The Datlash Conundrum: why so many from observant homes are no longer ‎observant

While our government unnervingly tries to figure out how to deal with the ‎spate of domestic attacks by terrorists brewing outside the Jewish ‎community, there is a crisis brewing within Israel’s Orthodox community ‎which, if not identified and addressed, will become increasingly threatening ‎to its vitality. Recently a number of Israeli papers ran an advertisement ‎regarding a new neighbourhood available for “Datlashim” (an acronym ‎which stands for “people who were once religious but are no longer ‎observant”) which read, “Datlashim –you are already on your way to hell; ‎why not meanwhile come enjoy the Garden of Eden?”. While the ad ‎promotes a real estate project for Datlashim, it should serve as a rude ‎awakening for the religious community as well. Many people from ‎Orthodox families of various backgrounds, Religious Zionist and Haredi ‎Ultra-Orthodox alike, are leaving the fold, rejecting observance and the faith ‎they have been brought up on; after all the fact that a neighbourhood for ‎Datlashim is under construction means that they represent a significant ‎number of people. Certainly from the Orthodox community’s perspective, a ‎community which presumably nurtures and values a commitment to the ‎Torah’s commandments, this is indicative of a failure which should evoke ‎some serious consideration. Truth be told people rejected their tradition in ‎past generations as well, some from very prominent religious families ‎‎(Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s youngest son Yom tov Lipman became non-‎observant, Moshe Schneerson the youngest son of the first Rebbe of Chabad ‎Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi converted to Christianity, to name a few) but ‎many cases of these drifters were swept under the rug; not so today. ‎Today’s open society and social media makes it virtually impossible to hide ‎such things, as evident in the case of Esti Weinstein of blessed memory, and ‎even more importantly dilutes the shamefulness that a person who became ‎non-observant from previous generations may have once sensed. Datlashim ‎of this generation are not as reluctant to reject their family’s faith, which ‎logically dictates that the Orthodox community needs to respond with ‎greater urgency. ‎

The advertisement itself is telling for a number of reasons. Firstly it ‎indicates brazenness by insinuating that Datlashim should “stick it to the ‎man”. Of course “the man” is none other than the God they may no longer ‎believe in but it is also the same God who their observant families would ‎have liked them to believe in and revere. In addition, while a Datlash might ‎not believe that he is “on his way to hell” for the simple reason that he may ‎no longer believe in hell, or heaven for that matter, the inference is that one ‎should live for today rather than think about tomorrow. This is an adage ‎which is all too familiar to a generation which endorses instant gratification ‎and craves self-satisfaction, and very difficult variables under which to ‎promote religion and observance which are anything but instantaneously ‎pleasing. The orthodox community must identify these indications not just ‎for the sake of reconciliation but for its own perpetuation. If in the ‎expeditious world we live in our children and students demand quicker ‎responses and comprehensive explanations to what we consider ‎fundamental questions, then we should accommodate them because if we ‎don’t, considering the information highway they have at their fingertips, ‎they will find answers themselves which may be objectionable to us or, even ‎worse, inadequate to them. ‎

Therefore although there are many factors when considering why young ‎people stray from the traditional path paved in front of them (family ‎dynamics, traumatic experiences, double standards within the community, ‎even luck cannot be discounted) a recent study by the Nishma Research ‎Institute found that the majority of people who leave orthodoxy do so ‎because of things that they read or learn which they find contradictory to ‎what they have been taught. One major innuendo when considering this ‎finding; in Israel the problem begins with the fact that many of the essentials ‎which should be addressed in the religious school system, are not taught, ‎discussed or developed. Principles of faith and sources regarding belief ‎which we would consider tantamount to believing in God and to subscribing ‎to a religious home are not examined. In Hebrew we refer to these topics as ‎machshevet yisrael or Jewish thought, and while machshevet yisrael is part of ‎the matriculation exams system in religious high schools, the material is ‎conveyed for the sole purpose of passing an exam as opposed to ‎internalizing and at least engaging in a spiritual quest of conviction. It is ‎only years later when and if students attend pre or post army religious ‎institutions that they begin to analyse and deliberate on many of these ‎fundamental questions and sources but by then it is too late for many who ‎are dissatisfied and uninterested. In fact, considering the sophistication of ‎our children today many of the topics of machshevet yisrael should already ‎be introduced in primary school. Merely telling our children to put on tzizit ‎‎(fringes on a four cornered garment) and open the siddur (Jewish prayer ‎book) may not be sufficient without discussing with them how to relate to ‎an all-powerful authority called God and why even when He is out of sight ‎He should not be out of mind. There are basic composites of knowledge that ‎we require all children, sophisticated and less sophisticated alike, to learn ‎and know by a certain age such as two plus two equals four in math, or “i ‎before e except after c” in English; why should Jewish thought be treated ‎any differently? ‎

I recall sitting next to a non-observant Jewish entertainer in Australia who ‎said to me that Judaism is undoubtedly the most authentic religion. When I ‎asked him why, he said because it is the only religion which promotes ‎questioning God’s existence in order to strengthen one’s commitment to ‎Him; we would be hard pressed to say that this remains an outstanding ‎characteristic in the Israeli Orthodox world of today. It is important to note ‎that there are Datlashim who believe in God but reject His Torah and while ‎their challenges may sound different they are part of the same problem. ‎They do not understand why gentiles who want to be Jews have to go ‎through the gruelling process of conversion, or why homosexual ‎relationships are an abomination if this was the way God created these ‎particular people. From an Orthodox perspective the questions of these ‎Datlashim are even more upsetting because it appears that they firmly ‎believe in God, but many of the prevalent issues of today which continue to ‎fester within the confines of the Orthodox community and Jewish law as it ‎applies to modern society are left alone and continue to remain taboo and ‎unclear. ‎

