Burning Questions, Not Burning Bridges

A small community in Betar Ilit, an innovative publication and a series of conferences all embody a recent trend among the newly observant: to find their own religious and social identity - as opposed to that of the veteran ultra-Orthodox world.

It looked like an image from a kitschy drawing: young boys with earlocks down to their shoulders, gazing earnestly from their desks upon a rabbi. Yet instead of teaching them Hebrew or Talmud, the rabbi was showing them how to play chess. In the room next door, other young students at the Sde Tzofim Talmud Torah (religious elementary school) in Betar Ilit, outside Jerusalem, were working with clay; in the backyard, some older boys were happily kicking around a ball, despite the late-summer heat.

Sde Tzofim Talmud Torah Emil Salman
Emil Salman

The school year has just started, and music and drama will be added to the curriculum soon. When the heat subsides, the children will work in the school's garden and tend the hamsters in the pen in the corner.

It would be an understatement to say that these are not ordinary activities at such an ultra-Orthodox institution. Indeed, they are not a substitute for religious instruction, but are rather offered during breaks in the youngsters' long hours of study. After all, "boys are boys," states Amit Kedem, director of the school. "Well, that makes sense," comments a Haredi acquaintance of mine later, upon hearing about the Talmud Torah's activities, "because these boys are newly Orthodox."

In the ultra-Orthodox world, that description is fraught with connotations. Here, a so-called hozer betshuva is not really "one of us." It does not matter whether he is not "newly" observant and actually joined the Haredi world 30 years ago: Such a person is permitted to do things that are prohibited to "real" Haredim.

The teachers at the school attended by the newly observant members of the Sde Tzofim community believe they are forging an unconventional path. Creating a curriculum that appeals to these boys as well as fulfilling requirements regarding religious studies is not simple, they explain. "Everything here is experimental," Kedem observes.

Kedem himself became ultra-Orthodox 15 years ago, when he was in his 20s. He has a beard and long earlocks, and during a discussion he averts his eyes, as is customary among the pious when addressing a woman. He grew up in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood and attended the Hebrew University Secondary School (known as Leyada ) on the Givat Ram campus.

"After the army, my parents' plans for me started to run awry," he explains, adding that he traveled then to the Far East, and decided to study alternative medicine. But then he became interested in Judaism and married a newly Orthodox woman, with whom he has had six children.

More than a decade ago, Kedem met Rabbi Yair Nitzani, the energetic leader of the Sde Tzofim community. He is now the rabbi's assistant, consultant and friend.

As Kedem sees it, his community tries to "maintain and preserve the joy that we bring from our past. We don't look at our past as a mistake. We are against burning bridges. For us, it is important to maintain very close relations with our families."

Kedem adds that each year, relatives from outside Betar Ilit are invited for a musical performance event based on piyyutim (religious poetry ).

For 10 years, since its establishment, this Talmud Torah has operated in temporary premises, which include prefab structures, situated in the backyard of another school. Kedem is loathe to mention local politics, but seems perturbed by the attitude of some locals that the school is a kind of foreign institution in this wholly ultra-Orthodox city, in the West Bank, south of the capital. The fact that the community's members define themselves as Bratslavers - meaning that they are on the margins, in terms of the Haredi world - works against them. On the other hand, the community enjoys a certain degree of freedom. Without such latitude, the boys would not be allowed to paint the walls of the building in which they are studying.

Rabbi Nitzani publishes the Adraba magazine for the newly observant; Kedem is one of its editors. It is an impressive publication, particularly in terms of its subscribers: There are 700 - unusual in a small community where such materials tend to be passed along from reader to reader.

Adraba's main premise is that the community has its own self-definition and character, and that becoming observant is an honorable process whose result is membership in a distinctive and worthy group. Yet those who write for the publication, which comes out irregularly, every few months, declare unreservedly that even after 30 years in the Haredi world, the "newly" observant still don't feel at home there.

The articles in Adraba - some of which are contributed by women (also an innovation ) - include Torah commentaries, but these appear almost out of lip service, as the magazine deals primarily with social, not spiritual, issues. The cover of one issue featured a well-known drawing of the title character of "The Little Prince," and a quote from the children's book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. In the same issue, Kedem sharply criticized the children's literature in the established Haredi communities and called for a new, more open approach. He also referred approvingly to several well-known Israeli musicians who have moved closer to Judaism in recent years.

