Neo-Hasidic or Neo-secular

The second generation of settlers has sloughed off a strict national-religious worldview in favor of a more Hasidic, New Age approach to life and spirituality - or alternatively, no observance at all

Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg
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Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg

Netaya Froman, 20, is one of Tekoa IV's founders. Ten young couples and 15 singles joined forces to establish the small community representing Tekoa's New Agers. Tekova IV's chief characteristics are freedom and the eschewing of the establishment. "This is a place that lets you grow in the direction you want," says Froman, who concentrates his energies on his olive trees. One of the community's members is raising a flock of sheep. Welcome to Tekoa IV.

Froman's outer appearance is typical of many of his peers in the outposts and elsewhere: long hair, long Hasidic-looking sidecurls, a large Bratslav-style coarsely knitted skullcap, large ritual fringes (tzitziyot) emerging from his shirt and trailing down toward his knees. The "look," dubbed neo-Hasidic, is the religious Zionist version of Western society's New Age attire.

One of Netaya's brothers, Shibi (Yehoyashiv), is an officer in the Israel Defense Forces and thus he could not be interviewed for this article. A few years ago, Shibi Froman took up a secular lifestyle; only in the last few months has he returned to the Orthodox world. Netaya and Shibi's father, Rabbi Menachem Froman, Tekoa's chief rabbi, is well known for the contacts he cultivates with members of the Islamic clergy on both sides of the Green Line. Rabbi Froman believes that peace must be based on inter-religious dialogue.

Rabbi Froman, Netaya and Shibi represent different trends in the world of ideological settlers. Rabbi Froman is a graduate of the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, which became a symbol of the settlement movement because most of the rabbis who are identified with the settlers are graduates of that yeshiva. Netaya and Shibi represent two prominent trends that have become characteristic in recent years of the younger generation in the Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in the Gaza District (and, in effect, of the younger generation in the religious Zionist movement as a whole): secularization on the one hand and a neo-Hasidic spiritual quest on the other.

In contrast to what is commonly thought, most settlers could not be labeled "Merkazniks" (that is, graduates of the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva and the various yeshivas that were inspired by its approach). Generally speaking, the founding generation in West Bank and Gaza District settlements did not become settlers after having spent many years in a yeshiva. The older members of that generation never attended a yeshiva, while the younger ones spent a few years in a hesder yeshiva (where talmudic studies and military service are combined) at the very most.

The motivation that led them to become settlers was not theological but rather was congruent with the spirit of both the religious Zionist youth movement, Bnei Akiva, and the Labor Zionist movement. They were driven by a purely Zionist motivation, which led them to settle in any part of the Holy Land that was suitable for human habitation.

Generally speaking, in accordance with that spirit, the men were clean-shaven and wore medium-sized skullcaps, while the head-coverings their wives wore - if they wore any - allowed some strands of hair to appear. Furthermore, the men's fringes did not wave in the wind. The Merkaz Harav look - bearded men with large skullcaps and fringes that can be seen from a distance, and women with hermetically sealed head-coverings and full-length skirts - was characteristic of only a small percentage of the settlers.

Nonetheless, this tiny minority was regarded in the public's eye as being representative of the settler movement. Their outer appearance reflected a theological motivation for settling the land. In their view, the settlement movement was not intended to stretch Israel's borders, which was the goal of Labor Zionism's settlement movement, but was rather a part of the process of the Jewish people's redemption.

A Kookian agenda

Although most of the settlers did not initially support the above approach, the sympathy of the settlement movement's rabbinical leadership for the settlers created an identity between this approach and settlers as a whole (or at least the religious settlers).

Over the years, even those religious Jews who did not become settlers for theological reasons did not take pains to distinguish themselves from those whose motivation was inspired by Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook's philosophy (the Kookian motivation). In the 1970s and 1980s, when Merkaz Harav graduates became the elite educators who molded the religious Zionist movement, their approach acquired a new meaning, whose impact exceeded their numerical strength.

The Kookians' agenda included not only the vision of a Greater Israel but also a major change in the religious Zionist world: a distancing from religious Zionism's modern component and the adoption of an orientation bearing a close resemblance to the ultra-Orthodox approach on two modern issues, the status of women and the attitude toward the culture of the outside world.

