You needn’t look far for evidence of great rifts in Israeli society, fractures whose beginnings stretch back generations.

Deep-seated divides between the secular and religious camps, and among the various religious factions, rear their heads in countless protests, denunciations, reprisals and acts of legislative brinksmanship. But even as Israelis take to the streets and break off into competing camps, say politicians, academics and ordinary citizens, many are turning to the teachings of the Rebbe, Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, whose lessons in respect and the all-consuming love known as ahavat Yisrael are fueling efforts to mend the country’s differences.

Israel resembles more of a mosaic than a real country,” opines Time magazine, underscoring the fact that in Israel, whole neighborhoods and even towns can be home to sometimes just one specific group. “Black-hatted Orthodox are at odds with the beach boys of Tel Aviv; the Jews who fled Europe feel superior to those who flooded in from North Africa and the Middle East; the latecomers and Ethiopians—are still struggling to fit in.”

Were every community ensconced in its own four walls, Israeli society would probably be more civil. But then there wouldn’t be unity, something that the Rebbe constantly implored the Jewish world to reveal.

Today, when the secular and religious meet, it’s often in conflict. And when the battles don’t play out in the streets, they appear on the floor of the Knesset, with religious and non-religious politicians sometimes resorting to insults or pugilism to make their points.

“The focus of the Israeli media is on the Knesset,” states Rabbi Menachem Brod of the Chabad-Lubavitch Youth Organization in Israel. And what comes out of the Israeli parliament dealing with religion “is what sticks.”

Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that 1.5 million children, according to one recent study, don’t know what the Shema, the most central of Jewish prayers, is.

“The divide and separation of religion from Israelis’ lives is that religion is confused with religious politicians and what they stand for,” explains Israeli President Shimon Peres in a magazine interview given three years back. “We need to speak to the nation about Judaism and not politics.”

For decades, Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries and students have been doing just that. They fan out across the country, bringing Sabbath candles, prayer boxes known as tefillin, books, and—prior to Passovermatzah, to provide meaningful, positive Jewish experiences to people of all ages and backgrounds. People’s reactions are very similar to those entering a Chabad House for the first time: Here is a place where the divisions between secular and religious fall by the wayside. What’s left is the shared connection between two or more Jews.

“I was in shock,” Tel Aviv shopkeeper Bino Levy relates about the first time he met a religious Jew, a Chabad-Lubavitch student who struck up a conversation. “I glanced at my partner, as if to ask, what is going on here?”

Chabad is a movement that is dedicated to bringing souls together,” explains Peres, who like many top politicians had an audience with the Rebbe, a 1970s meeting arranged by then-President Zalman Shazar.

It was in those late-night meetings that scholars, rabbis, Jewish youth leaders and political officials were inspired by the Rebbe’s unique concern for every member of the Jewish people, and resolved in whatever way they could to imbue their own lives and the lives of those around them with such love.

The Rebbe is the great symbol of love for your fellow Jew; “he reached out to every person with a radiant smile, and sought out his welfare,” says Peres. “Chabad fills a unique position, amid division, amid hatred, amid disregard, amid alienation, amid hostility . . . They are working to bring about the unity of the people.”

A Chabad-Lubavitch student reads the Megillah during a Purim celebration for shopkeepers at Tel Aviv’s Kikar Hamedinah.
A Chabad-Lubavitch student reads the Megillah during a Purim celebration for shopkeepers at Tel Aviv’s Kikar Hamedinah.

A Village of Understanding

On any given day, dozens of buses bring hundreds of visitors to a small town near Tel Aviv, whose streets have no names and whose residents have no gas station or bank. It is here that the Israeli branch of the Chabad movement, whose rich history in the Holy Land dates back 300 years, has its headquarters. Established in the 1940s in a village then called Kfar Shafrir, Kfar Chabad is where Jews from all walks of life are welcome.

Over the years, many hundreds of thousands have flocked to the town to learn about the Jewish holidays, to learn about how a Torah scroll is written and the verses and lessons it contains, and to attend classes. The visitors run the gamut of ages, backgrounds and professions. Tens of thousands of school children come to receive their first bound volumes of the Torah each year, soldiers come to be acquainted with Jewish traditions as part of their basic training, and families come for holiday celebrations.

“The visit was very moving for me,” says Knesset opposition leader Tzipi Livni of her tour of the local matzah bakery and a meeting with the community’s chief rabbi. “Keeping Jewish traditions is very important, and a collective learning of these traditions is imperative.”

English professor Susan Handelman of Bar Ilan University says the first time she visited a Chabad House, in Buffalo, N.Y., she wore “blue jeans and [a] backpack.”

“Everyone was very friendly; no one said anything” about her choice of dress, she points out. “We were all sitting together, and there was never any problem.”

Sivan Rahav-Meir, an anchor for Israel’s Channel 2 and an award-winning author, has a similar observation.

“If I meet someone from [Chabad], the first thing I get is a smile,” she says. So too, orphans, terror victims, and those just walking in off the street are cared for without regard to how they choose to dress or if they happen to go to synagogue. “They are always willing to help.”

Rochel Bolton, a Kfar Chabad resident who runs a successful advertising group, looks at the latest religious conflicts in Israel with disgust.

“There is no response that I could possibly give short of condemnation. There is no justification for hurting another human being physically or emotionally,” she says. “The way of Chabad is to love every person.”

Levy describes how his yeshivah student “walked in with a smile and asked us how we were,” he recalls. “He asked us about our health and our children. He listened with interest and left.”

“Our student brought us Judaism in a living way,” reports Danny, another young store owner in Tel Aviv’s Kikar Hamedinah. “The respect he gave to us touched our hearts and brought us closer to Judaism.

“I always referred to myself as a chiloni,” he continues, referring to the colloquial term for the non-religious. “That is, until I met the Chabadniks. I never put on tefillin since my bar mitzvah; now I put them on. They come on Chanukah with candles, and on Purim in a costume. They bring us Judaism here.”

“If only I knew my entire life that Judaism and the Torah were wonderful,” remarks Levy.

“Whenever I see the group from Chabad,” adds Asher Avihu, “I always feel that I need to add a little more to my Judaism.”

It’s such interactions, including abroad at Chabad Houses in such places as Thailand, India and South America, that help explain why Chabad-Lubavitch is perhaps the most loved of any religious group, writes noted author and editor Yossi Klein Halevi.

He notes that “mainstream Israelis resent [some religious groups] for separating from the state and its obligations . . . Chabad neither separates nor demands, but gives.

“Israelis also love Chabadniks for their courage,” continues Halevi. “Though few Chabadniks are drafted into the army, they don’t avoid danger zones: Chabad activists rush to the front lines during war, providing religious services and dancing with soldiers to raise morale.”

The average person on the street is “against anything that is [wearing] black,” explains Sapir College lecturer Yechiel Harari. “But if you meet [a Lubavitcher] personally, it makes a great difference.”

Rabbi Nechemya Wilhelm, who as director of Chabad of Bangkok—Ohr Menachem is the first point of contact for many Israeli backpackers, couldn’t agree more.

Visiting religious travelers often ask him how successful he is in his work, with an eye to how many backpackers end up becoming religious.

“If we’ve removed some of the resentment, even hate, that many of these kids harbor towards religious people, and by extension towards Judaism, then we’re successful,” states Wilhelm. “We try to provide a positive experience to replace the negative associations and hangups many visitors come with. What they choose to do with that positive experience is their business.”