Dialogue Group Seeks to Foster Haredi-secular Coexistence

Group founder says goal is "to build friendship between seculars and Haredim, to enrich their mutual knowledge."

About five years ago, Shlomo Raanan, an ultra-Orthodox Jew from Rehovot, was queuing at a store in his home town. A young, apparently secular man pushed him accidentally, and apologized: "I'm sorry, it was unintentional. I usually keep my distance from Haredim, especially if I have my wallet on me," he said.

Raanan decided to put the disturbing incident to good purpose, as it prompted Raanan to set up an organzation called Havruta. Like many other organizations, Havruta is aimed at forwarding the cause of coexistence, but it's the first aiming to link ultra-Orthodox and religious non-observant Jews.

Another feature distinguishing Havruta from similar groups is that all of its activity is carried out one-on-one: Man to man, woman to a woman, and almost exclusively over the phone. Hence its name, a reference to the one-on-one dialectical method by which religious texts are studied in pairs in Jewish study halls. All participants take part in the conversation from their homes. The organization says that 15,000 women and men have found long-term phone friends.

There's one thing Raanan wishes to clarify, when we meet in the organization's offices in the urban settlement of Modiin Ilit, in the West Bank.

"There is no intention of 'converting' people to ultra-Orthodox Judaism," he says as soon as we sit down. "Our aim is to build friendship between seculars and Haredim, to enrich their mutual knowledge. We've become two separate worlds, there's so much hatred and alienation, and we think this is catastrophic. We're trying to link between fire and water here.

It's quite a phenomenon, you have ultra-Orthodox women from Beitar and Mea Shearim talking to secular women from Kibbutz Shamir and Kibbutz Beit Zera.

Reut Alon, 22, from Jerusalem, has been conversing by phone for over a year with Sheindi Shidrovitzki, 25, from Ashdod. The first link was made when Alon was approached in the bus by an ultra-Orthodox woman she didn't know, who asked if she would like to talk on the phone to another ultra-Orthodox. Alon gave her her number, and the woman passed it over to one of the project's coordinators.

"I love talking to people different from me, I think it really broadens the horizons," Alon says. "Some people are afraid of being converted. I'm not. I'm very committed to my secular outlook."

Despite what Raanan says about not wanting to make secular Jews Orthodox, one of Havruta's stated aims is to bring them closer to Jewish sources. The organization sends texts - from the Torah and other religious books - to the participants, which they are expected to read and discuss together with their hevruta partners.

"Our platform is learning, because we fear conversations based on "how are you today" won't make long-lasting connections," says the project's male coordinator, Israel Adler. "We're letting the secular side of the dialogue choose what they want to learn."

Many participants, however, choose to disregard this kind of assistance. Liava Deutsch, from the communal village of Matan in central Israel, has been talking for the last three years with Simona Levinger, an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem mother of nine. Deutsch says she has never looked at the books, and that she and Levinger prefer to discuss personal matters.

A short while after the connection started, the two decided to meet, and Deutsch invited Levinger, her husband and their children to her home. "I was afraid at first I was inviting some fanatics," she said. "But when they came it was amazing. We talked until deep into the night; we found it hard to say goodbye."