Religious and secular Israeli teens find common ground

By Abigail Klein Leichman | September 23, 2021

Many organizations work to defuse tensions and promote understanding between Israel’s 74% Jewish majority and 21% minority Arab population.
But few address the big divide between secular Jews and the 13% minority of ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jews.

A poll published in February by Hebrew University’s aChord Social Psychology for Social Change Center revealed that nearly 37% of secular Israelis between 16 and 18 hold negative stereotypes of ultra-Orthodox Israelis. (In contrast, about 20% hold negative stereotypes of Arabs.)

While 23% of the secular youth expressed hatred toward haredi Jews, only 7% of haredi Jews expressed hatred toward secular Jews. And more than 70% of respondents from both groups said they want relations between them to improve.

Hard feelings often arise from the fact that most haredi Israelis do not serve in the military or National Service, as most secular and centrist Orthodox Israelis do. The Covid epidemic only heightened the animosity, with each group pointing to examples of the other violating public-health guidelines.

But the underlying problem is that it is easier to hate or fear “the other” if you have never had a conversation with them and you only see that they dress and behave differently.

L’Hiyot Mensch – Meeting Our Jewish Brothers with Respect and Understanding

By Sholom Nachtman | July 13, 2017

In his coverage of the 1986 confirmation hearings for
William H. Rehnquist, columnist Richard Cohen made the following observation: “Maybe the supreme gift of Yiddish to the English language is the word ‘mensch.’… The question before the U.S. Senate can best be stated in Yiddish: Is William Rehnquist a ‘mensch’?” Proponents of salty words like “chutzpah” and “schlemiel” might disagree, but it is hard to argue with Cohen’s assessment of the value of the word “mensch.”

Mensch is a unique term, perhaps without cognate in the English language. It denotes a holistic ideal of goodness that encompasses religious, interpersonal, and societal behavior. In Judaism, being a mensch is something of an uncomical 11th commandment, a convenient shorthand we use to sum up our vast library of mussar and halachic literature relating to personal conduct.

However, as the Ramchal points out in his introduction to Mesilas Yesharim, it is often our most funda- mental beliefs that we tend to over- look. Despite its centrality in our thoughts, menschlich behavior is of- ten absent in our conduct, whether it is within families, communities or just between strangers in the street. Many bemoan the disappearance of menschlichkeit and the decline of common courtesy in modern society.

One man, though, is attacking the problem head on and is changing worlds.

A ray of light

By Jonathan Rosenblum | June 15, 2021

 The openness of young Israelis to learning more about Judaism is a secret from much of the Torah world.
Be A Mensch, an organization promoting the simple message, “We are one family — let’s try to learn about and understand one another,” has been working for years with leaders in the Israeli Scouts movements, in which a very high percentage of Israeli youth participate, through weekly discussion groups. The feedback has been so positive that the Scouts have invited Be A Mensch to establish as many such groups with the Scout troops as their manpower will allow.

In addition, the organization has begun working with Israeli high schools. Recently, a group of Be A Mensch mentors visited a high school in Hod Hasharon. After a preliminary sociological description of the chareidi community, the students broke up into small discussion groups with individual mentors from Be A Mensch.

While some students stuck with the sociological aspects of the chareidi community, I was surprised to hear from a neighbor who heads the high school project that few of the questions were about army service or other such hot-button topics.

Rather, one group wanted to know why my neighbor believes in Hashem. He replied that there are many answers, but for him his feeling of closeness to Hashem is strongest when he is swimming in the discussions in various batei medrash spanning thousands of years on a single amud of Gemara.

He proceeded to show them how the discussion proceeds from the Tannaim to the Amoraim to Rashi and the Baalei Tosafos a millennium later. Then he invited them to join him in learning the day’s daf yomi.

That same question, in a slightly different form — Can you prove to me that Elokim exists? — was the subject of another discussion group.

If those are the questions being asked by high school students in one of Israel’s most secular areas, then the potential to enter into deep discussions around the Torah is unlimited.

Let’s get going in reaching out to secular learning partners, and stop moping about a political situation beyond our control.”