The Great Awakening

Israel is experiencing a quiet Jewish revival, free of denominational labels and categorization. From hip-hop psalms to ping-pong in the yeshiva.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The farewell party in the dining hall of Ashrei Ha'ish Yeshiva, in Jerusalem's Bayit Vegan neighborhood, resembled any other celebration in a place of Torah learning. The rabbis sat at the head of the table, on either side of the excited guest of honor. On the tables were various bottles of cheap wine and the normal kitchen fare: salads, bourekas, hummus and pita bread. One after another, rabbis and students got up to say a few words about the man of the hour: his love of Torah, his devotion to prayer, his secret acts of hesed (charity) and everyone's certainty that he would fulfill his destiny. But the tall, starry-eyed, soft-spoken almost-graduate was not leaving to become a rabbi or a Torah teacher in some other outpost of the Orthodox world. He was returning to northern Israel to resume his career as a top-division basketballer.

In his 34 years, Doron Sheffer has led three of Israel's top basketball squads to national and international titles, was a top player for the University of Connecticut's Huskies for three years, fought cancer and spent a year in a commune in Central America. During the past two years, he has devoted himself to study and contemplation. Now he was going back to his old life. The only real question was which had changed more - the yeshiva that was giving its blessing to a graduate who was leaving for the world of professional sports, or Hapoel Galil Elyon, the team that was willing to take on a veteran player regarded by many as a religious nutcase?

Israel is in the throes of a major religious awakening, reaching deep into all parts of society, but no one has been told about it yet. This renaissance of Jewish learning is going unreported and largely unremarked upon because it has not resulted in a perceptible shift toward one religious stream or denomination. There is no new mass movement, and none of the charismatic rabbis or teachers has turned into a guru with a following of thousands.

On the surface, the old fault lines between Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), dati (modern Orthodox), traditional and secular Israelis are still in place, but just beneath, these boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred.

Next week, over two thousand Jews of all ages and flavors will descend on the University of Warwick, in England, for this year's Limmud Conference. Founded 25 years ago, Limmud is a unique platform for volunteer-based, diverse, nondenominational Jewish learning. It has been transplanted successfully to Jewish communities from New York to the former Soviet Union. In Israel, however, similar events such as Hakhel at Ramat Efal and the Judaism festival at Kibbutz Kfar Blum have a much more structured and formal atmosphere. But at a grassroots level the country is coming alive with every possible form of learning and return to tradition.

On one level, this should not be surprising: Shouldn't the Jewish state be the easiest place to participate in Jewish life? But the truth is that for 50 years it has been impossible to be a Jew on your own terms here. There were a limited number of religious categories and you were automatically slotted into one of them by dint of your family, location, education and the way you spoke and dressed. Any deviation meant you had to change your entire way of life - zero tolerance for mavericks.

A secular Israeli undergoing hazara be'teshuva ("return to faith") would not only start observing Shabbat and praying three times a day, he or she would also dress differently, leave one's job and move to a religious neighborhood or settlement.

Leaving the Haredi world was even more traumatic, almost always involving a complete break from family and community.

New acronyms and euphemisms are being invented almost daily to define the ever-changing groupings. These include dati lite, Datlash (an acronym for dati lesheavar, formerly religious), Datlashlash (a formerly religious person who has returned to religion), Datlaf (dati lifamim, sometimes religious), mit'hazek ("getting stronger," anyone with a growing interest in religious observance) and Hardalnik (Haredi-leumi, Haredi Zionist).

While religious politics in Israel has remained as divisive as ever, the communities themselves have evolved dramatically in just a few years. In the secular world, there is suddenly much greater tolerance for those who engage in religious study, who assume a certain level of religious observance without leaving their jobs, homes and friends. Even in the Haredi community, at the same time that the rabbis are attempting to exercise ever more control over their followers, there have never been so many outlets for youth to express doubt, to challenge their elders and to indulge in non-approved pastimes while remaining within the fold as parents and teachers turn a blind eye.

The best analogy is to choosing an organic-diet lifestyle. In the not too distant past, if you wanted to live according to organic ideals, you had no choice but to move to one of the few organic communities in the Negev or Galilee. Today, every Tel Aviv supermarket offers a wide variety of organic products and nearly every city apartment can be adapted accordingly. As a result, organic urbanites abound. It's the same with religion. Israel is fast becoming a free market of Judaism, offering a range of widely available brands.

