Taking the Lead: Embracing Difference in Israel

Students from the “Taking the Lead” program discuss how their lives have been impacted.

One of the clear challenges facing modern day Israeli society is the fixed separation between “religious” and “secular” ideologies within educational institutions, youth movements, places of entertainment, and most other spheres of public life.  The issue of religion and state in Israel is highly controversial, with a wide gap separating the two extremes. The establishment of stereotypes and prejudices increases the sense of alienation, estrangement, argument, withdrawal and the hardening of ideological positions.

Taking the Lead”, an initiative of Federation CJA’s Israel and Overseas division,  implements a program of educational and experiential activities that brings about an encounter between young leaders from secular and religious high schools for joint study and discussion about their shared Jewish identities—without diminishing the particular value of the identity of either one.  Participants in the program understand themselves better, know “the other” more personally, and learn to act together on behalf of their communities, for the benefit of both youth and society in general.

“I come from a very secular, traditional home. None of my friends are religious and religion is something we never talk about,” explained one participant. “My father is very opinionated. He has a word to say about every religious aspect of Israeli society and as I was growing up, his opinions became my opinions. Now, after taking part in this program, I am more open-minded. Not just to other Jews and their beliefs, but to other sectors of Israeli society.”

Youth are chosen from the 10th and 11th grades (16-17 years old), from secular and religious high schools based on who can best represent their schools, are willing to devote their time to joint study and discussion, and display and openness to learning about the other’s views.

About 80 students participate in the program, in 3 different groups.  The students come from Beer Sheva and Yerucham, from 8-10 different high schools.

The essential character of the program is dialogue.  In addition to the dialogue between religious and secular, the students also work on the relationship to “the other” who is not in the group:  Arabs, the disabled or handicapped, and other groups outside “the norm.”  Thus the program is deeply involved in supporting and promoting tolerance and the capacity for coexistence.

“I have a different perspective towards what religion means and am more tolerant of others,” said a young man who had taken part in the program.  “My new perspective allows me to see thing differently.  I now see other Jews as different parts of our community and country, not as a problem. We are all from the same people and are all equal”.

While the issue isn’t likely be solved overnight, the empathetic skills taught in programs such as this one help perpetuate a message of tolerance and understanding that are sure to provide substantial dividends for future generations.

Click here to learn more about “Taking the Lead” and other projects from the Israel and Overseas department.

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