In praise of datlashim

are some of my favorite people. I admit I’m partial. All three of my kids are datlashim. That said, datlashim may represent the very future of Judaism or, stated with less hyperbole, may help an increasingly fractured Jewish community find common ground between religious and secular.
Datlash is an acronym that stands for dati l’she’avar – a formerly religious person. (Dati is Hebrew for “religious.” She’avar means “in the past.”) Datlashim in Israel grow up in a religious environment; they go to religious schools and attend Orthodox synagogues, but at some point rebel and leave their religious background behind. While I attach positive connotations to the term – these are bold young people blazing their own truth rather than remaining stuck through inertia in a system that no longer speaks to them – others in the religious world are less kind, preferring the more alarmist initials OTD – for “off the derech” (someone who was religious and has now lost his or her way) – to stigmatize this growing phenomenon.
And growing it is. I don’t have hard data, just anecdotal evidence observed from my kids and their friends. Among this younger generation of Israeli teens and twentysomthings, there are datlashim everywhere. In the mechinot (the pre-army academies), datlashim predominate. In the Sherut Leumi (National Service) division that is not just for religious girls (yes, there is one), being a datlash is the common denominator. My kids sometimes call Jerusalem Ir HaDatlashim – the city of the formerly religious – to describe the burgeoning datlash scene in Israel’s capital.
That was nowhere more in evidence than a few weeks ago than on Shavuot eve at Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai, which is known for its datlash friendly programming. During the short time I was there (for a lecture by fellow Jerusalem Post columnist Daniel Gordis), hundreds of Hebrew-speaking young people streamed in and out of multiple lectures, ranging from Rambam to ruminations on love in the haredi world by journalist Tali Farkash (not herself a datlash). Some attendees wore kippot and could blend in perfectly in any Modern Orthodox community; others were smoking and checking their phones. That they couldn’t stay away from the Shavuot night tradition of all night learning – even as one of the main religious messages of the holiday is Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah with all its accompanying commandments – speaks volumes about the datlash mindset.
And there have been volumes written already about the phenomenon. The most important is the plainly titled HaDatlashim by journalist Poriya Gal-Getz, a datlashit herself from a prominent rabbinic family who interviewed a dozen formerly religious men and women for her book.
“What causes us to seek out datlashim like us, and sometimes marry each other?” Gal-Getz asks. “What causes us to spot datlashim a mile away, even after years, and activate a ‘datlash radar’ that finds people like us and creates an almost immediate bond and camaraderie? And most importantly, why do we insist on calling ourselves this, in a label that preserves the past within the present, rather than simply becoming hilonim (secular), even 10 or 20 years afterward?”
The answer, writes The Jewish Chronicle’s Miriam Shaviv, is that – to paraphrase the famous song by the Eagles – datlashim can check out of institutional Orthodoxy anytime they want, but they can never really leave. “While they are by no means practicing Jews, and certainly do not identify as such, their religious education has left an indelible impression on them. They never quite shake the language and world-view of the Orthodox Jew,” Shaviv writes.
Or as one of the Gal-Getz’s interviewees, literary critic Arik Glasner, puts it, “Anyone who has seriously tasted religious experience once will long for it always…He will have a hard time finding rest in entirely secular life and ideology." 
That’s reflected in the term itself. Compare datlash with another description of the formerly religious: hozer b’she’alah – a play on the expression hozer b’teshuva, one who has returned to religion via “repentance” (teshuva). She’alah means question, so a hozer b’she’alah, therefore, is one who has returned to questioning – i.e., who has become secular. Datlash, on the other hand, has da’at – Hebrew for religion – up front and center.
What causes someone to become a datlash? That’s a broad question best left explored in another column. One brief comment from Gal-Getz: leaving Orthodox observance "isn't a one-time passage between two opposite extremes, entailing absorption, absolute assimilation, and transformation from religious to secular, but a complex process, full of shades and nuances, that likely continues for a lifetime.”
It may be easy for datlashim to spot each other, but to the uninitiated, it’s as difficult as distinguishing groups based on head covering style. At first blush, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between a datlash and someone born entirely secular.
But for datlashim, Shabbat is still Shabbat. On his or her own, a datlash might not light Shabbat candles or say the Friday night Kiddush, but as soon as two or more datlashim get together, making Shabbat – the rituals, a meal, maybe even some singing – is natural. Then it’s off to the movies or downtown for a drink. But the impetus to engage in Jewish ritual is still there. Unlike the strictly secular, datlashim know their halacha (Jewish Law) and are not, in fact, anti-religion per se; they just want to do it on their own terms.
I asked my kids what kind of homes they thought they’d have when they got married and started raising families of their own. “Well it would be kosher of course,” said one. “And we’d send our kids to religious schools,” said another. “Even if they teach things you don’t agree with?” I asked. “We’d set them straight at home. But they should have a basis.”
“The datlash pathology is always to see everything with two hats,” writes Gal-Getz in her book. “It stems from the need to translate yourself constantly, to speak Tel Avivian on the outside, to speak religious Zionism in the heart.”
Yehuda Mirsky, in his review of HaDatlashim, makes the wry comment that “the difference between datlashim and ordinary religious defectors is that datlashim want their children to be datlashim, too.”
And therein lies the challenge and the promise of the datlashim. Is a datlash identity sustainable over the long term? Today’s datlashim are certainly not the first young people to leave religion behind. That’s the story of Judaism everywhere it confronted the modern age – in the Diaspora and in Israel. Just look at the biblical literary of this country’s founding fathers and mothers compared with their secular descendants today.
But there’s a difference, one of my kids said over cheesecake on Shavuot dinner, before heading out to Beit Avi Chai. “The early Zionists cast off their religion because they were replacing it with something else. Datlashim don’t have that. So we have to build our own system.”
What will that system be? It may be too early to tell but, at least in a city like Jerusalem, Ir HaDatlashim, that might include datlashi schools, teaching a datlash curriculum of sorts with datlashi instructors. Datalashi synagogues have already sprung up. They’re not called that, of course. But there are non-judgmental, inclusive spaces where many of the congregants would fit a datlashi model. These are young people seeking to create their own form of Judaism – one where Shabbat is clearly different from the six days that preceded it, but not strictly halachic. Where guitars and darbuka complement the evening service; where the kitchen might not be strictly kosher but meat and milk would never be served together.
In the popular Israeli TV series Srugim, which centered on religious singles in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood, my favorite character was always Hodaya, the daughter of a rabbi who became a datlashit. Try as she might to live a strictly secular lifestyle, she keeps coming back to her still religious friends for Shabbat meals. When she starts living with a man, he’s another datlash, of course.
Can datlashim bridge the gap between religious and secular in this country? It will certainly be challenging – for them and for a political establishment that frowns on anything that veers from strictly Orthodox. But as their numbers grow, along with recognition that the datlashim are not just a fringe phenomenon but a force to be taken seriously, we may be looking at the closest Israel has seen to a religious middle in a long time. As Miriam Shaviv writes, “It is heartening to see a group that can potentially cross bridges; that has genuine sympathies with, and ties to, both [religious and secular] groups.”
We need to nurture the datlashim among us – and within us – so that the next generation of datlashim has the confidence and power to develop its own uniquely Israeli traditions.