Friday, May 19, 2017

Can Religious Zionism Survive?

RZ  students in Merkaz Harav  -They are exempt from army service (JP)
One might think that Modern Orthodox (MO) Jews are doomed after reading the somewhat shocking results of a survey in Israel. Well, not so much Modern Orthodox Jews, but Religious Zionist (National Religious) Jews. They are often seen as the Israeli equivalent of modern Orthodox.

The headline of a Jewish Press article says it all: ‘Only 46% of Next Generation National Religious Israelis Keep the Faith.’

With all of the talk about the record number of Charedim going OTD, what is happening in modern Orthodox circles along these lines seems to have been ignored. Until now. What gives? Why is this happening at such an alarming level? Are Charedi critics of modern Orthodoxy right? Do we – because of our engagement with the culture  - suffer a higher rate of attrition? I honestly don’t know the answer to that. Suffice it to say that this problem exists in both worlds. I have discussed this phenomenon in the Charedi context. But as of yet I haven’t done much about it in the Modern Orthdodx context.

First, I think we need to separate Israelis from Americans.  The experiences of these two groups are so radically different, that the two cannot be compared. Let us look at some of those differences.

Americans have one great disadvantage over Israelis. Aside from their  homes and schools American influences are mostly secular. While most MO homes are generally religious Zionist (RZ), they do not live it the way Israelis do.

RZs in Israel are born and bred into this philosophy as a way of life. Which is constantly reinforced especially by their mandatory army service.  Modern Orthodox American youth are weaned into an RZ mindset, but (except for the most idealistic)  tend to focus on the American culture. True they mostly attend religious schools that whose orientation is RZ. They thurs learn to respect ‘everything Israel’. However their connection with the actual state might come during what’s called the ‘gap year’. Which is the year spent in Israel post high school - most likely at an American Religious Zionist Yeshiva.

After that they go on to college for career purposes. If motivated enough about their Judaism they might attend YU or HTC.  But  the focus is mostly on career even while Torah study is an important priority. There are of course exceptions that go 'right' and end up in places like Ner Israel or even Lakewood eventually. But they are the exception. What percentage of them keep the faith of their parents - I don't know. But their circumstance is different from the Israeli circumstance - which is the focus of the study.

RZ Israeli youth live their Religious Zionism every day. Most see army service as a sublime duty. While there are some that go into Hesder type programs… and even a few that might go into Nachal Charedi, I believe it is mostly the case that they serve in the regular IDF – often choosing highly specialized programs that lead them into dangerous assignments.

The regular army is not a good culture for the religious student. It is an army culture stringent about its rules without paying much atenttion to religiosity. This is not to say that the army is anti religious. But the culture that has evolved is at best agnostic about religion.

One can be entirely observant serving in the army. And I assume that is largely the case. But it is also quite easy to becomes entirely non observant. The peer group and friends one makes while serving can easily be fine people but not religious who expose these young students to an exiting and entirely different world from the one in which they are raised.

It is also a fact that the army is by definition the great equalizer. So that religious and secular recruits lead pretty much the same lives. They wear the same uniforms, eat the same food, live together in barracks and fight along side each other. This creates a bond unlike a simple friendship that might develop for Americans in a college environment. One that will surely impact greatly on ones religiosity.

I want to be clear. The army is not purposely disabusing their recruits of religious observance. I know a lot of RZs that have served in the IDF and came out unscathed. But it can’t be denied that the army experience weighs heavily on one’s religious observance. If one does not enter the army highly committed to it, it is can easily slip away.

This is my theory, although I admit it is anecdotal and based on my own personal observation. Nonetheless I think it might be one reason why (according to this study) the majority of RZ children do not live up to their parents religious standards.

I’m sure there additional factors. Or entirely different ones in many cases. But they may apply in both countries. The one thing that stands out  that is different from Americans is that army service is required of all Israelis.

Which is a double edged sword. On the one hand, living one’s Judaism is far more likely in a Jewish country. Serving in the military should just be a extension of that. But the nature of the army may undermine observance. And observance is the epitome of Judaism.

While 46% is a large number of Religious Zionists that remain in their parents religious orbit, it is obvious that the 54% that don’t is a majority that doesn't. That is shocking and should not be ignored. I think it would be wise for religious Zionist leaders to face this reality and change the army dynamic.

Perhaps Nachal Charedi or a similar army  program designed for RZ families should be implemented. It seems that parents cannot rely on the idealism that was instilled in their children. While that is wonderful when it happens and an idealistic soldier can easily maintain his religiosity in a secular army - it seems not to be working for the majority. Is this a acceptable condition for Religious Zionists in Israel as we move forward? Not in my book.