Last week, a chareidi accountant, who offices in the same building as I do, dropped by to chat. Since he had never done so before, I surmised that something was agitating him, and it did not take long to confirm those suspicions.
He told me that he had recently been in Herzilya on business. Unable to find the building for which he was looking, he stopped a series of passersby to seek directions. To his amazement, none of the three people from whom he sought directions would even talk to him. One woman rolled up the window of her car. Another looked right at him, and then turned away as if he did not exist.
Admittedly one should not leap to any conclusions about the general tenor of secular-religious relations in Israel on the basis of anecdotal evidence. But at the very least, this story and others like it that I have heard over the past year suggest that relations between the secular and chareidi public continue to decline. Hopes that with the diminution of chareidi political power some of the tensions would dissipate overnight have proven unfounded.
The renewal of violent demonstrations on Bar Ilan Street, after a hiatus of nearly six years, threatens to lead to a further deterioration in relations. At the height of the Bar Ilan controversy, the words ``Bar Ilan" conjured up in the minds of secular Israelis all their worst nightmares of a chareidi takeover and encroachment into every area of their lives. The new demonstrations could not have come at a worse time. They have already tarnished the bright promise with which Rabbi Uri Lupoliansky began his term as Jerusalem’s first chareidi mayor and severely embarrassed him.
While there is much work that the chareidi community could undertake in the media to counter negative public perceptions, at the end of the day the most effective public relations on behalf of the chareidi world is actual human contacts between religious and secular Jews. The less confrontational the context the more likely something positive is to emerge from the contact.
Sitting down over a Torah text is the ideal context for religious and non-religious Jews to meet. The texts are equally the inheritance of both of them, and even the secular Jew knows that these texts were held dear by generation after generation of his ancestors. Wrestling with a text provides a framework for the discussion and prevents it from veering off at any moment to the flashpoints of tension. At the same time, the human contact allows for the development of relationships and the breaking down of all dehumanizing stereotypes.
Expanding the number of such contacts should therefore be a high priority of the chareidi community. Already over 2,000 avreichim and wives of kolleleit, under the banner of Lev L’Achim, travel to non-chareidi neighborhoods on a regular basis to learn Torah with individuals or small groups.
Recently a group of idealistic, young avreichim embarked on a project to transplant a program modeled on Telepartners in Torah Learning from America to Israel. There exists tremendous untapped potential for such a program. We should not make the mistake of equating negative perceptions of the chareidi community with a lack of interest in knowing more about Torah. Just a few weeks ago, advertisements of a lecture that would provide the Torah answers to the spiritual questions posed by a popular new movie drew over 500 students at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba.
Every personal or telephonic relationship created provides a double return. It brings Jews closer to the Torah by immersing them in learning with someone who approaches the texts with reverence, and, at the same time, forges a bond between a chareidi and a not-yet-religious Jew.
THE HATRED FELT TOWARDS chareidi Jews in Israel barely exists in America. For the most part, secular and religious Jews dwell apart and know little of one another’s lives. In Israel, different types of Jews are inevitably thrown together and the potential for conflict is much greater. In America, Jews do not fight with one another over government budgets and the like, and the sources of tension are much less.
Yet the imperative of reaching out to non-religious Jews is no less great in America. As I detailed in recent weeks, the vast majority of American Jewry is doomed to disappearance through intermarriage and assimilation over the next fifty years if something dramatic is not done to reverse present trends.
One of the largest ongoing efforts to combat the scourge of Jewish ignorance is Torah Mesorah’s Partners in Torah Learning and Telepartners programs. Currently 1500 pairs meet weekly to learn Torah in person and another 2,100 over the phone. Yet even this number, as significant as it is, represents only a part of the potential.
Over a 100 non-religious Jews per week contact Partners in Torah Learning seeking a study partner. Only 25 religious Jews, however, offer their services as mentors in the average week. As a consequence, it can often take months to pair the non-religious Jew with an appropriate mentor.
By that time, many of those who were inspired to expand their Jewish knowledge have lost interest. According to Rabbi Eli Gewirtz, director of Partners in Torah Learning, the likelihood of making a successful match is inversely proportional to the amount of time it takes to make an initial pairing.
As hard as it is to imagine, there are Jews seeking to know more about Torah, whose thirst goes unslaked because there is no religious Jew available to learn with him or her for an hour a week. That constitutes nothing less than the abandonment of our fellow Jews to spiritual oblivion.
A host of sociological studies show that the rate of volunteerism in the Orthodox Jewish community is the higher than in any other community. Yet for all that we are very busy and overextended by the multiple demands on our time, surely we have the human resources within the Orthodox community to answer those hundred non-religious Jews looking for a study partner each week.
The most frequently cited reason by those who do not want to get involved in such learning is the fear of being asked a question that they cannot answer. Such fears are unfounded. Almost never does it happen, and it is a mistake to think that the less learned partner will be put off by ``I don’t know" or ``I’ll have to look into that." Simple friendship, caring, and mentschlikeit have much more to do with the success of the relationship than the level of one’s Torah knowledge.
I recently met a woman from Lawrence, herself a ba’alas teshuva, who told me about her participation in Partners in Torah in Learning. Initially she was hesitant about participating because she felt unsure of her level of Torah knowledge. Nevertheless she clicked with the first study partner she met. Over the years they have been studying together, her partner has become fully Shomer Shabbos, enrolled her children in day schools, and now she and her husband are considering moving to a religious community. The two women have become best friends and speak at least once a day on the phone.
Such matches, of course, are not the rule. Not every non-religious Jew who undertakes an hour of Torah study a week eventually becomes Torah observant. Yet even that weekly hour of Torah study, and the importance attached to it by the non-religious partner, can spark the interest of his or her children and lead them to becoming ba’alei teshuva one day, or at least prevent them from intermarrying.
In general, most of us consistently underestimate our potential to improve the lives of others with a relatively minimal investment of time. Each of us, for instance, has noticed teenagers in our communities who are, in the current parlance, ``at risk." Sometimes just taking a few minutes to talk to such a teenager can go a long way towards changing his attitude to a community that he feels has rejected him.
A relative stranger can often have a greater impact than parents. For one thing, it is sometimes easier for the stranger, who is unburdened by his own sense of failure with respect to the teenage in question, to show him a friendly, accepting face than it is for the parents. And the interest of a stranger may count for more too. After all, parents are obligated to be interested in their children; not so non-family members.
The needs of Klal Yisrael are great. But we have not begun to tap all the immense human resources within our own community to addressing those needs.