Everyone has their mitzvah. Mine is Jewish unity," says Ahava Zarembski, founder and director of Yesod: The Center for Jewish Unity, based in Jerusalem.
Describing her group as "an emerging resource center that aims to help Israeli policy-makers create ‘smarter’ policy," Zarembski, born in Cherry Hill and now living in Rehavia, said the organization targets issues relating to "Jewish tensions" whether between the religious and secular in Israel or between Jews living in Israel and those in the diaspora.
Zarembski, visiting the United States last month to gain support for her organization, said Yesod with a board of directors and advisory group that includes members such as Knesset member Michael Melchior, former Israel Supreme Court Justice Tzvi Tal, President of Brandeis University Jehuda Reinharz, and U.S. Jewish activist Shoshana Cardin will be formally launched in September ‘007.
Besides reaching out to such dignitaries, the group is interested in "channeling the power of student activism," said Zarembski. Among the students who have offered their help is ‘0-year-old Fair Lawn resident Shani Mintz, who served as an intern for Yesod this past summer. "She was an unbelievable asset," said Zarembski, who explained that Mintz approached her after hearing her speak and asked what she could do to help.
"I think it’s a great organization with an important mission," Mintz told The Jewish Standard. "I feel privileged to have had an opportunity to work for [them]."
Now a junior at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University, Mintz participated in a three-week study program in Israel this summer at Nishmat: The Jerusalem Center for Advanced Jewish Study for Women. Zarembski, a former student there, came to speak with the young women about her organization. While the Stern student who subsequently worked as Yesod’s "mapping and development associate" said she originally planned to work in a biochemistry lab over the summer, she reconsidered after hearing Zarembski. "I was excited about Yesod’s mission and goals and very much wanted to get involved," she said.
Mintz is passionate about Yesod’s mission, noting the group "needs all the support it can get." She pointed out that in addition to supporting the organization financially, people can help by spreading awareness and assisting in their particular area of expertise. "For example," she said, "people who are technologically savvy can help out with Yesod’s Web site and/or tracking system."
Mintz has remained in contact with Zarembski by phone and e-mail since last summer, "receiving and giving updates" and continuing to help with development issues.
A scholar in the field of religious-secular relations in Israel and North American Jewry, Zarembski is a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute in Jerusalem and works with other institutes and organizations "to help them sculpt policy on internal Jewish relations."
Yesod is a "new generation think tank that wants to make a difference on the ground," she said, explaining that the privately funded organization has a "four-pronged strategy: track, alert, suggest, and engage."
According to Zarembski, the group will "red-flag all policies that could be problematic regarding our core mission," whether they emanate from the Knesset, the Prime Minister’s office, the Supreme Court, the rabbinate, or the media.
"We will then make suggestions," she said, adding that their assumption is that policy-makers generally don’t read through printed materials. "We’re ‘new generation’ because we’ll go beyond publications," she said. "Also, we will operate in real time, not [offering] medium- or long-term suggestions but [providing] help today."
Using what Zarembski called an "auxiliary," Yesod will create policy alternatives, which it will then bring back to the policy-makers. The auxiliary which will be recruited on a case-by-case basis, with members retained for a three-month period and paid by Yesod will include world-renowned experts in diverse fields.
"The idea is that there are too many issues that might arise to have only three scholars sitting in-house making suggestions," said Zarembski, explaining that the subjects under discussion may range from a street closing on Shabbat to the plight of the Falash Mura in Ethiopia.
"The key is to listen, not to come with an agenda," said the Yesod founder, who admits to a passion for negotiation and has met with politicians from all parts of Israel’s political spectrum. "Everyone has a ‘red line,’ she said, "something that is critical to their identity. They build a border around that line to protect it. But once they feel that the line is protected, the buffer zone may be penetrated."
She is convinced that "people are saying similar things in different languages." For example, she noted, the haredi speak of "ahavat Yisrael while secularists speak of pluralism and a respect for everyone and their differences. That is not so different."
For further information about Yesod, e-mail Zarembski at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.yesodcenter.org