Four years ago, feeling helpless over the Sderot bombings and the intensifying danger facing Jews worldwide, Tziporah Harris knew that Jewish unity would turn it all around. And it had to start with her.
Harris, a forty-year-old Aish HaTorah lecturer who lives in Passaic, New Jersey, began an impromptu speaking tour, urging women from around the New York metropolitan area to learn about how they could employ the power of achdut in their lives. Her audiences were eager to get started.
She launched the Ahavas Yisrael Project, which consists of weekly neighborhood chaburot where women learn the laws of interpersonal relations, share personal experiences and engage in practical exercises to nurture their relationships with other Jews.
Burgeoning into a worldwide phenomenon, the project boasts eighty Ahavas Yisrael (AY) chaburot in Passaic alone. “The goal was to meet for a six-week stint, but the women don’t want to stop,” says Harris, a graduate of Stern College.
Leah Greenman, another Passaic AY member, compiled an official curriculum based on The Code of Jewish Conduct: The Laws of Interpersonal Relationships, written by Rabbi Yitzchok Silver of the Jerusalem Kollel. Greenman collected true stories of individuals who struggled with and resolved different interpersonal issues in a way that promoted ahavat Yisrael.
A typical AY chaburah runs for twenty minutes and consists of a halachah, story, discussion and “stretch of the week” (an exercise in ahavat Yisrael that challenges people to go out of their comfort zone). In Monsey, for example, women for their “stretch” undertook to not speak on their cell phones in public places, and instead acknowledge people throughout the day; women in Boro Park worked on not honking their car horns; in Los Angeles, women placed cards in various shuls on Shabbat morning encouraging people to greet at least one person whom they did not know.
In Passaic, AY is a community project. At the local kosher supermarket, customers checking out their groceries often see a sign posted with the “stretch of the week” prominently displayed at the cash register.
Sharon Lynn, a member of a chaburah in Bergenfield, New Jersey, says that the groups are about accepting and loving Jews of all stripes. “We have all factions represented in our group,” she says, “. . . but none of that seems to matter.” She reports “light bulbs going off” each session, when women recall times they hurt someone or grudges they’ve held onto. “We are a passionate people, and we can be very tough on each other. The meetings help us to see the other person’s perspective in an argument,” says Lynn. “The more you learn, the more it becomes part of you.”
A Global Project
Harris’s idea has taken on a life of its own, striking up new AY bandleaders all across the globe. Even teens are involved in running their own chaburot.
In 2009, Mimi Jankovitz initiated the project in Israel: today, 300 groups of women are meeting regularly throughout Jerusalem, Ashdod, Ramat Beit Shemesh, Netanya, Ra’anana and other Israeli cities. “We’ve learned that once you change your attitude, you could do a ‘small’ thing to make a difference. That internal shift changes everything,” says Jankovitz. “On Purim, we decided that each one of us would send a mishloach manot basket to someone whom we had a falling-out with, even if we weren’t wrong in the situation,” says Jankovitz. “It didn’t work every time, but some people said it made a huge breakthrough.”
The AY web site (www.ayproject.com) and international newsletter continue to cast the project’s net ever wider. Danielle Sarah Storch of Baltimore, editor of the AY online newsletter, raised money to have the curriculum translated into Italian and Spanish.
Greenman reports that chaburot exist all over the world, including Germany, Canada, Portugal, Argentina, Hong Kong and England. In addition to Spanish and Italian translations of the curriculum, there have been requests for French and Russian editions. “It’s growing beyond our expectations,” she says.
“We’ve heard so many stories of families healing,” says Jankovitz. “Family members who weren’t talking to each other for years began talking. As Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, mashgiach of Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, told us, we are ‘knitting the fabric of the Jewish people back together.’”
For more information about Ahavas Yisroel groups: in the US, contact Leah Greenman at Leahgreenman@aol.com or call 973.779.2648; in Israel, contact Bayla Berger at email@example.com or call 052.762.0013.
Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.
To hear an interview with Tziporah Harris, visit http://www.ou.org/life/inspiration/women-lead-way-create-achdut-klal-yisroel-stephen-savitsky.