Israelis, Too, Want That Old-Time Religion

It will take awhile to put the pieces together in a way that demonstrates a clear trend. If anything, the new poll on the religious preferences of Israelis shows opposing trends coexisting.

Israel’s Central Statistical Office released its latest results on Monday, and they were picked up immediately by Israeli papers.

Of the respondents, all over the age of 20, 8% saw themselves as charedim, 12% dati’im, 13% mesorti’im-dati’im, and 25% mesorti’im-not-so-much-dati’im. [Presumably, we would call the first two categories legitimately Orthodox in American parlance, while regarding the next two as “traditional”, differing in how much tradition they still adhered to while professing no acceptance of the yoke of mitzvos as fully binding.] Self-styled chilonim accounted for 42% of the sample. In other words, 20% consider themselves Orthodox, outnumbered two-to-one by Jews who consider themselves secular. Yet another large group – 38% – represent a group almost absent in America: non-Orthodox Jews who still identify as having important religious leanings. This middle group represents a huge challenge to the kiruv community, as does the secular cohort, although the latter likely needs to be approached through completely different programs and tools.

While American Jews are notoriously the most “unchurched” of American religious groups, the term “chiloni” in Israel should not be taken as the equivalent of America’s unaffiliated. A whopping 72% of Israelis, i.e. well in excess of the 58% who are either Orthodox or religiously inclined, attended shul sometime in the year before the poll was taken. Within the chiloni community, 82% attend a Pesach seder. (It is safe to assume that they would not be coming back if their experiences were anything like those depicted by Woody Allen.) Chanukah lights are kindled by 67% of them.

How well has the Teshuva revolution fared in Israel? As a movement that simply didn’t exist a few decades ago, it has done remarkably well. A full 5.4% of the population call themselves chozrim b’teshuva. Baalei teshuva amount to 22% of the charedi population, and 17% of the dati community. (The last two numbers belie the common perception that almost all ba’alei teshuva gravitate towards the charedi world, preferring the “genuine” article to the more “watered-down” standards of the religious-Zionist world. The ranks of both groups have swelled almost equally through the infusion of baalei teshuva. Perhaps some returnees are turned off by aspects of the charedi world, or turned on by aspects of the dati world that they cannot find further to the right. Perhaps many dati’im are just as “genuine,” after all, as many charedim. Perhaps all of these possibilities are true!) On the other hand, the two communities show different susceptibility to dropping out. Twenty percent of chilonim say that they were once dati’im; only one percent of them come from the charedi world.

Contrary to the ruminations of American armchair critics, those who embrace practice do not do so because of a search for meaning after a personal crisis (17%). The influence of family members is more important (25%). The largest group – 49% – attributes its return to the fold of observance to education. Having learned more about it, they have made the personal decision to be bound by it.

Many in the US assume that those who come back do so from the masorti community, already favorably disposed to religion. While 53% do if fact come from masorti backgrounds, 29% come from secular beginnings.

Of those outside the two “Orthodox” groups, 48% complied with laws of kashrus on Pesach, and 33% the rest of the year. Only 11%, however, refrain from travelling on Shabbos, which may mean that soccer is more attractive to Israelis than white bread.

Where are Israelis heading? To different places at the same time. While 20% say that they are more observant than they used to, they are almost offset by 14% who say that their observance has headed south.

The very different attitude towards religion by even “secular” Israelis has always been lost to American heterodox leaders whose shrill calls we hear to give Reform and Conservative a chance to win the hearts of Israelis. For better or worse, the old saw is still likely true. For the vast majority of non-Orthodox Israelis, the shul they don’t daven in is Orthodox – by choice!

[Thanks to Dr Saul Newman, Los Angeles, for the tip.]

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20 Responses

  1. Nachum says:

    “represent a group almost absent in America: non-Orthodox Jews who still identify as having important religious leanings.”

