Tzili Schneider wanted to bridge the chasm between chareidim and the irreligious. Her innovative program Is tearing down barriers and opening hearts
hen Kesher Yehudi founder Tzili Schneider looks at a Jew, she sees a child of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, each and every one beloved by Him. “His taste is exquisite,” she says.
Although Tzili, born in 1961, grew up in the heart of insular Meah Shearim — her family’s apartment was sandwiched between Rav Elyashiv’s and the Slonimer Rebbe’s — she was exposed to a wide variety of Jews.
“In the home I grew up in, there was no labeling,” says Tzili. “We’d never label people by their ancestry or their head covering or even their lack of head covering. The world was only divided into Jews and non-Jews. Even Jews who transgressed Shabbos weren’t looked down on. We just thought of them as people who would surely keep mitzvos scrupulously if only they knew better. ‘They’re tzaddikim,’ my mother would tell me. ‘They want to be good.’ ”
To understand who Tzili is, you have to know who her mother was.
A Revolutionary Mother
Her mother, Torah Baumel (“Torah” being the Hebrew word for “dove,” or in Yiddish “Taibele,”) was known as a “shaliach tzibbur.” And a bulldozer. The tzibbur for which Torah was the shaliach wasn’t any particular group or sector. It was every single Jew. And she didn’t wait to be asked for help — she looked to see what needs she could fill.
On the home front, that included making sheva brachos, sometimes twice a week, for young couples without family support, and providing a place for whoever needed one, for however long they required it. Her parents often gave up their bedroom for guests, and Tzili or another child sometimes slept in the bathtub when their beds were taken.
The family was involved in all of Torah’s projects. “It was never a chore. It was what we did,” says Tzili. And their father, Aharon, a talmid muvhak of the Slonimer Rebbe and editor of his seforim, encouraged all Torah’s activities.
The children were taught that the only thing that belonged to them was what they gave to others. “Tzili, if I gave you ten liras, and you gave two to tzedakah, what would you have left?” her grandfather once asked her.
“No, Tzili, because you’d waste the eight liras on candy. The two liras you give to tzedakah are the only ones that stay yours forever.”
If unexpected Shabbos guests meant there wasn’t enough food, some of the children would spend the meal in the tiny kitchen, so the guests wouldn’t notice they weren’t eating. When one suspicious guest peeked in and asked Torah why she gave away her children’s portions, Mrs. Baumel replied, “So they sacrificed a few kernels of corn. Look at how much more they’re gaining from it!”
She established Yerushalayim’s Seminar Beis Yaakov (now known colloquially as “the Yashan”) and instituted subsidized vacations for mothers, tzedakah fairs, student councils, and government-sponsored summer camps. After 20-plus years of that, she left the Yashan to establish Dvar Yerushalayim’s seminary for baalei teshuvah.
Then, between 1971–79, a quarter of a million Russian Jews made aliyah. Rebbetzin Lorincz, the wife of Knesset member Rav Shlomo Lorincz a”h, commented, “We invested so much in them when they were refuseniks, we can’t just let them get lost now! I need someone warm who can draw them near, listen to their needs, and direct them.”
Torah Baumel rose to the challenge. She’d gaze at the new olim with admiration, believing they’d be chozer b’teshuvah, even though they didn’t yet know that themselves. She would say, “It’s unbelievable! Yiddishkeit that had fallen into a coma has come alive again!”
From the history of their conduct with the immigrants from Arab countries at the beginning of the state, it was obvious that the Jewish Agency would be happy to scatter the newcomers all over the country. Mrs. Baumel and Rebbetzin Lorincz realized how essential it was that the new immigrants, most of whom didn’t know what Shabos was, would settle in frum neighborhoods. They kept going to the airport to meet planeloads of immigrants. There, they’d convince the Jewish Agency officials that they were related to many of the immigrants. “They have to be sent to an absorption center near us,” they’d insist.
Mrs. Baumel helped countless families find housing in frum neighborhoods, and even furnished their homes, all the way down to the Pesach dishes. She’d also persuade frum schools to accept the newly arrived children. The families that Mrs. Baumel took under her wing later became the driving force behind the Russian kiruv effort.
