The High Holidays and the choices that ultra orthodox and secular Israelis need to make

by Gideon

Earlier this month I was in Israel for an unplanned trip; Dina, my mother, just passed away.

Because of the circumstances, I did not toured the country as usual. Instead, I spent time with the family and renewed connection with many of my relatives. Staying in one place for more than a week (shiva) gave me the opportunity to see how far I have drifted away from the society I grew up in. 

The High Jewish Holidays period is the one time of the year when the friction between secular and religious ultra-orthodox Israelis is losing some of its steam. All Israelis, in one way or another, celebrate the holidays (see: The High Holidays in Israel).

In the spirit of the upcoming High holidays, I hope that this article will help all of us to focus on the common good, instead of  the division.


I grew up in Israel in a secular society that is not practicing Jewish religions life. At home I didn’t receive any Jewish religious education. Growing up, I knew more about the way people lived across the world, than I knew about my religious Jewish neighbors. The only two times I participated in a religious service were during my bar mitzvah and  when I got married. It was only after I moved to the US that I began going occasionally to the synagogue during the High Holidays and special occasions. – A typical transition for many secular Israelis in America.

Over time, I drifted from a person who had an anti-religious attitude to a secular person with a sympathetic view  of the Jewish religion. I’m still a secular; my Jewish religious practices are limited to celebrating the important Jewish holidays, fasting on Yom Kippur, and eating Kosher food.

The transition over the years in America couldn’t be more visible than during my time in Israel this month: I became an outsider in the secular community, the same way that I’m an outsider in the religious community: I’m part of the family, but certainly lost in the eyes of my relatives on both sides.

My objection to mixed prayers at the Kotel was certainly the wrong thing to say during a dinner conversation with my extended secular Israeli family, the same way that the reasoning for my objection was rejected by  Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein, who actually agreed with my conclusion (see: Mixed services at the Wall: Why we object to it). 

As a person who is consdered an outsider by both sides, seculars and religious, I feel that I can be objective. I made few observations while in Israel. I’m sharing them in hope to stimulate a productive discussion.

There are very strong anti-religious emotions among secular Israelis for good reasons:

  • The disproportionate public financial allocation that goes to ultra-orthodox families as a result of the pressure that the ultra-orthodox religious parties apply on the coalition.
  • Whenever the ultra-orthox parties have an opportunity do do so, they restrict services on Sabbath. These one-sided acts infuriate secular Israelis. I witnessed it this month: The ultra-orthodox parties forced the stoppage of a scheduled repair on the main  railroad between Hifa and Tel Aviv. This work was postponed until Sunday (a working day in Israel). The traffic jams in Israel that Sunday were the most talked about subject that day. Oddly enough, most of the criticism was against the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu . However, it was just another case when secular Israelis felt that their lifestyle was threatened by the ultra-orthox Israeli community. 
  • Another reason for the anti-religious feelings is the refusal of the ultra-orthodox Israelis to serve in the military. The heavy burden of protecting Israel is falling mostly on the secular Israeli  community. 

The combination of the disproportionate public funds allocation, the refusal to serve in the army, and the repeated attempts to enforce religious restrictions on the secular community, fuel strong anti-religious feelings in the secular Israeli community.

If secular Israelis are stressed about the situation, so do the ultra-orthodox Israelis:

One of the articles published here recently was the article  Why is it OK to hate religious Jews? by Rivka Levy a religious Jewish author, who told the story from the opposite side. This article stimulated more responses than any other article I published in the past six month. Many supported Rivka, while many others were unsympathetic.

While secular Israelis focus on the injustice that is done to them, I’m not sure that they understand the difficulties that people in the ultra-orthodox community are going through. The heavy price that people in the ultra-orthodox community are paying, in many cases not by choice, but because they were born into this system.

  •  The Israeli media ridicules and attacks non-stop the ultra-orthodox community. As a minority it is always on the defense. The more it is attacked, the more it isolates itself, and reassure its people that this is the right way. 
  • Even with all the extra funding, the ultra-orthodox community is very poor. The living standards in an ultra-orthodox community are much lower that in the neighboring secular community.
  • As in all closed communities, individuals are restricted in many ways. They do not have the same opportunities that the open modern Israeli society provides.
  • Ultra-orthodox people who do not join the army are not eligible for government assistance in programs designed to help young people begin their professional carriers. Discharged soldiers do.    
  • In a country where the first question a young adult is asked in a job interview is: “Where did you serve in the army?” Many jobs are closed to ultra-orthodox young people, and in other jobs they are being discriminated against because of lack of military service.

This is not to say that there is a solid wall between secular and religious people in Israel. To the contrary, Israel is a country of paradoxes and this is one of them: On individual basis there are no barriers. Most extended Israeli families include both; religious and secular members. Secular and religious Israeli work together, attend the same secular and religious family events, and share the same ultimate objective of building an independent self-sufficient strong Jewish state. 

However, there is one demographic indicator that threatens the existence of Israel and it is not the Palestinian birth rate:

On average, Israeli secular families have 2-3 children. Average religious Israeli family have at least twice the number of children.  That means that at one point there will be more people in Israel who are not serving in the army then people who do. It also means that there will be more people who live on government financial support than taxpayers. Israel will not survive under these conditions, especially if the religious majority will make the life of the secular minority miserable. For that reason, it doesn’t matter if a person is religious, secular, believes in G-d, or not, the religious community has to make few choices:

  1. Does it want to be the majority in Israel?
  2. Can it afford to alienate the secular Israeli Community?
  3. What will it do on the day when the government runs out of money?
  4. Who will defend its way of life if the secular Israeli community is too small to do that? 

The secular Israeli community also needs to make few choices:

  1. Does the Israeli secular community prefer to isolate or integrate the ultra-orthodox community?
  2. Is ridiculing the ultra-orthodox the best way to get cooperation.
  3. Is the funneling of money through the ultra-orthodox parties the best way to lift the community out of poverty?
  4. Is it best to let the status quo determine restrictions on Sabbath, or passing a law, acceptable to both sides is a better way to reslve the issue once and for all. 

The ten days period, which starts with Rosh Hashanah and ends in Yom Kippur is called the Ten Days of Repentance (Days of Awe). This is a time for serious introspection, a time to consider the sins of the previous year and repent before Yom Kippur. Among the customs of this time, it is common to seek reconciliation with people you may have wronged during the course of the year. The Talmud maintains that Yom Kippur atones only for sins between man and G-d. To atone for sins against another person, you must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs you committed against them if possible.

As we go to synagogues this High Holiday period, let’s remember each other; secular and religious. Let’s remember Hillel’s famous words:

“That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole Law. The rest is commentary.”


Shanah Tovah!!!

May this coming year bring peace, prosperity, and happiness to Am Israel and the Jewish people wherever they are.