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Bridging the Gaps in Israeli Society

Unfortunately, a lot of the news that we hear focuses on negative stories and events. Therefore, when I come across an article that reports on something positive, I love to share it. It is in this vein that I share with you the following piece written by R. Yonason Rosenblum (a well-known spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox world) about a secular organization that seeks to bridge some of the gaps that exist in Israeli society:

It is no small irony that the person who has done as much as anyone in Israel to break down the barriers between chareidi and secular Jews does not wear a kippah and grew up on a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz. Major (res.) Gilad Olshtein’s parents were both born in Lodz, and his mother educated in Bais Yaakov. But the Nazis, yemach shemam, succeeded in extinguishing their faith at Auschwitz. Gilad was raised without any religious observance.

Only after completing his army service as an officer in an elite combat unit did Gilad first begin to think about his religious identity at all. He and his wife were sent as emissaries of the Jewish Agency to Salonika, Greece, which had been home to a large and flourishing Jewish community before the war. It soon struck him as absurd that the “Jewish state” was sending him to Salonika to strengthen the Jewish identity of the community there when he himself knew nothing about what it means to be Jewish. “It was as if one gentile was sent to teach another gentile about being Jewish,” he says quoting the late Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz.

For the first time, he became aware of his complete ignorance of Jewish practice. During his two years in Salonika, he and his wife were regular Shabbos guests of Rabbi Yitzchak Dayan, then the rav of Salonika, and the two began to learn together.

Since that experience, the question of Jewish identity has been central to Olshtein. He leads five to eight groups to Poland annually, and to do so has immersed himself in Jewish history, including a degree program at Yad Vashem. He has used those trips to Poland to force upon his charges the question: “Is there a difference between you and a gentile? If yes, what is that difference?”

Gilad believes that every person needs an identity, and that national identity is crucial to Israel’s ability to survive. What are your roots? Where did you come from? What was your family name? These are his perpetual questions.

The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was a major turning point in Gilad’s life. Together with a small group of old army buddies, he began to think about what could be done to heal the rifts in Israeli society. They came up with the idea of a one-year pre-IDF program for high school graduates organized around the concept of leadership.

The national religious world had already pioneered one-year programs of Torah study between high school and army for young men who were not prepared to commit to the five-year hesder yeshivah program. But there were no such programs for secular youth or for women when Olshtein opened the first three mechinot under the name Nachshon in 1997. Today there are close to 50 such pre-induction academies (mechinot).

The lack of basic Jewish knowledge of those applying for his program continues to disturb Olshtein deeply. They have never heard of Havdalah, many have no clue how to make Kiddush. The Jewish holidays are largely foreign to them. As a consequence, they have no sense of being inheritors of something precious.

Without their basic knowledge about Judaism, he felt, he had not fully prepared the participants in his program to be army officers. If they cannot make Kiddush, when honored by the more traditional soldiers in the unit to do so on Leil Shabbos, he says, they will lose the respect of the troops under their command.

Still over the first decade and a half of the mechinah programs, there was at best intermittent interaction with the chareidi community. Eventually, Gilad decided that was untenable. Chareidim are already at least 20 percent of Israel youth, and it is therefore impossible to speak about repairing the frayed social fabric of Israeli society without including the chareidi community. His goal was to overcome all the preconceptions and stigmas that both sides of the secular-religious divide possess about one another.

In addition, he saw in the chareidi community a huge potential resource of both knowledge of what it means to be Jewish and pride in being a member of Hashem’s Chosen People.

On one of his trips to Poland, Gilad had led a mixed group of married chareidim in the IDF’s Shachar program, in which they were being trained in high tech, and nonreligious soldiers. He saw the chareidi men were eager to meet and interact with the nonobservant soldiers and had a strong sense of responsibility for their fellow Jews.

About seven years ago, Gilad approached Mrs. Tzila Schneider, the founder of Kesher Yehudi, and asked her whether she could create a program for the participants of one of his three Nachshon mechinot. He emphasized that he was not seeking a lecture series, but rather a program in which the participants would gain, in addition to exposure to basic Torah concepts, a personal knowledge of chareidi life and worldview.

That demand was music to Mrs. Schneider’s ears. The DNA of Kesher Yehudi is that the divisions among Israeli Jews can only be overcome through ongoing personal relationships based on a shared heritage of Torah. To date, Kesher Yehudi has formed 8,500 ongoing study partnerships, almost all of which evolve into deep personal relationships.

From his side, Olshtein had to overcome deep skepticism among the parents of participants in his program and from the participants themselves. As far as they were concerned, the entire chareidi world consists only of “deserters” from societal obligations.

Seven years later, that skepticism and even outright opposition has almost totally disappeared. Gilad is able to point to the enthusiastic reviews of the program from his participants. As a member of the board of pre-induction academies, he has pushed tirelessly for other mechinot to adopt the program. At present, 16 mechinot, with over 800 participants annually, are participating in the program. As rapidly as the program has grown, the number of chareidi volunteers eager to participate has outstripped that growth.

Through the program, thousands of future army officers and societal leaders have formed a close friendship with at least one chareidi Jew relatively close to them in age. They have also spent Shabbos and chagim in their chareidi chavrusas’ homes. Each chareidi volunteer in the mechinah program commits to maintaining the relationship over their study partner’s years in the IDF.

The Israeli government, through the Department of Jewish Identity, has committed to helping fund the expansion of the program to the remaining mechinot. Here too, Gilad was the primary advocate of the program within the government.

He loves to tell the following story to demonstrate the quality of the bonds formed in the program. One of the participants in Kesher Yehudi told her commanding officer that she would require leave for her chavrusa’s wedding soon after starting the officers’ training program. (All the male chareidi volunteers and the overwhelming percentage of the female volunteers are married.) On the night of the wedding, however, no leave was forthcoming. She calmly told her commanding officer that if she did not receive the requested leave, she would drop the officer training program. But under no circumstances would she miss the wedding.

As an educator for decades, Olshtein also insisted on a highly professional program. The year-long syllabus contains sections on core Torah concepts — Shabbos, Mesorah, Creation Ex Nihilo, the Role of the Woman in Torah, and more. The participants are required to fill out an evaluation form after each session both of the lecturer and of the chavrusa meetings. Those evaluations are then shared with Mrs. Leah Hecht, Kesher Yehudi’s educational director, and Mrs. Hagit Shachor, the senior supervisor of the mechinah program.

Olshtein’s respect for his partners and their willingness to continually improve the program in light of the feedback is evident. “Mrs. Schneider is driven,” he tells me. “And Mrs. Hecht and Mrs. Shachor are top-level, professional educators.”

Perhaps most surprising is his response when I ask him about his primary goal for the program. “That my chanichim should come to take pride in those who learn Torah,” he tells me. “I want them to understand that from a certain point of view, it is they who are the ‘deserters,’ by virtue of not studying the Torah.”