Spiritual journeys

India has long been a popular post-army destination, but it is now attracting more modern Orthodox youth.

kids 88 (photo credit: )
kids 88
(photo credit: )
With Chai lattes, Yoga classes and jargon such as "shanti" now a regular part of Israeli lifestyle, Indian culture has clearly infiltrated into mainstream Israeli society. At any given time of year, one can find approximately 50,000 Israelis traveling throughout India's vast terrains. When compared with the more affluent travel destinations such as Paris or New York, India ranks as one of the top travel destinations of choice for Israelis because of its close geographical proximity to Israel and its fairly cheap exchange rate. But there's more to it. Much more. The Israeli backpacking trend that has existed since the late 1960s and early 1970s turned to India following the Zeitgeist that associated it with the symbols of peace, spirituality and tranquility. According to Dr. Chaim Noy of the Social Sciences Department at the Hebrew University and co-editor of Israeli Backpackers and their Society - A View from Afar, the trend has become much more prominent in the past 10 years, ultimately becoming a journey of genuine self-discovery for thousands of Israeli youth, eager to remove themselves from all forms of structured authority after completing their three years of compulsory military service. According to Noy the backpackers choose to explore a different world in order to re-examine their identity before reorienting themselves into Israeli society. The choice of India in particular, as Noy points out, is largely due to the fact that "the exchange rate is convenient and the spiritual aspect combined with the emotional freedom you gain defines a transcending experience coupled with relaxation like no other." According to a 2000 study included in Noy's book, Israeli backpackers affiliated with the religious Zionist movement were "pioneers" in the late 1980s and early 1990s and constituted the beginning of a growing trend. This, in contrast to the perception that it has generally been secular mainstream Israeli youth who embark on journeys of self-discovery, with this element of society generally not participating in these activities as they come of age. Micha Odenheimer, an Orthodox-trained rabbi and journalist in the Jerusalem area, says he believes the urge to travel to India stems from a practical level of fascination for many young religious backpackers. "The user-friendly and pleasant atmosphere of hospitable guest-houses, in addition to the abundant vegetarian 'strictly kosher' foods are very attractive features for the religious Israeli travelers in India," he says, adding that "it is cheap, close by and non-Arab, with a non-threatening political atmosphere. "But there are other factors driving this phenomenon among this sector of society, which has generally been perceived as standing apart from the various social phenomena that define Israeli youth. The old models of religious teachings are not as relevant as they once used to be," says Odenheimer. "They have become disillusioned with the religious beliefs and right-wing nationalistic politics on which they were molded and are searching for something different to believe in." Although tradition is certainly something that defines identity, he believes that today, that is simply not enough. Backpacking then, is one of the factors that have come to bear on the process of the re-self-definition of modern Orthodoxy today, while serving to further penetrate its world and loosen the traditional concept of what it means to be a religious Jew. Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg, who chairs the Center for Tolerance Education and Jewish Culture and Identity at Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute, notes that there is a move toward reexamination and redefinition in the modern Orthodox community. "The well-raised religious kids we're talking about are the boys who have studied in yeshivot and the girls who have completed their national service. They are the ones who are questioning their religious Zionist ideals, while defining a new era which is characterized by a gradual loosening of authority and order." The main reason for this secularization, says Rothenberg, is the overwhelming disappointment in the lack of spiritual expression in the religious establishment. The national-religious youth sector is losing its traditional concept of religion, and is embracing a new method of belief borne of the unyielding religious institutions they are a part of. As a result there is a new trend within the national religious movement towards a less institutionalized and more emotionally-based spirituality. Echoing these notions, Odenheimer says, "Today, religious Israeli youths are often dissatisfied with the form of Judaism they have been taught in high school. They may be looking for what the New Age culture calls 'spirituality,' seeking some kind of post-Hassidic form of experimental religion, a religion that is more emotional, more devotional than what they have seen up till now. India beckons for them as a great place to see that kind of religion first-hand." Rothenberg further notes that we shouldn't ignore the fact that there is an extremely psychological process that takes place in the minds of the young religious backpackers. They experience a deep sense of shock as they step foot onto Indian soil where all their fixed Jewish beliefs take a backseat when they suddenly realize that they, as Jews and chosen people of God, are not necessarily the center of the universe. "The grandness of the West Bank, the sacredness of Jerusalem and the nightlife of Tel Aviv do not exist in India," he says. They realize, as painfully or as acceptingly as possible, he continues, that we, the Jewish people are but a small fragment in the enormity of mankind. Their ethnocentrism becomes deflated during their spiritual adventures in India, yet fills up shortly after with a spiritual universality that encompasses all different perspectives about the world and the various Jewish roles they have assumed in it. Odenheimer also points out regarding the reactions to their encounter in India that "the trip itself can be seen as an experimental phase for these young people, as part of a larger process of searching for a religious identity. In India they can experiment with different points along a continuum of states of identity running from the religious to the secular." Elhanan Nir, a 26 year-old writer, traveler and teacher of hassidism, agrees with Odenheimer's assessment and says that Israelis, especially young religious Israelis, have discovered a place other than Israel where God exists. In his new book, entitled From India Until Here: Israeli Thinkers Write about their Conception of Judaism and India, Nir discusses the experiences of seven travelers to India, including his own. He says that the sense of connection he felt in India was ultimately one of the discovery of peace and tranquility. "I tasted God in India," declares Nir. In the book's first chapter, he recounts the initial feelings he experienced in India of "literally feeling trapped when reciting my own prayers which I narrate three times a day," while the monk, for him, is connecting to the essence of humanity-personified prayer. On reflection, after his return from India he realized that what drew him in the first place was the different sense of time. "The constant chase for success, money and the like