Part of the reason why schools do not explore more inquiry is not only ‎because the curriculum doesn’t call for it but also because many teachers ‎and educators are afraid of it; they are simply not prepared to tackle the ‎issues and engage the students. When was the last time you heard a religious ‎educator or a rabbi pose questions such as; does God really exist, or what ‎are some of the ways that we can prove He does, or for that matter what ‎gives humans the right to slaughter animals for the sake of eating them? I ‎propose that the study of machshevet yisrael become a staple of rabbinic ‎training and religious studies certificates and degrees; after all there are more ‎Jews walking around today wondering whether God exists than those ‎wondering whether or not a chicken is kosher. We must legitimize their ‎quandary through knowledgeable debate and discourse. ‎

Some might voice concerns that this proposal only addresses the ‎academically inclined individual, but what of the less intellectually curious ‎person? Perhaps they are just tired and would be uninterested in sound ‎intellectual argumentation; perhaps they are simply looking for an ‎unrestrictive lifestyle. This may be true but it is all a matter of strategy and ‎approach; even a non-academic child is equipped with the basics of math ‎and reading. Orthodox and religious education needs to figure out a way by ‎which searching and discussing God is as fundamental (age and level ‎appropriate) as reading and writing, this way not only less students will ‎choose alternative lifestyles but even those who do so may still want to ‎affiliate with certain levels of observance and may still embrace certain ‎doctrines of faith. I was recently conversing with a religious friend of mine ‎whose child is no longer observant and he posed the following poignant ‎question. Were our children for some reason or another brought up in a ‎different faith other than ours, would they naturally find their way back to ‎what we believe and preach are the truths of Jewish Orthodoxy? If we are ‎unsure whether the answer is yes, then there is a deficiency and we have ‎some serious planning to do. ‎

While the advertisement for the Datlashim project may be unnerving, the ‎real estate project itself is strangely encouraging because it demonstrates ‎that they value unity and that they have not given up on camaraderie …nor ‎should we. ‎

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With Passover approaching isn’t it time we agree to disagree

I studied communications in college where we learned to appreciate the power of speech and that the ability to communicate is an art which must be treated with respect and caution. The orator is an artiste and the speech is his canvass upon which he paints; yet in today’s world automation is replacing communication and discourse is quickly becoming antiquated. Today one can walk into a classroom of kids during recess, or observe a family at a restaurant table, as everyone sits quietly texting one another with their cell phones usually to the person sitting right across from them. When I asked my daughter why she records messages to her friends and sends them via what app as opposed to just phoning her friend and talking directly, she told me simply because it is easier. We have emerged from the telegraph to letter writing to speaking on the phone and back again to texting. Strangely there are some who would call this progressive but from a Jewish perspective it is anything but.

Judaism has always emphasized the importance of speech. The word vayomer (he said) appears 632 times in the Torah and the word amar (to say) appears 431 times. King Solomon proclaimed in Proverbs, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue”; quite an instrument for the average person to wield at their disposal. From the Torah’s perception Jews are expected to engage in dialogue, even with God, as exhibited through prayer (in which we are instructed to utter the words clearly so that we hear what we are saying to God during our prayers), and certainly with one another as demonstrated by the commandment to impart the Torah to others. At the same time the Torah requires us to monitor our speech cautiously by refraining from saying certain things such as using Gods name in vein, or making unnecessary vows. The Torah encourages speaking properly but it also extolls silence, advocating a balance in our lives and establishing that abuse of communication in either direction can be threatening to the institutions to which Judaism espouses.

This need for balance has revealed itself most recently on the political scene as well. Many American people are infatuated with Donald Trump for the simple reason that he speaks what is on his mind, even if he rarely says anything substantial or even if it appears that some of the things on his mind border the insane. Yet his recent decline in the polls demonstrates that certain people still value the way things are verbalized and that diplomacy still counts.

Two years ago I started an organization called Makom Meshutaf which promotes Jewish learning and values through educational programming on secular kibbutzim throughout Israel. As an Orthodox rabbi, it takes me time to convince a kibbutz that I have no religious agenda and certainly no intention to coerce, and that my interest is to unite the Jewish community in Israel by means of teaching, discussing and arguing about Jewish principles and ideals which all of us, consciously or subconsciously, share in common. A few weeks ago I called a woman who was the head of culture on a certain kibbutz and who was genuinely interested in what we were offering which led me to believe  that the kibbutz would host some of our programs, however I was disappointed to learn that the kibbutz did not share her enthusiasm. Frustrated, the woman asserted that it was foolish and close minded of her colleagues on the kibbutz to reject the opportunity to study and discover traditional texts, yet we, as she put it, referring to the rabbinic establishment at large, were equally to blame because for years we failed to communicate with the country and over time people lost interest; her observation and criticism was resonant and correct.

That same week I was speaking with Rabbi Berel Wein, noted Jewish Historian and Scholar, who was telling me how Orthodox kiruv organizations (“kiruv” from the Hebrew word “karov – close”; hence bringing someone who was distant from Orthodox observance closer to observance) such as Aish HaTorah, Ohr Sameach and NCSY, enjoyed rapid growth forty years ago but are currently diminishing in size and influence. He explained that most of the people influenced by these movements were youth affiliated with the Conservative movement who grew interested in Orthodoxy. The leadership of these movements however consistently refused to converse with their Conservative counterparts which limited a more expansive effect. While some of the Conservative youth moved towards Orthodoxy, many Conservative Jews swayed towards the Reform movement; consequently as the Conservative movement began to lose numbers and influence so did the kiruv movement. Rabbi Wein wryly concluded that this unwillingness by the Orthodox to converse with the same clientele that it was trying to inspire towards its own persuasion merely confirmed that indeed the Lord has a marvelous sense of humor, and served only to its detriment.