Mostly, the criticism presented in Adraba is directed inward. For instance, it raises questions about various extremist tendencies among the newly observant. One writer suggested that it is senseless to force 2-year-olds to recite prayers. In one early issue, editors responded to requests of people who wanted the magazine to publish their letters anonymously by writing: "What's happened to us? Have we lost the ability to express a plain opinion and stand courageously behind it? Since when have we become plagued by fears and suspicions concerning genuine, candid statements of opinion?"

Seminal gatherings

Adraba was established two years ago, following a conference held at the Beit Meir moshav near Jerusalem that was aimed at stimulating discussion among and about hozrim betshuva. Though there was no publicity preceding the event, more than 100 people attended; a second conference was held and a third is scheduled for later this month.

"It was exciting," recalls a veteran member of the Sde Tzofim community, of that first gathering. "Lithuanian, Sephardic and Bratslav people were there; it was like a reunion."

Perhaps the most important thing about these events is that they take place at all; that they call out to the newly observant, and challenge them to shape and take responsibility for their fate. In fact, participants have spoken about separating from the rest of ultra-Orthodox society. As a result, for example, some members of the Sde Tzofim community have decided to move out of Betar Ilit, to Ma'alot, in the country's far north; another group has taken up residence in Haifa. Rabbi Nitzani says he receives numerous requests from newly observant people who want to join this "resettlement" move.

"During the first two or three years after someone becomes a hozer betshuva, usually no effort is invested in him in terms of his involvement in the Haredi community, or the problems he faces," says Rabbi Chaim Adler, from Beit Meir, in explaining the move. "Finding employment is a key issue, not a marginal one. Newly observant people are not supported by their parents. Sometimes they arrive [in a veteran community] and others make the erroneous assumption that they will sit and study, but it turns out that this is not suitable to their spiritual makeup. The hozer betshuva thinks in terms of slogans like 'God will help.'"

During the first Beit Meir conference, Rabbi Adler presented a survey about the newly observant, conducted by him for the American-based Wolfson Foundation, which supports Orthodox educational projects and institutions. Adler interviewed people who work to convince secular Jews to become Orthodox, and heads of yeshivas and other religious institutions attended by hozrim betshuva. He indicated that problems faced by the newly obervant constitute a "time bomb" for the Haredi world. Indeed, in recent years it seems that the latter was not prepared for the mass influx of hozrim betshuva - among them people belonging to marginal social groups, even criminals. Today, for the first time, the established ultra-Orthodox community apparently doesn't want some of these people among its ranks.

Historically, the teshuva movement in Israel first gathered steam in the 1970s, partly as a result of the disenchantment and spiritual questioning stemming from the shock of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It reached a peak at the end of that decade, when popular actor-filmmaker Uri Zohar became observant, a move that inspired others. The Haredi community was ecstatic, and announced its readiness to embrace multitudes of such Jews. A decade later, when another wave of hozrim betshuva surged, that community was already operating a well-oiled apparatus featuring lecturer-preachers who encouraged people to join the Orthodox world, and mass seminars.

Seminar graduates were sure that "if we hop on the Haredi bandwagon, we'll reach heaven in the end," as one Adraba article put it. In retrospect, however, the new members of the observant community look back on those days with irony. Many adopted the Haredi model: They went to study in a yeshiva, donned black clothes, grew beards, married newly observant women, and had many children. They moved to Jerusalem or Bnei Brak; sometimes they severed relations with their families. Many lived in squalor.

While formally, Haredim believe in the precept that the newly observant have obtained the highest level of righteousness, in actual fact, in a society that is constantly appraising its members, the newcomers rank on the lowest rung of the ladder. In recent years it appears that, as the trend of becoming observant intensifies, increasing numbers of Haredi educational institutions are closing their doors even to the children of those who have undergone the process. For example, arranged marriages are not conducted between veteran and "new" ultra-Orthodox people (and even their children and grandchildren ), which is perhaps the worst blow suffered by those who have recently joined that world.

Children have always been the great hope of the community, explains Dr. Yehuda Goodman, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's psychology department, who has conducted research on the newly religious.

"The newly Orthodox were convinced that their children would grow up as full-fledged Haredim," explains Goodman, "since they were raised in 'purity' and not in sin, like their parents." A particularly vexing problem, he says, is drop-outs among second-generation members, who leave yeshivas and adopt secular ways.

"We've lost our best 'forces' for the future," laments Kedem. "In the teshuva movement, we also talked proudly about our future 'pilots' and 'executives.' Where are they? Where has everyone disappeared to? Where are the leaders and creative talents?"

