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First-person What’s in a Label? Oleh Finds out That in Israel, They’re Unavoidable

November 7, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

There’s an old joke about a Jew who finds himself stranded on a desert island and builds two synagogues. Why? Because every Jew needs a synagogue in which he refuses to set foot.

Before my move to Israel, I knew there would be some religious environments where I would feel more comfortable than in others. But I longed for the time when I could shed the labels of the American Jewish community.

Gone would be the distinction between Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, modern Orthodox, just plain Orthodox, etc.

Since such categories don’t exist in Israel, I thought, I would simply be called a Jew, one among all the Jews living in our homeland.

Sadly, it hasn’t taken me long to realize that, in Israel, I’ve traded one label for another.

In Israel, everything is absolute. Communities define themselves in very specific terms and cater to very specific religious groups.

Of course there are small breakaway communities and those with mixed populations, drawing either from different religious camps or from religious and nonreligious families.

In general, though, most groups seem quite segregated. Even in cities like Jerusalem, religious outlook changes as quickly as the landscape, and from one block to another there can be stark differences in dress and observance.

So far I’ve refused these labels for myself and resent them as a whole. They rob me of my individuality and take away the uniqueness of all who are labeled.

I try to appreciate the positives of all the communities I visit. Tasting the different flavors of the diverse religious communities here, I’m exploring my own religious boundaries.

On a recent trip to Safed, I spent Shabbat morning with a group of Chasidim. They all wore shiny silver robes, donning fur hats as the Shabbat sun touched down on the backdrop of the mountains.

I wasn’t the only one dressed in khakis and a button-down shirt, but I was among the minority.

Their prayers and devotion inspired me, but I could never dress like them or live in their community. I enjoyed spending Shabbat morning in their synagogue, ate some kugel at their kiddush — and then went back to my world.

But I’m staring to realize that sooner or later, when the time comes to choose a community, I’m going to have to take on a label.

One group is labeled charedim, which literally means “those who tremble” before God. The stereotype for these fervently Orthodox is that they wear only black and white, are removed from the secular world and harbor negative feelings toward the government and State of Israel.

Of course, there are varieties within charedi communities, depending on the number of Americans — who generally tend to give a community more openness — location and economic level.

Then there is the dati leumi, or national religious, camp. Its members tend to be more open to the secular world, especially when it comes to occupational choice and schooling.

Many of their communities are in the West Bank, and they’re known for their merging of religious and Zionist ideals.

This community views Israel as a vehicle for positive change. They dress in more modern fashion and men usually wear colorful knitted kipot.

Just this past week, I heard a new term used, “chardal.” This melding of the words charedi and dati leumi refers to those connected to the seriousness of Torah learning and stricter observance of Jewish Law — like the charedim — but who are Zionist and have a more positive view of the secular world and Israel, like the dati leumi camp.

I understand that people want to express their ideals, but by creating more labels I can’t help but feel that we’re separating ourselves more and more.

I, too, hope to find a community that expresses my ideals within the religious world, but I’m bitter about taking on a new label, being forced into a box in which others will think they can tell my political, social and religious beliefs by the shirt I wear and the kind of kipah on my head.

As a grant recipient of Nefesh B’Nefesh, I’m also on their e-mail list. Usually I find myself deleting large numbers of e-mails with subject lines such as “American toasters in Israeli power sockets.”

Recently, however, an interesting stream of e-mails has addressed this topic of labels. It seems that others also aren’t happy about taking on these stereotypes, but have accepted them in the name of integration.

One part of an e-mail stuck out: “As much as I hate labels, we have been trying to figure out what we are here, and this” — chardal group — “might just be it! We live in a very nice charedi town, but we are a little more modern. We have been to dati leumi communities, and my husband has dati leumi relatives, but we have found that we are stricter on some points than some dati leumi. We are with Chabad, but we aren’t Chabadniks either “

My first reaction was that if you hate taking on labels, then don’t do it: You don’t have to be chardal, you can just be a Jew.

I spoke with Dodi Tobin, director of social services for Nefesh B’Nefesh, about the issue of labels. She agreed that taking on new labels can be uncomfortable for Americans, but that they’re necessary a adjustment to life in Israel.

To some extent, olim — new immigrants to the Jewish state — need to choose a group somewhere on the Jewish spectrum “to determine community and, more importantly, the schools that you send your children to,” Tobin explained. “If you don’t somehow identify, it’s going to be difficult to determine those things.”

I thought about my own ideals for a moment, how I want to be surrounded with others who see the State of Israel as a vehicle for the Jewish people: The more that we connect and uplift the state, the more the Jewish people go up with it.

I realized that my ideology is an important factor in my choice of community, but by making that distinction for myself, I didn’t feeling like I was damaging Jewish unity.

I realized the real question isn’t my approach to Torah or the State of Israel. The real question is whether I can be tolerant and understanding of those Jews who have different ideals, be they religious or secular.

Maybe the goal should be to appreciate our differences and help make our communities — and ourselves — the best reflection of those ideals.

Despite our labels, despite all the choices we must make in order to define ourselves religiously and politically, and to decide where to live and raise our families, our highest concern should be compassion toward our fellow Jews, regardless of their labels.

If anyone asks me how I classify myself, I’m going to answer, “I’m just Jew, like all the other Jews living in our homeland.”

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