“What Unites Us is Greater Than What Divides Us”
OTS’s Monique & Mordecai Katz Yachad Program for Jewish Identity strengthens Jewish-Israeli identity through welcoming programs where Jews of all backgrounds feel comfortable celebrating their shared heritage. In the aftermath of a divisive election campaign that immediately preceded the Memorial Day marking the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, it is more crucial than ever to help people listen, respect and understand one another, and develop a common ground based on a shared Jewish heritage in order to build a stronger Jewish-Israeli society.
Israelis went to the polls for the fifth time in four years on November 1, the culmination of yet another divisive election campaign. And while many were thrilled with the decisive results that evening, nearly as many watched the unfolding news with disappointment, concern and genuine fear for the future.
Coordinators from OTS’s Monique and Mordecai Katz Yachad Program for Jewish Identity across Israel responded to these societal rifts with important programming designed to bring Israelis back together.
“Large swaths of the population feel alienated and disenfranchised in the wake of this election. Our Yachad coordinators strove to bring everyone together through the message on which our programming is based year-round: that what unites us as a people is far greater than what divides us,” shared Yachad director Rabbi Shay Nave. “The fact that this election so immediately preceded the 27th anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in many cases hammered home how crucial it is for us to help people listen, respect and understand one another, and develop a common ground based on a shared Jewish heritage in order to build a stronger Jewish-Israeli society.”
A Night of Song and Study
The Yachad programming launched on the night before the elections, as Pardes Channa and Karkur residents of all backgrounds came together at the local community center for “Tikkun Leil Bechirot,” a night of song and study. The brainchild of Tal Brill, the Yachad Jewish Identity Coordinator in the region, the idea was to combat the sense of divisiveness and conflict many Israelis were feeling and replace them with a sense of togetherness and unity.
“Participants studied sources together and partook in a fascinating and eye-opening discussion that exemplified the Yachad vision of creating strong and cohesive communities based on our common values,” reported Brill. “At the end of the day, whoever ends up leading the next government, we Israeli citizens will have to continue living together,” she said.
Throughout the week following the election, Yachad ran discussion groups that brought together the diverse spectrum of Israeli Jews to discuss challenging issues that so many people are grappling with – How do people view me? How do I view others who look, act or vote differently than I do? What does it mean to maintain Israel’s Jewish character? Can I express my views without eliciting anger from my friends and neighbors?
“Being able to express difficult emotions in a safe space is crucial to building a healthy society”
Discussion groups in Migdal Haemek brought together over 100 teens and adults from across the religious and political spectrum for conversations about the difficult issues: stereotypes, anger, concerns about building a society that respects different opinions. “The conversations were real, and often emotional, but always respectful,” shared the local Yachad coordinator, Shir El Varshinin. “People didn’t want to stop talking.”
In Yokneam, Yachad ran two round table discussion programs in cooperation with local youth groups, and a third for adults. Participants represented a cross section of the city – religious and secular; right and left. Facilitators were recruited and prepared in advance with questions and tools to manage the discussions – ensuring that everyone would feel safe expressing their opinions and emotions on these highly charged issues.
“Each table was very diverse,” commented Shlomit Weber, the city’s Yachad coordinator. “Participants spoke about their differences and how we live with them, about the need for patience, the importance of living with each other respectfully and accepting people.”
Some of the conversations yielded very harsh statements. People expressed anger. Many shed tears. “But being able to express difficult emotions – anger, distress – in a safe space is crucial to building a healthy society,” Weber emphasized. “This is ongoing work we need to continue.” In fact, Yachad Yokneam is already planning a follow-up event to take place in January.
“You are teaching these kids Jewish values that go deeper than any differences.”
Roi Peretz, the Yachad coordinator in the coastal city of Bat Yam, partnered with the local schools to ran three full days of programming geared toward bridging differences and fostering unity to mark Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Day.
“We talked about the assumptions we make based on what we see when we look at someone, or hear them speak. What do we think when we see someone in an army uniform? Someone who looks ultra-Orthodox? When we hear a Russian accent”? Peretz noted the importance of looking beyond appearances and recognize that each person is just that – a person – with a history, challenges, beliefs. “Our differences are part of what make life and our society interesting, but more than that, there is so much we share in common – our Jewish heritage, our commitment to Israel,” he said.
“The teens were engaged in a way I’ve never seen before,” remarked Romit Reuveni, director of one of the Bat Yam city community centers.” Roi was teaching Jewish values that go deeper than any differences in how we dress or how we vote. Ultimately, these are the things that tie us together.”
A Richer Society
Indeed, teenagers are at a point in their lives when they are developing their individuality and their own opinions, making the discussions amongst this particular group even more significant, pointed out Yachad coordinator of Hatzor, Naama Chifnick. “At our local youth center we talked about what we can learn today from the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin. Much of the conversation focused on how we can be individuals and still be part of the whole, fostering unity.”
Chifnick already has plans to run a series of programs with the youth center over the course of the year. “These conversations combine messages about what it means to be Jewish and Israeli that are especially important for people from the Israeli periphery,” she maintains.
“We often view our differences as a problem, when in reality, we should see them as a benefit; something that makes our society richer when we are able to respect them,” summarized Nave.