Unfortunately this same predicament exists in Israel as well. Kibbutz Nir Am is situated down south on the border of Gaza and is one of the few Kibbutzim in the South West Region which I have managed to visit; there is good reason for this. Assaf, a member of the Kibbutz, explained to me that Sapir University in Sderot was built through contributions by the Reform movement in the United States under the condition that the local council promotes entry for the Reform movement in Israel to teach Judaism and run services in the surrounding area. Assaf happens to be interested in Orthodox traditions and he prefers if there are classes in the Kibbutz, that they be taught by an Orthodox authority, which explains why I managed to speak in Nir Am twice. However, under tremendous pressure from the local council, Nir Am is being persistently persuaded to hire a female Reform rabbi who will run services and teach in the Kibbutz. Don’t get me wrong, I have Reform rabbi friends who have hosted me as a guest speaker in their Synagogues and we engage regularly in dialogue; something which I strongly believe Orthodox rabbis ought to be doing in Israel as well, but that does not mean that I agree with them. I respect the fact that someone may want to search their Jewish roots by way of the Reform movement, but as an Orthodox rabbi, I am disappointed when I am denied opportunity to present the Orthodox opinion and perspective, much like I imagine the Reform are frustrated when they cannot present theirs. Assaf told me that he has gone to the local rabbinate and explained to them what is going on but his appeals have fallen on deaf ears. Truth be told, there is no one to blame for this predicament but ourselves. The Orthodox rabbinate and leadership have consistently approached the secular public and alternative denominations with suspicion and a “holier than thou” attitude and now we are beginning to pay the price. It is only a matter of time before the Conservative and Reform movements in the United States begin to question why they are contributing to a country which subscribes to a rabbinic leadership which does not even entertain engaging them.

While there seems to be a tendency to cast blame or criticism on the observant Jews (perhaps because of the higher moral standard they are held to, fair or unfair as that might be) many secular Jews leave much to be desired by way of deliberation as well. Just recently a kibbutz retracted an invitation for Makom Meshutaf to run a learning program because, as they explained, following the enthusiastic atmosphere which surfaced during the Purim festivities on the kibbutz, some of the members were nervous that more programming involving Jewish themes would foster excessive religious fervor and while their concerns were clearly unjustified, I was reminded of how challenging it was to nurture discussion. Nevertheless, the same week I was fortunate to receive a glimmer of hope and a source of inspiration. I met with the person who was in charge of cultural activities on a different kibbutz who began to tell me that she was fed up with people complaining about the Haredim because while there may be much to complain about in terms of their extremism and narrow-mindedness, the same was true regarding members of the kibbutz movement, who she described as boors who not only knew nothing about Judaism but were also foolish enough to deprive themselves of their rich ancestry. She related how she often converses with her children about why secular Jews still subscribe to having a brit-milah (covenant through circumcision) and celebrating their Bar and Bat Mitzvah; the significance of Jewish symbols and the traditions that make Israel a Jewish country and their homeland. She did not detail the intricacies of the conversations with her kids, but she did reveal that she was determined to connect with her children by exchanging ideas and partaking in conversation.

This week we usher in the month of Nissan, the month marked by Passover the Jewish holiday of redemption. The Passover Seder remains the greatest national event commemorated by the most amounts of Jewish people of all denominations and all levels of observance. Passover Seder is not merely a formality or an excuse to hobnob with the family; it is about education through communication; it is about rejecting coercion and embracing transmission. The Passover Seder is an empty canvas upon which we are granted the opportunity to paint; it is an opportunity to converse and understand what makes us different; it is an occasion to impart to our children why all Jews regardless of their level of observance should have a Brit Milah and commemorate their Bar/Bat mitzvah. We don’t have to put aside our differences at the Passover Seder, au contraire, we should accentuate, consider and discuss them, but at some point during the Seder we will all read the text which insists that we recall how the Egyptians our enslavers, and so many who have persecuted us since, did not see any differences between us, they looked at us as one in the same – as Jews; and perhaps that is the moment we should look at one another and assert that it is time we did the same.

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I am my Brother’s Keeper

A few events transpired over the past few weeks in Israel which are worthy of discussion. They evolved from opposing angles yet prove to be major points of deliberation when considering the future of Jewish identity in the country.

Two weeks ago Chief Rabbi Dovid Lau criticized Minister of Education, Naftali Bennett, for visiting a Solomon Schechter school (of the Conservative branch of Judaism) in NY and at least from Rabbi Lau’s perspective, giving unmerited recognition to the Conservative movement , which according to Lau, “distances Jews from the path of the Jewish people”. Needless to say, although not surprising, it is rather presumptuous for Lau to assume that only he knows what the “path of the Jewish people” should be, it is also typically divisive and antithetical of what the Rabbinate should represent in the sense of Jewish unity. The saddest part of Lau’s unseemly condemnation was the way he criticized Bennett saying,

“If Minister Bennett would have asked my opinion before the visit I would have said to him explicitly, “You cannot go somewhere where the education distances Jews from tradition, from the past, and from the future of the Jewish people.”

This statement exposed Lau’s ignorance or arrogance, take your pick, because it demonstrates how he continues to assume that people from the National Religious crowd would even bother to ask him a question let alone seek the advice of the chief rabbinate. Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Chief rabbi of Safed and Rabbi Yakov Ariel, Chief rabbi of Ramat Gan, added insult to injury by proclaiming boorishly that, “(the Conservative movement) represent a spiritual Holocaust”, failing to consider whether the word Holocaust should ever be used in the context of describing part of the Jewish people and demonstrating their lack of knowledge and sensitivity towards the dynamics of the Jewish community in the Diaspora (and here for that matter) as it is highly unlikely that these rabbis have ever met or would agree to meet a Conservative Jew.

