I have often wondered why the Hariedi world has so many outstanding mekarvim, yet does such a poor job of getting out its message in the political arena. I have spent my life in kiruv, not politics, but I wonder whether the principles of communication in these two arenas are so different.  Non-hareidi Jews in Israel know what we stand for — full-time Torah study is our priority, and we oppose a generalized military draft — but they have not a clue why. Why is that?

It seems to me that chareidim in the political arena have completely abandoned what we are really good at — communicating messages of Torah. We don’t seem to be even interested in explaining to the other side what we are all about. One Hareidi politician has linked the position of the government to the Syrian crisis as well as Israel’s credit rating.  Our secular brethren – politicians and non-politicians alike — hear such statements and roll their eyes.

This is not a public relations failure. It is a failure of harbatzas haTorah, a missed opportunity to communicate fundamental Torah values to our unaffiliated brethren.

As a mekarev, I know that to talk to an “other” — to break the polarization — I have to find a point of common agreement between us, the point at which he can buy in. I must begin there. To do this I have to understand his paradigm. How is he viewing the issue? This is step one. Then I have to be able to translate my values into an idiom that he can understand. This is step two.

It is a basic principle in conflict resolution that each party is at least able to articulate the other side’s position, however vociferously they disagree with that position. If they cannot verbalize their opponent’s argument, their response will focus only on their own image of that argument. And that image tends to be a far less sophisticated, far more polarized version of reality.

So, here is what I hear the other side saying against the Hareidim on the army-work issue (for them, it is one issue – we sit and learn and neither work nor go to the army):

It all has to do with you getting out of your responsibilities to the State. Our call for   “equality of the burden”- is immanently fair. Non Hareidi soldiers serve and sometimes die in the course of their duties. Non-Hareidim spend years educating themselves and then working hard so that they can be the engine behind the Israeli economy. Hareidim benefit equally from these sacrifices. But you are not willing to make them yourselves. You don’t work, and you don’t serve. Why should an entire segment be allowed to get away with this and increase the load on the rest of us? (You are not even grateful to the government for the help that it gives you.) Maybe when you were smaller this was ok. But you are a serious percentage of the total population of the State today. No economy can survive when less than half of the population (the percentage of the male Hareidi sector currently employed) is employed. Well, now for the first time you are not a part of the coalition and we are asserting our democratic right to bring you into the mainstream of society. In the end, this will be to your benefit as well. You will be able to support your families, you will feel more a part of things and the nation as a whole will be less fractured. It is historic for all of us.

I could add some layers to that, but the point is, I feel that I understand why a reasonable secular Israeli would think the above. I can get into his headspace. But can he get into mine? Are those who fight so valiantly for us in the political arena saying anything meaningful to them? To them, I stress and not to ourselves. Or let me phrase that differently. If they were to reciprocate in the exercise I just engaged in above, what could we hope them to say is our position is? And would they end by saying, “I really understand these Hareidim. Theirs is a reasonable or an even admirable position, even if it is not mine.”

We cannot begin to impact on the opinions of others without learning how to articulate a position that is intelligible to them. Until now, I believe, we have been talking to ourselves. We have done so with a siege mentality. We are convinced that the other side is out to destroy us and that this is a war of survival. Perhaps it is, but if my stated goal is to communicate to another, and not just to engage in cathartic sloganeering, then that misses the point.

As a mekarev, I have spent my life in dialogue with people who don’t share my value system.  Whenever I am trying to explain a concept I know that the worst thing for me to do is to try and win an argument. Even if I will be the superior debater, nobody likes to be defeated. No-one will feel closer to me as a result. And since the person equates me with my views, I have left the person feeling disinclined to embrace the Torah I am trying to communicate.

Let me state this more clearly. People become frum through other people. Relationships are the medium through which we transmit Torah to the unaffiliated.  This was true of the Soviet Refuseniks as it is true of a Jewish student in Buenos Aires as it is of a young professional in Israel. Relationships — who we are to that person — are part of the Torah she Baal Peh package that we are hoping to give over to this person. Unlike Torah SheBichtav, which has a separate existence to us, the Torah she Baal Peh exists only in us. We cannot separate ourselves from our Torah (according to Maharal, Beer HaGolah, Rav Tzadok HaCohen in several places.) And that is the way it was meant to be.