Classic askanus in those days was a battle to keep the status quo. But Torah was a revolutionary. She brought a breath of fresh air to activism. Her style was creative and innovative, and she broke new ground and embraced wider horizons.
Those were traits that her daughter Tzili chose to emulate.
Grasping the Sparks
“The street was a sea of black at my mother’s levayah,” says Tzili. “I saw clusters of people and realized that each of them was a chapter of my mother’s life. There was a circle of neighbors who’d loved her crying together in one place, a group of Russian immigrants in another, and Israeli baal teshuvah families she’d helped huddled together in a third….
“I heard a man standing behind me tell someone, ‘The malachim will need to be strong, to pick up someone so laden with mitzvos.’ She’d given her entire life to others.”
Tzili didn’t think she could raise her 11 children to be so selfless, the way her mother did; at least, not at first. “I never felt bad about my mother being so busy with others,” Tzili says, “but it took me years to realize I could be like her.”
When Tzili’s kids were small, she was busy, getting them all out the door to school before she went to her teaching job, and coming home before they returned. For 20 years, she spent all her after-school hours at home. Only as she got older did she decide that a mother’s role may be broader than having a hot meal on the table when the kids walk in the door. “I don’t regret those years,” she says, “but now I see that I can give them more. I can teach them that life’s not about what you get, but what you can give to others.”
When a person dies, the paths of avodas Hashem that he or she used becomes accessible to others. “I realized I had to choose some aspect of my mother’s greatness and make it my own,” Tzili says. She’d spent 25 years teaching while raising her children. Her husband told her a younger woman could teach about Italy’s primary exports; it was time for her to find a tafkid that only she could do. She took a year off teaching to decide what direction she wanted to take.
It was 2002, and there were about a quarter of a million chareidim in Israel then. Rav Noach Weinberg zt”l called them “the sleeping giant,” and bemoaned his inability to wake them from their slumber to reach out to the less spiritually fortunate. Rav Noach was known to have said, “If every chareidi had a chavrusa with a chiloni, Mashiach would come.” That would mean half a million chavrusas, half a million chilonim and chareidim learning together, which would tear down the curtains of suspicion that separated them.
Tzili heeded his words. She decided to test the waters one day in 2004, when she took her son to the pediatrician. She asked the non-religious Russian doctor, “Would you be interested in learning a little about Judaism with a religious woman?”
The doctor, who had many religious patients, answered right away, “Sure. You chareidim seem like nice people, and I’m curious about you. I don’t understand how you always look so happy while looking after so many small children. I’d be interested in learning more.” Tzili asked the nurse, both secretaries, and the janitor. They were all amenable.
Then she went into the teacher’s room at her workplace and asked, “Who wants to learn with these people?” Everybody did.
This was an idea whose time had come.
Founding Kesher Yehudi
“We used to build ghetto walls to insulate ourselves from the outside world,” Tzili says. “But now it’s time for us to take responsibility for those outside our community.
“If you found a postcard that the mailman dropped in the gutter, telling your friend that she’d inherited a million dollars and just has to go to the lawyer to sign for it, wouldn’t you rush to give it to her? It’s the same with Torah. The Torah doesn’t belong exclusively to the Jews who are already in kollel. Thousands of Jews lost their connection to Torah, and it’s up to us to give it back to them. If you love someone, you have to tell them about their inheritance.”
Her credo is that the rift between chareidim and chilonim is unnatural. “What we share is so much greater than what divides us,” she explains.
Jews returned to Eretz Yisrael from all over the world because they wanted to be among family. Not for security reasons, not for financial ones — food and healthcare were scarce in the early state. “If there hadn’t been something that united us, we wouldn’t have come. You’ll never get people from the Chinese diaspora to return to China, and they’ve only been out of China for a couple of generations.”