    Alternatively, they represent a group once very widespread in America but now, for several reasons, much smaller: Non-observant Orthodox Jews. (Thus, by the way, indeed accepting the “yoke” of mitzvot, at least in theory.) In practice they’re pretty much the same thing, though, but with that terminology, under American definitions, more than half of Israelis are “Orthodox.”

    I still remember being struck after reading an account of the convention of Shinui, perhaps the most anti-religious (or just religious establishment?) party in Israel. It took place on Chanukkah, and before it began, its leader, Tommy Lapid- maybe the most prominent secular person in Israel- put on a kippah, said the brachot, and lit the menorah. Yes, “secular” means something quite different in Israel than in America. There’s a level of religiosity higher even than the average Reform or Conservative Jew.

  2. rtw says:

    Kimmy Caplan wrote that speculation that the baal teshuva movement is largely a bunch of former mess-ups who found religion couldn’t really be proven by current data. After all, the memory of baalei teshuva who are interviewed by sociologists may adopt a narrative that they were just so awful before they became frum and Judaism is what saved them.

    As for education, I think academics have long agreed with the analysis that Orthodox education — although they would refer to it as evangelizing — is a major cause of “return.”

    Good to know that the academic writings I’ve read on this topic seem to be confirmed by the statistics!

  3. Jacob T says:

    “a group almost absent in America: non-Orthodox Jews who still identify as having important religious leanings.”

    Are the religious leanings of millions of American heterodox Jews unimportant, or unreligious?

  4. dovid 2 says:

    An interesting statistic: A study found that 31.4% of those attending army captain courses in 2007 in Eretz Israel came from religious homes. (link available)

  5. Yosh says:

    How much of the “religiously inclined but not fully shomer mitzvot” group is Sephardi? My guess would be “a lot” but I’d be curious to see if they asked that in the survey.

  6. cn says:

    actually,chozrim b’tshuva who become datim usually respect charedim but don’t become them since they feel they aren’t on the level,as opposed to (urban young)secular-minded datim who disdain the charedim more than chilonim do.

  7. Menachem Lipkin says:

    Thanks for this Rabbi Adlerstein. Of course for many of us who live here these stats just reinforce what we see anecdotally on a daily basis.

    This should also give pause to the anti/non Zionists out there. Take America’s catastrophically horrible Jewish stats (assimilation, intermarriage,etc.) and superimpose them over Israel’s 6 million Jews to get a rough idea of what might have become of them had the state not existed.

  8. pk says:

    More people in Israel would keep Shabbos if Israel had a Sunday to play Soccer on.

  9. Ken Bloom says:

    Of those outside the two “Orthodox” groups, 48% complied with laws of kashrus on Pesach, and 33% the rest of the year. Only 11%, however, refrain from travelling on Shabbos, which may mean that soccer is more attractive to Israelis than white bread.

    I wonder what the statistics are in the US. There are certainly lots non-O Jews who observe kashrut (even people who are ignorant as to some of the requirements of the law, or who have been told that they are keeping kosher by Conservative or Reform rabbis, would self-report that they keep kosher).

  10. Miriam says:

    actually, chozrim b’tshuva who become datim usually respect charedim but don’t become them since they feel they aren’t on the level….

    Uh – how are you defining charedi? If you mean people who spurn their former sources of income and sit in kollel exclusively – then I guess that would be a tough hurdle for most adults-with-obligations who otherwise fully enter charedi society.

    Somehow my understanding of elu v’elu never meant one opinion is the higher “level” and the other, less-worthy opinion can only hope to kiss its toenails out of respect.

    I think most baalei teshuva (and most frum people) are simply respectful of all frum people – even all people as much as they can be. If we can’t appreciate what the approach of another group contributes – l’chatchila – to overall society, we aren’t achieving our best as Jews ourselves.

    Along the religious spectrum, an individual’s favorite flavor of Judaism is more a modern cultural invention than a direct Mesorah from Sinai – charedism included.

