Last week Kesher Yehudi was awarded the 2016 Jerusalem Unity Prize given annually in honor of Gil-ad Shaer, Eyal Yifrach, and Naftali Fraenkel, Hy"d, the three yeshiva students kidnapped and brutally murdered by Arab terrorists two summers ago. A more appropriate recipient could not have been found.
In an Aish.com video, on Erev Rosh Hashanah of 2014, Naftali's mother, Mrs. Rachel Fraenkel, said something that has remained with me ever since: "We went out looking for the boys, and we found ourselves." She likened the eighteen days of searching for her son and the two other yeshiva students to a prolonged flash of lightening on a dark heath showing the way forward.
And what precisely did we discover over those days and the fifty days of fighting in Gaza that followed: [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 pride of those days in being part of something bigger than our individual selves – a true family, a nation – it is Kesher Yehudi.
The organization's flagship project since its inception in 2009 has been creating chavrutot (study partnerships) between chareidi and non-observant Jews – over six thousand such chavrutot to date. It was not for the chavrutot project, however, that Kesher Yehudi was awarded the Jerusalem Unity Prize, but rather for the work that it has been doing with the year-long pre-induction academies. Former chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz was the organization's leading advocate in prize deliberations.
Four years ago, Gilad Olshtein, the head 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, something that would help them understand their place in Jewish history and what they would be fighting for. He approached Kesher Yehudi, and together they created a program of monthly days of intensive study of topics such as emunah, tefillah, the meaning of v'ahavta l'reiyecha k'mocha, and special programming around the chagim.
Next year there will be eleven participating pre-induction academies. Each participant receives a personal study partner, with whom he or she is in weekly contact throughout the year, and in most cases throughout their IDF service as well.
Besides its work with the pre-induction academies, Mayor Nir Barkat asked Kesher Yehudi to become involved in lowering tensions in a number of Jerusalem neighborhoods, in which young chareidi families have been moving into previously secular neighborhoods. Kesher Yehudi's neighborhood program started in Kiryat Yovel and has since expanded to Gilo, Nachlaot, and French Hill.
MRS. TZILA SCHNEIDER, the 54-year-old mother of eleven who founded Kesher Yehudi seven years ago, would at first glance seem an unlikely societal mover and shaker. She grew up in Meir Shearim, next door to Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, in a family of Slonimer chassidim.
Her core message has remained clear and consistent from the beginning: Torah belongs to the entire Jewish people and to every Jew individually, and it is the glue that can hold us together as a people. And she has consistently demonstrated how true that is from the outset of her efforts setting up study partnerships.
Much of her effort has been directed at changing attitudes in her own chareidi world. First and foremost, she seeks to shake the complacent assumption that non-observant Jews have no interest in Torah learning so chareidim need feel no obligation to seek to engage them.
For that engagement to take place also requires a change in attitude. Mrs. Schneider tells the chareidi study partners: "If you view your participation only as an act of chesed – i.e., you are teaching a poor secular Jew who knows little Torah, this is not the program for you. If you do not believe that every time two Jews meet, that each has something to offer the other and that both can gain and grow from the relationship, this is not the program for you."
And with that perspective true friendships are formed. I have been at several gatherings where women who have been learning 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 one another and say of one another, "She is my best friend."
The joy in the connection goes both ways. Faigy, 38, of Beitar 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 learn] that the Torah is the precious possession of every Jew. And it does not matter where you are coming from, the Torah is the 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 non-observant Jews. But that will only be done by the nation itself, the thousands of participants in our programs," Mrs. Schneider tells me. Her belief has been vindicated. When Jews have even one close friend outside of those from their own religious group, their entire perspective on other societal groups changes dramatically.
At the beginning of Kesher Yehudi's neighborhood program in Jerusalem, Mrs. Schneider went around to young chareidim in Kiryat Yovel with the message: Instead of spending your days counting how many apartments in your building have been rented to other chareidi couples, why not view your secular neighbor as providing special opportunity to meet a Jew from another sector of society. The next major program she plans to start is one aimed at young chareidim entering the largely secular workplace. Again the message is: Instead of relating to such employment exclusively as a threat turn it into an opportunity as well.
IN THE SHORT RUN, Mrs. 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, Mrs. Schneider was at a bungalow colony of anti-Zionist Satmar chassidim in the Catskills. She was screening a movie she made about her study partner, a doctor in Beersheba, who was raised by a non-Jewish father and step-mother 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."
But, in the long run, Mrs. Schneider goal is nothing less than the unity we experienced when we encamped (ve'yichan – singular) opposite Mount Sinai, as one man with one heart -- a unity that reached its climax with Matan Torah, to which we return in time on Shavuos.