The Challenge of Integration Between Religious and Secular Jews

Perhaps the most interesting phenomenon taking place among the general religious body politic, aside from the institutional ‘slide to the right’, is the social ‘slide to the left’. In both the states and here, the attitude of greater openness to Jews who are not fully observant seems to be increasing in certain segments. This slide is different from the ‘ideological left’ that aims at reform of one degree or another, and more about tolerance (and often acceptance) of non-Orthodox Jews. More and more, the issue of social interaction with secular Jews at all ages is becoming less and less of a stigma on the left end of the religious spectrum.

This attitude is not just limited to blogs and commenting sections or ‘Judaism’ sections on ynet or nrg. This reaches to more moderate organizations within Religious Zionism. For instance, Bnei Akiva recently established a branch that operates formally as an ‘integrative’ branch with both religious and secular Jews (and everything in between). Indeed, perhaps the most striking expression of this attitude is in the field of education: in the popular campaign to get parents to send their kids to Mamlachti-Dati schools (rather than more ‘frummy” exclusive schools) and the grassroots growth of ‘integrative’ schools where religious and secular kids attend together.

So what do I think?

The truth is that I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I am very much in favor of letting children and adults have social interaction with people with whom they disagree (but also agree on other things). Nothing ensures mutual respect and the breaking down of stereotypes like regular social contact. Also, since I think that everyone gets exposed to secular culture, people and ideas anyway, controlled interaction is a lot healthier than ‘underground’ reading of banned books or sudden ‘culture shocks’ one receives when you reach adulthood. No doubt, the Jewish identity of less observant Jews will increase with social contact, as well as the increased Jewish curriculum in ‘integrative’ educational frameworks such as schools.

On the other hand, the challenges are just as great, if not more so. Parents who send their children to these frameworks or let them interact with non-observant Jews need to be well prepared. Ironically, parents who do this need to be religiously strong and well-grounded in their beliefs; families with weak or shallow religious commitments are not likely to fare well in this department. When parents decide just how much to expose their children to other lifestyles, they should figure out just how ready they really are.

More than that, though, I am concerned about something else. If the articles in Eretz Aheret are to be believed (as well as some of the ideas floated in the Neemanei Torah VeAvodah Journal Deot issue on education), the ‘integrationist’ schools are not seen as simply meeting places. Some, including the editor of Eretz Aheret, hold out hope that the barriers between the groups will break down completely to create a new kind of Jewish-Israeli identity, bereft of terms like ‘religious’, ‘secular’ &c.

This fits with the general bon-ton of ‘pluralist’ discourse about Jewish identity among the chattering classes – the idea that differences of opinion between Jews are ultimately meaningless as long as we’re all Jews. We don’t have fundamental disagreements, yet get along because we also have just as critical agreements on what it means to be a Jew – no, it’s all sociology or a matter of lifestyle. Indeed, Orthodoxy is often at the receiving end of harsh criticism by the dominant view in academia and the liberal media precisely because we have the gall to make judgements.

I fully support mutual respect and understanding – ‘live and let live’, if you will, between Jews. However, wholesale endorsement of hard pluralism – ‘nobody has the truth’ – is a line I will not cross – not now, not ever. I don’t know about others, but I hold my beliefs and actions to be sacred as well as an integral part of who I am. I am sure those with whom I disagree are no less committed to their values as well. To say that views that directly contradict mine are the same as my own positions is to cheapen both belief systems, because they are both rendered meaningless.

More to the point, and this is the question I’d ask the ‘hard left’ types, what incentive is there to stay religious (let alone Orthodox, that most hated of terms) if there’s no real difference? How can you tell your children to be and act frum if you think that the completely non-observant liberal Jew who supports what you consider to be assimilation is exactly the same as you? If your response is that it doesn’t matter to you, what does this say about the strength of your own religiosity?

What do you think, dear reader?



Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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3 Responses to The Challenge of Integration Between Religious and Secular Jews

  1. fred says:

    while i think it healthy for jews of all stripes [well almost all — i think there are deep problems with the extremes and they should be ostracized], to socialized, i do not think that kids should be doing this: al tigu be-meshichai! they are not mature or confident enough for this kind of engagement. for example: just on the immediate, short term level, they can easily be faced with kashrus and shabbos issues they are not prepared to handle. [this may very well be a problem for adults too, but i am assuming the adults in question have enough personal and religious wherewithal to withstand such temptation.]
    i also have a fear that the religious see/will see this as an opportunity for kiruv, which would be a chilul hashem in my book.

    • AIWAC says:

      1) When you say children, do you mean everyone short of an adult or just the younger ages? There’s a difference.

      2) I agree that it is not a “kiruv” business, which is why I’m happy that the people in charge of these projects (including the religious ones) repeatedly and publicly stress that they are not out to be mahzir bitshuva.

  2. fred says:

    hmm. i think i mean everyone short of an adult.
    i think it is hard enough even for an adult to toe the line just within a supportive frum community.
    when you are in company that wont wash, wont bench, wont interrupt a fun activity for mincha, etc. even many adults would be challenged. we also must hope that the irreligious are respectful and allow for religious rituals and restrictions. otherwise the whole thing will blow up, and will be worse than things were at the outset.
    socializing with the irreligious has inherent no-fault challenges: discussing school and kids, for example. the frum spend a great amount of energy on their kids religious education, and talk about it a lot. this is a conversation which a lot of irreligious cannot take part in. ditto many torah conversations.

    i hope when they say they are not in the kiruv business they mean it.

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