  11. Chareidi Leumi says:

    >chozrim b’tshuva who become datim usually respect charedim but don’t become them since they feel they aren’t on the level

    Or more likey, they are confident in their own worldview and see Hareidism as either an alternative on the same level or something they passed along on their way up to where they are now.

  12. L. Oberstein says:

    The tragedy of Judaism in the Modern Era is that it seems to be “either-or”. Long term traditionalism, strong ethnic and tribal feelings, all the things that kept us Jewish in the Diapora for centuries seem to have vanished in the modern age. Either you believe in fundamental , old time revealed Torah, oral and written ,or you just can’t seem to pass it on to the next generation. What a shame that we are losing so many Jews who cannot accept beliefs that are often presented as so opposite of modern sensitivities that one recoils. If I were not already frum and did not have some Jewish education, I would wonder why I should identify with orthodoxy. I would feel very uncomfortable in a service all in Hebrew with hours of prayers to a G-d I hardly felt or understood. To become a baal teshuva is a major change of direction and I applaud those who can sincerely throw away the sensitivities and priorities of modern life for a way of living that while spiritually rich is so at odds with all we are used to. Thank G-d. I found my place in that world, but it is sad to see how few Jews even care any more about Yom Kippur. we should have a gmar chasima tova and merit to see real religion in our lives and communities.

  13. dr. bill says:

    “On the other hand, the two communities show different susceptibility to dropping out. Twenty percent of chilonim say that they were once dati’im; only one percent of them come from the charedi world.”

    I would suggest that we be careful about statistics. 1) Dropouts accumulate over a long period; the relative sizes of the two communities underwent significant changes over the relevant decades. Just count the number of those in kollel in 1955 versusu 2010.) 2) Compare the dropout rate of the german orthodox community between the world wars to that of orthodox lita and poland. to the extent that those communities reflected the current israeli dati/chareidi communities (probably not all that exact but directionally correct), should give one reason to think a bit harder. 3) and perhaps most important, the more relevant statistics are a) the CURRENT rate of dropouts, b) changes in that rate (the second derivative for those mathematically inclined) and c) the degree of abandonment of various dropouts, however measured. it is no small secret that the return rate of the children of “dropouts” is tied to c).

    All in all however, with tzippi livni giving mussar on synagogue attendance, israeli society, absent the aberrations both to the right and left, is developing its own mode of yiddishkeit as it continues to meld its diverse strands of jewish heritage. i am very hopeful.

  14. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    There is a palpable return to tradition in Israeli society and it is no secret. The Israeli weekly Besheva, in its Erev Yom Kippur edition, had a list of top 40 Israeli chozrim b’teshuva. They included successful businessmen, performers, former army officers, political figures, academics, you name it. Anyone who reads these thumbnail sketches will have to be lacking a few marbles to think that people who return to religion are mainly losers.
    Changing the subject only a little bit, I want to tell you how I and some of my neighbors from Kochav Hashachar spent YK. We made a minyan on secular Kibbutz Hamadia just north of Beit Shean. On RH Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun and his family made a minyan there which was the first public prayer service ever held on that kibbutz. The attendance was good and people were very happy to see us. Almost forty years ago when my wife was a single student seeking out Jewish tradition, family friends offered to connect her to a psychologist who knew English in order to set her straight. In the words of Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changin’.

  15. cvmay says:

    Thank you Yehoshua Friedman, for the enlightening stories,,,may they continue to grow.

    As a family involved in Chinuch in New Orleans, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Suffolk County, Secular and Traditional Israelis who find themselves in small cities in America (for professional, educational or financial reasons) SEARCH for the community Day Schools for their children’s education. The public or private (non Jewish) schools are a complete turn-off for them. The Day School, especially if it offers some type of Ivrit program, is a welcoming flag. When they return to Israel their children usually continue in a ‘mamlachti dati’ school since they have been exposed to positive Yiddishkeit.

