Israeli students from Hebrew University meet with local hareidim.
By Fran Schnall
As often happens at Hebrew University Hillel, early this year a student approached Hillel staff with an idea for a new program. Tzahi Perah, who is studying psychology and Jewish thought at Hebrew U, wanted to bring together two groups of people who rarely interact: the religious and the secular. In ensuing discussions with Program Director Pnina Gaday, they began to examine what exactly defines someone as "religious" or "secular," since this is a distinction that Hillel does not usually make.
Perah and Gaday looked at the separation between the different communities in Israel, and gradually focused on the hareidi (ultra-Orthodox) community as having the least contact with university students. This reminded Gaday and other Hillel staff of a program that ran for three years, called "When the Yeshiva and the University Meet," which was a joint project with a group called, The Common Denominator. In that program, groups of interested hareidim met periodically with different groups from the Israeli spectrum, such as soldiers, students, etc. to get to know one another in an atmosphere of respect, focusing on what they have in common rather than on their differences. Unfortunately, when The Common Denominator dispersed, the joint project folded as well.
As a new initiative, Perah revived “When the Yeshiva and the University Meet” in a somewhat different format. Participants were interviewed at the beginning of the year, building a fixed group of about 20 students and about 15 hareidim from different backgrounds. Tzahi Kenan, a graduate of Hebrew University's Revivim program for Jewish leadership and a Jewish studies teacher, became the leader of the student group, which included both religious and secular students, both women and men. Eli Linker, with extensive experience in the hareidi world, recruited and led the hareidi group. Linker, Perah and Kenan moderated the program.
At each session the group studied a specific topic from different points of view, such as feminism and women in Jewish life; Judaism and democracy; army service and Jewish observance; G-d and the Holocaust, etc. After an introduction to the week's topic, the participants broke up into smaller groups to study relevant texts from both traditional and untraditional sources that represent various perspectives on the topic. The last part of the session was an open discussion in which everyone could express their opinions freely.
Periodically, the project invited guest speakers to teach the group about a particular subject. Former Hillel Director Eli Bareket, who now heads a social action organization called Mimizrach Shemesh, returned to Hillel to address “When the Yeshiva and the University Meet” on the topic, "What does it mean to be a Jew?" On other evenings, Rabbi David Menachem spoke about what our prayers for Jerusalem can consist of, and Rabbi Mordechai Neugroschel addressed the subject of Torah and Science: Do they conflict or complement each other? The guest speakers added a new dimension to the project.
Feedback from the program shows the impact it has had on its participants' lives. One of the university student participants, Nadav Elroi, described walking on the popular Ben Yehuda Street one day, when he suddenly recognized a hareidi man from the Hillel project. "Instead of seeing only the image of a black coat and hat, I actually looked at his face and, to my delight, I saw someone I knew and could talk to. We spent fifteen minutes schmoozing, right there on the street." Above and beyond the learning experience, the project gave Elroi a sense that hareidim are not just one black entity, but a population of individual people, each with his or her own story and personality.
After the program, Linker heard that one of the hareidi participants invited two of the students to her home for the holiday of Shavuot. "The program built personal relationships between members of the two groups," he says. "At the end of the year it was very hard for the participants to say goodbye. They didn't want to leave." After exchanging phone numbers and e-mail addresses, the new friends are hoping to keep in touch beyond the limits of the project.
Tzili Itzkowitch, a young, hareidi mother of four and special education teacher from Bayit VeGan in Jerusalem, says that her participation in the project changed her perception of Israeli society. Itzkowitch was determined to attend the project's final session, despite her difficulty in finding a babysitter. Rather than miss the event, she hired a new babysitter, so that she could come and share with the Hillel organizers and the group how much she'd learned from the project. Not wanting to get her impressions of secular Israelis from TV or radio reports, and being somewhat wary of secular people in general, the Hillel sessions gave Itzkowitch an opportunity to get to know people she wouldn't ordinarily meet, building personal relationships based on mutual respect. The program changed her attitude toward people outside of her community, giving her a more balanced impression of how approachable, intelligent, and sociable other people can be.
“When the Yeshiva and the University Meet” is what we call a mifgash – an encounter between different groups of people. Through getting to know one another, the project's mifgash between university students and hareidim is a positive step that starts in Beit Hillel and extends toward segments of Israeli society well beyond the campus.
Fran Schnall is the executive assistant to the associate vice president of Hebrew University Hillel.