Bella Freund is used to doing the unexpected.
Five years ago, the haredi woman stopped an angry mob from attacking an
Arab who had just stabbed two boys in Jerusalem's marketplace. She stood
in front of him for 27 minutes while people kicked and punched her; one
even burnt her with a cigarette. She did what "any normal human being
should have done," she unabashedly told the press in the weeks that
followed, taking an unusually public stand, particularly for a haredi
Freund is back in the public eye. This time
she has joined forces with her secular friend Ilana Ravid to found
Shiluv ("integration, interweaving"), an organization whose purpose is
to create a dialogue between secular and religious Jews. What makes this
organization different from the dozens of others around Israel is that
this one won't do anything.
Well, not anything that the other dialogue
groups do. What Shiluv will do is serve as an umbrella organization for
all the existing groups. "By working together, everyone will get more
power. There are many movements. We want to work together to influence
this nation," says Ravid who, a year ago, had intended to start an
organization to promote dialogue between the two groups but found that
there were already over 30 organizations with this purpose, some
redundant, and most exhibiting influence only within their immediate
surroundings. Unity and coordination for the the existing organizations,
she decided, would be her contribution.
"Ever since I moved from Haifa to Jerusalem
five years ago, I have felt the mounting tension between religious and
non-religious Jews," says the 60-plus Ravid. "I thought, if I don't work
to resolve this, who will?"
Six months ago Ravid enlisted the 45-year-old
Freund to join her in this mission. Ravid first met Freund four years
ago when the Society for a Better Israel (an organization which Ravid
helped found) bestowed upon Freund an award for protecting the Arab
assailant from the mob.
Over this last half year they worked to
identify the different organizations (Dialogue, Common Denominator,
Conversation, Paths, to name a few) and meet with some of their
directors, who all agreed that there was a need for a "steering"
organization, On July 7, Shiluv was born. And now they are ready to
Their first activity: a conference, to be
held, at the end of September for all organizations and people who would
like to improve relations between the religious and the non-religious.
Shiluv, as an apolitical organization, will work to push this issue to
the top of the national agenda, through public relations, advertising,
information exchange, planning, and by letting the organizations "each
work in their own particular way," says Ravid.
"We want to break through the barriers. We
have to dismantle them," adds Freund.
How does one improve relations between two
sectors of society that these days can barely stand on the same side of
the street without a police blockade between them? "It's easy to hate a
stranger. It's much harder to hate someone you are sitting face-to-face
with," says Ravid. Freund agrees. "Look, if you take off the nose ring
and the streimel, when you sit two people down, something good will come
out of it."
Very nice ideals, but what happens when the
groups come upon unresolvable issues?
"The army is a problem for me; I feel that
half the nation is serving for another half," admits Ravid. "But still
this is something that I think we can talk about."
Freund agrees. "The army is a difficult
issue. I can understand how people feel about all the people who don't
serve, religious and not religious."
Both happen to think that this is not their
problem, but the government's to solve. They believe they can make their
impact not so much through discussion, but by promoting joint activities
for secular and religious people.. "Why do we have to talk about
everything?"asks Freund. Next school year, she will be working with one
of the organizations to distribute books to poor children. Freund
believes that common causes l forge bonds. "I am haredi - let us all be
hared [fearful] against traffic accidents, against battered women,
against poor children. These are the things we can work together on."
The first step, though, is to open the lines
of communication. "The minute you open a dialogue, you open up the
process to accept one another as they are," Freund believes.
But is acceptance possible?
"I have many secular friends whom I respect
and have learned a lot from," says Freund. "I want them to understand
who I am and where I am from.
"I believe in God, not religion, but I
respect someone else's right to keep the commandments," says Ravid. She
is more wary. "But I don't want any religious coercion."
"I don't want to make anyone religious,"
Freund insists. "First of all, it is against Jewish law to coerce
someone to be religious. Secondly, if they were religious, then I
wouldn't be with them."
To understand how unlikely it is that these
two women are allies, one must first know that they are from as
different worlds as two Israeli Ashkenazi women can be: Freund's
parents, survivors of Auschwitz, were hassidim. Freund is also married
to a hassid, and they and their eight children are affiliated with the
Agudat Israel party. She is an anomaly in a community that, although it
values charity and peace, prefers to keep itself - and particularly its
women - out of the public eye.
Freund recently took a public stand
supporting the right of religious women to cover their hair with a wig.
This came in response to a ruling by Shas Rabbi Ovadia Yosef,
prohibiting women from covering their hair with a wig alone. "If we can
have the responsibility of raising eight children, I think we can make
decisions on how to dress," she says.
Ravid, a "total secularist," was born in
Israel to Polish parents - Maskilim "intellectuals" - who were so
secular that they didn't even speak Yiddish in their house. It upsets
her that many secular people feel they could more easily hold a dialogue
with Arabs than with haredim.
Despite their different worlds, these women
have much in common. They both come from Zionist homes (Freund's father
served in the army). They are both aesthetic in their appearance
(sharing the mirror to prep before pictures) and in their living space
(Ravid's airy Rehavia penthouse is filled with her sculptures and
plants, while Freund's silver Judaica adorns her spacious apartment in
Makor Baruch). Professionally, they have both devoted their careers to
helping others, Freund as a marriage counselor and social worker, and
Ravid as a teacher and principal.
What makes them work well together is what
motivates them: a combination of fear and love.
"We are going to lose this land that we
worked so hard for because we will be weak," says Ravid.
"Jerusalem was destroyed not because people
stopped respecting Shabbat," says Freund, "but because they didn't
respect one another."
"We need to create brotherly love. For our
grandchildren," Ravid insists.
"Not love," concedes Freund. "Acceptance. And
not for our grandchildren. Nor our children. For us. For me and you."
AMY KLEIN / Jerusalem Post