  16. L. Oberstein says:

    How you welcome people is also critical. My daughter is taking a semester in a far away city. For Yom Kippur she went with another girl to the closest city with an orthodox shul. She told me that she never saw her hosts, they provided a guest house and the girls were responsible for their own pre and post fast food. No one in the shul greeted them. She wasn’t upset she hadn’t expected more,but it bothers me. I encouraged her to go to Chabad for yom tov. They will welcome her. Isn’t something wrong with this picture. I don’t want to speak ill about a community and thus have left out the cityk,but that is not how one treats guests.

  17. L. Oberstein says:

    I would appreciate hearing feed back from my Israeli friends on this question. My son in Modiin told me that Yom Kippur in Israel today is mostly observed by children riding bicycles in the street which is free of traffic.It is a day of fun for the kids because they can play in the street and no one gets hurt. We discussed if this is a good or bad phenomenon. It is certainly better than those who made Yom Kippur Balls, ate in public and showed their disdain for religion. On the other hand, it reduces Yom Kippur to something like Memorial Day in the USA. Who remembers those who died in the wars any more in the USA, Memorial Day is just the end of summer vacation. Is Yom Kippur Israel’s Memorial Day?

  18. Miriam says:

    Rabbi O – I wonder whether those who provided the guest house were actually keeping their distance after a past experience with out-of-town guests who didn’t trust their kashrus, wanted to be left alone, lacked the grace to say hello and explain politely any religious “chumrot”, etc. ?

    10 year old boys with nothing to do all day on Yom Kippur is a big problem. My own son isn’t that old yet, but by the time he is BE”H our community will be running some youth programming to give them more content than poking into manholes, usurping childrens’ toys (since their balls long since popped in vigorous soccer games)….

    It’s a lot to expect of the mothers, but we’re going to have to do it. The alternative isn’t very “chinuchi.”

  19. Reb Yid says:

    Not sure I agree with the blogger’s conclusions.

    Note the recent poll by the Israeli government on the issue of conversion–the overwhelming majority of self-described “secular” Israelis (and healthy minority of “traditional” Jews) state that those converted by Reform or Conservative rabbis should be considered Jewish.

    Note, too, the growing number of Israelis who are going to Cyprus or elsewhere to get married in a civil ceremony.

    The real test is to have everyone on equal footing–separation of synagogue and state. Then 5 or 10 years later, let’s see how the various polls pan out.

    [YA – The importance of that poll is vastly overstated. The majority of Israelis want to have their cake and eat it too. They want people converted abroad to be fully accepted as Israelis. (And they already are, which is only part of the deception being carried on by the heterodox movements in the US.) They want Russian immigrants treated as fully Israeli as well. OTOH, they have no room for ersatz that do not resemble the religion in which they are lax in observance. They want the shul they do not daven in to be Orthodox. They are too familiar with the real product to accept an imitation. The only exceptions are the completely secular Israelis – who will equally turn down any form of religious practice, Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform]

  20. Reb Yid says:

    Regarding YA’s comment:

    Comparing American Jewish and Israeli societies is comparing apples and oranges.

    Zionism and the establishment of Israel was not about changing religion. It was part of the more radical political/structural ideas emanating from E. Europe/Russia on how to eliminate anti-Semitism. If religion needed to be trotted out at all, the “old” one would suffice. And often it was suffused with nationalistic meaning.

    On the other hand, modifying religion has always been central to American Jewish identity and society…from the belief that this alone would enable one to “fit in”. Same with institutional life–synagogues, even Orthodox ones, are much more important to American Jews than to Israel Jews…they serve an ethnic/communal function that is found elsewhere in Israeli society.

    The above is a brief synopsis why Israeli and American Jews do not understand each other (at least in terms of the other’s Jewish identity). It’s also highly ironic that many American Jews get “fed” on Israel through their synagogues, of all places…since the Israeli reality is quite different (and thus quite bewildering to the average American Jew).

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