Reference to communities in Yerushalayim in my recent column regarding changes in our local rabbinate resulted in my being questioned as to how Orthodox religious life in Israel – especially that termed Charedi – differs from its counterpart in Diaspora communities such as here in Australia.
Let me preface my answer by saying that certain segments of the local Orthodox community may well resemble their Israeli counterparts in regard to the intensity of much religious practice. The Orthodox Jewish world as it is represented in Australia as well as that which exists in Israel, is composed of a continuum of levels of “religious” involvement rather than a number of segmented communities. Nevertheless there clearly are differences between Israeli and Diaspora communities which will amaze, bewilder or simply concern the onlooker.
Firstly there is the issue of communal isolation. Whereas in the Diaspora Orthodox Jews live among the general community and inevitably absorb, at least by osmosis, aspects of the general way of life, most Israelis – secular or religious – have little contact with non-Jews in their daily lives. (The interrelationship/interaction in Israel between Jews and the Arab population is significantly different from the interaction between Diaspora Jews and their gentile neighours.)
But I have been amazed to find how many secular Israelis have literally never had anything to do with “religious” Jews or “religion” (perhaps other than a chance meeting with a Chabad shaliach stopping them in the street). And beyond that reality, many members of the Israeli Charedi community also have little regular contact with Israeli Jews outside their own community.
Charedi families tend to shun the regular media. I found it disturbing that in many religious neighbourhoods of Yerushalayim I couldn’t even buy The Jerusalem Post – let alone mainstream secular Hebrew dailies such as Maariv and Yediot Achronot. Israeli Charedim tend to read only Charedi newspapers; the content of those newspapers is strikingly different from that of the general press. Headlines regarding the movements and utterances of rabbis and rebbes often take precedence over current affairs – even matters relating to Yerushalayim or Israel. Many listen only to religious radio stations and certainly do not watch television. As far as online electronic media are concerned, while there is serious opposition in principle (expressed on street posters and street demonstrations in Charedi neighbourhoods), inevitably cracks are appearing in practice.
Israeli Charedim are far more insular in this regard than their Diaspora counterparts. But the lack of Charedi interest in general media is reflected in media content – and impacts on what others learn from media regarding Charedi life.
Of course despite what some would mistakenly seem to learn from the media inside and outside Israel, Orthodoxy in Israel is not synonymous with the Charedi community. Outside overtly insular Charedi communities, and especially outside Yerushalayim and other major Charedi centres, other segments of the Israeli Orthodox community tend to lifestyles whose religious content is more similar to those we know in Orthodox communities worldwide.
But at a different level, in an Orthodox neighbourhood of Jerusalem, there are few men who do not regularly attend services, as far as possible both in the morning and evening.
Thus so many shules do not only have one service each weekday morning and evening which is poorly attended by comparison with services on Shabbat and holidays – the latter situation being that in most Diaspora communities and suburban Australian shules except the most Orthodox.
Many Jerusalem shules – and shules elsewhere in Israel – have multiple minyanim operating from before sunrise until three or four hours into each morning. Similarly minyanim for afternoon and evening services form continuously both inside and outside shules from some time before sunset until well into the night.
Compared to most Diaspora communities, there are also fewer men or women who do not devote fixed times in the day or week to shiurim. In almost all cases the shiurim involve intensive study of advanced texts, copies of which are a feature of every home. Yes, even some kibbutzim have a Daf Yomi shiur.
Regarding kashrut, practices also differ. A variety of Israeli kashrut authorities reflect differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic custom; others reflect variants between the standards of the ultra-Orthodox community and those set by the official city rabbinate. Differences between different kashrut authorities in the Diaspora tend to be not as stark – and often are rooted in communal historic and financial issues rather than such matters of halachic principle and custom.
In Jerusalem, despite inroads of Tzohar and the so called “Kashrut Mehuderet” facilitated by regulatory change instituted by the current government, the mehad–rin (enhanced) standard rules – an estab-lish–ment using anything less would exclude half of the local market.
As I also saw on my recent visit, differing attitudes to locally grown produce in the context of this year being a sh’mitah year are also significant in regard to hechsherim.
There are also different emphases in regard to dress. Traditional forms of Chassidic dress and the hat and jacket attire for men aside, there is much more emphasis on “modest” dress and head coverings for women ranging from the headscarf to the sheitel.
Even within Israel it can be quite a culture shock to make the one-hour ride from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv where modes of dress and general appearances are so different from those of Jerusalem even in its less Orthodox neighbourhoods.
Of course there are exceptions to these lifestyle emphases. Kibbutzim and other smaller communities have their own religious flavour. Inevitably Israeli communities with a stronger immigrant representation be they in Modi’in, Ra’anana and portions of Beit Shemesh are less inward looking. The same is to be said of communities where many have had higher education and achieved professional qualifications, and who have broader professional and client networks. And as is the case in the Diaspora including our own Australian community, there are many shades to what is broadly termed “Modern Orthodoxy”.
Diaspora communities could gain much from understanding Israeli Orthodox practice. A Netflix serial such as Shtisel may provide some insight to the Charedi world but is far from the be-all educative source of information for other elements of the Jewish (and even gentile) world.
Within Israel resolution of the lack of understanding and attendant prejudices is a task requiring urgent attention in the interests of the future of a united Israel.
A little more openness in this regard would be useful in the Diaspora as well.
Yossi Aron OAM is The AJN’s religious affairs editor.