If all of Am Yisrael (the Jewish people) could display the same tolerance and ahavat chinam (causeless love) as Tamar Rechnitz’s family, we’d be a step closer to the Messianic age.
Tamar, 37, is education director of Tag Meir (Light Tag), a coalition of 48 organizations that immediately responds to racist “Price Tag” actions in Israel. She grew up in an Orthodox, right-wing family in the West Bank town of Efrat, and attended a religious girls’ high school founded by former American Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Two of her brothers, one of whom is a religious court judge, are “on the very conservative end of the right.” But the family remains close, with frequent visits and respectful discussions.
“My family was a little suspicious when I started to work in Tag Meir but they understood it reflects the very authentic, Jewish values with which I was raised. Now they appreciate what I do.”
How did she get from there to here? Tamar puzzles over the question.
“Nothing dramatic happened,” she says. “It was very natural. Rabbi Riskin is very connected to the real world, to democracy and gender issues. And half our town came from the U.S. I didn’t rebel.
“I found the real me.”
The real Tamar Rechnitz is a pleasure to get to know. She is smart, dynamic, complex, nuanced, independent and committed. She began working for Tag Meir at the beginning of 2015 but says it took six months for her to really understand what the organization was about. She remembers the exact moment.
“It was a July 31, a Thursday afternoon,” she recalls. “A religious Jewish man had just stabbed six people at the Jerusalem gay pride parade five minutes from my house. Sixteen-year-old Shira Banki was fighting for her life. Everyone was shocked – but nothing prepared us for what happened the next day.
“Within 12 hours, we woke up to the darkest morning, when the (Palestinian) Dawabshe family was burned in its sleep. The baby died immediately, the parents a week later and Ahmed, the five-year-old, was in the hospital. The whole country was shocked” by this “price tag” attack by Jewish extremists.
“Tag Meir tries to respond within 24 hours. It was a Friday morning, so we decided to organize a kabbalat Shabbat in the exact spot where Shira had been stabbed. We worked like crazy. I thought, If I’m going to work on a Friday, it should be for this. “Because in 50 years our kids will ask us, ‘Where were you when Shira Banki was murdered?’ We needed to be out there with a clear Jewish voice against hate crimes…That was when the penny dropped and I understood what Tag Meir really is. Something so horrible happened five minutes from my house but without Tag Meir, I wouldn’t have done anything.”
Because of the quick turnaround time and the fact that it was just before Shabbat, Tag Meir expected only a few people to attend but more than 1000 people showed up and it turned into one of the organization’s biggest, most powerful events.
“People looked for a platform,” says Tamar. “Part of the unique contribution of Tag Meir is that we give people a platform.”
Tag Meir didn’t stop there. Ahmad was in the hospital recovering from burns throughout his body for eight months and his grandfather quit his job so he could stay by his side. The authorities did not recognize Ahmad as a victim of terror so he was not eligible for financial help.
Tag Meir went into action. “We wanted to do something for his future,” says Tamar. They posted a crowdfunding campaign and set a goal of NIS 80,000.
“We woke up the next morning and saw we had achieved the goal,” says Tamar. “After a week, it tripled and in the end we raised NIS 360,000. We opened a bank account for Ahmad and when he’s 18 he’ll get the money. It showed me how powerful the platform is. At the time, it was the biggest online campaign in Israel in terms of the number of donors – more than 2,500. It gave people a way to express themselves.”
Tamar worked as a reporter for the IDF newspaper Bamachneh during her army service, then studied Jewish philosophy and Hebrew language at the Hebrew University, where she also earned an M.A. in linguistics.
Because of her background and her proclivities, Tamar says she can comfortably communicate with many segments of Israeli society.
“It’s important to me to stay rooted and also to journey – to go to East Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Mea Shearim… I can sit in front of a yeshiva student or a teacher who never left her religious bubble and I can talk with them totally in their language…Religious teachers in the teacher trainings that we run feel comfortable with me.
“I have a very strong Jewish identity, which enables me to encounter other religions and cultures. I’m fascinated by churches and Muslim prayer. I can sit with an Arab Israeli or a Palestinian and speak to them Arabic about their identity. I try to understand the culture, the community, the atmosphere. I take walks in East Jerusalem, get my hair cut there. Speaking Arabic is part of my values – it’s important to me to be able to communicate with different audiences…I can sit with a very lefty gay person in Tel Aviv and speak with him as if I grew up there. At the same time, I can speak with someone from Mea Shearim in their vocabulary.”
Tamar is motivated by the Jewish values with which she grew up and by enabling people to act on those values in daily life.
“Sometimes in the religious Jewish world, one can talk about values while sitting in class in front of a book. Tag Meir translates these values into the public sphere, in places where they make a difference. We can speak to the people who do Price Tag acts in their language. We say, you are doing something against Jewish values.”
“We think Jewish terror is far worse than Palestinian terror because it ruins us, our values, our foundations.”
Does she feel hope?
“Every place you can feel despair, you can see hope. Every time we go somewhere with a delegation, I feel hope. In the solidarity visits, we’re not always welcomed. Sometimes people are hostile. But we believe in what we do so we persevere.”
Sometimes building trust takes time. In 2014, 16-year-old Mohammad Abu Khdeir was kidnapped and burned to death by Jewish terrorists just a day after the funeral of three murdered Jewish teens. “When we went to the family of Mohammad Abu Khdeir, they weren’t welcoming but we stayed and talked and we’ve visited them twice after and now we have a relationship with them.”
Written and reported by Ruth Mason.