The ‘datlash’ conundrum: Why so many from observant homes are no longer observant

The Orthodox community must identify these indications not just for the sake of reconciliation but for its own perpetuation.

Egalitarian prayer rally at the upper plaza of the Western Wall  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Egalitarian prayer rally at the upper plaza of the Western Wall
There is a crisis brewing within Israel’s Orthodox community which, if not identified and addressed, will become increasingly threatening to its vitality.
Recently a number of Israeli papers ran an advertisement regarding a new neighborhood specifically for “datlashim” (a Hebrew acronym which stands for “formerly religious”) which read, “Datlashim – you’re already on your way to hell; why not meanwhile come enjoy the Garden of Eden?” The ad should serve as a rude awakening for the religious community. The fact that entire neighborhoods for datlashim are under construction means that there are a significant number of such individuals. Certainly from the perspective of the Orthodox community, a community which presumably nurtures and values a commitment to the Torah’s commandments, this is indicative of a failure which should evoke some serious reflection.
Jews have rejected their tradition in past generations as well, including some from very prominent religious families (Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s youngest son Yom tov Lipman became non-observant, and Moshe Schneerson, the youngest son of the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, converted to Christianity, to name a few) but many of these cases were swept under the rug; not so today. Today’s open society and social media make it virtually impossible to hide such things, as evident in the case of Esti Weinstein, and even more importantly dilute the stigma of becoming non-observant, compared to previous generations. datlashim of this generation are not as reluctant to reject their families’ faith, which logically dictates that the Orthodox community needs to respond with greater urgency.
The advertisement itself is telling; the inference is that one should live for today rather than think about tomorrow. This is an adage all too familiar to a generation which endorses instant gratification and craves self-satisfaction – very difficult conditions under which to promote religion and observance, which are anything but instantaneously gratifying.
The Orthodox community must identify these indications not just for the sake of reconciliation but for its own perpetuation.
If in the expeditious world we live in our children and students demand quicker responses and comprehensive explanations to what we consider fundamental questions, we should accommodate them. If we don’t, considering the information highway they have at their fingertips they will find answers themselves – which may differ from the ones we would have given them.
Although there are many factors at work with regard to young people straying from the traditional path (family dynamics, traumatic experiences, double standards within the community, even simple chance), a recent study by the Nishma Research Institute found that the majority of people who leave orthodoxy do so because of things that they read or learn which they find contradictory to what they have been taught.
One major implication of this finding has to do with the Israeli school system; in Israel many of the essentials which should be addressed in the religious school system are not – not taught, discussed or developed.
Principles of faith and sources regarding belief are not examined. In Hebrew we refer to these topics as “machshevet yisrael” or Jewish thought, and while machshevet yisrael is part of the matriculation exams system in religious high schools, the material is conveyed for the sole purpose of passing a test as opposed to encouraging a spiritual quest of conviction. It is only years later when and if students attend pre- or post-army religious institutions that they begin to analyze and deliberate on many of these fundamental questions and sources, but by then it is too late for many.
In fact, considering the sophistication of our children today many of the topics of machshevet yisrael should be introduced in primary school. Merely telling our children to put on tzizit and open the siddur may not be sufficient without discussing with them how to relate to an all-powerful authority called God. There are basic composites of knowledge that we require all children, sophisticated and less sophisticated alike, to acquire by a certain age, such as two plus two equals four, “i before e except after c,” etc.
Why should Jewish thought be treated any differently? I recall a conversation with a non-observant Jewish entertainer in Australia, in which he said to me that Judaism is undoubtedly the most authentic religion. When I asked why, he said because it is the only religion which promotes questioning God’s existence as a means of strengthening one’s commitment to Him. We would be hard pressed to say that this remains an outstanding characteristic in the Israeli Orthodox world of today.
It is important to note that there are datlashim who believe in God but reject His Torah and while their challenges may sound different they are part of the same problem.
They do not understand for example why gentiles who want to be Jews have to go through the grueling process of conversion, or why homosexual relationships are an abomination if this was the way God created these particular people. From an Orthodox perspective the questions of these datlashim are even more upsetting because it appears that their problem isn’t faith per se, but rather lack of clarity regarding how to square that faith, and Jewish law, with modern society.
That such concerns are ignored or are allowed to remain taboo in the Orthodox Jewish world is the issue here.
Part of the problem is that many teachers and educators are afraid of these questions; they are simply not prepared to tackle the issues and engage the students. When was the last time you heard a religious educator or a rabbi pose questions such as does God exist, or what gives humans the right to slaughter animals for the sake of eating them? I propose that the study of machshevet yisrael become a staple of rabbinic training and religious studies certificates and degrees; after all there are more Jews walking around today wondering whether God exists than about whether or not a chicken is kosher.
We must legitimize their quandary through knowledgeable debate and discourse.
Some might voice concerns that this proposal only addresses the academically inclined. Perhaps some are just tired and would be uninterested in intellectual argumentation; perhaps they are simply looking for an unrestrictive lifestyle. This may be true but it is all a matter of strategy and approach; even a non-academic child is equipped with the basics of math and reading. Orthodox and religious education needs to figure out a way to make searching for and discussing God as fundamental (age- and level-appropriate) as reading and writing. This way not only will fewer students choose alternative lifestyles, but even those who do so may still want to retain certain levels of observance and may still embrace certain doctrines of faith.
I was recently conversing with a religious friend of mine whose child is no longer observant, and he posed the following poignant question: had our children for some reason or another been brought up in a different faith other than ours, would they have naturally found their way back to what we believe and preach are the truths of Jewish Orthodoxy? If we are unsure of the answer, then there is a deficiency and we have some serious work to do.
While the advertisement for the datlashim project may be unnerving, the real estate project itself is strangely encouraging because it demonstrates that at least these datlashim value unity and have not given up on camaraderie... and nor should we.
The author serves as a lecturer for the IDF. He started an initiative offering lectures throughout the country on Judaism to secular kibbutzim – He is a lecturer for communities throughout the Diaspora. www.