Migratory journey

Psychologist Oz Martin, a newly observant activist, who runs support groups for fellow newcomers to the Haredi world and is a contributor to the Adraba magazine, describes entry into ultra-Orthodox society as a migratory journey strewn with unavoidable obstacles, which he compares to Zionist immigration to Israel.

"When you become observant, you undergo a kind of shock," explains Yehuda Grinwald, 58, an Adraba editor and leading force in the teshuva movement. "For many years I tied my shoes without thinking about it, and the shoes never fell off. Suddenly you find yourself in a world where you are told, 'first the right foot, then the left foot.' There is a network of rules, and your heart is ready to accept them as the truth. But that turns things you were used to doing throughout your adult life into a mistake. It's a shock. All the time you worry that your next step could be a mistake, so you end up asking about every single thing, whether it is permitted or not. At the age of 31, for instance, you adopt the mentality of a baby. For this reason, the process of becoming observant is extremely demanding, and requires proper guidance."

Grinwald, who headed a large kollel (yeshiva for married students ) in Jerusalem, has moved to Haifa to help establish a community of newly observant people there. He defines himself as a moderate, and does not attack attitudes displayed by the veteran Haredi community toward the newcomers.

"I've taught my students not to see this as discrimination," he explains. "If you are a newly observant person, why struggle with things that do not suit you? There are problems, but why paint everything with dramatic colors, as though we [the newcomers] are in the Wild West?"

Dr. Goodman explains that "in religious societies, there are often tensions and spiritual 'competition' between the margins and the center. Younger groups try to rekindle spiritual enthusiasm and propose reforms based on the premise that 'I have the real religion.' This challenges the entrenched, conservative establishment."

Goodman adds that the sort of introspection embodied in the articles in Adraba, and at the Beit Meir conferences, exemplify such trends.

"In their early stages, such movements 'leave no stone unturned,'" he notes. "It appears that the contributors to the publication write from a mature standpoint - not an angry, rebellious one - not like a child who revolts against his parents. This is a very responsible approach, especially in terms of practical matters such as employment, family and relationships."

Sde Tzofim's Rabbi Nitzani is reluctant to attribute any revolutionary achievements to Adraba or to various initiatives associated with his community; he simply believes community members should concentrate more on Torah study. In his cluttered office in a prefab in Betar Ilit, he works on a commentary he is publishing on Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav - with classical music coming out of his computer's speakers. When asked about the status of the newly observant, he asserts: "In our eyes, the attempt to take newly Orthodox and assimilate them into Haredi society is a mistake. It is not right and it does not work. From the standpoint of faith, it is also a mistake. It is an insult to the Almighty, who took us on this long journey, from the secular movement to where we are now. This journey has a purpose. The Haredi community has preserved something which I wish I had received in my childhood: a method. But the newly observant come with other things, with creativity and openness. When they encounter religion, it creates a creative situation that can be utilized to honor God, and for educational purposes."

And Kedem adds: "The teshuva movement has matured, and it can take responsibility for itself."

Moshe Grylak, founder and editor of the Mishpacha [Family] newspaper, a popular Orthodox weekly based in Jerusalem, who has had extensive involvement with hozrim betshuva, thinks the Sde Tzofim initiatives are part of a natural process. Adraba, he adds, "is extremely positive. They [the newly observant] need to organize themselves. The process isn't just a matter of coming to pray with the Haredim ... And many bring with them a lot of problems. They have a different mentality."

As first-generation ultra-Orthodox, Rabbi Nitzani and his followers do not plan to "enlist" new recruits if they move to new locales. "You can't just go up anymore to somebody and say 'Observe the Sabbath' - it doesn't work," Nitzani says.

He adds that Adraba and the movement it represents is being watched closely on all sides, by the veteran Haredi community, but also by the secular relatives of Sde Tzofim's members. The newly observant, he notes in summary, cannot live in denial: They have become vulnerable and can no longer ignore criticism from the outside world about their Orthodox lifestyle, because they understand that such criticism conveys an element of truth.

For now, there are many questions surrounding the creation of new communities like the one in Betar Ilit. How much involvement will they have vis-a-vis other ultra-Orthodox and Israeli society in general? Will their boys wear traditional garb and grow beards after their bar mitzvahs? For his part, Kedem says, the answers to such questions will be decided upon by the next generation. In any event, the success of his movement will be determined at other levels and by other measures. In the meantime, those waiting for the answers will have to wait patiently.