Yachad: Fostering Unity in an Increasingly Divisive Environment
Just like the message of the Purim story in which the Jewish people were saved and “their sorrow turned to joy and their mourning to happiness,” recent Purim programs run by the Monique and Mordecai Katz Yachad Program for Jewish Identity focused on reaching out to bring joy to those around us – fostering unity in an increasingly divisive environment.
“One of the key themes in Megillat Esther is the importance of bringing people together to overcome fragmentation, relates Rabbi Shay Nave, director of OTS’s Monique and Mordecai Katz Yachad Program for Jewish Identity. “Through strengthening Jewish identity and focusing on our shared heritage, we brought tens of thousands of Israeli Jews together through pre-Purim explanatory programs, fairs, plays and other community events, our annual “Megilla BaKehila” initiative, and a brand-new nationwide project specially designed to easily emphasize our common heritage and foster unity during these alarmingly divisive times.”
“Plus One” – Building a Strong and Cohesive Jewish State
Usually people gift mishloach manot to their closest friends, relates Nave, explaining the rationale behind the organization’s newest nationwide initiative: Plus One. “The idea is to encourage Israelis to give food packages to at least one neighbor that they don’t know– someone who may be new to the area, someone who lives alone, someone they pass every morning in the apartment car park or lobby but don’t know by name. The concept is to to remind one another that we are all part of one family, no matter what our views may be, and that we all share the same history and traditions – thereby strengthening our communities on the very backdrop of our Jewish heritage.
In Petach Tikvah, longtime Yachad Program coordinator Aryeh Engleman organized a station in the center of the city to hand out mishloach manot to passersby under the banner “Anashim achim anachnu” – “We are all brothers” – in memory of Yagel and Hallel Yaniv, two brothers killed in a terror attack just before the holiday.
Megilla BaKehila – Purim in the Community
Donning costumes and bringing noisemakers to hear the megilla and recall the time when Esther and Mordecai helped save the Jewish People from destruction is central to the celebration of Purim. Yet many secular Israeli Jews who don’t feel comfortable in a synagogue have never experienced it.
Thanks to “Megilla BaKehilla”, in Memory of Stanley and May Blumenthal z”l, close to 50,000 Israelis turned out for fun, experiential megilla reading events targeting families and young adults in community centers and other public spaces across Israel.
The program, in its 13th year of partnership with the Tzohar organization, included new locations in Azrieli Malls this year, where actors acted out the Purim story, aiming to make the holiday more accessible for the hearing-impaired, non-native Hebrew speakers and others.
“In these challenging times, when we are witnessing the ever-widening rifts within Israeli society, these megilla readings provide an opportunity for all of us to come together to hear and embrace the heritage that is common to all Jews,” said Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, president and rosh yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone. “Whether they gathered in schools, parks, community centers or malls, every family was given a way to connect with the holiday, its customs, and the values of social unity, and together we all felt more connected and unified through this Jewish-Israeli experience,” he said.
Feeling that they belong
This theme was evident in anecdotes that poured in from the various readings across Israel. Chernet Varkow, a Yachad coordinator who works with the Ethiopian community in Haifa told the story of a man who after hearing the megilla commented, “Finally, for the first time, I feel connected to a People with such a deep and meaningful heritage.”
Edna Lowenstein, the Yachad coordinator in Eilat, shared the story of a young man in attendance who was in the process of converting to Judaism. “It was beautiful to see how he followed along, not wanting to miss a single word.”
Uri Weill, Yachad coordinator in Ramat Gan, was approached by a group of young secular adults who told him that they never would have even dreamt of coming to hear the megilla in the past but that because of their familiarity with Yachad’s year-round programming, they knew it would be welcoming, comfortable and meaningful.
And Shlomit Weber, the coordinator for Yachad in the city of Yokneam shared how a couple thanked her afterwards for enabling them to expose their kids to their Jewish heritage in a fun way. “We aren’t observant, but we want our kids to be connected. We want them to grow up feeling that they belong to Judaism, and Judaism belongs to them,” they said.
“We can look at the numbers, but the numbers don’t capture the energy of our volunteers or the feeling of connection and belonging they imparted to so many individual Israelis,” says Nave. It astounds me each time anew, how our coordinators leave their families on holidays like Purim in order to ensure that other people have positive, meaningful experiences with Judaism, in an effort to strengthen the identity and fabric of our country.”