Sadly, it was Yizhar Hess the director of the Conservative movement in Israel who pointed out that both the institituion of the Chief Rabbinate and the Chief Rabbi himself are irrelevant; but in the end it was Rabbi Yisrael Rozen, the head of Machon Zomet, who said what needed to be said.

Rabbi Rozen, who is never afraid of speaking his mind and always states what he feels is the truth regardless of how controversial he might sound, said,

“I am completely perplexed; have we really gone to such extents that we have lost sight of proportions? Is it really the appropriate time to reawaken an old war amongst brothers?”
Rozen’s comment could not have been more fitting considering that the week in which this pointless accusation took place coincided with the reading of the Torah portion which introduced the exile of the twelve tribes to Egypt, the consequence of senseless hatred and jealousy between brothers who may have had varied approaches to the world around them but who should have appreciated the father and tradition which they shared in common. Our rabbis and representative leadership can disagree on various important issues and approaches but it should never be at the expense of discounting one’s right to seek a meaningful relationship with the people or the land of Israel, lest God forbid we suffer once again similar consequences like those of our forefathers before us; which leads me to the second issue at hand.

A few weeks ago Salon Asyag, whose daughter was recently drafted into the IDF, complained that during the first week of her daughter’s service, she was taken to Kfar Chabad where she participated in the hafrashat challah (seperating from challah dough to bake challah for the Sabbath) ceremony. Salon was disturbed not only that her daughter had participated in the ceremony but that the army would advocate such rituals and write them off as educational and cultural experiences. Asyag demanded that the army was guilty of religious coercion and troubled by the fact that,

“one of the first values that my daughter received from the IDF was the value of being a religious Jew; this is not a value I would have expected the Israeli army to give my child”. As a result of Salon’s complaints, the ensuing weeks brought with them much scrutiny and skepticism towards the Jewish identity branch of the IDF and the work they do with soldiers. To make matters worse, during these same few weeks Proffessor Yagil Levi published a book called “Hamefaked Haliyon” in which he criticizes both rabbis of the army as being coercive, and religious Zionist rabbis for trying to force religion upon the army by sending “too many” of their fanatical religious Zionist students to superior combat units. Levi also claims in his book that the rabbis of the IDF transmit subliminal religious messages to commanding officers and soldiers and are intent on spreading radical religious mantra. Gershon Hakohen, Colonel in Reserves, who is from a religious Zionist family but who is himself not observant, commented that what Levi suggests in his book is utterly ridiculous and that he is merely expressing a fear which is prevalent amongst many non-religious communities throughout Israel. Hakohen explains that these Israelis refuse to recognize that a large part of the Israeli scene today, including the IDF, are religious, or at the very least identify with what religion has to offer. I am not sure I agree with him to such an extent, but I do believe that large segments of the secular Israeli public today are beginning to recognize that in today’s day and age ideology is hard pressed and the prevailing voice of ideology today in the IDF stems from religious, observant and traditional soldiers. Hakohen continues,

“the group of people that Levi represents (from the left) are decreasing in numbers and becoming weaker, and therefore they delegitimize a group which is growing and becoming more influential, in order to make themselves feel more important or to relieve their concerns”. He concludes saying, “the atmosphere and education that religious Zionist youth receive, be it from school or from the home, are demanding in terms of their encouragement and allegiance to the Jewish land and people, and it is for this reason that students from religious institutions are the ones who are fighting in the front lines; they have something to believe in and they know what is worth fighting for”.

As someone who works for the Jewish Identity branch of the IDF, I want to clarify that the Israeli Rabbinate of the IDF goes out of its way to ensure that nothing should be translated as coercive, but at the same time its obligation and job is to infuse our soldiers, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack of it thereof, with a sense of Jewish identity. Practically this means that we try to provide our soldiers with a sophisticated understanding of the basics and foundations of our heritage. We do so by reviewing certain insights and texts from the Torah, witnessing rituals from Jewish holidays such as conducting Passover Seders, blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashana, and hosting Purim parties on base, as well as guiding seminars and trips to places of historical significance in Israel and offering insights about these places both from a traditional as well as a Zionistic perspective. I might add that many lectures and activities are optional and the ones which are mandatory typically deal with messages of Jewish heroism throughout the ages, including episodes from the Torah and the prophets, as well as Jewish unity and how it is exhibited and how it can be enhanced in the Jewish homeland. The Jewish Identity branch of the IDF is essential to the army because of the fact that Jewish identity is essential to the existence of the country. This has nothing to do with religion, but it has everything to do with remaining Jewish, and much like America seeks to preserve its patriotic spirit, Israel must sustain its distinctive Jewish character because that is what has ensured our survival as we have witnessed often painstakingly through the generations. There are many Israelis, including high ranking officers in the IDF, who either do not recognize this, or choose to ignore it. Unfortunately many of them are self-deprecating Jews who are afraid because they recognize that the main voice of ideology, nationalism and idealism, is coming from the religious Zionists in Israel, simply because the religious Zionists understand the importance of believing in something, embracing values and enhancing the foundations of yesteryear as they apply today. These Israelis, who are so defensive and try effortlessly to demonstrate their open mindedness by discarding their traditions and links to them, must realize that in so doing they are not merely rejecting religiosity; they are compromising their children’s sense of Jewish nationalism. Israel is and always has been, a country that is premised upon ideology and Judaism plays the major role in molding and maintaining that ideology. If the upper echelon of the IDF wants to remain as such, they should come to terms with the fact that challah making will not make their soldiers religious, but it may very well fortify their desire to be Jewish which is the key to a triumphant Israeli army.

