Jerusalem – A new internal tourism initiative brings groups of secular Jews to hareidi-religious neighborhoods and homes, smashing stereotypes and creating new bonds among Jewish groups that drifted apart over centuries.
The tours are conducted as part of a project called “Yerushalyim Shel Ma’ala” – a Talmudic term that means “the Higher Jerusalem” and refers to the reflection of Jerusalem in the spiritual world. In a time of extreme anti-hareidi incitement by the Israeli press, it allows secular Jews to see hareidi life from up close, on the personal level. The tours are largely a Chabad initiative and focus on hassidic communities in Jerusalem.
Tourists expect to see a closed society that disrespects its women, but see something altogether different, as they meet with and get to know both men and women whom they would otherwise never have spoken to.
The secular tourists get to experience a “tisch” – a festive gathering of a hassidic rebbe and his disciples – go to synagogues, enter bakeries, and are guests at hassidic homes. Project manager Ayelet Oren told Arutz Sheva’s Hebrew-language news service that there was a “very meaningful” wave of tours during the Chanukah holiday.
Most of the tourists are secular, but not all. Some groups are private, while others are organized: high schools, kibbutzim, Haifa University employees and the governmental firm in charge of Culture, Youth and Sports Clubs (matnasim) have also taken the tours.
How do families react to their homes being turned into virtual museums? Oren said that many families see welcoming the visitors as a true calling. “There are some families that receive groups every evening.” In order to overcome resistance from their children, she added, the hareidi parents “explain the purpose of the visits to the children, and tell them these are our brothers, and things work out.”
Secular resistance is overcome by touting the visits as a unique opportunity to meet people, and by saying that “some Jewish treasures belong to everyone.”
“When the approach is one of love for Israel, that we are all one, when one approaches it humbly, things are accepted,” Oren explained.
Hassidim from dynasties other than Chabad also take part in the initiative. At present, the visits focus on neighborhoods like Mekor Baruch, Shaarei Chesed, Ramat Shlomo and others. The more insular community of Mea She’arim is still off limits.
The local residents could have been expected to react negatively to the sight of secular groups in their streets, but refrain from doing so when they see that the group is guided by a hareidi Jew. “We also ask them to come in modest dress. While we do not specify what modest means, they understand. We ask them to give respect and it works.”
Female tourists also meet with female hareidi artists and discover a side of hareidi life they did know existed for women.
“In the end, all of the meetings end with an exchange of telephone numbers and a strengthening of the bond between the two sides,” Oren said.
Hassidic Jewish dynasties immigrated into Israel from Europe and are largely insulated fom other groups. Secular Jews have lived apart from religious Jews since the “Enlightenment” movement began in Europe. The tours can be seen as a first attempt in centuries to bridge the gaps between the communities, made possible by the fact that both live together in the Land of Israel.