By Matthew Shilat
“All one has to do to be happy is to be thankful.” These were the concluding words of Bella Raboy in the “Crisis and Hope” Zoom event I attended last week. This event, titled “Repairing the Rift,” sought to show how the diametrical worlds of secular and religious Israelis need not be so contentious. I went into this event thinking it would be a story I have heard before, but I came out of the event actually inspired and appreciative of the work done by all parties involved.
Before attending the event, I read an article in The Times of Israel titled “Healing the Rift between Secular and Religious Israelis Through Love” by Joshua Karlip. This article provided background for the event that I was about to attend and also discussed the Israeli documentary series “Od Nipagesh”, created by Ohad Gal Oz and Uri Grodner. This documentary follows five secular Israelis over the course of nine days as they try to reconnect with estranged Haredi family members. Each secular Israeli received a Haredi mentor who introduced them to that world so they could better understand the lives that their respective family members now led. The show is currently a finalist for the Rose d’Or, which Karlip calls “the European equivalent of the Emmys.” In his article, Karlip writes:
“The most powerful aspect of the documentary were the deep relationships, based on respect and love, that the participants forged with their Haredi mentors. Bella Raboy — a novelist, journalist, and public speaker — and Dr. Nurit Sirkis-Bank — an art curator, lecturer, and expert in Hasidic visual culture — formed one of these relationships. When Raboy was just a year old, her Soviet-Jewish parents divorced in the wake of her father’s embrace of Orthodoxy. Arriving in Israel at the age of 2, Raboy was raised by her secular mother and grandparents; she felt abandoned by her now-Haredi father, who seemingly wanted little to do with her.”
From this situation, Raboy became antagonistic toward Orthodox Judaism and Haredim in particular. Yet when she met Nurit Sirkis-Bank, she discovered a connection of love and acceptance that forever changed how she viewed Orthodox Jews. This “Crisis and Hope” event was about this exact encounter as Joshua Karlip interviewed Bella Raboy and Nurit Sirkis-Bank. Karlip stated that “their [Raboy and Sirkis-Bank’s] relationship epitomizes one of the central goals of our interview series [“Crisis and Hope”]: the exploration of the world of the ‘other’ as a means to demolish negative stereotypes and to create relationships across seemingly unbridgeable racial, religious and cultural divides.”
After reading this article, I was excited for the event to begin. Joshua Karlip opened by explaining the series and introducing himself as chair of Judaic studies and associate director of Israel Studies at YU. Raboy spoke next, talking about how she had not been in contact with her father. He had remarried and now had seven other children. The 32 year old Raboy said that “Od Nipagesh” in a week and a half during the month of September 2019 did what “we [Raboy and her father] couldn’t do in 30 years.” Now the two are on good terms and talk frequently. Raboy’s view of the religious world has changed and now she attempts to keep some religious practices. She described the documentary as having built bridges instead of walls.
Nurit Sirkis-Bank’s father worked at Israel’s Office of External Affairs, so she traveled the world as a child. As she grew, Sirkis-Bank studied philosophy and art, served as an officer in the IDF, and explored European museums during her PhD studies at Bar-Ilan University. During her study of art, she realized: “just as there is human creativity, there must be transcendental creativity.” This notion led her to become religious. She now describes herself as a “person on the bridge” trying to get people together from different walks of life, often using contemporary Jewish art, dance, visual arts, and theatre as a means to form that connection.
The makers of “Od Nipagesh” reached out to both Raboy and Sirkis-Bank and paired them for their documentary, initially telling them little to nothing about the show. While the latter was optimistic about the opportunity to build bridges, she was also apprehensive about how this documentary might depict her world. With guidance from her rabbi, who said: “You’re not responsible for the result; you’re responsible for the process,” she agreed to participate. Raboy stated: “my response was ‘no’ because I hated everything having to do with religion, because I reflected all my problems with my dad on them [Haredim].” She had recently attended her half-sister’s wedding, which was the first time she saw her father and his new family in 30 years. “Od Nipagesh” interviewed her for seven hours; they called her back nearly two months later, wanting to put her in a religious neighborhood for a week and a half. She finally agreed, saying: “I tried every other way to reconnect with my dad, and every way failed.”
The documentary had Bella Raboy walk around Mea Shearim trying to find her contact, Nurit Sirkis-Bank. When they finally met, Sirkis-Bank hugged Raboy immediately. Raboy described the moment: “I felt like this is where I was supposed to be. I felt secure; I felt loved.” Sirkis-Bank had no knowledge of Raboy’s past, but embraced her wholeheartedly as a commitment to be there for her. For the next 36 hours, Raboy was to remain completely silent while simply following Sirkis-Bank. It was extremely difficult for her, since she disliked everything about the Hasidic culture around her, but the experience forced her to just observe her surroundings without impulsively rejecting them. Only after talking to Sirkis-Bank did she start to feel connected. She admired Sirkis-Bank’s ability to see the beauty in everything. “You have religion and you have people,” Raboy said, “when you spend your whole life hating instead of trying to understand the other person, it costs you so much energy — it’s so much harder to hate than to love. I spent 30 years being ‘right’ and living without a father.” Sirkis-Bank could tell that Raboy had “no positive exposure” to Haredim. Sirkis-Bank emphasized that she is not different from all the other Haredim, exclaiming: “meet my neighbors, who are all amazing people.” She was particularly agitated by the Israeli media’s depiction of Haredim stating: “Israel accepts all types of lifestyles, “but we [Israelis] will [still] speak very bad about Haredim.” She shared her experience, even before becoming religious, with professors who would only judge people by how they dressed if they were Haredi.
Raboy and Sirkis-Bank spent a week and a half learning from each other. Sirkis-Bank prayed every day that when she eventually spoke to Raboy’s father, she would say the right things that could rekindle their father-daughter relationship. Once Sirkis-Bank spoke to him, he started crying and his “unconditional love came out.” Raboy’s father had apparently been praying every day, twice a day, for the moment his daughter would “come back to him.”
Letting go of her internal hate and not blaming religion for the pain she felt, helped Raboy heal. She finally kindled a relationship with her estranged father and now says she loves Hasidut. “When you watch the news, it’s easy to hate Haredim. I hated everything to do with religion, then I realized I hate for nothing.” She pointed out that there are “extremists on both sides. When you choose to take the extremists and make them the whole, it’s a very slippery road.” Raboy shared that the core value she learned from her experience is “don’t work from your ego; work from your heart.”
After the filming ended, Raboy looked in the mirror and saw her dad’s face in her own, and for the “first time in her life” accepted this. When she later saw her father again, it was the first time any of her half-siblings had seen her father cry. Everyone in the room was crying. “I didn’t need my dad to realize that he did something wrong,” Raboy confessed. “I just needed my dad.” Raboy was just on a Hanukkah trip to Eilat with her father’s family, now feeling a “connection” to God after having considered herself an atheist for decades. She describes her performance of mitzvot as being “out of love instead of out of fear.”
I personally have friends who are isolated from some or even most of their family due to differing levels of religious observance. As a convert, I have even found my relationship with my own family troubled at times, as they do not always understand the world I am now a part of. It made me happy to see people like Nurit Sirkis-Bank working to unite Jewish families not through missionizing, but simply by fostering understanding and appreciation. I found the words of Bella Raboy particularly inspiring, and I encourage the reader to check out the recording of this event, which is posted on the YU website under Crisis & Hope.