The Human Spirit: Ours and yours

The Human Spirit Ours a

Dana and Rivky planned the meeting for a cafe. Dana, a university student, and Rivky, a teacher in a very religious high school, had begun studying Judaism together by phone. They'd decided to meet. Rivky suggested Dana visit her at home, but Dana didn't feel comfortable going to a very religious neighborhood where the women wore long dresses, scarves and wigs, and the men walked quickly down the streets in black suits and hats. So the kosher lemehadrin coffee shop was a good solution. Then Dana began thinking of Rivky sitting with her, a student in jeans and a tank top, and worried that the woman she'd already shared a number of fascinating phone conversations with would feel ill at ease sitting at a booth with her.  Dana didn't have any skirts in her closet, so she bought one, and while she was in the shop, added a long-sleeved shirt. When Rivky realized that the young woman in the conservative clothing was her university student partner, her eyes opened in obvious surprise. "Why, you look like one of ours," she said. Dana burst into tears. "I thought this was all about not 'one of ours' and 'one of yours' she said. "I thought we were all 'one.'" THE NAMES have been changed, but Dana and Rivky are real participants in the telephone-partner study program organized by Kesher Yehudi (Jewish "ties," like the knots in Tefillin), an organization that links young women at Israeli universities with very religious Israeli women who would never consider attending the country's mixed-gender academies. But unlike most stories, real or apocryphal, recounted by religious organizers or fundraisers for outreach programs, the story above doesn't lionize one side. That's because Tilley Schneider, the founder and director of Kesher Yehudi, really doesn't think anyone in Israeli society has a monopoly on 'good.' I've talked to her for many hours - and have studied with her, too - and you won't find in her a sliver of disdain for someone who doesn't share exactly the same worldview as someone - like Schneider - who grew up in Mea She'arim. Like so many of us, Jerusalemite Schneider is anguished by the mutual-demonizing of one sector of Israeli society by another, but she's determined to do something about it. "Before the question of 'two lands for two peoples' is the question if we can be one people," says Schneider, 47. On her campaign to "unite the Jewish people," Schneider is determined to change the minds of Jewish women about 'the other.'" She's not just tilting at windmills. In her book of credits is the program she headed for years with the Ayelet Hashahar organization, where she hooked up 7,000 pairs of so-called haredi and so-called secular women. Now she's turning her energy toward a younger crowd - students at Israel's universities and colleges - and is urging them to study Jewish texts by phone with a hevruta (a study partner) from the haredi community. "They're at a point in life of openness to ideals and attitudes," Schneider said, "they're already engaged in study and self-definition." Kesher Yehudi began last month, attracting nearly 250 pairs (including Dana and Rivky), with Schneider hoping to reach 10 times that number by year's end, and to open a parallel program for male students. "You always learn something new about those you haven't met before," said Schneider. "I was surprised and pleased at just how serious and punctual university students are," she added, "an appointment is an appointment. If they need to change an hour, they send an e-mail or text message immediately." THE STUDENTS come from all over the country, and nearly all have participated in an on-campus Nefesh Yehudi program sponsored by philanthropist Aaron Wolfsohn, who offers stipends to students who study basic Judaism. In that program they listen to lectures and take part in seminars and tutorials. Hence many are eager to take the next step of studying a text of their choice in depth with a study partner who hails from a different world. Who are the haredi women willing to take part? According to Schneider, several thousand applied, but each was screened for background and attitude. "We needed intelligent and educated women who are able to engage in dialogue. Anyone who says she wants to make her study partner become religious was rejected. Anyone who is 'coercive' was out, and so is anyone who says she won't deal with 'heretical questions.'" The majority of those who passed were young teachers who had graduated from one of the Beit Yaakov teachers seminaries. An initial goal is to break down stereotypes, and for each side to recognize that the other has something to say. "We in the haredi world know that initially most of the students we meet assume we're stupid," said Schneider, "they assume we've been coerced into life choices and that we're unable to think for ourselves. Likewise, haredi women are often surprised at the good hearts and strong values of the students." What makes this work is Schneider's own credibility within the haredi world. She's a distinguished insider - a teacher, filmmaker, community organizer. One of her neighbors was the Torah authority Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv. Nonetheless, she has a certain edgy reputation, never liking pat answers, and challenged her teachers. One of nine children, she always felt sorry for the sister who came after her. "On the first day, the teacher would seat my very well-behaved sister near her desk because she had to keep her eye on a potential troublemaker like me." Schneider first met women beyond the haredi world in Jerusalem maternity wards. "For my first birth, at Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem, I closed the curtain around me and kept to myself," she said. But in subsequent births - she has 11 children ages 5 to 25 and four grandchildren - Schneider gained confidence and realized that what she had to share "went beyond baby food and diapers." "Torah study is an untried intellectual pleasure for the students, and I want everyone to feel that the Torah isn't something that belongs to "the religious." It's all of us. We all stood at Sinai. There's so much talk about unity, but Torah has the most unifying power. If two physicians happened to be sitting near each other on El Al, what are the chances that they wouldn't talk about medicine? When two Jewish women get together they can both talk about Torah," she said. WHY DO they do it? "The haredi women are curious about the students and the students are curious about the haredi women," says Schneider. "That's a good starting point." A lot of effort goes into the matching by Schneider and her all-women staff of match-makers. "Good matches will study together for a long time and have a lot to complement each other," Schneider said. Each pair decides on a mutual study topic, and Kesher Yehudi provides the texts. "What interests most of them ultimately is human relations," she says. She often recommends the Mishna Ethics of the Fathers. They choose a text to study, and Schneider's office helps by providing study materials. Some of her haredi women tell her they do homework because the texts are not totally familiar - (two she mentioned were the 18th-century Derech Hashem by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato and the 19th-century Nefesh HaHayim by Rabbi Chaim Volozhin), but Schneider discourages them from coming with a lesson plan. "Studying in hevruta is a process where you have to see what comes up. It's informed by your own life experience and knowledge and tailored to you. Women become close, which inevitably leads to valued friendship. That, too is a positive achievement," says Schneider. "Modern life and short-hand communication make friendship more difficult. You get to feel close to your study partner." One topic leads to another and study partners bring examples from within their lives. They may even decide to meet, as did Dana and Rivky. When Dana burst into tears, Rivky recognized her error. Dana had made a grandiose gesture of friendship and respect. She'd even gone out to buy clothes and Rivky had been insensitive to it.   "You're correct and I'm in the wrong," said Rivky. "You've taught me something important, both about judgment and speech, and I beg your forgiveness in this season of forgiveness. There are no 'ours' and 'yours.' We are indeed all one." Over mehadrin coffee, they mended the torn threads between them and renewed the dialogue which is at the heart of all relationships. Not a bad model for us all. May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good new year. Kesher Yehudi can be reached at (07) 322-44555