May it by Your will, our God and God of our ancestors, that You lead us and guide our steps in peace...and bring us safely to our desired destination - in life, in joy, and in peace... -From the traditional travelers' prayer
On a recent Friday afternoon Tami went up to bring a cake to a new young family who had just bought a house here in Shorashim. The woman was wearing jeans. The man was wearing a large, knitted kipah. Tami mentioned that kabbalat Shabbat services would be at 6:00. The man said that our synagogue was not appropriate for him. Turns out that he is from a non-religious (yes, non-religious: not Orthodox, not Reform, not Conservative, not Reconstructionist, not Renewal...) Jewish background, and has begun a process of what is called in common parlance here "strengthening," meaning, moving toward Orthodoxy. Therefore, our egalitarian synagogue is not a place where he feels comfortable praying. Presumably, his wife will not attend because she remains non-religious, and so doesn't feel comfortable praying in any synagogue. They are the second family here to represent this process and this mix. And they are among thousands like them throughout Israeli society. The commonly held view of the polarized division between Orthodox and non-Orthodox is in fact far from accurate. While there are all sorts of examples of opposition and active conflict, of mutual fear, there is also heavy traffic along the paths leading in both directions - from Orthodoxy to other definitions, and from other positions toward Orthodoxy. I have not seen statistics, but anecdotal evidence suggests that flow in both directions is deep and wide. Just as we have several examples of "born-again" Orthodox here in our little community, we also have at least as many who would fit the slang definition of "datlash," (an acronym for "formerly religious"). These personal religious journeys, as well as marriages across the lines of religious definition, lead to a reality in which it seems like every extended family contains a variety of disparate positions. One sees these especially at life cycle observances and Passover sedarim, when the families gather and you can tell from the headgear and the skirt length that the whole spectrum is represented.
It seems easier to understand the movement away from Orthodoxy, as contact with the attractions of the secular, global, majority culture, in the media, in the army, in the workplace, in higher education, lead many Orthodox people to question their allegiance to the strictures of a halachic lifestyle, or simply make it difficult to maintain. They experience the conflict between traditional authority and the autonomy of the individual, and are slowly drawn in (or suddenly swept away) - or fall in love with a partner from "the other world." Indeed, it seems to me that to a large extent the anti-modern militancy and isolationism of the ultra-Orthodox is a response to this temptation - if they demonize the open society, then maybe their children will be less attracted to it (the best defense is a good offense). What is more surprising is the extent of the movement in the opposite direction - the thousands of people, especially young adults, who choose to give up the pleasures of the permissive society in favor of the inconveniences of halachah. While in recent years some have found their way to the liberal movements, the vast majority who decide to "become religious" understand their only authentic option to be Orthodoxy (much as we don't like it, the Hebrew word "dati," meaning religious, is universally understood to mean Orthodox, and when we protest that that is not accurate, we get impatient looks). There are plenty of Orthodox rabbis actively engaged in missionizing among the non-religious population - through local study groups, through revival meetings, through youth activities and social services. However, it seems obvious that most of those who become involved are not being tricked - they are finding something they've been looking for. We liberals can be angry and feel that there's some kind of unfair manipulation going on here, but it seems to me that the phenomenon is less the result of Orthodox aggressiveness than it is evidence of the failure of secular Israeli culture to provide satisfying spiritual answers to an increasing number of young people.