Yanki Jacobs

Bridging the Divide

Tefillin at Maccabi Games Budapest. Source picture: Chabad on Campus NL

Growing up, I was raised with the notion that the religious would become more religious, and the secular would become more secular. Those were times of polarization, marked by an ongoing struggle between conservatism and liberal thinking.

However, the world has changed. We now witness how the religious (the so-called ultra-orthodox – How I despise that term) have become more engaged with the wider world. Simultaneously, free thinkers are increasingly drawn to seeking meaning and spirituality. Previously, society was sharply divided, with the ‘hareidim’ and the “secular” living in their separate bubbles. Nowadays, these groups are gradually growing closer together.

Yet, with this convergence comes new tensions. Consider, for instance, the combat units in the Israeli army, where young men and women serve together. This used to be a non-issue as the Orthodox community rarely joined the military. However, as more individuals from this sector enlist, there is a growing demand to accommodate religious norms and values.

In the Netherlands, we observed a similar development. Take “Jom HaVoetbal” (A Jewish football tournament) for example. Twenty years ago, it was inconceivable for the Cheider school (a religious school in Amsterdam) to send a team to this football tournament. I recall how our school principal dismissed participation in the “heretical event” as “avoda zara,” idolatry. But times change, and this year, four Cheider teams participated, with the new school principal, dressed in a dark suit and hat, present to cheer on the students.

This convergence of different value systems is, in general, a positive development. As a rabbi addressing young people, my target audience, I notice a more open-minded attitude among them. Tribal thinking seems to be diminishing, and they – the younger generation – often demonstrate understanding towards those who lead different lives from their own. It is precisely for this reason that I am hopeful both sides will be willing to give each other the space needed to realize this rapprochement. For both sides face the same dilemma: when should I compromise, and when should I stand firm on my principles with a straight back?

Or as the character Tevje eloquently expresses in the musical “Anatevka,” “How far can I bend without breaking?”

This column was previously published in the Dutch Jewish Weekly Nieuw israelitisch Weekblad (NIW). 

About the Author
Yanki Jacobs is an Amsterdam-based rabbi and the 15th generation of Dutch Jews. He offers spiritual guidance to individuals in the Netherlands University Campuses and 'Zuidas,' the financial district of Amsterdam South. In addition to his rabbinical duties, he conducts research and publishes works exploring a range of topics such as ethics, education, leadership, identity, and communal values. Alongside his wife, Esty, he leads the Dutch chapter of Chabad on Campus and as well as the Chabad Community of Amsterdam South.
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