By Rabbi Yoav Ende
Last week, I unfortunately found myself again facing hatred at the Kotel – but this time, I had the good fortune to be with my students, whose outstanding behavior and meaningful reflections left me inspired and optimistic about the return on investment regarding young Jewish leadership.
Twenty years ago, just after my discharge from the IDF, I came with friends and family from the Masorti/Conservative movement to pray on Tisha B’av in an egalitarian service at the Kotel plaza. The response to our presence was violent, and instead of defending our right to pray, the police forcibly pushed us away from the Kotel and out of the Dung Gate. It was a painful experience, for me and for the others involved. Since then, the liberal Jewish movements have been using the area near the southern end of the Kotel, by Robinson’s Arch, to hold prayer services – with periodic interruptions from protests by the ultra-Orthodox.
Last week, I brought 37 young Israelis, who are currently participants in the 10-month pre-army mechina program at the Hannaton Educational Center on Kibbutz Hannaton, to take part in organized prayer at the Kotel by the Conservative and Reform movements. The event was motivated by developments earlier in the week, when Jerusalem’s Chief Rabbi convened an orthodox prayer service exactly at the site designated by the Israeli government for egalitarian prayer – an act of provocation that we believed to be unacceptable, carried out by a group claiming the right to shape Judaism and determine religious expression for all Jews.
We gathered at the Kotel for afternoon prayers and very quickly, two groups formed – our group, which tried to pray, and the other, trying to silence us with whistles and loud shouting. Our group, trying to stand in place as we prayed; and the other, trying to push us out of the Kotel plaza. Suddenly, I realized that the mechina students, along with others, had formed a human chain to protect the rest of the group from the force and aggression of the ultra-Orthodox men. They tried to reason with the charedim and demonstrated remarkable restraint and understanding despite the volatility of the situation, while attempting to talk to the charedim and reason with them. At the same time, the mechina students also demonstrated their commitment to pluralism and the rights of all Jews to pray at the Kotel. With their help, Rabbi Chaya Rowan was able to continue to lead the group in meaningful prayer.
For me, the most immediate take-away from this event was a profound appreciation for the impact of young leadership development. These 37 young Israelis who chose to give a precious year of their young lives to study, work, and live at the Hannaton mechina, immerse themselves in Jewish texts, lead Jewishly-infused lives, volunteer in nearby Arab villages and disadvantaged Jewish communities, and create impactful conversations around the values of egalitarianism, pluralism, and democracy, are setting an example for what young Jewish leadership can and should be. Coming from a wide range of backgrounds across the entire religious spectrum, many with little previous knowledge or experience in community building and some with little Jewish religious education, the mechina members will be going on to their army service later this year, taking with them a whole host of knowledge and experiences that will make them better people, and better leaders. As we know from mechina alumni of the last three years – they are, indeed, making their mark as leaders in the army and in their communities, and much of their focus is on building a more equitable, democratic Israeli society that is respectful of differences yet committed to fostering an engaging Jewish life experience.
After an hour and a half at the Kotel, we made our way by foot to the Jaffa Gate. There we encountered a “spinning marathon,” about 100 or more exercise bikes and people pedaling them – the old and the new Jerusalem meeting, I thought. Our mechina stood there and danced with the bicyclists’ music, letting go of some of the tension and the emotional stress that they were carrying. But there was something else that struck me – our mechina students could have been somewhere else, they could have been dancing or sitting in a café. They did not have to come to the Kotel – that was their choice. And by making the decision to participate, they are helping to change the reality here in Israel and for the Jewish world. Because reality is not always determined by the majority, the majority that chose to stay at home or spin to music. Change is made by the minority that takes the time to lead and show an alternative way.
With more significant investments in programs like the Mechina at Hannaton, we will be able to inspire and prepare many more young Israelis to recognize this time as a pivotal moment in the history of the State, and encourage them to take action, engage others in meaningful dialogue, and effect change in ways that will nurture the emergence of an Israel we can all be proud of.
When we returned to Hannaton the evening of the Kotel experience, the mechina students met with one of their most beloved teachers – a charedi rabbi who has been teaching our mechina students since the program’s inception four years ago. It was an opportunity for them to talk through their experiences and share their concerns. He listened, and, as an excellent educator should, he helped them to appropriately process the events of the day. That session helped them to refocus their emotions in the direction of love and respect, rather than dwelling on their experience of being the targets of hatred and scorn from others.
As one of our mechina members said, “I have never seen so much hatred in people’s eyes. Yet I was praying for peace as we faced the mob, praying that we can desist from brotherly hatred.”
American Jewish philanthropy is right on the mark when it seeks to invest in young leadership. When funders ask about impact, the experiences of the Mechina at Hannaton can be held up as a clear example of how leadership development is able to positively change lives, attitudes, and, hopefully, our Jewish future. We see it every day with our mechina students, and we know that, with more investment in leadership training and education, they and other young Israelis like them can make a real difference.
Rabbi Yoav Ende is a graduate of the Schechter Institute and is the Director of the Hannaton Educational Center in the lower Galilee. He lives on Kibbutz Hannaton with his wife, Shira Gray Ende and their four children.