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For a small country, Israeli society can appear as very divided, with sharp contrasts based on religious and political differences. One such controversy involves military service, which is compulsory for all Jewish citizens with the exception of full-time yeshivah students. Educator Tzila Schneider grew up in the Meah Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, surrounded by Torah, mitzvos, and anti-Zionism. “My father was a Slonimer chasid and my other neighbor was Rav Elyashiv zt”l. I feel from my history how this wall grew between the chareidi and secular communities.” Her father taught his children to express gratitude for the Israeli army that protects them from hostile armies and terrorists.

After relocating to Ramot and working as a Bais Yaakov teacher, Schneider continued to ask why secular and religious Israelis feel threatened by each other and what they could do to break down the wall of mistrust. “Not the government, not the court, not the army, only the people can do this,” she said. The mother of 11 then thought of connecting individuals by phone to learn Torah, and this led to meetings and events. In 2009, the nonprofit Kesher Yehudi was founded and has since brought together more than 14,000 individuals who learned together and developed friendship that overcame differences in observance.

“I learned about Kesher Yehudi on a recent trip to Israel with other rabbis and felt this is an organization that represents the values of Israel,” said Rabbi Shmuel Marcus, mara d’asra of the Young Israel of Queens Valley. Last week, for Yom HaAtzmaut, he hosted Schneider and Israeli columnist Jonathan Rosenblum at his shul, where they spoke on efforts to foster unity among fellow Israelis. “The sources of unity are much greater than they’ve ever been,” said Rosenblum, a columnist for Mishpacha Magazine.

In his four decades since making aliyah from Chicago, he spoke of the potential of Israelis to rally together. “Israel is unique in its people wanting something to pass on, and people willing to die for their country. When three boys went missing, we felt like they are part of the nation that cares for one another. Let’s focus on what we have.”

Schneider said that at the age of military service, the average Israeli holds the strongest opinions that tend to remain in place after returning to civilian life. “At this age we can break the wall. A soldier can have a chavrusa from a chasidish yeshivah. They can learn together and speak about the conflict as friends,” she said.

Army leaders recognize that with increased awareness of Yiddishkeit, there is increased morality and a sense of purpose. In her promotional video for Kesher Yehudi, the military base welcomes yeshivah bachurim who learn Gemara with soldiers, who then visit the frum communities. In turn, their chareidi peers recognize the role of the army in protecting the country, attending Yom HaZikaron ceremonies, and speaking of dead soldiers as k’doshim. “We are here because of them,” she quoted one bachur. “The soldier takes care of the body and the chareidi takes care of the ruach. It’s a shared responsibility.”

Schneider spoke of Rimon, a soldier on the Gaza border in need of chizuk. He called Yossi, his chavrusa, but the phone was not picked up. Rimon then called Schneider, who reached out to Yossi’s rosh yeshivah. Upon hearing of Rimon’s desire to learn Torah before returning to engage the enemy in Gaza, he offered his personal car to Yossi, who then drove south to learn with Rimon. “They sat and learned together from the page where they last learned. Every Jewish person wants to know that he has something to fight for,” said Schneider. “It makes them stronger knowing that Hashem is with them.”

As Schneider recalls, many chareidim felt guilty during wars, but now feel a sense of shared responsibility and respect for one another.

In memory of the three kidnapped and murdered teenagers, the families of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel Hy”d and the Gesher organization established the Jerusalem Unity Prize to honor individuals and organizations that foster unity in Israeli society. In 2016, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, then-Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, and the three families honored Kesher Yehudi for its outreach work.

Rabbi Marcus noted how Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in Israel, spoke of secular Zionism as Mashiach ben Yosef, who precedes the spiritual g’ulah.

“We need both – the gashmiyus and the ruchniyus. Secular Zionism led us in rebuilding the land. Now we have the Mashiach ben David forces. We have to make sure that Kesher Yehudi succeeds.”

To learn more about Kesher Yehudi and its programs, visit www.kesher-yehudi.com

By Sergey Kadinsky