September 26, 2023
September 26, 2023

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Bridging the Religious Divide: Rabbi Yoni Sherizen

Sixty-six years ago, David Ben-Gurion needed to unite the Jewish people before appealing to the international community for a State of Israel. He created the “status quo compromises” with the Agudah, guaranteeing a religious character for the future state of Israel. The state’s relationship to education, personal status, Kashrut and Shabbat were defined to allay the fears of the right and the left. The agreement worked in allowing Ben-Gurion to convince the world that Israel would be a place for all Jews. It has been the status quo for 66 years. Will it remain as such?

Forty years ago, as the threat of the external enemy dwindled after the 1967 war, a young oleh, Rabbi Daniel Tropper, recognized the mounting internal tensions among Jews and sought to reduce them. He created Gesher, aimed at uniting Jews, bringing the mainstream communities—the dati leumi community and secular Israelis—together. At the time, Hareidim were a smaller fringe community and the status quo agreements from 1948 were being upheld, maintaining the religious character of the state to their liking.

Fast-forward 40 years to 2013. Dati and Hiloni Jews generally see their relationships in a positive light. Stereotypes still exist between the modern Orthodox and the secular, but on the whole they work together, live together and serve their country together. They are the mainstream, and Gesher is proud of its work in helping create this common ground.

But enter the “fringe” component—the Haredim, who today are no longer fringe at all.  Statistically and confidently, they are becoming part of the mainstream, with over 20% of first-graders in Jewish schools coming from the Haredi community. How will this transition play out? Will Hareidim integrate or try to create a parallel, completely insular society in Israel? Or perhaps they will be excluded the way they were recently left out of the new Knesset coalition, to sit in the opposition? Israel sits at a historic crossroad as it struggles to meet the needs and ideals of this rapidly growing community.

Rabbi Yoni Sherizen, Director of Resource and Program Development at Gesher, discusses some of these tough questions and considers how Israel could narrow these divides and adapt to new religious and social realities. Rabbi Sherizen, like Rabbi Tropper, is a new oleh to Israel and is working to enable Gesher to serve as a significant bridge between different sectors of Israeli society.

Tell me about your background and how it brought you to Gesher.

I grew up in Detroit and received semicha from Yeshiva University. After graduating, my wife Dalia (Perelmuter) from West Orange and I went to Oxford where I served as the first full-time Jewish Chaplain at Oxford University. I was given the task of servicing students of all denominations, and I quickly learned about compromise and pragmatic solutions for tough ideological divides. After serving in Oxford, we moved to London, where I oversaw the entire Jewish Chaplaincy at British universities. We moved to Israel three and-a-half years ago. Gesher was a great match for my passions and skills.

Can you briefly sum up Gesher’s main goals and programs?

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau said, “We always knew how to die together. The time has come for us to know also how to live together.” Gesher works on the societal side of things, as opposed to the governmental, trying to help all Israelis find their shared Jewish identity and live well together. Our hallmark program is probably the first Gesher initiative, the Encounter Seminars for teens. We have them work together for three days and break down stereotypes to find the common denominators amongst themselves. It’s so powerful that years later people remark about how “formative” the program was for them. In addition to the proactive educational programs, we also are working in communities like Beit Shemesh, creating roundtable discussion groups to engender positive relationships and communication to ease tensions and problem-solve. It’s not easy work, but we have already seen the fruits of our labors in neighborhoods where we have bridged the existing factions. Gesher is playing a big role in working out the new relationships and community challenges as Israeli demographics and societal needs develop.

The ending of the Tal Law and the new government’s plan for drafting all but 1800 Hareidim into the army are now serious issues What do you think the resolution will be?

Most “behind the scenes” people agree that the future will be a compromise, with a percentage of yeshiva bochurim learning, some serving in the army in separate units that will serve their religious needs, and the majority contributing to the state in a national service program. Gesher believes that every citizen should give back to the country.  Think of what could be gained, experientially and financially, having young men and women serving the elderly, assisting in schools and working as aides and guards in ganim. For years now, there have been models in formation—there is already an elite computer intelligence unit with the air force for haredim—and there are programs for boys that aren’t really learning to get them off the streets, as well as sherut leumi. These programs will slowly evolve to accommodate many more students.

In addition, the teuda that young men will need to get a job will be a huge impetus for change in the community. The power of the purse is not to be underestimated. Everyone wants to live like a mensch and we see more Haredi men every year moving out into the workforce so that they can make ends meet without having to live off handouts. Netanyahu helped create the financial model when he was Finance Minister and I think it’s playing a very important role in changing the mindsets of the emerging generation of “earners.”

How do you, as a dati leumi person who will presumably have children serving in the army, tolerate the fact that Haredim don’t see themselves responsible for the same contribution and sacrifice?

Personally, I can’t deny that it’s an emotional issue. I aspire for my son to learn in yeshiva and also serve his country. Why is it enough for his cousins to learn, but not serve? For one, I think that we need to remember that post-Holocaust, the Haredim saw their job as reviving what was destroyed in Europe, and their sitting in yeshiva was part of that ideology. Now, with more Torah learning than ever, its hard for anyone to claim that each and every boy must fill a seat in the beit midrash all the time. This was a huge part of the genesis of the “learning only” culture.

Secondly, as the chairman of Gesher, Daniel Goldman points out that we have given the Haredi community this ability to learn and have funded it for 65 years.  Society at large has spoiled them, with army exemptions and welfare privileges, and we are partially to blame for that.  If we are serious about change then we must act accordingly. But we must also do it with sensitivity. This is a traumatic shift that challenges what many people have grown up with as religious ideology. And we must not forget that thousands of families have sacrificed entire lifetimes for this ideal and lived in serious poverty to uphold it.

What is your favorite “only in Israel” moment?

When we first moved here, we needed to buy some bookshelves at IKEA so I decided to try the kosher food at IKEA that everyone talks about! While Dalia and I were enjoying our Swedish meatballs, someone approached me to make a minyan for mincha. I was hesitant—being that I was in a rush and didn’t want to make a minyan in a cafeteria, but lo and behold, I was escorted to the Beit Knesset—a proper shul adorned with beautiful chairs, an Aron Kodesh and the full décor. The room filled up—with over 30 people. The hassidic woman from the human resources department joined my wife in the Ezrat Nashim and I davened one of the most heimish and enthusiastic minchas in Israel with the chef, the mashgiach and the cleaning man. Only in Israel—meatballs and mincha!

Join 92Y and GESHER on April 23rd for “Resolving Conflict with Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox,” a discussion with Ethan Bronner (past NY Times Jerusalem bureau chief), Rabbi Avi Shafran (Agudah of North America), Ilan Geal-Dor (Founder of Beit Shemesh Community Leaders’ Roundtable) – moderated by Ari Goldman (Columbia School of Journalism).

By Jordana Schoor

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