Monday, November 19, 2018

Light at the End of the OTD Tunnel

Conformity is the hallmark of the Charedi world (Jerusalem Post)
10%. That is the percentage of Charedim in Israel that go OTD (Off The Derech - or becoming non observant) according to Neri Horowitz, chairman of the Agora Policy Think Tank. As reported in Tablet Magazine   Horowitz was commissioned to study the OTD phenomenon by Yossi Klar, the co-CEO of Out For Change, a Footsteps type of organization that helps ex Charedi transition out of the Charedi world into the secular one. Klar called this study “the first major research about this phenomenon in Israel...”

A 10% OTD rate should not be all that surprising, I suppose. And yet for me it is. My own observations would have put that percentage a lot lower. I do not see anywhere near that percentage on my yearly trips to Ramat Bet Shemesh - where almost all the people I come into contact with are Charedi. 

Although I do see a number of young people there from time to time that are very likely ex-Charedm and are clearly OTD, I wouldn’t put the number anywhere near 10%. But then again, maybe I am just not paying enough attention. 

The question is the same in Israel as it is in the US: Why? Why do they leave? There are of course many reasons why someone will go OTD. But the situation in Israel is to a significant degree different than it is in America. The importance of conformity is far greater there. The pressure on Charedim in Israel to conform is the sine qua non of their existence. 

Conformity to strictures such as an internet and smart-phone ban weighs heavily upon the entire community. Such bans are often observed in the breach (even by many that are not OTD).  I would hazard to guess that this is perhaps the primary force motivating so many young people to opt out of that way of life.  Add to that the reality that most Charedi families (54%) live below the poverty line and it is a wonder that there aren’t more young people going OTD. 

I also believe that to a great extent the children of Americans that have made Aliyah with children between the ages of approximately 9 to 18 are particularly vulnerable. In this demographic I’m sure, the OTD rate is considerably higher than 10%.

Does this mean that there will be an increasing number of young people from Charedi families that will be doomed? Does there have to be such a huge attrition from the ranks of observant Judaism among Charedim? 

There was a time not too long ago where I might have answered that in the affirmative. But now, I’m not so sure.

What also appears to be happening is a sort of quiet rebellion of sorts among many Charedim. That was demonstrated by the many Charedim who broke rank with their conformist community and elected a non Charedi Mayor.

If poverty and religious strictures are the primary causes of going OTD - there is a way out. There is appears to be a new Charedi demographic forming. One that is more like the American model. Horowitz calls them ‘Modern Charedim’: 
(A) “modern Haredi”(is) someone who lives a strict ultra-Orthodox lifestyle while participating in mainstream Israeli life through work, education, or army service. (That) has, in theory, made it possible for Haredim to have it all. 
And yet as he also notes: 
“Being modern Haredi is very demanding, and it’s not legitimate in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox,” said Horowitz. “Some people will say, ‘Might as well go all the way’” to becoming secular. 
I do not believe that is the end of the story. That is in part because of R’ Gershon Edelstein: 
Klar and Horowitz also credited Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, who succeeded Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman as the leader of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, with reducing the stigma of leaving. In 2017, he appeared in a video urging parents not only to accept, but to embrace children who go off the derech. In his view, those who leave the fold are “forced to sin,” incapable of making the right decision at this time in their lives. Parents must accept their children as they are, he said, without limitations or conditions, and hope that this warm and respectful approach will lead their children back onto the “right” path. “This is a game changer… 
I agree. This is where I think at least a partial solution to the problem may lie. 

In the past I have suggested that Charedim that go OTD for the above-mentioned reasons try out a modern Orthodox lifestyle. The problems that caused so many of them to go OTD do not exist in that community. In fact there is an organization in America founded by Allison Josephs called Makom which she describes as an organization that invites Jews at risk of going OTD to  find  "their place." Not "one place." They offer modern charedi as an option - modern Chasidish, LW Yeshivish, Chabad, Centrist...  Makom wants people to know that they are not just one size fits all.

But modern Orthodoxy does not work for everyone. As has been pointed out may times, if one is Charedi – especially if they are from the more isolated enclaves of that world, the cultural incompatibility of the two worlds is perhaps just to difficult to overcome.

But what if there was a community of modern Charedim that allows one to retain his cultural identity and yet also allows him to participate in (the Halachicly permitted aspects of) the general culture? Well now there is in the form of ‘modern Charedim’.

That being the case, it is nevertheless important that this new demographic be fully accepted. Until recently that was a practical impossibility. But with the growing trend of American Olim (immigrants to Israel) doing their own (American) thing and the advent of ‘modern Charedim’ combined with the exhortation of the man seen as the Gadol HaDor to fully embrace OTD children… there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There is hope that there will at least be a reduction in the number of OTD phenomenon if not a total elimination of it.

This is encouraging and should give hope to Charedi parents that have children at risk. A positive development indeed.