Religious and secular Israeli teens find common ground

Be a Mensch Foundation works to bridge the wide secular-religious divide in Israel through youth dialog.

By Abigail Klein Leichman, Israel21c

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.

The Be a Mensch Foundation is working with the Ministry of Education to give secular high school and post-high school students a rare chance to get acquainted with ultra-Orthodox citizens.

The goal of these weekly encounters isn’t to change anybody’s religious views or practices, only to strengthen understanding and unity.

Tolerance, respect, consideration

“Unity is our country’s saving grace and is the battle cry of the moment,” says Dr. Moshe Kaplan, founder and CEO of Be a Mensch Foundation.

“Advancing unity is what we must do to make our nation internally stronger to face the internal and external challenges ahead.”

Mensch, Yiddish for “man,” popularly is used to describe a good, kind person.

Kaplan, an American émigré physician, set up the foundation in 2012 with a board that includes three Israeli Nobel Prize laureates, Israeli basketball legend and statesman Tal Brody, Israeli diplomat Michael Oren, and former US Senator Joe Lieberman.

“What we can all agree on is everyone should be a mensch regardless of politics and religion,” says Kaplan.

“We’re teaching tolerance, respect and consideration. We take a long-term approach and develop relationships to get rid of stereotypes. Participants see that we all swim together or sink together. Basically, we’re teaching love.”

Be A Mensch tapped haredi educational consultant and curriculum developer Yehuda Shine as its strategic adviser for the unity project more than three years ago.

In 1997, Shine founded Equality Now, a non-political social movement promoting tolerance, solidarity, equality and social justice among tens of thousands of secular, religious and haredi Israelis.

“Yehuda was meeting with many secular groups for years, bringing a message of mutual love,” says Kaplan. “He trained haredi facilitators to run our sessions.”

Managing the high school unity project is Moshe Shacor, formerly head of the Ministry of Education’s Tzavta (togetherness) program for pre-military academies and high schools.

‘Curiosity burning within us’

With approval from the Ministry of Education, Be a Mensch brings its encounter facilitators to elite secular high schools, pre-military academies and Hashomer Hatza’ir Scouting groups.

“To date, our activities have been limited to a few cities such as Beit
Shemesh, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Herzliya,” says Kaplan.

“We’re expanding all the time – we are in 26 schools now, mostly in the Greater Tel Aviv area. But there are a half-million teens in the demographic we intend to reach.”

Liat Netzer, head of research in the education department at aChord, tells ISRAEL21c that if the secular youth are primed to approach these encounters with a sense of curiosity and hopefulness, the meetings can be an important path to promoting tolerance.

“Hate is not the opposite of love, but in many ways the opposite of hope,” she says.

“If you think your relationship cannot change, there is no hope. So you need to bring different kinds of haredim with different perspectives to show the secular that haredim are not as homogenous as they might expect; they are diverse and variable. It is important to create curiosity and let the kids ask questions to help them think more hopefully.”

Indeed, an evaluation statement from a Hashomer Hatza’ir Scout included a reference to curiosity.

“I remember when we first sat down to talk, how our eyes explored each other. We were dressed so very differently, but we both had curiosity burning within us,” the teenager wrote.

“The session was meaningful and interesting … amazing, intriguing and significant. I began to sympathize with some of the many things I disliked before the meetings and I really hope to continue to meet and create a way of learning and working together.”


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