Four years ago, Tag Meir decided it wanted to influence children and youth through the education system, something new for them.
“Tag Meir is a kind of rapid response organization,” says Tamar Rechnitz, the organization’s education director. “Our solidarity visits happen within 24-48 hours after a hate crime. It’s activist, on-the-ground, there’s lots of press.
“Education is the opposite. It’s proactive. It’s slow, you need to plan in advance. It’s a different DNA. No press, no media, the door is closed. Activist groups often work against the authorities; I work with them, they are partners.”
With her religious background and sensibility, Tamar was the perfect person for the job. She knew that religious people often don’t feel open and secure in a secular space and may even feel threatened. The language of secular tolerance events – humanistic, universalist – speaks to them less than the language of Jewish values, which she knows well.
Her first poster advertising a training for religious teachers on promoting tolerance in schools featured the Western Wall and a quote from Ethics of the Fathers. Benny Lau, a highly regarded Orthodox rabbi, was the featured speaker. She scheduled it during the nine days before Tisha B’Av, a time when religious people don’t go on vacation and the kids are still in camp. And the food was Glatt kosher.
Clearly there is a thirst for this in the religious community. Tamar started publicizing the event at noon and by 4 pm, her email inbox was exploding.
She did everything she could to make participants feel welcome and respected.
She is also strategic about her efforts. “Teachers come to our 30-hour trainings for two reasons: either they like the topic or they need the in-service training credits. I go for the people who need the credits. The ones who are interested in the topic are with us anyway.
“Teachers come up to me all the time and say, ‘I was sure I would just sign up, sit back and get the credits, but I’m sad it’s over. When is the next one?’”
The trainings feature speakers who are usually religious, who have important work or an interesting life story and a complex identity. They make the teachers think.
One such speaker was Rachelle Fraenkel, a Jewish educator and mother of Naftali, one of three teens murdered by terrorists in 2014.
“Racheli told the workshop that she is religious and right wing – and that the first time she felt angry about her son’s murder was when 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir was murdered as revenge.”
Another speaker was a very religious woman who grew up in a West Bank settlement, studied in seminary, wears long sleeves and covers her hair – because she is married to a woman.
A Palestinian-Israeli school principal from Lod told the participants that her father would agree to her attending university only if she went to Bar Ilan University because it is religious. Her major? Hebrew literature.
Yet another was a man born to a secular, progressive family who became religious and right wing and lives near the Gaza border. He initiated a bicycle race on both sides of the border, in which Palestinian and Israeli participants communicated by Zoom.
We ask Tamar: “You’re doing this to shake up people’s world views?”
“Absolutely,” she answers.
Last year, Tamar started a new series of trainings that brought together religious Jewish and Arab teachers. Because both groups are religious and conservative, they understand each other better than progressive Israelis – usually the ones to attend gatherings with Palestinians – do.
The results? Teachers bring their Jewish and Arab classes together for joint activities. One teacher’s class was the only one in her school that agreed to accept a physically-disabled Palestinian pupil from the school next door into their math class. Perhaps most important, the teachers start recognizing their own racism.
“After four sessions, we get to the point where a teacher will say, ‘The hygienist at the dentist I went to the other day was Ethiopian and I found myself thinking, Will she be good enough?’”
Tamar: “I would never say, What difference does it make if she’s Ethiopian, because finally, we’ve gotten to the heart of the matter. An interesting discussion ensued – and that can only happen when people feel safe.”
Teachers leave with many insights.
Said one: “I thought I had to be racist because we are the chosen people. Suddenly, I understand there is another way.”
And another: “I see now there is more than one Israeli narrative.”
When a third did a lesson on tolerance for her pupils, they said, “This is the first time we’re talking about this not during recess.”
Tamar sees progress and believes change is possible. The topic of religious LGBTQ people was only recently verboten in the religious community and it is now widely discussed there. Tamar believes the same will happen with racism and tolerance.
Tamar and Tag Meir’s main adversary is, of course, racism. And she refuses to personify it. Allies include the Ministry of Education, which confers in service points for their trainings and even gives them funds. She also considers principals and teachers to be her allies and she often consults with graduates of her trainings.
“They are a big part of what we do.”
Written and reported by Ruth Mason.