The Bridge Builder – By Yaron Gottlieb

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series The Rav Elon Scandal

Unfortunately any scandals or misdeeds associated with a religion – or more often, with religious leaders – will always be used by some as a refutation of the religion itself. “Don’t shoot the messenger,” is a well-worn cliché, but perhaps as important is the notion that that the message – if useful or relevant – should not be killed off, even when the messenger delivering it may have destroyed the trust so many had placed in him.

Sometimes a message takes on a life of its own and exists beyond the person who delivered it. In my previous post about Israel’s foremost Religious Zionist rabbi, Rav Motti Elon, I wrote about the scandal surrounding allegations levelled against him of serious sexual misconduct. In any such circumstance, particularly before a trial in which the facts of the case are aired, it is rarely a good idea to prejudge his guilt or innocence.

As I’ve also written previously, this is a particularly murky case, with many of the facts not available to the public. Should Rav Elon be found guilty when his case comes to trial, however, such a verdict would still not take away from the value of his worldview which is relentlessly positive and about building bridges. This is a vital counterweight to the general negativity and apathy that seems to dominate discussions about Israeli politics and the religious secular divide.

The most powerful demonstration of his message’s practical application were evident not just in his teachings, but through his actions. Usually, when yeshiva (seminary) students make the trip from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv for the weekend, the students are be quarantined in their hostels from the temptations of secular life. The necessity of keeping these boys and young men away from the decadence and secularism is seen as self evident.

The contrast could not have been more stark on the occasions that Rav Elon took us to Tel Aviv. We barely saw our rooms as we spent the entire Saturday interacting with the population of Tel Aviv. It had nothing to do with trying to make them more religious or save them. It was about recognising that by travelling between Israel’s two largest cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, it was like moving through a warp field.

Jerusalem is dominated by religious and Anglo Jews. It is a city with over 3000 years of history and despite being the seat of government, it still has the feel of a smaller village. Tel Aviv is an aggressively secular city that was built only 90 years ago. It is modern, vibrant, and has the atmosphere of any other city around the world. This was the context of our time in Tel Aviv, attempting to bridge a 60km – and 3000 year – gap between the two ways of life. We talked to people in the streets, and conducted an event across the road from two nightclubs on one of the largest streets in the city. And we filled the location with people!

Another great success was Rav Elon’s worksheets, which were accepted into school curricula around Israel. These were religious in content, and for many of these schools that are devoutly secular, such religious content would have been unthinkable under any other circumstances. It was the power of Rav Elon’s reputation for reasonableness and goodwill that made such a thing possible. Rav Elon also had plans to break down the religious/secular and right/left divide in the army. He encouraged his students to go to mixed religious/secular units. He even had such dreams for Israeli politics. Unity in Israel is what everyone claims to want.

So many people in Israel give it lip service and then look over their shoulders to see what their ‘enemies’ are doing and speak out against them when in private. To have had someone who genuinely reached out to everybody, rather then to just those who mirrored his own views, is unique. The ideal behind this behaviour is too important to lose simply because its main proponent seems to have fallen from grace. The good news is that the Religious Zionist movement is continuing with this message albeit on a smaller scale. Now it’s up to us to embrace this ethos, realising that a message that is true and good for the world should not be killed off because the messenger himself may have failed.

Series Navigation«Riots, Religiosity, and The Broken Bridge
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7 Responses to “The Bridge Builder – By Yaron Gottlieb”

  1. Morry says:

    I think that this form of bridge-building is essential to Israeli society. Too many secular Israelis see the haredi excesses and tar all orthodox with the same brush, without realising how filled with hatred this tiny group is.

    This is from today’s Jerusalem Post, on the eve of national mourning for the very many Jews who died protecting their bretheren:
    Some haredi extremists protested against the State of Israel in Jerusalem on Monday, shortly before the Remembrance Day siren.

    The haredim burned trash cans, threw rocks at passing cars, tore Israeli flags and tried to block Shivtei Yisrael street.

    Sadly so many secular Israelis who read this simply see “black hats and payes”.

    Mixed army units is a great idea, and I was blessed to see a precursor. A yeshivah bocher from one of the Yeshivot Hesder joined our paratrooper unit. Though he ultimately dropped out because he lacked the stamina, I remember how impressed I was that he was there at all, and by the way he threw his all into the training. More of that would certainly change perceptions.

    It’s indeed sad that the work of a man of such vision and charisma may come to an end.

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    • Yaron Gottlieb says:


      As the quote you brought pointed out, the Haredim that are against this are the extreme. There are many people walking around from the generation when Israel’s survival was a day to day proposition who support the state.

      The real tragedy seems to be that the religious and non-religious seem to hold no grudge toward the other. They simply do not know this fact.

      Too many people buy the propaganda they have been fed that the other side hate them. Rav Elon’s message was that this is not the case and we can unify.

  2. bluesuedeshoes says:

    I will be impressed when a rabbi takes his students to a Palestinian refugee camp to spend a weekend.

    You seem to be enamoured of an attempt to save a pot of soup from boiling over while the whole kitchen is burning down.

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    • Morry says:

      That will probably happen about the time a Palestinian leader, any Palestinian leader, actually accepts the reality of a Jewish state. Though why you would want to see a Rabbi and his students murdered is beyond me. Israel had to build a very costly fence so that Israeli citizens would no longer be accessible to murderous attacks, and you would walk the victims straight in … shades of the Holocaust.

      In terms of peace, you’re preaching to the choir … go talk to your Palestinian friends, if you actually have any interest in peace at all.

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  3. melina smith says:

    Hot off the press this month…..

    Shalom Alex.

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  4. davey says:

    it’s been rather quiet here lately – hope all is well?

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    • Alex Fein says:

      Hi Liam.

      Thanks for asking. Yaron and I have been overwhelmed with work in the offline world – ie work that actually pays :) . If something big breaks, we should be back to cover it.

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