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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