Building Bridges – One Joke at a Time



I have been on dozens of Freedom Rides in the year I have been working at IRAC. Recently, while taking a journalist on just such a ride, I realized I might have been on a few too many. I am starting to be recognized by Haredi men who ride the line regularly. Usually we do not get a chance to engage the ultra-Orthodox men in more than a few simple sentences explaining that we all have a right to sit wherever we want, but this recent ride went differently.

I am a former Peace Corps volunteer who served in West Africa. One of the first things you learn in the Peace Corps is that it is your job to bridge the gap between your culture and your host’s culture. Some of the best ways to arrive at a point of mutual understanding is through humor. On this particular Freedom Ride, I decided to try this technique on the increasingly agitated Haredi riders.

A Haredi man at the beginning of the ride recognized me, and he came up to me to ask about my intentions. Once we were seen speaking to each other, four more men joined. He explained to them that I was here to make the Haredi look bad, and that I came on this bus regularly. He said that I even had a phone that I used to take pictures of Haredim who are just minding their own business. That line was my opportunity to engage them.

I told the small group of men that their friend was correct. I did indeed have a phone to take pictures but not to worry: it was a kosher phone. They looked puzzled so I explained that I had one phone for meat and another phone that looked the same for milk, plus two more for Passover. As a joke I know it sounds silly, but to these ultra-Orthodox men the joke killed. They laughed and the tension was broken. They proceeded to ask me questions.

I told them why I was on the bus with women sitting in the front. I explained that I did not want to destroy their way of life; I only wanted to protect every Israeli’s ability to use services we all share. They asked me questions about the Reform movement and tried to gauge my general Judaic knowledge. After a few minutes it actually seemed like they were enjoying the discourse. Bridges are built one joke at a time… even if the joke isn’t that funny.

I did not change any minds that day but, for the first time in all the rides I had taken, there was the beginning of dialogue. Small steps add up and eventually take us great distances. In fact, victories come when you least expect them. We were on the infamous bus #36 in Jerusalem the other day and we heard two Haredi women saying to each other “didn’t this line used to be segregated?”

We have been asking you for several weeks to help us collect signatures for our petition to make the Western Wall Heritage Council inclusive. Just like on the bus, if we are not all part of the conversation, the character of the Kotel will never be inclusive.

We have already reached over 8,000 but we still have a long way to go. You still have time to sign and to forward it to your friends. We all need to be part of the conversation for the Kotel to be truly inclusive.

Steven Beck is the Director of Israel – Diaspora Relations at the Israel Religious Action Center.

Photo courtesy of Egged.co.il

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