David Brent

Kicked out of the Dati Club

In Israel, there are three categories for Jews. You are either: secular; religious; or ultra-orthodox. In Hebrew: Hiloni; Dati; or Haredi.

My whole life in the USA, I have been considered religious. I observe kashrut, celebrate the holidays, study Torah, and attend synagogue on Shabbat. I teach Tenakh, history, and philosophy at the community Beit Hamidrash. If I see another religious Jew around town, we recognize each other and say hello. After all, there aren’t that many religious Jews in Orlando, Florida. In Orlando, I am a full fledged member of the Dati club.

But in Israel, nobody considers me religious. Everybody tells me I am Hiloni. It is shocking to me. I have been kicked out of the Dati club.

I don’t want to be considered secular. I believe in Hashem. I believe that Hashem made a covenant with our forefathers at Mount Sinai. In the USA, secular means that you don’t identify with a religion. I identify as a Jew. Shouldn’t that be enough to call me religious? Shouldn’t that be enough credentials to get me into the Dati club?

Here is why Israelis throw me out of the club: I drive on Shabbat. I know I shouldn’t. I know it is a violation to light fire on Shabbat. I know how serious it is to violate Shabbat. I read what happened to those guys who were gathering sticks on Shabbat in the desert (Numbers 15:32-36). In the US, I drive to synagogue.I was raised thinking it is ok to drive on Shabbat. At my synagogue, which is Chabad, almost everybody drives. There aren’t that many synagogues in walking distance in Orlando. People are just happy to have a minyan, never mind how we got there.

In Israel, I can walk to synagogue on Shabbat. There are two synagogues within a 10 minute walk of my apartment in Haifa. I can even choose Sephardi or Ashkenazi. But in the afternoon, I drive to the Galilee to be with family. There are usually more than a dozen of us who come to my in-laws to eat good food and pressure my brother-in-law to get married and raise a family already.

Dinner at the In-laws

In Israel, to be Dati, it means that you accept all the mitzvot. It is all written down in the shulchan aruch. I translate shulchan aruch as an ordered table. Let me explain why it is called an ordered table. When you sit down to eat at an ordered table, you don’t take everything on the table. You don’t act like a hazer. You pick and choose what you want. (That’s a joke I stole from my rabbi)

I am a serious Jew but I don’t accept all the mitzvot according to the shulchan aruch. I wasn’t born into an Orthodox family. I observe more mitzvot now then when I was younger. I am learning. I am moving in a more observant direction. My wife is also a serious Jew. She also wasn’t born into an observant family. Her path is similar to mine. We both want to grow religiously together. I am a serious Jew but I fail Rambam’s thirteen fundamental principles of faith. I don’t believe in the Messiah or in the resurrection of the dead. So I accept it, I am not dati. But I am not hiloni either.  It is not everything or nothing.

I was at a hotel pool in Netanya on Shabbat a few years ago. I saw a guy with a backgammon set and I asked if he wanted to play. After he beat me a few times, we started talking. He was Israeli. He asked me about being Jewish in the USA. I told him that I went to synagogue every Shabbat and that women were allowed to read from the Torah. (Back then I went to a Conservative or Masorti synagogue — I still go there sometimes.) He told me I wasn’t Jewish. I asked how he could say that when it was shabbat and he didn’t even go to the beit knesset on shabbat. He told me that the beit knesset that he didn’t go to would never allow women on the bimah.

Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews have a lot to learn from each other. I believe that Jews living in the diaspora need to understand better what it means to be part of the Jewish Nation. But I believe that Jews in Israel can learn from diaspora Jews that you can be a serious Jew and not accept every law in the shulchan aruch.

There is a Masorti movement in Israel that corresponds to the Conservative movement in the USA. I support that movement. If you translate it, it means “traditional.” It is a nice term, but it just confuses Israelis. After I try to explain Masorti, I usually get the response, “Oh, you mean a Reform Jew, I have heard of that.” But most Israelis don’t really understand the Reform movement. Many Israelis question or even deny that Reform Jews are real Jews. It is sad. It is wrong.

This is just another blog about the need for religious pluralism in Israel. I propose that we reject the classification of hiloni. It is not a term that non-dati Jews chose for themselves, it has been thrust upon us. If you are serious about your Judaism, then take a lesson from us diaspora Jews, you are not hiloni and don’t let somebody else label you as hiloni.

About the Author
David Brent is a NASA engineer with a master's and bachelor's from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology turned candy entrepreneur. He made aliya in the spring of 2013. David commutes between Israel, where his heart is, and Florida, where his business is.