Special report: Is film the key to a peaceful Beit Shemesh?

The Wonderful Women NGO aims to build bridges between the haredi and secular communities.

Wonderful Women (photo credit: screenshot)
Wonderful Women
(photo credit: screenshot)

Video by Eli Mandelbaum

When tensions between the haredi and secular communities in Beit Shemesh reached unprecedented heights in 2011, city residents Hila Timor and Chaya Yosovitz decided to take matters into their own hands and attempt to build bridges. The former, a secular woman, and the latter haredi, the two decided to use their own friendship - which blossomed after Timor's husband performed surgery on one of Yosovitz's sons - as a template for building relationships between their divided communities. They subsequently established an NGO called Wonderful Women, in an attempt to break down barriers between the people of Beit Shemesh.

Since Timor is a filmmaker, the duo decided to use film as a tool to bring women together. And for the past two-and-a-half years they have been holding weekly meetings in which the participants create films together, with Timor's guidance, which they eventually showcase both in Israel and abroad.
Timor tells The Jerusalem Post that at the beginning it was by no means an easy feat; there was a lot of tension in the first few meetings and the organizers thought maybe the whole idea had been one big mistake. She says that after the women started to pair up, however, "it was humanizing, they realized how much they had in common, and everything calmed down - even when we argued, it was calmer arguing." In this way the seeds were sown for a fruitful project that slowly expanded, piquing the interest of friends and eventually also husbands, who too began joining, coming together in what Timor described as "a beautiful puzzle."
"It doesn't happen spontaneously" Amit Zehavi of Beit Shemesh tells the Post."I don't think I've had the chance to sit together with haredi women in other opportunities."
"We have a lot of ignorance because we just see them from far away, and we decide that they probably live their lives like this or like that, but not because we know them, and this is an opportunity to break the stereotypes," she states.
Sarina Sechter from Ramat Beit Shemesh has undergone a similar experience: "Just to get to know each other and see that the other world is OK and fine, and everyone's nice,  and OK and normal and nice ladies."
"We just enjoy being with each other - so what if I'm religious and you're not? We're all people and we're all Jewish," she adds.
Many of the films produced through the project have dealt with the issue or haredi-secular relationships. For one film, for instance, one of the religious women brought her grandmother - the great granddaughter of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov - along with a secular woman of the same age who lives in Kibbutz Tzora. The group interviewed the pair about their past and realized how many things they have in common - "same challenges, different settings," Timor explains.
She opines that the initiative is slowly impacting on the wider community and that it's very important for the children, "because if we're growing up in such a mess, what will our children think?"
"Things could change in Israel - it's up to us. That's the main thing," she asserts.
Gideon Vavner of the Jewish Agency agrees with this assessment, describing the initiative as a "reality changer" that proves "there can be a way to make things better and you can be active in making them happen."