Michal Berman, Deputy Director of Panim, an umbrella organisation with 50 member non-profits involved in creating a pluralistic society, writes about overcoming the segregated framework of Israeli society.

Haredi, Secular and National Religious are sitting on a plane. No, this is not the start of a joke. This was the beginning of a journey. When I joined the Gesher Leadership Course I thought it would be nice to meet people from different religious sectors of Israeli society, and it would be a way to broaden and enrich my life. No more than that. As an experienced player in pluralism, I did not have high expectations from this course. After all, I’ve lived in a mixed religious/secular community for over a decade; I researched it for my thesis and am very involved in the development of secular and religious identities in the State of Israel. At least that is what I thought

My initial meeting with the group can mostly be characterized as shocking. The visual that hit me upon entering the room, as well as the large group of Haredi men and women, was an extremely powerful experience. I mainly felt the immediate pull of stereotypes assigned to this sect of society. These stereotypes were accompanied by fear and hesitation: Will I ever be able to see past the Haredi façade? Will I be able to see these people as individuals?

Throughout the first five meetings we began the process of developing mutual relationships. I discovered people with witty senses of humor and complex human dilemmas. People that live in a society that is very different from mine, that hold strong values and convictions that are different from mine. But, how they cope with societal and personal dilemmas is not so different from the challenges I face in my life and the life milieu of my community. And more than that — we have an extensive cultural common denominator. A common bond based on Jewish and Israeli identity. The presence of Jewish values is no less in secular society than that of Haredim. The Israeli identity of Haredim is much more inherent than what I had thought.

One of the most interesting experiences has been a need, created within the group, to look at a familiar reality from a completely different perspective. At one of the meetings we spoke about a specific politician that is known amongst my peers as a beloved character – a warrior of human rights who spearheads important battles against the exclusion of women. In my circles I only hear her name in connection to superlatives. One of the Haredi women in the course – a brave and smart woman in her own right, explained why the same politician “pains her life”. From her perspective, the moment external forces come up against Haredi society, issues of women’s rights and the exclusion of women within the Haredi sector, they directly hurt her ability to carry out the changes she is pioneering in this field. Later, I discovered the same Haredi woman, a friend from the course, is spearheading the battle for improving the integration of Haredi women in the workforce. She is working without fear and out of great love for the community in which she has grown up and to which she connects, coming from a deep understanding of how to affect change in a conservative society and through understanding that the Haredi conservatism isn’t applicable to the modern world.

Another example was a status that one of the course members publicized, who is now one of my most active Facebook friends, in response to the publicity surrounding the controversial results of the Beit Shemesh elections. In case you missed it, the elections were contested and repeated due to a fear of forgery. Have you heard the joke about 150% representation in Haredi areas? After clarifying the results of the second, repeated city elections — the Haredi candidate won both times. My friend from the Leadership Course publicized the following status: “Democracy has decreed that it will continue to hold elections in Beit Shemesh until democracy wins.” – Singular, sharp and smart and it presents the world from a completely different perspective from mine own.

No less interesting than what occurred within our group, is what happened when the group ventured outside to Israeli streets. Picture the following visual: A group of men and women, part secular in every way imaginable and part completely Haredi, all having fun together riding Segway’s at the Tel Aviv promenade on the coast. Did you successfully conjure this vision? One picture from the trip engraved in my eyes is a visual of two friends from the group; one dressed in fashionable secular clothing, flowing blond hair blowing in the wind from under her helmet. And the second, a Haredi woman from Me’ah She’arim, in a wig, covered modestly and conservatively. Riding together, side by side; riding and chatting. Israelis on the street are looking on with shock etched in their faces. What are you? Who are you? What are you doing together? Will our small group experiment succeed in affecting change? Does Gesher have a chance in challenging the perceptions of different worlds and overcome the segregated framework of Israeli society, built on an extreme dichotomy from age zero; with separate school systems, separate communities that arouse strong stereotypes of each sector. Can we connect in friendship?

From the looks and responses we’ve merited seeing in Israel, we are a sight beyond imagination. The profound process my friends and I are experiencing inspires me. I am full of hope. We will succeed.