On these issues, even in the settlement movement's early years, the Kookians' outlook could be clearly distinguished from that of other religious settlers. Disputes frequently erupted in West Bank and Gaza District settlements between proponents and opponents of the separation of boys and girls in elementary school classes; between proponents and opponents of a strict dress code for girls; and between those who refused to allow their settlements to host events representing "corrupt" Western culture and those who favored the hosting of such events.

One result of these ongoing debates was the creation of the "national ultra-Orthodox" label (hardal, in its Hebrew acronym) applied to the rabbis at the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva and their students. (National ultra-Orthodox differ from the ultra-Orthodox in their attitudes toward Zionism and Israel, but closely resemble them in their attitude toward modern culture.) Outside observers, especially the media, attached far less importance to these debates than they did to the common denominator of all the settlers.

Easier to be secular

In recent years, the public has learned to its surprise of the existence of two groups among the younger generation in the settlements: secular settlers and those who have developed the concept of "religious New Agers." In essence, what can be said about these two groups can be applied to the younger generation of the religious Zionist movement - on both sides of the Green Line. However, the surprise concerning the settlers is much greater because the public has grown accustomed to identifying the settlers with a highly specific image.

Avishai Gruber is clearly a member of the first group. He is 23, lives in Efrat and was recently discharged from the IDF, where he served as an officer. Like other young people who grew up in religious families and became non-religious in high school or during their military service, Gruber decided to take off his skullcap toward the end of his yeshiva high school studies. The seven months he then spent at the Ma'aleh Gilboa hesder yeshiva did not change his outlook.

Explaining the process he underwent, he offers a number of reasons: "First of all, there is the element here of rebellion. Young people always rebel against what is accepted as `right.' What I rebeled against was the stifling lifestyle of a yeshiva high school, where the day started at 6:30 in the morning and ended at eight in the evening. When I rebeled against that lifestyle, I rejected everything related to it, including some things that I miss today, such as the very idea of sacred Jewish studies."

Besides, Gruber points out, "religion is a sort of tool - to obtain happiness, peace of mind, a sense of fulfillment, I felt that I was not getting from religion what it was supposed to be giving me. I also have to admit that there is the element of convenience; it's simply easier to be secular."

Gruber is not the only young settler to follow such a course. Among many of his peers in the settlements and within the Green Line, the non-religious option is proving to be very attractive, although not all those who choose it officially waive their religious identity.

"From its very inception, religious Zionism made a strategic decision - to be a full-fledged partner of the Jewish people," notes Yonah Goodman, a resident of Peduel in the Samaria district, who is a former secretary-general of Bnei Akiva and who today heads a teacher training institute at the Orot College for Women in Elkana. "In the past," he continues, "the Jewish people's identity was more closely associated with the Zionist values of settling the land and military service. Today it is more closely associated with Western culture, some of which is extremely shallow."

The educational approach that nurtured a deep connection with the secular world transformed Israel's religious community into an entity that was dependent on the secular community's attitude toward it: As long as Israel's secular society embraced the religious Zionist movement and showed esteem for its idealistic efforts, the movement's religious identity was reinforced. When the secular elite began to attack religious Zionism for its political extremism, the movement's religious identity began to weaken.

Ziv Yagel, who grew up in Ofra and today resides in Jerusalem, teaches in the religious high school attached to the Hartmann Institute. He sees a clear link between this trend and the Rabin assassination: "The assassination created a major crisis for our generation because the media and the secular public succeeded in planting inside our brains the idea that something was very wrong with us."

Gruber expresses a similar viewpoint: "Once upon a time, a guy could feel very proud walking down the street with a knitted skullcap. However, in the past few years, I and at least some of my friends do not have that feeling anymore. Quite the contrary. We have even begun to feel embarrassed because we are wearing a skullcap."

