Our Founder's Story
Almost five decades have elapsed since I founded “The Center for Jewish Heritage” that eventually became “The Sapir Center for Jewish Education and Culture”.
My first thoughts of a center of this kind inspired by my adolescent years in the “Munkacs Houses” and Mea Shearim neighborhoods which later became a symbol of fanaticism and extremism. At the time, we all lived together – ultra-Orthodox Haredi neighbors alongside religious and secular people – in comradeship and mutual respect, and tolerance. On Shabbat we would meet in the street and wish each other “Shabbat Shalom”. Sometimes, the religious and Haredi neighbors would stand by the window of Bezalel Seitz’s house on the corner of Bezalel Street to listen to the news broadcast on the radio. During World War II and the beginning of the War of Independence, we would even stand by the window of his house on Shabbat.
When I grew up, I discerned increasing rifts between the religious and secular sectors of Israeli society. One of the main reasons for this was the secular population’s fear of religious coercion that was reflected in extensive religious legislation passed by the Knesset and with the support of the religious parties.
Two years after the liberation of Jerusalem in the Six Day War, the Histadrut (Workers Union) was given a small building in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter. I served as the Head of the Histadrut’s Religious Department at the time and requested that our small building and other neighboring old buildings be converted into a study center where religious and non-religious students could learn together. I dreamed of a place where people would be able to meet freely without any dividing barriers. “We will learn bible here with a kipa but those who prefer to do so without a kipa are also welcome”. The Histadrut agreed to allocate the building to an independent non-profit association that would also recruit the resources necessary to realize my plans. I accepted the challenge and that is how the Sapir Center for Jewish Education and Culture was born.
We initially wanted to arrange meetings between pupils from religious and secular schools where they could get to know each other, talk openly and freely and, mainly, just feel like a part of the same “whole”. Unfortunately, we quickly discovered that meetings like this are often accompanied by a patronizing attitude on the part of the religious pupils towards their secular counterparts (a kind of our “full wagon” versus your “empty wagon”). As a result, we decided to focus on 11th-12th grade pupils from secular state schools and offer a program that would enable them to feel at home in Jewish culture, to broaden their familiarity with the Jewish People’s rich cultural and historical assets, and to create a sense of belonging and ownership towards them.
The center has naturally grown over time. Its activity has expanded to meet new challenges. The primary challenge we faced then, and with which we still contend today, is the need to remain relevant to the range of diverse worldviews and issues that occupy different sectors in Jewish-Israeli society.
Happily, since the foundation of the Sapir Center, that was among the first organizations in Israel to engage in connecting Jewish Israelis to their rich heritage and culture, the field of Jewish-Israeli culture has grown markedly. Many organizations have been established and strive to promote similar goals. I am proud and happy that the Sapir Center continues to be a ‘central player’ in this field by leading different projects and establishing incubators of Jewish-Israeli community entrepreneurship throughout Israel.
The values and principles that guided me in founding the center continue to guide its activity today: pluralism, tolerance and openness for diverse Jewish identities, viewing Jewish culture as an important factor in Israeli identity, increasing accessibility to Jewish culture for the general Israeli public, and regarding the Jews in Israel as an integral part of world Jewry.
I believed, and still believe, that Jewish culture is the foundation on which we can base our joint life here in the State of Israel, out of respect for and appreciation of different and diverse views approaches to Jewish life.
The Sapir Center and its partners in the field of Israeli Judaism have an important and central role to play in advancing this vision and in strengthening Israeli society at large.
Rabbi Menachem Hacohen
President, Sapir Center for Jewish Education and Culture