The State of Israel is not the glue that binds Am Yisrael. The Jews were stateless for 2,000 years, but they were still one nation. “The rift between sectors in Israeli society is bad, but it’s just a symptom of something worse: that Jews are pulling away from HaKadosh Baruch Hu and His Torah. Those chilonim who only know chareidim from television think they’re backward, dirty, intolerant, and unthinking. They have no reason to want to draw close to Hashem, because they think those who are close are repulsive. This false impression, created by the media, has to be reversed.”
But fear keeps us apart. Tzili says that both groups are afraid of two things. Chareidim are afraid that their children will be influenced by chilonim, and that they’ll be accused of being parasites who shirk military service. “That leaves us feeling weak and insecure, because we don’t feel we have good enough answers,” she says.
Chilonim are afraid their children will be influenced by chareidim, and “they worry that if they make concession to the chareidim, the country will become fundamentalist and primitive.” Journalists stoke these normal human fears because they know that our fears grab our attention, and that sells papers.
This can only be overcome on a one-to-one basis, Tzili says, and the best way to do that is by connecting over Jewish texts. But taking that concept national would be a big step. Tzili consulted with Rav Elyashiv ztz”l, as she did whenever she made a major decision. She notes that all her initiatives are supported and guided by gedolim. Rav Elyashiv said to her what Rebbe said to the calf on its way to the slaughterhouse, “Lech, ki lekach notzart. — Go. This is what you were created for.”
She established Kesher Yehudi and, from the comfort of her living room, began to set up chavrusas between chareidim and chilonim on a large scale.
The Mechinah Project
The chavrusa project was going well, but it went viral in 2013, when she began pairing up students in mechinahs (premilitary academies) with local chareidim. Tzili’s partner in this venture, Gilad Olshtein, is one of the founding fathers of the premilitary academy concept.
Gilad grew up on a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz and became interested in Judaism when the Jewish Agency sent him to nurture Jewish identity in Salonika. When he realized he couldn’t do it effectively because he didn’t know anything about Judaism, he began to study with a local rabbi.
He saw that the lack of Jewish identity was a problem in Eretz Yisrael. His aim in starting a mechinah was to give future soldiers a sense of Jewish identity. He wanted them to understand their place in Jewish history and what they’d be fighting for. He forced his charges to answer the question: Is there a difference between you and a gentile? If yes, what is it?
His vision was a perfect match for Tzili’s. He asked her to create a program — not a lecture series — that would expose his students on a personal level to the chareidi life and worldview. So Tzili expanded Kesher Yehudi to include a program that caters to mechinah students. Each of the 50 mechinahs in her program is paired for the year with the closest chareidi community, which adopts the mechinah for the year. Each student gets a personal chavrusa, whom they meet with once a month. Between meetings, they learn together by phone.
Tzili’s passion for the mechinah program is driven by the thought that every Jewish soldier going into battle needs to know that he has a Father in Heaven Who cares about him and has given him a special mission in This World. Says Tzili, “I ask the soldiers-to-be, ‘What are you doing here? Why are you willing to give three years of your life to your country? In the US, you’d spend those years in school and be halfway toward your medical degree!’ ”
They have no answer.
Next, she has them pretend there’s a new law: Keeping Shabbos in Israel is punishable by death. Some people will keep Shabbos anyhow. Some people will say that saving their lives is more important than Shabbos. Some will leave the county. “What will the state look like in 50 years?” Tzili asks them.
They say, “It’ll be a state like all other states, just with Jews in it.”
They come to understand that what they’re going to be fighting for is Am Yisrael, not Israel; there’s nothing special about the State of Israel unless it’s the home of Am Yisrael, and Am Yisrael has no future without Torah and mitzvos.
The students are given a chance to experience an authentic Shabbos, usually at their chavrusa’s home. They enjoy lectures, kumzitzes, and an oneg Shabbos, but when I ask a student what the best part of the Shabbos was, she tells me, “The atmosphere in my chavrusa’s home. I want that. I want kids who are eager to talk to their parents, and the lights and happiness and togetherness. I’d thought Shabbos would be dull and rule-bound, but it was great.”
The shabbaton changes the way they look at religion and religious families.