Settlers at the Boombemela festival

On the other hand, there is an entirely different group of young religious Jews. Not only are they unwilling to take off their skullcap, they have increased its size and have adopted a unique dress style: long sidecurls and ritual fringes that emerge from under their shirts and reach toward their knees. Their choice of a trademark outward appearance is accompanied by an intensive spiritual quest, which includes a preference for the teachings of Hasidism over talmudic study. Hasidism discusses spiritual and emotional questions and not just issues of Jewish law. These young people listen to a lot of music, including Hasidic tunes, and their dancing is more individualized and less group-oriented than the hora dances of a former era in Israeli history.

Netaya Froman does not consider the new way of thinking he and his friends have adopted to be a rebellion against his parents' generation. "Why would we rebel against them? They are the best. After all, they were the ones who built this country," he declares. "However, there might be an element of maturity here, a feeling that what might have been good years ago is no longer relevant today. In the past, religious people always wanted to be the best: in the army, in settling the land, in every field. Today, they are not interested in being the best; they want to be close to their own inner truth. And they are not afraid to show their softer side: to cry when they feel like it, to touch, to feel, to live."

Among his religious peers, this trend is particularly evident in the settlements. Says Froman: "The religious people who attend festivals like Boombemela [Israel's New Age festival] are generally speaking settlers, the same ones who `sit on the hills.'" The openness toward attitudes closely associated with secular society does not mean any change in political orientation or in the commitment to the settlement movement. It is simply a change in the motivation behind settlement activity. Froman talks about "settlement activity whose goal is not to express ownership of the land, but rather to express an emotional link to the soil and the country."

Goodman, who works with the young people of West Bank and Gaza District settlements and conducts research on them, believes that the new groups have a common denominator: "They both stem from the same critical stance, namely, that in the `ordinary' religious Zionist world religious experiences are not enough. They lack religious authenticity. There are those who have lost all hope of ever finding such spirituality in the religious world and there are those who seek it in another religious identity, one that is more Hasidic."

In addition to the new trends, the Merkaz Harav orientation has not completely disappeared from the scene. It has been given a new expression in the form of the Har Hamor Yeshiva in Jerusalem, which broke away from Merkaz Harav in 1996. Har Hamor's founder, Rabbi Tzvi Tau, attacked the plans of the head of the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, former chief rabbi Rabbi Avraham Shapira, for the establishment of a teacher training college.

The pretext for the split was very congruent with Rabbi Tau's way of thinking. According to Har Hamor's approach, Jewish spirituality's development must stem from a "holy source," without any foreign influences. Rabbi Tau therefore opposed the idea of a pedagogical institute where Western pedagogical concepts would be taught.

A considerable number of young people are attracted to an orientation that sees Jewish life as an "independent economy" capable of supplying all of a Jew's needs from Jewish sources. Thus, in the era of secularization and neo-Hasidism, many young Israeli Jewish men are registering at Har Hamor or the yeshiva for advanced talmudic studies at Mitzpeh Ramon that was founded in a similar spirit (its head, Rabbi Tzvi Kostiner, is one of Rabbi Tau's most devoted students). Many young Israeli Jewish women attend Midreshet Harova in the Old City of Jerusalem, which represents a Har Hamor-style Weltanschauung.

A.K., who was born in one of the Yesha settlements and who studied at the Mitzpeh Ramon yeshiva for many years, agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity. In his view, "the yeshiva's attractiveness is similar to that of other yeshivot, such as the ones in Otniel and Petah Tikva, which represent totally different spiritual orientations (the emphasis at Otniel is Hasidic, while at Petah Tikva the emphasis is placed on a relatively open dialogue with the secular world).

Nonetheless, these yeshivot do have a common denominator: They are all faithful to their inner truth, even if they do not agree on the contents of that inner truth. In A.K.'s eyes, an uncompromising, anti-bourgeois truth is the key in the various orientations that are attracting the younger generation of settlers.

Nonetheless, it appears there is a distinct difference between the orientation represented by Har Hamor and the other orientations: Whereas the Merkaz Harav approach of the previous generation was regarded as a revolutionary challenge to their parents' bourgeois thinking, the Merkaz Harav approach of the present generation is an integral part of a conservative-minded establishment, which is trying to hold off the new ideas blowing in the wind. n

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