Something New; Something Old
Because all Jewish marriages in Israel are performed under the auspicies of the Chief Rabbinate, every kallah is required to receive some basic instruction on Jewish married life from the local religious council. Traditionally, that instruction provided in a group setting and sometimes lasting no more than half an hour was experienced by secular Israeli women as a bore and burden at best. Too often one of the few contacts most non-religious Israelis have with a chareidi Jew ended up as an off-putting and traumatizing experience.
About ten years ago, Feivi Arnstein and Akiva Houghtling asked themselves a question: What if an organization were created to subcontract the services of the local religious councils? What if the instruction took place in a pleasant setting, at the convenience of the kallot, and the instruction was given one-on-one and by sensitive, dedicated counselors. Such a project, they concluded, could potentially have a potent impact on large numbers of secular Israelis. A similar initiative in South Africa, where all Jewish couples receive marriage guidance, contributed to the teshuva revolution in South Africa.
Thus Lahav was born. So far Lahav has established centers in Jerusalem, Rechovot, Modiin, Bat Yam, and Ramat Gan, and is teaching approximately 3,000 kallot annually. The Tel Aviv Religious Council, with 4,000 secular couples annually, has expressed interest in sending kallot, if Lahav can find a suitable facility, as have Ramat Hasharon/Herzilya, Kiryat Ono, and Rishon LeTzion.
The intuition of the two founders (who were subsequently joined by a third partner Shmuel Horowitz) that a negative experience could be transformed into an intensely positive one proved correct. Each kallah is asked to rate the sessions, describe the anticipated impact of the learning on her future married life, and state her level of interest in future workshops and lectures.
On a scale of 1-5, with five the highest, the average rating given by the kallot in 2010 was 4.939. Over 65% of the couples who went through the Lahav preparatory program in the last two years expressed an interest in continued learning. And of the 9,500 couples who passed through the program in the last five years, 3,000 have been put in contact with various kiruv organizations.
But even these statistics don't begin to convey the impact of the program. For that one must read the forms that all kallot fill out. Many had little concept of the Jewish approach to marriage before starting their sessions, and most of what they imagined were crude distortions. Many of them commented that they could not have imagined the course having the slightest impact on their future marriages at the outset, but that they now expect the Torah approach to be central to their marriages.
One high school teacher, for instance, wrote that as a result of the course, "I have started to get interested in the mitzvoth in general, and, in particular, the mitzvoth which are related to women, and I have even started attending classes on Judaism where I live."
The kallot almost all remarked on the rapport that they had with the woman guiding them. "Sari suits her explanations to the kallah who is sitting across from her. She accepted me as I am, did not interrogate me, and did not try to press her opinions on me," wrote one. "I really enjoyed the meetings and with joy will be happy to come to more." Another teacher described the material as "fascinating and moving," and her madricha as "a wonderful woman, warm and cordial, who knows exactly how to teach." "I enjoyed it so much and I'm so happy I came to Lahav," wrote one economist. She expressed her "surprise" at her desire to keep the mitzvos she had just discovered.
The impact of the madrichot is not accidental. Each of the 500 madrichot was already an experienced teacher, and has been carefully screened. The eight-session preparatory class includes a detailed discussion of what to teach from Rabbi Yisroel Gans, a wide range of material on relationships, and classes on the mindset of a secular woman approaching the sessions. The teachers are highly committed – over 200 teach 7-8 kallot a year for free.
Lahav demonstrates a point I have made frequently: When chareidi and secular Israelis meet, with open hearts and in an atmosphere of mutual respect, they can connect at a deep level. And when the secular member of the relationship understands how the Torah approach works in one area of life, he or she is often willing to explore further. Lahav has provided a model that would allow such a relationship with 24,000 secular couples annually. We must not miss the boat.
Look Who's Dancing
George Exantus did not dance at the recent Israel Pride Parade in New York City. The U.S. consul in Port-au-Prince, Haiti refused him a visitor's visa. But he could have danced, and that itself is a modern-day miracle.
George was caught under the rubble of his apartment building in the early Haiti earthquake that claimed nearly 250,000 Haitians. His right leg had to be amputated below the knee; his other leg suffered deep wounds; and his right hand was crushed, making it impossible to move his wrist and difficult to maintain balance. His chances of walking normally again were small, and of resuming his career as a salsa dancer nil.
Yet eight months later, George was back on stage wearing a prosthetic leg, due to a highly sophisticated rehabilitation clinic set up by Israeli physicians and physiotherapists within three months of the disaster and further rehabilitation work in Israel. No facility capable of fitting prostheses previously existed in Haiti. Unfortunately, terror attacks and wars have given Israeli doctors world-leading expertise in fitting artificial limbs.
Israeli rescue and medical teams were among the first and largest contingent to reach Haiti – a fact studiously ignored by most of the world media, when they weren't claiming that Israeli physicians were harvesting body parts. But that's an old story. Israel set up the first field hospital in Japan after the recent tsunami. Israeli doctors came to the aid of Tutsis being slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands in Rwanda and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Whenever there is a major disaster anywhere in the world, Israel is at the helm of providing assistance.
The work of Israeli scientists and medical researchers puts the country at the very top of the world in contributions to humanity. But the humanitarian rescue work is a special point of pride, for it shows how even those far removed from religious observance are filled with mitzvos like the seeds of a pomegranate rachamim bnei rachamim.
Canadian Jews Reverse Course
Stephen Harper's Conservative Party massive victory in the recent Canadian elections and the virtual disappearance of the Liberal Party, which has dominated Canadian politics for seventy years, was accompanied by sea change in Canadian Jewish voting patterns. That change already began between 2006 and 2008. In the handful of ridings in the country in which Jews are a substantial minority, the shift from the Liberal Party to the Conservative in those years was six to twelve times that of the national average.
The most recent election witnessed the first Jew ever elected to Parliament as a Conservative MP. Liberal MP Ken Dryden, a Canadian icon as goalie of the Stanley Cup winning Montreal Canadians (and a strong supporter of Israel) went down to defeat in a riding with a significant Jewish minority. Even Irwin Cotler, a former attorney general and one of Israel's most articulate defenders in the international arena, barely squeezed back into office. He was first elected in 1999 with 91% of the vote. An internationally renowned human rights attorney, Cotler found himself accused of being soft on Israel because he attended the first Durban Conference, where he had gone to combat – unsuccessfully -- the hijacking of the Conference by anti-Semites and anti-Israel forces.
The primary factor behind the shift in Jews' traditional political loyalties is a sense of profound hakaros hatov to Prime Minister Harper, who has emerged since 2006 as Israel's most outspoken and forceful defender among major national leaders. I asked Irwin Cotler why Canadian Jews were so much more likely to make Israel a primary consideration in casting their votes. He pointed to a number of factors.
Canadian Jewry is still primarily made up of first or second generation immigrants who have a strong ethnic identity and for whom memories of the Holocaust remain intense. The fact that the majority of Jews in Montreal are affiliated with Orthodox congregations also preserves a strong ethnic identity. The American model is one of a melting pot, i.e., the creation of a common national identity out of multiple identities, whereas the Canadian model is of a mosaic of different identities -- much more multicultural. As a consequence, Canadian Jews feel more comfortable identifying as Jews and are encouraged to do so. Seventy-four per cent of Canadian Jews have visited Israel, twice the rate of American Jews.
Meanwhile, President Obama seems determined to test whether anything a Democratic president does could convince American Jews to emulate their Canadian brethren.