There is no way to measure the extent of the trend, in contrast to the past, when there were only a few hazara be'teshuva organizations. There are now so many unofficial communities that nothing is surprising anymore. It is no longer unusual to hear of a suburban Tel Aviv group that practices Vipassana meditation and also meets for Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evening. Veteran Haredi educators who once persuaded young secular Israelis of the truth of the Torah and saw them through a total transformation grumble about the superficiality of it all. They view the new approach as having a lack of commitment, but they too have had to move with the times.

Organizations such as Arachim, which once specialized in seminars lecturing participants on the proof of God's existence, now operate in converted movie theaters and nightclubs in downtown Tel Aviv. Stylishly dressed twenty- and thirty-somethings come for a lecture on "Lite Philosophy," often sanitized to remove even the slightest hint of religious brainwashing. The lectures are conveniently scheduled to allow for pub-crawling afterward.

Idealistic teens who want something meaningful between high school and army service, or before starting university, can go to one of the growing number of academies where secular and religious youths - males and females together - pore over a diverse curriculum of Jewish and non-Jewish philosophy and literature in what looks like a cross between a traditional Beit Midrash Jewish learning framework and a hippie comm une.

The mixture sometimes manifests itself in clothing. Many of the young men sport beards and even wear tzitzit (ritual fringes) under their shirts, but not a kippa, so as to avoid instant categorization. In secular high schools the large, white kippa of the Bratslav Hasidim has become a fashion accessory, while hip-hop and trance arrangements of traditional texts dominate the Israeli pop music charts.

Once-staunchly secular kibbutzim and moshavim have built new synagogues and conduct their own versions of Shabbat prayers. No, they are not becoming religious, they say, they just felt something was missing from their communal lives.

The traditional yeshiva scene is also changing rapidly. Some rabbis are actually prepared to confront the formerly taboo subject of dropping out. Some yeshivot now have a table tennis or even a pool table in the basement, and will turn a blind eye if a student goes out to work or just hangs out for most of the day as long as he commits himself to a couple of hours of daily study in the morning or evening.

Many ultra-Orthodox spend hours on the Internet, and despite strict rabbinical rulings against the practice thousands participate daily in forums such as "B'hadrei Haredim," where issues of Haredi life are freely debated. Some sociologists believe the easy access to information provided by the Internet will cause Haredi society to disintegrate within a decade, but for now it seems to be having the opposite effect. Many Haredi youth are finding it easier to remain within the community now that they have a chance to let off steam with other anonymous Web users.

It is easier to analyze the process whereby Israelis became much more relaxed about Judaism than to predict where it will lead. The first generation of Zionism was a clear rebellion against the religious authority of parents and rabbis. As a result, most Israelis in the first decades of independence were staunchly secular and highly suspicious of religion and religious people. Their children firmly defended this ideology and cultivated a state identity of secular nationalism, almost totally devoid of traditional religious content. But the third generation had fewer of these inhibitions. They had traveled to India after their army service, where they experienced ill-defined religious feelings or signed on to the New Age movement. When they returned to Israel, the novelty wore off, but they still felt the need for something more spiritual, closer to home this time. At the same time, in the mid-1990s, it became fashionable for groups of academics, artists and media types to get together occasionally for impromptu lectures centered on what came to be known as "the Jewish bookshelf."

Both of these developments were met by a growing self-confidence on the part of younger Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who were prepared to shed their ghetto mentality and engage with their secular counterparts on equal terms. Suddenly, their religious knowledge and background was actually seen as an advantage in social interactions.

More and more Israelis are preferring not to define themselves religiously within Judaism. There is no movement of those who want to meet Judaism on their own terms and there are no leaders. Politicians and rabbis can only lose out as a result of this breakdown of boundaries. The once wildly successful Shinui Party, which campaigned on an anti-religious platform, has been wiped off the electoral map. In the national-religious community, many rabbis, worried about what they see as a laxity in observance, have joined the Hardal camp, fusing ultra-Orthodox codes of religious adherence with right-wing politics. They have attracted thousands of young people to a new, radical code of devotion to mitzvot and to the Land of Israel. But it seems that for every religious teenager signing on to this new, radical style of piety, there is another who is drawn to the new sub-strata of Israeli society, learning Torah and embracing tradition without need of formal commitment or recourse to coercion.