As a nation, Israel is regarded as conservative-plus by much of US Jewry in terms of religious observance. My own upbringing was mostly non-observant, some would say atheist. I remember contemplating on Shabbat whether to embrace my heritage and join a synagogue minyan or continue to watch TV. As a teenager, the dilemma was easily resolved. Not so as an overseas Jewish parent.
Throughout Israel, life is a never-ending buffet of Judaism. Manifestations of religion, values, and memories are constantly visible to the unaided eye. In Israel, one can enjoy a Hannukah without Christmas, a Passover without Hametz, delis without bacon, Sukkas every Tishrei, free-entry synagogues, self-organized shavuot school ceremonies, Purim festivals in the smallest of settlements, and visiting the holy-most sites requires a maximum drive of only three hours.
Outside Israel, you reap what you sow. Little to no religiosity is State-sponsored or spoon-fed. There is a Judaic silence all around. No ultra-orthodox on street corners who solicit passersby to use Tefilin. No streets are closed to traffic on Shabbat. World Jewry does not pay extra mandatory taxes to fund religious studies in public schools, to kosher the general public’s food, and to support Yeshivas that the unorthodox will probably never set foot in. There is nothing to complain about, except maybe the hardship of passing your Judaism on to the next generation.
Seeking Judaism was unthinkable to me as it is to many Israeli transplants today. To gradually de-bubblize, I have taught Religious Studies in a Reform congregation. Our older son goes to a Chabad Sunday Hebrew school. Our younger son is still enrolled in a secular, all-Israeli, peanut-serving day-care. My wife has discovered Judaism as never before. We speak both Hebrew and English at home. A string of Israeli flags hangs year-round on our living room wall (this was never the case in Israel). We are looking for the right congregation for us. During our Passover Arizona tour, we connected with a kind Orthodox Rabbi who took us in to his family Seder. My older son sang the four Kushiot his mother taught him, and bravely set through the Seder until past midnight. He is also excited to visit Israeli this coming August. I am anxious. My wife oversaw buying the tickets.
Staying in the Israeli bubble leaves one confused when seeking Jewish identity. There appears to be many shades of Judaism and Jewish values. The crystalized, clear-cut image perceived by many Israelis, that Judaism is a religion whether you like the idea or not, is marred by the colorful mosaic that is US Jewry. Many parents find themselves at a loss. One of them, a personal acquaintance and Israeli expat who has been living in Manhattan for the past 2 years, said “we do consider allowing the children some religion. It’s possible that our religious-coercion induced-trauma has crumbled their roots.”
Israeli consumption of Judaic content is about roots. Roots could be construed as universal Jewish values. Changing one’s past is impossible. I have met more than one person seeking to track, and re-vitalize, its lost Jewish ancestry. Trying to build a lost identity is an unpleasant experience. Hopefully, Israelis will de-bubble-ize and seek to interface with Jewish content. Perhaps even join a congregation or send their children to orthodox Sunday Schools. An equal hope is that US congregations will warm up to Israelis and provide them with a welcoming space.
* Thanks deserved to Rabbi Avi Shafran, the Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel in America, who shared the concept of de-bubblizing during the University of Maryland’s Institute for Israel Studies April conference “American Jews and Israel: Moving in Opposite Directions?”
Ted Oded Avraham is the founder of JeSSI,The Jewish Student Satellite Initiative, where Jewish and Israeli youth collaborate in a space-tech challenge.