The program has been so successful that the Israeli government asked Kesher Yehudi to get involved in every mechinah in the country, because the mechinah students it touches learn to love their country, and that makes them better soldiers and better leaders.
The relationships fostered by the chavrusa program are based on complete mutual respect. “HaKadosh Baruch Hu chose each individual Jew to be part of His nation, and He loves each of us unconditionally. It doesn’t matter if we’re tzaddikim or resha’im. He loves me like He loves Rav Elyashiv,” Tzili explains to the program participants.
She describes Am Yisrael as a jigsaw puzzle. Each Jew is a piece of the puzzle, and the nation can’t be whole without every single person. “It’s as though HaKadosh Baruch Hu spilled a massive container of Super Glue on us at Har Sinai,” Tzili says. “We can try to shake it off, we can try to loosen the glue, but it won’t help — we’re all one People.”
Tzili Schneider has started a revolution. She’s harnessed the chareidi desire to connect, to take responsibility for their brothers who have been deprived of their inheritance — the Torah. Today, Tzili herself spends her days traveling the globe, fundraising and explaining the concept. Not what you’d expect from a woman from Meah Shearim with 11 children who hates traveling.
The motto of Tzili’s life is written on the flag of a mechinah in Kiryat Yovel. It says, “Even if I don’t agree with your path, I love you because you’re my brother.”
The Movie Maker
After 25 years of teaching, Tzili took a break and began searching for new ways to bring Jews back to Torah and back to a relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
One idea struck her when her 14-year-old daughter asked for permission to go to a movie. Tzili’s husband told her, “Movies teach terrible values. They dirty you with the kind of mud you can’t wash off.” Then he said to Tzili, “Why don’t you make a movie with good Jewish values?”
Studying privately with teachers from the Maale School for Film and Television, Tzili wrote and produced Like a Passing Dream, the first chareidi movie, inspired by comments she’d overheard at her mother’s levayah.
First screened in 2004, it tells the story of an alcoholic, collapsed on the floor of a bus station, pleading with Hashem to take him. In a near-death state, he sees malachim hoisting up the suitcase that he was sent to earth to fill with mitzvos. When he realizes that it’s almost empty, he pleads for another chance at life. The movie was very successful, and even earned a nice profit.
Tzili released three more films: Where Will I Go (2010), in which a Jewish mother makes a heart-wrenching sacrifice to raise her son as a Jew; Babushka (2014), a documentary about her close friendship with her chavrusa, a non-religious Russian immigrant who became a doctor; and Fingerprints (2015), the true story of a boy’s search for his father. All her films were a success, and earned her enough money that she considered making a film every time she had to marry off a child.
Inspiration in the Five Towns
American-born Esther Wein and Israeli-born Anita Koren were disturbed when they realized that there were a thousand expat-Israelis living on the outskirts of the Five Towns’ frum area, but there was little connection between the communities.
“They’re Israeli,” says Mrs. Wein. “That means every one of them put their lives on the line so that we can safely send our kids to yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael and travel there for Yom Tov. It was simple hakaras hatov for us to embrace them.”
The two women arranged house parties so the expat-Israeli community and the local American Jewish community could get to know each other, and distributed a chart with the contact information for the community’s services, like Hatzolah and Achiezer, so that the Israelis could tap into them. They helped pay for public-school children to attend Jewish summer camps and produced a Purim musical with a hundred kids, both Israeli public-school kids and American day-school kids.
“When we create connections with the Israeli community,” Esther says, “and their kids have religious friends, it opens all kinds of doors to Jewish life.”
Jerusalem Unity Prize
The Jerusalem Unity Prize was established in memory of Eyal Yifrach, Gil-Ad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel, the three boys who were kidnapped and killed on their way home from school in 2014. In the words of Naftali’s mother, Rachel Fraenkel, “We went out looking for the boys, and we found ourselves. The intense worldwide davening for them showed that we are part of something huge, a people, a true family.”
The prize was awarded to Kesher Yehudi in 2016 for healing the rifts in Israeli society and restoring the family feeling among Jews.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 650)