Actions and reactions like those of Rabbi Lau demonstrate that many rabbis allow their fanaticism to overtake their rationale and desensitize their sense of judgment, but at the same time secular Israelis, particularly those presumed to be capable and intelligent, such as IDF officers and University professors, should know better than to judge Judaism by the Jews. We must rid ourselves of unwarranted hatred and jealousy and cherish a Judaism that fosters first and foremost brotherhood.

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Religion Has Everything to do With It

I would like to think that most of us in Israel recognize something that our allies consisting of Western Democratic countries either do not recognize or choose to ignore because it makes them uncomfortable; the struggles, wars, intifadas and waves of terror that accompany them, which we confront here in the Jewish state of Israel, are not founded upon strategic planning or even military tactics and control, nor are they solvable based on compromise and diplomacy. The volatile confrontations we deal with here are ones which are deeply rooted in religion and premised upon our faiths and beliefs. The fact that the Temple Mount continuously finds its way into the heart of the heated contest between both sides, is telling enough. While there may be some members in our government who may choose to deny this, I believe that the majority of the government and of the Israeli public understands this all too well which is why the solution (one would like to think there is one even if it does not appear on the immediate horizon), has little if anything to do with negotiations. Arguments and disputes of spiritual nature cannot be solved and do not manifest themselves through physical means, which is what makes them so challenging in the first place. While I do not have a solution for this issue, I recognize the value of deriving a message which can reinforce our understanding of who we are and what our nation represents; a message that has consistently ensured our survival and is worth reviewing, a religious message which often comes from the most unexpected of places.

Our son Yakov is an observant young man who is serving in a brigade in the army which predominantly consists of non-observant soldiers. His brigade, currently guarding one of the borders, comprises 121 soldiers of which only ten are observant. My wife and I drove to his post on Friday before Shabbat to visit with him and his comrades. When we arrived, the staff sergeant, who is not observant, was addressing Yakov’s platoon in preparation for Shabbat which was swiftly approaching. After he reviewed all of the security measures and precautions he concluded his instruction by stating that there was a most crucial issue he wanted to address. He went on to explain how the holy day of Shabbat, the day when religious people rest, would soon begin, and while he understood that the majority of his soldiers did not observe the Shabbat, including himself, it was extremely important to be respectful of those who did. He asked that soldiers not speak on their cell phones in front of Shabbat observers, that they maintain composure around them, and if soldier’s parents were coming to visit them on Shabbat that they too should be careful not to infringe upon the peace and serenity that the observant soldiers sought during the Shabbat day. Finally, he insisted that this post was strictly kosher and that any food brought by parents for their sons on Shabbat, should not be brought into the confines of their camp in order to ensure that the standards of kashrut are maintained both out of respect for the observant soldiers and for the sake of soldiers who would assume this position next. The staff sergeant seemed certain that his orders resounded throughout his troops but I don’t think he realized how much those same orders penetrated the heart of an innocent bystander. His words reminded me that while many of my fellow Israelis were not observant they were Jewish and deeply religious; religiously united, religiously humane, religiously driven by a common nationality and an altruistic cause.

The current wave of violence in Israel waged by Palestinian terrorists is undoubtedly frightening, but it would serve us well to remember what we represent and what the perpetrators of terror and violence do not. One outstanding (and disturbing) feature of this recent wave of terror as many have pointed out, is that the attacks are executed by youth who are easily influenced by the satanic rhetoric emanating from their mosques and the provocative lies emerging from the Palestinian authority itself. These youth are desperately searching for a calling and longing to believe in something or be a part of some notion but unfortunately all that is offered them from their so called leaders and mentors is violence and chaos, a road which inevitably will lead to their demise.

Abraham, the founding forefather of our nation, realized that there were two components necessary for people to embrace faith in one God; peoplehood and compassion. He consistently invited people to partake from his hospitality seizing any occasion to engage in theological dialogue and allotting his guests opportunity to become part of a group who were longing for something constructive and principled. These principles remain the tenets of our faith as they have in the past and they will continue to imbue us with resilience regardless of the consistent threats to our existence.

With the arrival of the month of Kislev, Hanukah is upon us. On Hanukah we celebrate the miracle of the oil which lasted for eight days and the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greek and Syrian dominion in Israel. This year however, with all that is going on around us, there is an additional element to reflect upon during the festival of lights. Nachmanides talks extensively about how the Hasmonean dynasty lost their control of the Jewish nation and their influence in Judea. He explains that the Hasmonean’s were priests and not entitled to rule as kings over the Jewish people, a right which belonged exclusively to those from the tribe of Judah. Although there was a temporary need that justified their ascent to the throne, nonetheless they should have returned the glory of kingship back to the tribe of Judah in due course which they did not do, and their abuse of power lead to family friction, sibling rivalries, and power mongering. Their infighting spawned hatred amongst the Jewish people and ultimately the Hasmoneans did to themselves what the Syrians and Greeks could not do.

Our enemy’s attempts to wield their weapons and espouse hatred are painful but short lived as they have been throughout our arduous history. This coming Hanukah it behooves us to remember what history has taught us consistently; that self-inflicted wounds are often the most fatal and that so long as our modern day Judah the Maccabee can stand up in front of his soldiers, observant and non-observant alike and demand that they respect one another, perhaps our salvation will be miraculously revealed once again.

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O Leaders Where Art Thou

This week’s Torah portion begins by instructing the Jewish people to appoint for themselves judges and lawmakers; spiritual mentors who would lead and guide the Jewish people as they settle in Israel. The appointment of these authoritative figures is, from the Torah’s perspective a formula for perpetual success or incessant failure if the leaders are inept or heaven forfend, corrupt. Those who believe in the Torah understand that its message is eternal; precisely why the Jewish community must continue to evaluate its religious leadership in Israel today as well, regardless of how discouraging such an experience can prove to be.

