By Aliza Gershon
Every autumn Israelis make the transition from scorching summery weather to the more contemplative Hebrew months of Elul and Tishrei. It is a time to consider the year gone by, replete with news and politics and social and cultural turning points, and a time to prepare for the year to come. This transition demands we stop, think and search deep within our souls.
The past year saw Israeli society burn, resurfacing decades-old divisions and quarrels. We began 5775 licking our wounds from the difficult war last summer, and from there moved on to the nasty run-up to the Knesset election. We reached this summer weary and impatient.
Last summer, when our sons fought shoulder to shoulder, we put aside differences and got behind them. We also prayed for the three kidnapped teenagers, alas to no avail. The past year was a sad one.
We witnessed a return of the old divisions dividing our tribal society: Who decides? Who sets our cultural standards? Who contributes more to the nation? But the new rhetoric is sharper, more painful, and more hurtful. The “old elites” look down on the “new immigrants” who long ago raised a second generation here, mocking their religious dogma. The devout are angry at those who hold them in contempt. The religious accuse, “You’re not Zionists.” The old elites respond, “You’re a threat to democracy.” It’s not an easy conversation. The empathy and pluralism we so prided ourselves on, evidenced by the thousands at funerals last summer for soldiers, has evaporated into bitterness and anger.
And the summer heat brought with it a new kind of violence: a young girl slain because she participated in a gay pride march, murdered by a haredi man with a warped sense of religious mission; and a Palestinian baby and his father burned to death in their sleep, their home set alight in the name of God even though Judaism condemns such action. After condemning the violence, President Reuven Rivlin received many death threats. The wounds are festering and need to be healed.
During this season of atonement, we must ask ourselves difficult questions: What have we done to bring things to this point? What can we do to prevent such terrible things from happening again? Could we have listened to each other more intently, to have understood the worldview and perspective of our fellow Jew, before we built and reinforced walls and rejected everything held dear by the other?
Yom Kippur, the sources say, does not atone for the sins between man and another person. Judaism places the responsibility for sins against our fellow man on us alone, along with the obligation to make things right. Here, prayer and abstinence and pleas to God are not nearly enough. Fasting of the soul and the body is reserved for our relationship with God. On earth, we must face the consequences of our actions and build relations with our fellow man anew.
This is a difficult challenge for the individual and for Israeli society, where one’s dream is often another’s nightmare.
In my view, the basis for change lies in education, the young generation, educators and parents. One bright spot in the past year was continued growth in the Israeli joint education movement, which creates joint religious/secular public schools for Israeli Jewish children. There are now 37 joint religious/secular schools in Israel serving over 7,000 students. Three more just opened up a few weeks ago. In the coming year, the Israeli Ministry of Education should increase funding for joint education, Israeli parents and local municipal officials should redouble their efforts to increase the number of joint schools, and donors should increase their investment in joint education.
When you’re taught from childhood that people have a right to think for themselves and that everyone is born with the same inherent value, hating others becomes more difficult. When a child gets to know a range of lifestyles and learns to respect them all, he grows into an adult who knows how to act alongside those who are different, and that his identity and way of life do not depend on negating the ways of others.
Life in Israel is not simple, but it is satisfying and enriching precisely because of its diversity, and because Jews from different communities build their homes and raise their children here. We must examine ourselves so we will not reject those who do not follow our chosen path, and understand why we become afraid and therefore estranged or patronizing. Only then can we begin to fill our lives with connection based on the richness of Judaism, democracy, Israeli identity, and the universal values that humankind has nurtured for all its sons and daughters.
May the New Year be one of tikkun – of repair, of connection based on respect for the other, of fellowship and unity among the Jewish people in Zion and in the Diaspora. May there be a year of peace among us and with our neighbors, and throughout the world.
Aliza Gershon is the Executive Director of Tzav Pius, an Israeli nonprofit founded in 1996 that promotes an Israeli society characterized by mutual respect and responsibility through the Israeli Joint Education movement. For more info visit www.TzavPius.org.il/en. Contact Aliza at Aliza@TzavPius.org.il.