Exploring Israel's Secular-Religious Divide
Religious and spiritual curiosity is contagious these days in Israel, particularly amongst young secular Israelis. While Haredim (the ultra-Orthodox) remain distant and otherworldly in the eyes of most nonpracticing Israelis, the dati leumi (more liberal or modern religious) community is growing in acceptance and even admiration in the eyes of the general public.
Adva Littwitz, a 22-year-old secular woman from the Galilee who is open about her disbelief in God or even a higher power, still emphasized the significance of Jewish tradition and culture and expressed a desire to see religion presented to the secular community in a more open and inviting way, particularly in schools. She believes an important connection exists between herself and the dati leumi community and spoke of their community with admiration and respect, saying, “If only every religious person were dati leumi.”
Despite the irrefutable division which remains between the secular community and the extreme religious right (be it a result of political or religious differences), the dati leumi community is having a noteworthy and positive impact on the lives of secular Israelis. This community is growing rapidly and, as a result, a tradition and spiritual path that once seemed uniformly closed and unwelcoming to the secular population has become intriguing—perhaps even appealing. The dati leumi are not only growing but are also constantly evolving. In previous generations, ultra-religious practice was the singularly correct way to be a religious Jew. Even secular Israelis, though not adhering to it, agreed with this standard. Today, however, there has been a shift, and increasing alternative practices and approaches toward tradition have begun impacting the way secular Israelis relate to religion. Many young, non-religious Israelis are open about their recent dabbles with religion and spirituality. Despite their admitted confusion and innate tendancy to distance themselves from organized religious practice, they are finding greater value in the ideals that Jewish traditions espouse.
Ma’ayan Freedman is 21 years old and has lived in Tel Aviv her entire life. She too grew up in a secular home with little exposure to religion besides her Tanakh lessons in school, which are a part of Israeli public school education. However, Ma’ayan openly respects and admires the dati leumireligious practice and community. She asserts, “The secular community would benefit from losing aspects of the liberalism they pride themselves on so much and learning from the tradition, the foundation that religion and tradition offer. Having this can make decisions and finding yourself easier so long as there aren't too many laws and restrictions to drive you crazy.”
While dating a religious boy, Ma’ayan began specifically connecting to the tradition of Shabbat meals on Friday night. “It was a time where the family could be together; no one was rushing to go anywhere else. If I were to add a religious value into my life, it would be family values.” She continued, “They [the dati leumi] are good people and good to others. I would want to have a community with the type of family values and the love these people promote. I can’t really explain—there is something that believing people have.”
Young secular Israelis are clearly developing their own personal dialogues with God, or a means of connecting to the dati community and religious traditions. The question now is what type of community (if any) will develop from these individual paths and how Israel as a nation will react.
Deborah Plum graduated from Columbia University in May 2007, where she majored in Middle Eastern Languages and Culture. Deborah moved to Israel in August 2007 and spent her first year teaching at Yad B'Yad, a co-existence school in Jerusalem. Deborah currently works as the Director of Development for a new arts-education non-profit called Omanoot.