In one of his essays entitled Directions for American Orthodoxy, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of blessed memory, bemoans the fact that although the quest for vigorous and sensitive spiritual leadership should retain high priority, there is a dearth of first rank great rabbinic leaders in America,
“one can think of no indigenous American rabbinic leader certain to be remembered with wistful awe a century hence and of no giant majestically bestriding the contemporary scene and securely moving American Orthodoxy into the future”. The only inaccuracy of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s article is that the same bleak forecast applies to Israel’s Religious Zionist leadership as well. Rabbi Lichtenstein does attempt to remain hopeful or at the very least practical suggesting that, “much can and should be done to stimulate Torah leadership. The key is educational…ours is the task of infusing commitment so critical for the persona of a Talmudic Scholar who can also serve as a mentor and a leader, we are challenged to strive for a proper balance in his development, between insular concentration and relatedness to his ambient society”. The bad news is that much of the Orthodox so called Religious Zionist leadership in Israel today are trending away from Rabbi Lichtenstein’s formula for success as they continue to demonstrate not only their inability to deal with but even more troubling, their lack of understanding of the world around them and of the broad Israeli society they are meant to serve, impact and presumably inspire.

The three flagship institutions of Religious Zionism today are the Hesder Yeshivas, Mechinot – Pre Military Torah Academies, and the Garinim Toranim – young religious families who move in to areas which are predominantly secular and attempt to introduce educational programs and informal events to the secular public. Over the past few weeks I have had a number of offsetting experiences with each one of these institutions which I believe is but a reflection of the problem described above and the challenges that are yet to come.
Recently I hosted a number of students from the States and South Africa who decided to leave their homes and make aliya. In preparation for the army they chose to attend a special program supposedly designed for them in one of the most popular and prestigious Mechinot. Although the young men were from traditional backgrounds they were not fully observant and they were hoping to find out more about Orthodoxy and perhaps become inspired by the Mechina and its unique blend of Torah study and its dedication to military service. The students expressed how deeply disappointed they were to find that the rabbis of the Mechina were unable to relate to them; they consistently criticized “western culture” and expressed what the students found to be a skewed perspective of the broader Jewish community and the secular world. This lack of understanding and close-mindedness created an atmosphere of dissention and discouraged the fellows from seeking rapport with their rabbis and proposed mentors. I am not suggesting that “western culture” is void of criticism but a religious Zionist rabbi who ostensibly affiliates himself with the Mizrachi philosophy, should be expected to be worldly enough to identify the positives of modernity and should certainly understand his clientele in order to nurture rapport and a trusting relationship with his impressionable pupils. After Shabbat I called the head of the Mechina and explained to him the difficulties that the young men in his program were encountering. He reacted by saying that he was not responsible for the program and that it was introduced into the Mechina by another organization which should bear the brunt of the responsibility; my concern fell on deaf ears.
The same week I was speaking to an Israeli young man from the neighborhood who attends a different Mechina and he too shared his discontent stating that the head of the Mechina incessantly denounced “western culture” and the modern world; pigheadedly insisting that his perspectives in life were correct and discouraging the boys from considering alternative points of view.

A few days later I was giving a lift to a student from a very prominent Hesder Yeshiva in my car. He began to relate how his rabbi in the yeshiva was charged with the task of offering a number of classes on the challenges he and his mates would confront while serving in the army. The first dilemma which the rabbi decided to address and devote his entire session to was whether it was permissible to share a bag of chips with secular soldiers in the army considering that the secular soldiers will not make a bracha (blessing on food) prior to their eating. This Hesder student was appalled not only by the fact that the rabbi could not think of a more important issue to deal with in the context of the army, but also by the lack of sensitivity the rabbi was showing towards secular Jews and his inability to “strive for a proper balance…between insular concentration and relatedness to his ambient society”. Yes I am aware that there is halachic discourse revolving around the said topic, but would it not be more beneficial for a yeshiva student to share his chips with his fellow secular soldier even if it means compromising on a bracha, for the long term benefits of unity, respect and brotherhood?

A friend of mine, who is a member of a secular kibbutz in the Jordan valley, told me that the kibbutz invited and hosted a Garin Torani to run a learning program for the members of the kibbutz one evening a few weeks back. He said that it was a great program and people would have enjoyed more were it not for the opening introduction to the program by none other than the rabbi and head of the Garin, who’s opening remarks were about how the only way to have a meaningful life was to adhere to the mitzvoth, laws of the Torah, and subscribe to a religiously observant lifestyle. Many people found the remarks elitist and offensive, in fact two people got up and left the program. To add insult to injury, following his remarks the rabbi left and did not remain for the learning program itself (which in the end may very well have been a blessing in itself).
The world is moving towards extremes and many Israeli religious Zionist rabbis, who we would expect would be a bit more understanding of and tolerant towards the world around them, are moving in the same direction. There is interest among many religious Zionist rabbis, organizations and rabbinic trainees, to be involved with secular Israelis, but without a proper sense of flexibility, training of diplomacy and development of self-security, their efforts will prove more destructive then productive. In fact, it is worth noting that some of the institutions which are interested in and have been starting to make impact on Israeli secular society and the broader public are ones which are either spearheaded by or have heavy involvement from American born rabbis living in Israel. Some of these include the Yachad program under Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (who has had such great impact in Israel at large that in typical Israeli rabbinic fashion, they attempted to force him into retirement), Itim under the direction of Rabbi Seth Farber, Rabbi Daniel Tropper founder of Gesher Institute, and Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein founder of Keren L’Yedidut just to name a few. This is largely because these rabbis are well rounded, educated, and have dealt with and know how to deal with people who are different then themselves. They know what it is like to disagree with but to engage in dialogue with Conservative and Reform Jews (something which the rabbinate in Israel will have to learn how to do lest it continue to become more irrelevant then it already is) and many have engaged in interfaith dialogue as well.

Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1964-1972 , a time when the office of the Chief Rabbinate was still revered, noted that the difference between rabbis in Israel and rabbis in the United States is that rabbis in the United States have no power but tremendous influence, and rabbis in Israel have tremendous power but no influence. It is time for more of the religious Zionist Israeli rabbis to read the writing on the wall and to recognize that there is much for them to learn. They must realize that the more obstinate and inflexible they become, the more they lose touch with the Israeli community and the less influence they will have on the Israeli scene.

Legend has it that the great Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, would pay homage once a year to the Magid of Dubnow seeking insight for self -improvement. The Magid would say to him that it was one thing to become the great Rabbi Elijah while you are inside the walls of the yeshiva, let’s see you be the great Rabbi Elijah when you are outside the walls of the yeshiva. I challenge my Israeli colleagues to step out of your insulated corners and come deal with the world around you; you may find it is quite invigorating to have positive influence upon people who are outside the four cubits of your current existence.

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Days of Remembrance are Days of Redemption

Yom Hashoa/Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Hazikaron/ Day of Remembrance for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism, Yom Haatzmaut/Israel Independence Day, and Yom Yerushalayim/Jerusalem Day, all of which we are currently commemorating and/or celebrating, are collectively referred to by Religious Zionists as Ymei HaGeula/ The Days of Redemption. One can appreciate this application to Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim but it is very difficult to understand how Yom Hashoa and Yom Hazikaron could be referred to as redeeming, when they are days which are marred by the ashes of destruction and engrossed with haunting memories of the deceased. This is a problem we grapple with every year and many answers have been proposed. This year I experienced something which I believe will enhance the appropriate response, which we may have grown accustomed to but always bears further consideration.

According to an opinion in the Talmud, we celebrate the holiday of Succoth because the Jewish people dwelled in temporary makeshift huts, called Succoth, after they were redeemed by God from Egyptian persecution; which begs the question; why does that warrant celebration? What was so exceptional about the fact that the Jewish nation dwelled in Succoth? Some commentaries suggest that after all of their sufferings, naturally the Jews should never have agreed to live in such exposed crude dwellings in the desert. We would have expected them to insist on more permanent structures where they could feel more secure; yet they agreed to live under such precarious and unstable conditions demonstrating their sincere faith in God and in His commitment to protect them. This act of faith is cause for celebration and the same can be said regarding survivors of the Holocaust.

The Jewish people should have lost all hope following the decimation of the Jewish communities throughout Europe by the Nazi regime, and yet, beaten and barely broken, they were determined and perhaps faithful enough to perpetuate their future. Survivors of the concentration camps arrived on the shores of Palestine willing to start a new life in what they believed would be their homeland. They were greeted and handed guns, and they were instructed to fight for the establishment of the state of Israel. Any other people would have raised their hands in defeat insisting that they are too weak and too frail to contemplate such action, and yet they seized the guns and fought for their nation and land. In the Sgula cemetery in Petach Tikva there are a number of graves marked anonymous; these are believed to be the graves of Holocaust survivors who had no time to submit their own names and left no survivors by which to immortalize their families and while this fact is gravely disheartening, it is precisely the reason why Yom Hashoa and Yom Hazikaron are included in Yemei HaGeula.
Redemption is defined as the act of making something better or more acceptable; while there is no question the wounds of the Holocaust nor the wounds of the Jewish families who lost loved ones defending the borders of Israel, could ever be healed, bold and brazen survivors and settlers alike claimed that they could make things better. Their resilience and faithfulness to the furtherance of the Jewish people would signify that all of their losses were not for naught; I have been privileged to see their spirit survive and their message resonate. Part of redemption as defined above, is not only about making something better but making something more acceptable; recently I was privileged to see this part of redemption come to fruition.

A number of weeks ago, I went to speak at the Givati combat base. After addressing a Givati unit I was told to make my way to a base in Har Keren to address a group of soldiers from the Tomer Brigade which I had never heard of. I arrived in Har Keren and I was amazed to find aluminum walls surrounding a particular area in the middle of the base. The Tomer brigade, which was established a year ago consists of young men from completely Haredi homes, almost all of whom sport long sidelocks and beards, who have decided that they want to serve in the Israeli army under two conditions. The first condition is that they wish to preserve their Haredi lifestyle as much as possible even while serving in the army, hence, the fenced off area. Tomer brigade goes through all the maneuvers and training exercises as any other Givati soldier, but they do so privately within their own division and behind closed quarters. There are no women allowed in their area, they maintain their own kitchen and standards of Kashrut supervision and their commanding officers are observant without exception. Most impressive however, is their second condition and that is that they refuse to be pencil pushers, if they serve in the army they insist on being regular combat soldiers and serving in combat units. After my speech I conversed with many of the soldiers and I was astounded to find many of them were ostracized or on the verge of being excommunicated by their Haredi communities, some by their own families, for serving in the army, yet they maintained that they were doing the right thing and they were prepared to suffer the consequences at their private home for the sake of protecting the national home.

Last week on the evening of Yom Hashoah I was called to Yad La-Shiryon in Latrun to speak to the second group of new recruits from the Tomer division. When I walked in to address the soldiers , all of them without exception, stood up for me when I entered the room and then proceeded to take out their notebooks to write notes regarding the lecture and Torah class I was about to deliver. Here I was, a clean shaven religious Zionist rabbi, shown the utmost respect by Haredi young men who were reared in communities that never recognized the existence of the state of Israel, and this is what I told them.

