(Written by Menachem Bombach )
The days between Yom Yerushalayim and Shavuot have been chosen in Israel as days of Jewish Unity. The reunification of our international capital city sets the scene for us to recall the three days of preparation before the Torah was given on Mount Sinai. Both events saw the entire Jewish nation come together as one people with one heart.
For the eighth year in succession, the Jewish Unity Prize has been presented by Israel’s President to organizations that work year-round to promote Jewish Unity. It was founded in 2015, to commemorate a unique and tragic event that also united the entire Jewish nation. The kidnap and murder in June 2014 of three Jewish teenagers – Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah hy”d – brought together Jewish communities all around the world, to pray together that they would be found alive, and then to grieve together when they were not.
Their visionary parents established Jewish Unity Day as an annual reminder for the entire Jewish people – regardless of streams, ideologies, and politics – that there is more that unites us than divides us. The Jerusalem Unity Prize, established in their memory, is a joint initiative between their families, Gesher and the former Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat. Significant prizes are awarded each year to individuals, organizations, and initiatives in Israel and throughout the Jewish world whose actions are instrumental in advancing mutual respect for others amongst the Jewish people, both in times of crisis and in daily life.
The Netzach Educational Network is honored to have been awarded this year’s Jerusalem Unity Prize in Education and to share it with the Achi School in Tekoa and the Efshar Acheret organization that promotes encounters between Jewish and Arab students. Together with my team of educators, I am humbled and honored to have been selected for this prestigious prize. But a few people have asked me why Netzach was selected? We run schools for Charedi children – what does that have to do with unity?
Let us try to understand what we mean when we talk about Jewish Unity. Firstly, unity does not mean uniformity. When the Jewish capital was unified, it did not become a metropolitan city like every other city in the world. Until today it retains its unique character and architecture, and its variegated neighborhoods reflect the diversity of its different populations. The story of the Jewish people is a story of tribes that were each given their own task, but share a common destiny.
So, what does unity mean, and what does this prize recognize in the Netzach Educational Network? The underlying vision of the prize initiative is to acknowledge the efforts and accomplishments of those who work to inspire tolerance and mutual respect across the Jewish world, promoting acceptance of those who think, act, or live differently. It’s about building bridges between the different communities that make up the Jewish people.
One of the many challenges facing Jewish society, today as always, is the apparent lack of unity between Left and Right, religious and secular, Arab and Jew, native Israeli and immigrant, and many of the other sub-groups that make up our unique Israeli mosaic. The Israeli media loves to focus on the differences between us, and to highlight the few extremists that try to encourage divisions over hot-button issues.
In reality, Israeli society is often strongly united. In the face of our common enemies, we have triumphed militarily. In the face of the COVID pandemic, we managed to protect our weakest citizens from infection and minimize the number of casualties. Whenever rockets fall, fires spread, or terrorists strike, Israel unites as one people with one heart to help the victims and repair the damage.
One of the main divisions that we see and feel is the lack of understanding between religious and secular citizens. The media likes to focus on the tensions between Israel’s Charedi communities and those who, for example, call for public transportation on Shabbat and a universal draft to the IDF. They dismiss Charedim as freeloaders and parasites, reflecting the lower incomes that Charedim often earn and our larger families. Feelings of resentment are stoked by stories about our communities’ shortcomings, while they choose to ignore the amazing chesed services that we provide to the wider population.
However, behind the scenes, enormous changes are taking place within Israel’s Charedi communities. The Belzer Rebbe, for example, announced this year that all Belz schools for boys and girls will teach secular subjects. Increasing numbers of Charedi men are entering tertiary education and joining the IDF and the workforce. There are hi-tech incubators for Charedi start-ups and leadership training programs for Charedi women. (Don’t expect to read about these initiatives in the Israeli or Jewish media – they don’t fit their narrative!)
The Netzach Educational Network is one of the engines driving these changes. Since 2017 we have established 10 schools where Charedi students are learning secular subjects alongside their Yeshiva curriculum, without compromising their core religious values. We have schools for Chassidic and Litvish boys and girls, from kindergarten through to matriculation, in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and Beitar. They graduate with a full matriculation certificate (bagrut) on par with other Israeli students. Applications for next year are higher than ever, with requests to open more such schools.
We also have an online school where yeshiva-educated Charedi youth can catch up on secular subjects that they have been denied. 13,000 young men and women are currently studying math, science, English and Ivrit in the evenings, so that they too can participate in Israel’s economy. Each of our graduates will become a flag-bearer for unity in Israeli society, as they join the workforce and meet citizens from different backgrounds. Each will become an ambassador for the religious community and help to heal the rifts in Israeli society.
As recipients of the Jerusalem Unity Prize, the Netzach Educational Network is being recognized for our ground-breaking work toward the integration of Charedim into Israel society. We are empowering the next generation of Charedi students to participate fully in Israel’s higher education system and employment market.
(Rabbi Menachem Bombach is a Vishnitz Chassid from Jerusalem and founder of the Netzach Educational Network (www.netzach.org.il) )