The Human Spirit: Two sides talking

'When I see a secular woman in the street, I think of her differently now,' a haredi woman told me.

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
To reach the office of Ayelet Hashahar, drive to the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem, beyond a cluster of yeshivot and the bountiful numbers of little girls and boys riding bikes in a cul de sac formed by multistory buildings. Up the stairs, in two small rooms, six young women sit in front of computers. Matrices of names fill the screens. The staff is busy making matches. They're hooking up potential telephone study partners. No connection to this estimable program. I've long studied over the phone with a friend and can testify to the benefits and efficiency of this method. But my hevruta shares my weltanschauung. At Ayelet Hashahar the typical match is between an extremely religious woman and a non-observant one. Two-and-a-half years into the project, there are 2,300 pairs, with thousands of women allegedly waiting to begin. They focus on Bible, Jewish law & philosophy, and character refinement. There's even a pair in which one woman uses the half-hour weekly session to read aloud the latest newspaper diatribe about the failings of Orthodox Jews and hears the other side of the story from an insider. Because women so organically bring personal and practical knowledge to a text, friendships develop. Tzila Schneider, the woman who runs this project, has time to schmooze over a mug of coffee. Slim and attractive, she's wearing a long pink flowered skirt and Crocs, a strand of her wig falling in her eyes. Schneider, 45, is a teacher, pioneering religious filmmaker and second-generation community organizer. She hails from the haredi neighborhood of Mea She'arim. Schneider met women beyond the haredi world in the maternity wards. "For my first birth, at Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem, I closed the curtain around me and stayed to myself," she said. But in subsequent births - she has 11 children - Schneider gained confidence and realized that what she had to share "went beyond baby nutrition and diapers." Several new mothers have remained her friends. Schneider understands but regrets the isolation adopted over the last generation by both haredi and secular communities "We acted out of fear of the reality that there were dropouts from our community. Secular Jews are afraid their children will become religious and be limited by haredi coercion. We have a problem." APPROACHED by Ayelet Hashahar, a religious organization, to start up the study project, she pondered how to begin. For the religious participants she could turn to her own sisters, fellow teachers and friends. For the other side, she began randomly making cold calls to women in the city of Modi'in. Would they be interested in a free half-hour weekly study session? Said Schneider: "Out of 10 women I approached, four were interested, and one joined the program." Notices on Internet bulletin boards and word of mouth brought the others. "All kinds," she said. "You might say we're pluralistic." The word "pluralistic" used in an honorific way by a haredi woman surprises. But there's a lot that's counterintuitive about this project. For instance, Schneider is refreshingly free of idealizing and demonizing. She's that rare person in any sector who seems truly to believe in two-way conversations. "Both sides have something to learn from each other," she says. The secular women are usually looking for someone to fill in the gaps of their Jewish and spiritual educations, and the religious women are there for what Schneider calls "personal development" - the opportunity to refine their knowledge, to stretch their worldviews, to make friends with someone they'd never normally meet. Only once did a protester picket them with a sign warning about the dangers of inter-talking. None of the Orthodox participants has strayed from strict observance, and today Schneider mostly earns approbation, not disparagement from her neighbors. Last summer, a Jerusalemite offered her northern partner's family shelter during the Second Lebanon War. The northerner recently reciprocated by providing vacation lodgings at her rustic cottage. But meeting your study partner is optional. A pair I spoke to, studying together for two years, have never met, although they've impacted each other's lives. One, a Tel Aviv secretary at a large credit card company, now keeps the family holiday celebrations at her home based on her new knowledge. She also shares what she's learned with a circle of her fellow workers at lunchtime. Her Jerusalemite partner, inspired by the "Tel Avivi's" ease in promulgating what they've studied, has taken on additional outreach challenges. The idea that the energy and adhesiveness of two women talking about Judaism on the phone can be put to the service of bridging the chasms within the Jewish people seems to work. "When I see a secular woman in the street, I think of her differently now," a reputable haredi woman - call her Rahel - told me. "I realize she might have all the wonderful personal qualities that my study partner has." Soon into their study, Rahel realized that her partner - call her Dorit - had a finer sense of the esthetic than she did. She brought her engaged daughter to Tel Aviv to try on wedding makeup. Dorit volunteered to do the makeup herself. She had a few tips for Rahel, too. "I've changed my lipstick," Rahel confides. How's that for a High Holy Day smile-maker? Contact information for Ayelet Hashahar: ah.tzila [or] [or] telephone: (02) 586-9281