When you want a relationship with someone, that desire will drive the nature of your dialogue. When answering a question, I must have my relationship with that person foremost in my mind.  I want to be closer to the person after I have answered his question than I was before.  To do this, I have to get behind the person and walk together with him to the answer instead of standing opposite him and talking “at” him. What do I mean by “getting behind him”? I need to find a starting point that reflects our shared values and move the discussion on from there.

Let’s see. Non-affiliated Israelis make a value judgment (described above) about the Hareidi contribution to society. There is no way that I can suggest to a secular person that I am protecting the Jewish nation by studying Torah and that therefore the State should be supporting my actions. It is just not within his world-view to understand that argument. I certainly am not going to develop a relationship based on that message.

But I can talk of my providing some of the vital Jewish values that are important to him and myself. Our Nefesh Yehudi organization operates in 30 university and michlala campuses. We know that most of the 6,000 students who come through this organization annually walk in very anti-Hareidi. But they are coming to learn Torah, nevertheless. Over the year, the shared endeavor of Torah-study serves as the glue that creates close and lasting relationships between secular-hareidi chavrusas. Another organization, Kesher Yehudi, providing primarily telephone chavrusas, reports the same thing. Only a small percentage of the non-affiliated Israelis who participate in these programs return completely to Torah and mitzvos. But I have yet to meet a single one who did not walk away from even a semester’s study without a deep and sustained appreciation of Hareidim and their world.

With that model in mind, I can begin to craft a response that will really speak to the average Israeli. And once I shift the conversation away from the protective powers of Torah learning, and focus more on values we share, I can talk of my attitudes towards work in a meaningful way. In fact, I did just that in a recent article I wrote for a secular audience on just this issue:

To be sure, since we spend so many hours of our life working, it ought to be something we enjoy and grow from; it ought to provide us with a stimulating and friendly environment. But, we all know intuitively that work is not where it is. None of us want written on our tomb-stones, “Spent long hours in the office”. In death we know what we don’t always seem to be able to practice in life.

As far as values go, the Hareidi community gets it right. It is family, and it is the spiritual that count. Seen in this light, the high level of scholarship of the Torah is a part of a healthy and admirable core. In a world where the millionaire is king,  we ought to be finding out some of the secrets of a community which seems genuinely disinterested in materialism. 

The Hareidi community in Israel is in rapid transition, and some of the leading Israeli sages are behind these moves…..  But, in the midst of all of this change, let’s not lose sight of the true values that Chareidim bring to the table.  Hareidim truly believe in the Torah as the central force upholding the Jewish people. On that, we are a part of a broad consensus. Ben Gurion (not usually seen as sympathetic to  Judaism) says in his memoirs that there are three pillars of the Jewish people, the Torah, the land and the Hebrew language.  The number of secular Israelis who engage in at least weekly Torah study numbers in the many tens of thousands.  Hareidim are not unique in adhering to this value. They are unique in the lengths to which they are willing to achieve this and what they are willing to give up in the process.   

Hareidim approach their Torah studies with an unprecedented intensity because they are actually fascinated by the messages of the Torah in a very real way. Let me illustrate. A few nights ago I was in a car with several of my fellow Hareidim, on our way back from a Simcha. A discussion broke out on the nature of the Torah prohibition of being an accessory to a crime. The discussion lasted all of the 20 minutes of the car ride, and was continued for another 10 in the parking lot late at night. Where in the world does one see this – where intense moral discussions occupy the daily conversations of citizens of any state? Why don’t we have delegations visiting the Hareidim learning how to achieve this?

I believe that this dialogue is not happening because we have mistakenly entered into a world of power relationships – a world that is not ours. This is a world of “kochi v’otzem yadi” – and we have embraced it as our own. (Make not mistake, I am not advocating non-representation in the Knesset, but rather a change in the head-space of the broader Hareidi population that somehow this is a battle that can be won with brute force.) The result of our mistaken pursuit of power is that even when the secular Israeli is looking for spirituality, he goes all the way to India to find it. It never occurs to him that it may be in our midst. We are not a group that represents spirituality for him. In his eyes, we are a special interest group, a political group looking after its own interests.

The Jewish people cannot afford the tragic price we are paying for this. It is time that the Hareidi community as a whole shifts the dialogue away from threats to values; out of the political arena and into the social arena. We need a rebranding of this community to what we truly shine at — not as power brokers but as the address for spirituality.

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