A Tale of Two Communities: Reflections of an American Jew on the Dati Leumi World

Before coming to study in Israel at the beginning of this year, I was in love with the liberal Modern Orthodox ideology I had grown up with. It seemed like the perfect combination of both open-mindedness and halachic devotion. I appreciated how easily feminism and other Western values of mine could fit in with my religious practice, whether through women’s tefillah services or other outlets. I loved the respectful appreciation of other cultures and the recognition that we can learn from so many others.

The Modern Orthodox community, in many ways, is the best of both worlds. It embraces the society in which we live, attempts to elevate the mundane and materialistic aspects of secular life, and disregards the aspects of our culture that are blatantly in contrast with our religious values. The community has incredible strengths. There is a strong belief in tikkun olam and those values are put into real practice. The Modern Orthodox community in which I grew up not only allowed but expected me to learn as much Torah as my male peers. In the community I grew up in, people are not coerced into halachic practice; rather, the attitude is that individuals need to make religious decisions that work with their personal views and lifestyles.

I always recognized the flaws in that approach, but I figured that the lack of observance amongst teenagers and inconsistencies in community practice were just an unfortunate price we had to pay for a community open to change and secular culture. (A big price, I might add. All you have to do is look at the percentage of non-shomer Shabbat students in yeshiva high schools.)

I was very nervous before coming to Israel about encountering the Dati Leumi (national religious) world head on. I feared that Israeli Orthodoxy did not have many of these values I so cherished within the American Modern Orthodox world. I worried about how polarized politics are here and that I would automatically be labeled as a Bayit Hayehudi supporter and protester of Women of the Wall just for wearing a knee length skirt in the street. I feared that religious practice here was too rigid and didn’t recognize the needs of individuals. I looked at the Dati Leumi community as rigid, homogenous, and unaccepting, and felt that I would feel out of place in my time here.

The Dati Leumi community is very different than American Modern Orthodoxy. There is an emphasis on spirituality here that I have never encountered outside of Israel. While kids in America grow up with intellectual Torah study, kids here grow up with a passion for the land of Israel and a feeling of holiness in their service to G-d. The Dati Leumi world places Zionism at the forefront of its ideology and believes in the importance of the state of Israel at least as much as it does in the halachic system.

The community here is less rigid than I expected it to be: everyone here has a friend/family member/ etc. who is secular and whom they very much care about and respect. There is diversity in the community here in the same way that there is diversity in the Modern Orthodox world, which means many different opinions and in some places, beliefs in the need to have feminism and other liberal values in our religious lives. However, even in the more liberal circles of Orthodoxy here, there is a feeling of obligation to halacha that is harder to find in the U.S.

After my time here, I believe that Modern Orthodox educators need to find a way to convey love of Judaism the way Dati Leumi teachers do, and with love needs to come a sense of commitment. We should be accepting, but there must be a point at which we are willing to say “right” and “wrong” so that our kids will make decisions based on halacha and not based on their Western sensibilities.

We need to educate our children to be open-minded in thought but traditional in practice, and we must be careful that when we straddle the line between religion and secularism, we remember that in the end of the day, the decisions we make should be guided by the Torah.

About the Author
Ariella Gentin is a student at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA.