There is nothing wrong with the youth in Israel.
Ever since I made aliyah from America in 2011, I have heard a lot of discussion about the teenagers of the Dati Le’umi (national religious) community and all the ways that they are struggling religiously.
Most of the lament centers around perceived problems of commitment to our halachic heritage. If one looks at the teenagers in many Dati Le’umi towns and city centers, there seem to be some objective differences between some of them and their parents. Their tzitzit are often missing, their skirts are generally shorter, and they are frequently not at minyan in the morning, let alone other gaps in observance.
We wonder what happened to values that were once cherished ideals. Things like commitment to the minute details of a system, submission to a higher authority, self-sacrifice for something you believe in deeply and maybe even “bitul” — self-negation — when a situation calls for it.
Why aren’t our teens consistently absorbing and internalizing all the things that we hold so dear? Why are they failing to grab hold of the values that matter so much to us?
But maybe they are internalizing our values. Maybe they have not failed to notice what matters.
They commit themselves in greater numbers to full army service, spending 2-3 years submitting themselves to following the tiniest minutiae of the sometimes meaningless orders and routines they are given. They sacrifice some of the best years of their lives for the State of Israel, filling diverse and difficult social needs, selflessly and without fanfare. Instead of pursuing their own independent interests in whatever areas might pull at them, they put aside their own needs in the interest of causes that they believe in deeply and feel passionately about, including putting their bodies in harm’s way.
There is a supreme value in our community of giving of yourself for the sake of the “tzibbur” — for our society at large. From an early age, children are educated toward this in all kinds of subtle and not so subtle ways. The best of our children look forward to being madrichim (counselors) in tnu’ot no’ar (youth movements), where they give non-stop of their time and energy to work with younger members of the community. They volunteer for organizations such as Shalva, where they work tirelessly to run physically exhausting camps for severely disabled, wheelchair-bound, special needs children. They visit with the elderly, shovel snow for free, and show little sign of the entitlement, coddling, or failure to take responsibility that plague many of their counterparts in other countries.
In general, I have been moved and impressed by the spirit of volunteerism and giving that I have encountered in the youth our community. It far surpasses anything I had seen or experienced prior to our aliyah, and I am certainly happy to see my children internalizing this ethic. Even more so, I think that it is a positive outgrowth of what it means to be living in our own country, where we are responsible for its development on every level, and I am proud when I see my own children yearning to make their own unique contributions to their country.
This message we have successfully imparted. I can’t think of anyone I know who at the age of 18 announced that they refuse to join the army or to enter sheirut le’umi (national service, a common path for Orthodox young women). In some towns, it is rare and implicitly looked down upon for a young woman to commit to less than two years of national service. Our young men and women are passionately and almost uniformly committed to our values of commitment and submission.
There is nothing wrong with the youth. We have educated them well. We know how to set down red lines and how to communicate what we believe are non-negotiables. And our youth know how to read us.
But, sometimes, I think about the fact that there seem to be additional values, such as uncompromising commitment to halacha and to the commandments of our Creator, that somehow seem to be falling through the cracks in the education of our children. These values are the ones that are often emphasized in religious communities in the Diaspora, where the fear of assimilation is all too present, and every set of parents understands that their children’s adherence to halachic norms is often the path to ensuring that the grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be Jewish.
From the Diaspora, though, I brought with me not only fear of assimilation, but also a rich and deep religious experience that focuses on awe and reverence of God, on accepting the yoke of the commandments in its entirety and on developing and nurturing a deep love for our traditions and our laws, even if I don’t always identify with every detail. In America, not everyone adhered to every aspect of halacha, but the measure of religiosity was consistently the depth of one’s commitment to halachic observance.
These messages don’t seem to differ tremendously from the ones that my Israeli peers received, but they seem to be more distant from my students and the current generation of young adults.
It might be helpful for us as a community, then, to engage in some collective soul-searching about why we seem to struggle more — both in and out of the home — with conveying our goals in avodat Hashem.
I am genuinely not sure, and I ask myself the following questions:
Is it because religious faith and belief in halacha is harder, more complex and less concrete than belief in a Jewish State and the importance of protecting it and contributing to it?
Is it because we contrast ourselves with Haredim, and talk of mesirut nefesh (sacrifice) for a life of Torah and strict halachic observance is a language that we are reluctant to converse in?
Is it because we worry that commitment to the community is already a heavy load to bear, and we harbor anxieties that additional expectations will overburden our youth?
Is it because some of us are more observant in our practice than our parents’ generation is, and we feel hesitant to impose the standards that we chose for ourselves on our children?
Or maybe we believe deeply in autonomy, in self-actualization and in religious fulfillment and want our children to build a religious world that is meaningful to them. Perhaps we don’t always know how to square that with setting clear expectations?
Since I have made aliyah, these questions have been burning in my mind. Along with one final one:
Do I, as a parent and a teacher, have to compromise on the value of religious and halachic commitment that I grew up with in America in exchange for the sacrifice I expect my children and students to have for their country and their people? It is truly impossible to educate towards both of these values together?
We, the adults — in our homes and in our schools, in our tnu’ot no’ar and in our other institutions — might benefit from open and honest discussion about how we can adjust or enhance our internal discourse to talk more directly, without hesitation or fear, about the multiple values and ideals that are important to us, that we treasure, that we think are non-negotiable.
With regard to religion, the teenagers talk often about what they feel and what touches them. What is missing in their experience and what they are looking for. They talk about moments of connection and moments of distance. They don’t want to experience religion as a burden. They don’t think it should be. Rather, it should be fulfilling, satisfying, deep and sustaining.
But when it comes to service for their country, they commit and submit wholesale. They perform many mundane, boring and meaningless tasks as part of their buy-in to an overall system that they believe in. Paradoxically, this doesn’t seem to breed resentment, but even deeper commitment.
There is nothing wrong with the teens. Commitment and submission are still in fashion, even celebrated. They hear us loud and clear.
But what are we telling them?