Think Again: Yes, Jewish unity is possible

Mayor Nir Barkat asked Kesher Yehudi... to become involved in lowering tensions in Jerusalem where young haredi families have been moving into a number of previously secular neighborhoods.

Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel (left) and Tzila Schneider hold a cake celebrating the Jewish Unity Prize (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel (left) and Tzila Schneider hold a cake celebrating the Jewish Unity Prize
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last week Kesher Yehudi was awarded the 2016 Jerusalem Unity Prize given annually in honor of Gil-Ad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Fraenkel, the three yeshiva students kidnapped and brutally murdered by Arab terrorists two summers ago. A more appropriate recipient could not have been found.
After her ordeal, Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel said, “We went out looking for the boys, and we found ourselves.... [W]e saw that we are part of something huge, a people, a true family. That’s for real.”
If there is one organization doing an effective job of preserving the feelings of unity of the 18 days of searching for the boys and the subsequent fighting in Gaza, it is Kesher Yehudi.
Since its inception in 2009, the organization’s flagship project has been creating havrutot (study partnerships) between haredi and nonobservant Jews – over 6,000 such havrutot to date.
However, Kesher Yehudi was awarded the Jerusalem Unity Prize for a different project, in recognition of the work it has been doing with the yearlong pre-army academies.
Four years ago, Gilad Olshtein, the educational director of Mechina Nachshon, was looking for a way to deepen the Jewish identity of the participants in his program, who would be entering the IDF the following year. He approached Kesher Yehudi, and together they created a program of monthly days of intensive study of topics such as faith, prayer and the meaning of “love your friend as yourself,” and special programming around the holidays.
Next year there will be 11 participating pre-induction academies. Each participant receives a personal study partner, with whom he or she is in weekly contact throughout the year.
Mayor Nir Barkat asked Kesher Yehudi, besides its work with the pre-induction academies, to become involved in lowering tensions in Jerusalem where young haredi families have been moving into a number of previously secular neighborhoods. Kesher Yehudi’s neighborhood program started in Kiryat Hayovel and has since expanded to Gilo, Nahlaot and French Hill.
TZILA SCHNEIDER, the 54-year-old mother of 11 who founded Kesher Yehudi seven years ago, would at first glance seem an unlikely societal mover and shaker. She grew up in Mea She’arim, next door to Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, in a family of Slonimer Hassidim.
Her core message has remained clear and consistent from the beginning: Torah belongs to the entire Jewish people and to every Jew individually. Much of her effort has been directed at changing attitudes in her own haredi world. First and foremost, she seeks to shake the complacent assumption that nonobservant Jews have no interest in Torah learning and therefore haredim need feel no obligation to seek to engage them in Torah study.
For that engagement to take place, a change in attitude is required. Schneider tells the haredi study partners: “If you view your participation only as an act of hessed [charity] for an ignorant secular Jew, this is not the program for you. If you do not believe that every time two Jews meet each has something to offer the other and that both can gain and grow from the relationship, this is not the program for you.”
With that perspective, true friendships are formed. I have been at several gatherings where women who have been studying over the phone for a period of time meet each other for the first time in person. It is common to see them sit for the next two hours with their arms around each other and say of each other, “She is my best friend.”
The joy in the connection goes both ways. Faigy, 38, of Betar Illit, says of her study partner: “Liat is a friend for life. I could never have dreamed up someone like her, and now I can’t imagine life without her.” While from the other side of the secular-religious divide, Etti, a lawyer from Tel Aviv, says, “It is fun to rediscover each time [we study] that the Torah is the precious possession of every Jew. And it does not matter where you are coming from, the Torah is glue holding us together.”
“I started this organization because of my strong belief that it is possible to overcome the alienation and mutual fear between religious and nonobservant Jews.
But that will be done only by the nation itself, the thousands of participants in our programs,” Schneider tells me.
At the beginning of Kesher Yehudi’s neighborhood program in Jerusalem, Schneider went around to young haredim in Kiryat Hayovel with the message: Instead of spending your days counting how many apartments in your building have been rented to other haredi couples, why not view your secular neighbor as providing a special opportunity to meet a Jew from another sector of society? IN THE short run, Schneider would be happy to return us to the situation of the summer of 2014, when the Jews of Israel discovered that life is better when we look for what is good about the other rather than what is wrong. On the day of the kidnapping, Schneider was at a bungalow colony of anti-Zionist Satmar Hassidim in the Catskills in New York state screening a movie she made about her study partner, a doctor in Beersheba, who was raised by a non-Jewish father and stepmother in Vladivostok on Russia’s eastern coast, after the death of her Jewish mother when she was two.
When word of the kidnapping reached the bungalow colony, a woman burst into the room where the movie was being shown, with tears in her eyes, and announced that it was not time for entertainment: “The evil ones have kidnapped our boys. Now is the time for prayers and Tehillim [Psalms].”
But in the long run, Schneider’s goal is nothing less than the unity we experienced when we encamped (vayihan – singular) opposite Mount Sinai, as one man with one heart. That unity reached its climax with the giving of the Torah, which we celebrate on Shavuot. 
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.