The kollel in Mitzpe Yericho didn’t feel like enough anymore. Netanel Siman-Tov, a native of Mitzpe Yericho in the Judean desert, had lived in and loved the community all his life. But he felt a growing discontent after the disengagement from Gaza. “Mitzpe is a very nice place to live,” he told his wife as they sat one evening at their small kitchen table. “Learning in yeshiva is also nice,” he continued. But he felt that with his strengths and capabilities he could do more. The national events and sentiments that led up to and followed the disengagement left many, including Netanel, wide-eyed and open-mouthed as they came to terms with the now tangible disconnect between the religious Zionist and non-religious communities in Israel.
The gap between the communities did not materialize over night. It began years ago and, slowly, the gap widened until it became all too visible as current events suddenly hit home, for some more painfully than ever. Over time, with changes in the educational system and in Israeli culture, it seemed as if Jewish values had lost their place in large parts of the Jewish homeland. There were places in Israel where Jewish children didn’t have the most basic knowledge of Judaism. It was clear to Netanel that his family had two choices. They could stay in Mitzpe Yericho and raise their children comfortably in a religious community. Or they could bring Torah to a place where there was none.
Netanel and his wife moved their coffee cups aside and spread a map of Israel across the kitchen table. Where was the strongest need? Where could they do the most good? Gush Dan, they decided, the Tel Aviv greater metropolitan area should be their focus. Gush Dan was a secular area where Torah and Jewish education were at a minimum. The area was also a hub of economic and political influence. While there was good work to be done throughout the country, the couple agreed that affecting change in Gush Dan was the surest way to begin an educational revolution in the entire country.
Careful research followed the birth of Netanel’s idea. Netanel examined the full gamut of outreach models at work in Israel and concluded that the most effective way to reach people on an ongoing basis was to move a group of committed individuals into the target community. “Workshops, lectures, dialogue forums are great,” Netanel explained, “but when they’re over, people go home and they go on with their lives.” Netanel envisioned a project where people would encounter Jewish values on a daily basis, on the bus, at the parks, schools, community centers, and even at a downtown coffee shop. He wanted to spread the beauty of Torah and create a situation in which individuals would come into continual contact with committed, observant Jews. He wanted to infuse a living environment with the opportunities to learn new ideas so that people could come to respect Torah and appreciate religious observance and values.
Along with a handful of others, Netanel’s family moved to Ramat HaSharon in Gush Dan to pilot his project. At the local high school, he met with the principal and proposed to offer a weekly extra-curricular class on Jewish values at no cost to the school. The classes would put students in touch with their heritage, spark discussions about morality and responsibility and promote Jewish identity. “The students have no time for an additional class,” the principal informed him and left no room for discussion. Netanel left the building disappointed but not discouraged. At the bottom of the steps, a group of non-Jewish university students intrigued him as they made their way into the building. Why were they there, he asked. The German students responded that they administered a weekly course on European culture at the school. They taught the students about European history, culture and heritage. As Netanel wished them a good day and left the premises, he promised himself that he would not give up until schools in Ramat HaSharon gave students the opportunity to explore their Jewish heritage.
Today, Netanel is the program director of Lev Yehudi, OU Israel’s community outreach program which operates in ten cities throughout Gush Dan. The local high school in Ramat HaSharon still does not offer a Jewish heritage course, but every elementary and middle school in the city does. “We’re still working on the high schools,” Netanel admits with an assured smile, “they’re a little harder to bring on board, but we’re getting there.”
A city’s educational system is an important key to Lev Yehudi’s work, explains Netanel. “We begin to work with the children and the parents become interested too,” he explains. Lev Yehudi stresses the importance even of religious preschools for children. The preschools run by Lev Yehudi have some of the best reputations in Ramat HaSharon and non-religious parents are eager to send their children there. For some parents, it is their first positive experience with observant Jews and that itself is important. It gives them the opportunity to interact with individuals who are observant, to respect the individuals and then to respect observance as well.
Lev Yehudi’s work begins in the schools and goes on to reach every segment of a city’s population. The groups of observant Jews who move into the non-observant neighborhoods are known as garinim, or seeds. Early on, the members of the garinim concluded that they wanted to exhibit not just a life of Torah, but of Torat Chessed, a Torah of kindness and giving. They developed a program in which garin families welcome troubled children into their homes after school, provide warm meals, individual attention, love and caring support. Families are assigned groups of three or four children and work together with a psychologist in order to offer the children as much support as they can. The families model healthy relationships, encourage responsibility and work hard to boost the children’s self esteem. Once a week, the children receive guitar lessons and later perform at an annual recital. “One child could only play two notes,” says Elisheva, one of the program “mothers.” “And that’s what she played at the recital – two notes. Everyone cheered and clapped. The girl felt like a million dollars because that’s what this program is about, each child feeling special for who she is.”
Lev Yehudi runs a full spectrum of programs in Ramat HaSharon. From adult lectures in their chic downtown center to a chavruta program at the local, nationally renowned school of music. They offer classes for children and adults at the community center in addition to the schools. The concept of Torat Chesed led to the creation of a center for financial planning to help economically disadvantaged families cope with a limited income and organize their expenses responsibly. Programs before the holidays are guaranteed to draw a crowd of both observant and non-observant residents alike. “We always put in something exclusive to make it enticing,” says Netanel; the recent Shavuot learning program included a wine and cheese tasting.
“I can see a difference since the garin began its work here,” says Ofira Kalman, a middle school principal who has lived in Ramat HaSharon nearly all her life. “There is more awareness about Judaism, more curiosity, especially among the children. Recently, the students requested an ‘Ask the Rabbi’ session.”
As the community as a whole begins to accept and appreciate its new access to Torah, individual stories crop up and testify to the success of the garin’s selfless work. Lev Yehudi’s bar mitzvah program recently hosted the celebration of a father and son pair, the first in their extended family to have a bar mitzvah. The boy’s grandfather survived the Holocaust at age 13, the opportunity to celebrate his bar mitzvah crushed along with everything he loved and knew. Scarred and alone, he declared that his sons would never have a bar mitzvah. But the bar mitzvah program in Ramat HaSharon was there, it was inexpensive, it was gentle and positive, and the boy’s father decided, “why not?” As his son learned with a hand-picked mentor, the father decided that he too would have his first aliya, and his bar mitzvah, on the same day that his son was called up to the Torah.
The goal of Lev Yehudi is to encourage a positive association with Torah. The wives and young children of the garin congregate on the lawn of the community center in the afternoons. “Look at them,” says the center’s non-religious director, “they bring life to the place. They’re fun, they’re considerate, they’re nice to be with. I’m very happy to have them here.”
“There was a lot of resistance when we first came,” Netanel explained. “But resistance comes from fear, and fear comes from ignorance. They didn’t know what religious Jews were about, so they were afraid of us, and they tried to push us away. The way to solve that problem is by reaching out, by coming closer. Once there’s contact between us, once we’re close and they can appreciate who we are, they are no longer afraid, and they no longer push us away.”