Israeli program builds bridge between religious and secular

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

The name Gesher is Hebrew for "bridge."

More than 4,000 people participated nationwide. Moderated by Sheila Zucker, a well-known journalist, the program featured statements by Hirsch Goodman, founder and editor of the Jerusalem Report, and Rabbi Aharon Adler of Neve Orot Synagogue, a transplanted American who had been associated with the late Yeshiva University professor Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik.

These were followed by informal dialogue groups comprising approximately 10 people each, which were aimed at developing communication between people with differing viewpoints.

Goodman, who described himself as a "nonobservant Orthodox, religious Jew," passionately described the gradually increasing schism between the great bulk of Israelis and the Orthodox minority. He used his own family history as an example.

After being raised in a very traditional milieu in South Africa before migrating to Israel more than 30 years ago, Goodman was dismayed to find that his 24- and 26-year-old sons, sabras and army veterans, had turned away from Judaism.

Educated in the finest schools in Jerusalem, they felt their exposure to Judaism in school amounted to "force feeding." Subsequently, when called up for military service, they were taunted by black-hatted yeshiva students waving their religious exemption cards in their faces.

"One of the great mistakes made after the founding of the state of Israel was the development of dual school systems, religious and non-religious," he said.

Goodman's recommendation, which he does not feel is easily attainable, is for a single system with a mixture of both religious and non-religious students and a curriculum that includes secular subjects as well as thorough grounding in Jewish studies.

In a similar vein, Adler opened his speech with a plea for better understanding of the religious population's heterogeneity. He said that painting all observant Jews in black misses the truth. In fact, 75 percent of observant Jews in Israel do not belong to haredi parties and participate fully in all of the activities of the state, including military service.

Adler himself is a veteran of such service and said he feels there should be no difficulty in combining active Zionist involvement with true observance of halachah.

One of the motivating factors in Adler's approach was his fear that observance would be diluted, citing the well-documented attrition and loss of Jewry in the diaspora. Adler said that while he recognized the reasons for intensely parochial sectarian schools, he still preferred maintenance of the dual system currently in place and has his children in a state-sponsored religious school.

Adler also expressed concern about the demonization of all religious people in the aftermath of the Yitzhak Rabin assassination and the politicalization of the memorial to him that had been held at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv.

The slain prime minister, Adler said, "had written off almost half of the population of Israel because they differed with him" and had denigrated everyone who wore a yarmulke.

It was evident that dialogue and the opening of communications between the many secular and religious movements and individuals was considered by both speakers to be an absolute requirement to avoid greater strife than now exists.

It was also evident that compromise at the moment was not attainable as the gulf separating the two sides is too wide.