” says Zik.