The Jewish people were delivered from Egypt by God, but when they got to the Reed Sea, the sea did not part until a man called Nachshon Ben Aminadav jumped in and as more and more people took the plunge the sea continued to split in their merit. The message resounds loud and clear; God wanted the Jewish people to understand that He would not accommodate miracles on His own but He expected the Jewish people to initiate miracles together with Him. He expected that regardless of the obstructions we would encounter to our existence throughout our history, we would not fear following Him into the sea or onto the plains of the desert, we would not desist from taking arms for the future of Israel regardless of how downtrodden we are or how much personal aggravation it may cause. These are the truths and faiths that define redemption, they inspired Holocaust survivors to make something better and they encourage Haredi young men to make things more acceptable.

Perhaps redemption is not too far off after all.

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Israel is Home

The attacks on the Jewish community in Paris and Copenhagen transpired just a few short weeks ago as did the reaction to them by Prime Minster Netanyahu who after both attacks, reminded the Jews of Europe that, “Israel is waiting for you with open arms”, and that “Israel is not only a country in whose direction you pray, the state of Israel is your home”.

Following the Prime Minister’s reassuring remarks, he was lambasted by many representatives across the European Jewish community. European Jewish Association Rabbi Menachem Margolin said,

“Every such Israeli campaign severely weakens and damages the Jewish communities that have the right to live securely wherever they are.”

While we would like to wish this were true regarding the Jewish people, Jewish history has proven repeatedly that this is not the case; we have been and always will be at best guests in foreign countries; precisely why the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 was imperative and, in the opinion of some, a revelation of Divine Providence. Israel and its armed forces considers itself the protector of Jews worldwide, and it has proven itself as such many times over (Operation Magic Carpet to save the Jews of Yemen, Operation Ezra and Nehemia airlifting Iraqui Jews to safety, Operation Yachin bringing Moroccan Jews to Israel, and counter terror raids such as Operation Isotope and Operation Entebbe); as such it would be highly inappropriate if at a time of Jewish crisis our Prime Minister did not remind our people that Israel is a Jewish sanctuary.

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, leader of the British movement for Reform Judaism, reacted to Netanyahu’s solicitation by saying,

“…it is unhelpful for Jews in Brittian and France. There is a difference between saying ‘Israel is here for you’ than saying ‘You ‘should’ be here, should is a problematic word’. There is this ‘oy vey’ the world is against us narrative, which thank god, is not true. It is certainly not true in Britain.”

Rabbi Janner-Klausner’s statement is almost as ludicrous as the one I heard from a number of Jews in the UK when I visited there the week after the Paris attack; Jews who reassured me that “the Muslims in England are different than the ones in France” and that the British Government knows how to deal with Muslims. Perhaps we should introduce Rabbi Janner-Klausner and her British compatriots to Anjem Choudary, one of the most popular Muslim clerics in the UK. Choudary blatantly rejects UK law and calls for all of Britian to accept Shariah. He broadcasts that the 9/11 bombers were magnificent people who were carrying out their Islamic responsibility, and he refers to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi as “the caliph of all Muslims and the prince of the believers”. Perhaps these Jews are unaware of the fact that following the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, British Prime Minister David Cameron raised his countries terror threat level to “severe” in response to the rise of militant Islamists in Iraq and Syria, some of whom come from Britain as he claimed that Britain was facing a “greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before.”
Or perhaps, and more than likely, many of these Jewish people are afraid of their own shadow and unwilling to admit that regardless of the consistent challenges to its existence, Israel is the place where they are most secure because, as the Jewish Prime Minster stated so persuasively, Israel is the only place that they can call home.

Although highly predictable it never ceases to amaze that members of the Israeli government criticized Netanyahu as well. Tzipi Livni at the time said that Netanyahu’s words were a sign of his political weakness,
“Jews should not immigrate (to Israel) because it is a safe haven,” she said, which made me wonder, why not? What would Livni’s reaction have been to those Jews who narrowly escaped the catastrophic consequences of the Holocaust and journeyed to the shores of Palestine in hope of rejuvenating their spirits in a land they could call their own?

“The events in Paris do not only involve Jews and are not just their problem.”, Livni continued, “This is a global struggle against extremist Islamic terrorism and we need to enlist the world to fight against it too”. Livni is correct, the world must be aware of the global threat Radical Islam poses to it, but it would be foolish and neglectful of Jewish leadership to approach Islamic terrorism as anything other than an acute Jewish problem. Precisely why Prime Minister Netanyahu stood in front of the Congress of the United States and ended his speech boldly declaring,

“the days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over. We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves. We restored our sovereignty in our ancient home. And the soldiers who defend our home have boundless courage. For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves.”

Netanyahu also referred in his speech to another event we commemorated but a week ago; the holiday of Purim. Purim should have reminded the Jewish people of their fate as strangers in a strange land. We are subject to the whims and notions of a foreign government which can precipitously choose to edict the annihilation of the Jewish people if it so chooses. Yet, even after miraculously escaping the perils of Haman and ultimately being granted an opportunity to return to Jerusalem and construct the second Temple, the majority of the Jewish nation stayed in Persia. Drowning in the comforts of their wealth and economic success they too proclaimed then that “Jews should not immigrate to (Israel) because it is a safe haven”. They attempted to confirm then that which Chief Rabbi Melchior of Denmark declared now, “terror is not a reason to move to Israel”. When will we learn that the only safe place for the Jewish people is a place they can call their own?

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s final assertion as he made reference to Moses who delivered us from Egypt was,
“Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand”.

In a few weeks we will mark Passover; a time when we reflect upon our exodus from Egypt and celebrate the creation of the Jewish nation and its return to Israel; a time when we should be proud that our nation is represented by a leader who affirms the value of a Jewish homeland; a time when we must identify that which distinguishes the Jewish nation from the rest of the world; a time when we can all join in unison and sing,
“Next year in Jerusalem”.

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