A recent brainstorming session sponsored by Shaharit.
A recent brainstorming session sponsored by Shaharit. Photo by Courtesy of Shaharit
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It's not just a think tank; it's a think-and-do tank.

That's how Eilon Schwartz, the founder and director of Shaharit, describes his new baby. A nonprofit dedicated to "creating common cause," Shaharit is the latest addition to a long list of organizations focused on tikkun olam (repairing the world ) run by graduates of Young Judaea, the oldest Zionist youth movement in the United States, who are living in Israel.

For Schwartz, it's about taking the concept of sustainability that defined and shaped his many years of work in environmentalism and applying it to politics.

"Back in the '90s, there was a group of us who tried to reframe the discussion about the environment in this country," says Schwartz, who, together with fellow Young Judaeans Alon Tal and Gershon Baskin, helped create the Israeli environmental movement. "Now what we're trying to do is take that experience to start reframing the discussion about politics in this country."

The idea behind Shaharit is that while the Israeli left may have it right, it's going about things all wrong. Rather than listen to those on the other side of the spectrum - whether they be Likud voters, Mizrahim or Haredim - and try to understand where they're coming from, the left, according to Schwartz and his cohorts at Shaharit, has increasingly alienated them.

"This is about transcending the traditional divides of right-left, center-periphery, religious-secular, Jewish-Arab and new immigrants-sabras," he says. "It's about replacing politics of interests with politics of common good and, most of all, it's about empathy, empathy, empathy. The people in this country aren't fascists. If you're not elected, you have to start thinking that maybe you're the one doing something wrong."

Schwartz, who co-founded the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in 1994 with Jeremy Benstein, another Young Judaean, is also a faculty member of the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Shaharit had incubated within the Heschel Center for two years before breaking out and becoming its own independent organization earlier this year.

His background in Young Judaea, says Schwartz, who immigrated to Israel in the early 1980s, was critical in the path he eventually chose. "At Young Judaea, you're instilled with two very important things - on the one hand, a strong sense of Jewish identity and identification with Israel, and on the other hand, strong critical faculties. You're taught to ask questions, questions about Zionism, questions about being Jewish in the modern world, and that's very much what Shaharit is all about," he says.

Two developments in recent years, says Schwartz, have reinforced his belief that reconfiguring the Israeli political landscape is not an impossible dream. One was the emergence of the social justice movement last summer - a movement that brought together Israelis from across the spectrum, breaking down the traditional divides. The second, which preceded it, was the success of the Ir Lekhulanu ("City for All" ) party in the most recent Tel Aviv municipal elections. Ir Lekhulanu, headed by Dov Khenin, a communist, included among its ranks environmental activists and Likudniks representing some of Tel Aviv's poorer neighborhoods. This rather unusual coalition of forces captured close to 35 percent of the vote in the 2008 election.

These developments proved to Schwartz that Shaharit was onto something and, in fact, was maybe even ahead of its time.

More than two years ago, he gathered together a group of 20 Israelis from all walks of life to get them to start having conversations and, even more importantly, to start listening to one another and pinpoint their common denominators. "They came from very different backgrounds, but what became clear is that they shared many similar values," he says.

The group included Hannah Pinchasi, an Orthodox-feminist who lives in Efrat and teaches at Bar Ilan University; Nazier Magally, an Arab journalist from Nazareth who headed a first-ever delegation of Arabs and Jews to Auschwitz; Marik Stern, the Russian-born son of the late MK Yuri Stern, and an activist in local politics; Dr. Nissim Mizrahi, an expert on religious identity from Tel Aviv University; Professor Menachem Mautner, former dean of the Tel Aviv University law school and an outspoken critic of society's elites; Bezalel Cohen, a Haredi rabbi active in promoting ultra-Orthodox integration into society; Lila Margalit, a lawyer with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel; and Noah Efron, a former Tel Aviv city councilman and member of the Ir Lekhulanu party who also heads the program in science, technology and society at Bar Ilan University.

"In a sense, we're dealing with the Israeli version of the question: 'What's the matter with Kansas?'" says Efron, another Young Judaean, referring to Thomas Frank's 2004 book about the rise of populist, anti-elitist Conservatism in the United States. "In other words, why do the poor vote for the Likud?"

Efron, who wears a kippa and describes himself as a leftist, thinks he may have the answer. "One of the characteristics of the left in Israel is a vast condescension toward basically everyone who doesn't think exactly as they do," he charges.

Based on the experience of Efron and other Shaharit activists in local politics, the organization is now focusing on the "do" part of its think-and-do mission. Its representatives have been working in recent months with activists in cities and towns around the country, encouraging them to get involved in municipal politics.

"Unfortunately, social change ultimately goes through politics," observes Schwartz. "Civil society can only do so much, so getting people into City Hall is a first step in creating change."

Is it naive to believe the Israeli political landscape can be changed? "For me, there's a difference between being naive and being optimistic," responds Schwartz. "Being naive means ignoring reality. Being optimistic means moving ahead while confronting reality, and that's what were doing."