in our fast-paced modern Western societies doesn't exist there." Nir also points to the slowness of every aspect of life in India, including Sanskrit, the ancient holy Indian language, filled with its passive verbs, adding to the overall feeling of calm and serenity in the air. "The Hindu belief in Mikasha and the Buddhist belief in Nirvana, base their purpose on freedom from all obstacles and hardships in the world, that you are a part of a larger whole that you cannot control and will therefore ingrain yourself into this awesome reality of nature and the earth." Not everyone, however, is so embracing of this new trend in the religious community. The rabbis, who adhere to the traditional observances of Judaism, see this trend as counterproductive to the stability of religious Zionism. More recent realities in Israeli political life further influence this trend. Last August's disengagement from Gaza exacerbated some of its youths' sense of disbelief and trust in the national-religious rabbinical establishment. When the pullout took place, the establishment collapsed in its capacity to function as pillars of assurance. This then allowed for a mild secularization process to begin. Rothenberg says that there is a loss of authority among the national religious public, an anti-establishment fervor that has surfaced as a result of the desire for a different religious experience. The internal battle for the minds of these young impressionable youths is being fought by the rabbis and the spiritual post-modern trend is inadvertently legitimizing this trend. "This is an enormous problem for the rabbis, it's being defined as a serious crisis within the Talmudic way of instruction. They are attempting to instill a new method of teaching that satisfies the minds of these youngsters, who feel that the current method doesn't stimulate their curious minds nor provide answers to their newly acquired beliefs. They are failing in their attempts." Conversely, of equal interest is the trend of "the mild reawakening of religious belief in the secular youth population who frequently travel to India," that Rothenberg points to. Recognizing this trend and need for integration, Odenheimer says, Chabad set up camp in various areas around India to assist the travelers, religious and secular, young and old. "Chabad is there because the Israelis are there," Odenheimer quips. He notes that they see it as a great opportunity to try to assist these youths in their journeys. There are approximately 10 Chabad Houses in India, some of which are in Dharamsalla, that Odenheimer notes are more accepting of their guests' level of religious observance. They also offer Shabbat services and prayer for the observant youth in the area. Twenty-seven-year-old Jerusalem resident and former backpacker Anat Levy, recalls the Chabad house in Dharmasalah. "The rabbis in the Chabad house were welcoming and warm and did not subscribe to ultra-Orthodoxy." Levy kept Shabbat there every week, and made sure to eat in vegetarian restaurants during most of her travel. "I was studying holistic medicine at the time and I thought that India would be a good place for coming in contact with a more spiritual environment. India certainly strengthened my Jewish roots, in a spiritual sense," says Levy. Levy was working in Steimatzky before her trip and began opening maps and devising her route. She recounts that while traveling in a boat on the Kashmir River on Yom Kippur with three other travelers, the prayers they recited were of a different kind. She recounts that they were a direct calling to God, which bore a higher connection to him in a location called the "Jewish heart." This has become a well-known area where many Israelis venture to in Dharamsalah. "To pray to God in a completely different environment than the one you are used to is an experience like no other," says Levy. She further emphasized the fact that India is in itself a very religious country. "Being religious is very respected and supported in India, and you never feel like you are being judged. The religious and spiritual aspects of prayer and practice are supported everywhere by everyone." While there she also took part in some Yoga instruction. "My teacher was actually an Israeli who had been living there for a while," laughs Levy. The two things that Levy feels she gained most from her trip was a sense of connection to other people and a heightened value of nature. "I traveled alone the first time but met many other travelers there." Encapsulating her journey to India in one sentence, she says she experienced "an internal sense of space that allows you to be with yourself and with nature." "I would hop on a bus with other locals every few days, and the awesome landscapes we would pass were simply indescribable. There are no limits or checkpoints like we have in Israel. Nature itself is open and welcoming with no demarcated territory or prohibited areas for travel. "People are less phoney," she continues. "They don't walk around wearing masks, they are more themselves in every sense of the word. They are more spiritual - like the Tibetans I met in the north - and are much more open to experiencing interactions with people of a different culture." But it is not only coming face to face with India alone that produces a shift in their religious values and orientation, but also the impact of these Israeli backpackers, who come from different walks of life coming face to face with their Israeli counterparts. "There is a process of secularization, of intermixing with religious belief on the one hand, where modern Orthodox youths stop being completely religious, and a religious spiritualization of the secular youths taking place on the other," Rothenberg notes. The swapping of ideas and beliefs being made between the religious and the secular backpacking youth, all of whom are searching for spiritual fulfillment from opposite sides of the Jewish spectrum defines the emergence of a new type of Jewish identity. The messages being conveyed by the religious kids who return from India are quite liberal. "It doesn't matter what nation you are from or what God you believe in, so long as you are less materialistic and open spiritually." This, says Rothenberg, expresses an almost anti-nationalistic, worldly state of mind that has developed in these youths. "Undoubtedly," says Rothenberg, "there is a new type of Jew that is emerging from India. They return to Israel discussing the world and contemplating other political and humanitarian issues. They view the world as a whole and are open-minded and committed to the individual under the umbrella of spirituality and nationalism. This is embedded with an increased and more complex religious secularization filled with substance and Jewish spirituality." But ultimately the religious youth doesn't abandon their religious principles, they simply become more enhanced and finely tuned to the many other ways of responding and interpreting Jewish religious thought. The legendary Rabbi Azriel Carlebach, founder and first editor of Maariv, wrote a book in the 1960s entitled India. Carlebach, who was raised by German parents in pre-war Europe, saw India, after traveling there as an older person, as the opposite of everything he had ever known as being acceptable. In India, he ultimately discovered the unity between man with nature. "When you're walking down the street and see an Indian looking up to the sky, know that a new religion has been founded," was his conclusion.