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Generation of atheists? No, of ignoramuses


A hot topic in Israel these days is “Hadata” “hadata” “hadata.” It means “religionization.” It doesn’t refer to religious coercion, to forcing Jewish observance on anyone, but to “impacting culture.” “Hadata” refers to “the objection to the presence of any Jewish content anywhere in Israeli public life.”

If you are secular Israeli and your child learned Shema Yisrael in school — hadata; about Shabbat — hadata; about tefillah — hadata.

I believe the controversy began when the ancient Holy Temple, the Beit Hamikdash, was referenced in a preschool graduation ceremony. What can you do? Historically, there was once a Beit Hamikdash that stood in Jerusalem. It is part of the integrity, the reality, the history of this city.

This year, being the jubilee celebration of modern-day reunited Jerusalem, the subject of Jerusalem was deemed the educational theme by Israel’s Ministry of Education. Two years ago the theme was studying “the other as myself.”

I think the word hadata has a horrible connotation. It resonates very negatively, as if passing down our heritage of Jewish content, identity and traditions is “religionization,” an infiltration of sorts. We are talking about Israel! Last I checked, it is a Jewish state.

Why is studying about our heritage, about what makes us who we are, viewed with such animosity and suspicion? Learning about Shema Yisrael, the Jewish holidays and prayers and other topics does not make one a fanatic. It is not indoctrination or brainwashing.

It’s sad to think of the gap that will exist for youngsters who develop their intellectual world to a sophisticated capacity, yet remain ignoramuses about their own identity, history and culture. Studying Judaism does not need to be viewed as religious commitment. Judaism is also our culture, the source of who we are.

In a secular school, studying Jewish history and texts ought to be a neutral endeavor. If students decide to take their study to the next level, more power to them. In a secular school, teaching through a prism of observance ought not be the method — and it’s not. People behind this hadata criticism are painting a picture of aggressive fanatical religious coercion in schools, as if we’ve leapt from a democracy to a theocracy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. But is it wrong for Jewish children to learn how to navigate Jewish texts, see their wisdom and beauty, and gain from them?

When I moved to Israel in my 20s, I worked in an office of all secular Israelis. I was the only observant one. One day, one of my colleagues came into work very upset about a family member who wasn’t well. I said I would pray for her and asked my colleague for her relative’s name.

Appreciatively, she gave the name, upon which I responded with a question — bat? (daughter of). Traditionally, we pray for an ill person with his or her name and mother’s name. Her fast reply was a digital number, since bat also signifies one’s age. I explained to her that I was referring to her relative’s mother. Not only did my colleague have no clue, but she was touched, and thought it a beautiful tradition. She wanted to know more.

This one incident generated a lot of discussion and study among us. At the time, one of the other colleagues shared how she had recently learned of a poll that had been taken in her child’s school, where Israeli children had a hard time matching graphics to the appropriate names of holidays. We all agreed that was sad. If anything, those secular colleagues of mine felt a sense of missed opportunity and regret in their children’s ignorance and disconnect from Judaism. That is when I became exposed to the saying, ratzinu dor shel koferim, kibbalnu dor shel borim (we wanted a generation atheists, we received a generation of ignoramuses) — in Hebrew, it rhymes.

In recent years, I have noticed precisely the opposite in secular Israeli circles. Many in the secular Israeli community are becoming more confident as Jews, more interested in Judaism and Jewish texts. Many of them are fed up with Stockholm syndrome leftists who are negative and self-hating. With the help of leadership from people like Amichai Chikli and organizations such as Leeba and Tavor, I think Jewish pride and balance are slowly being restored to young Israelis.

Agree or disagree, even those campaigning for ascension to the Temple Mount and prayer rights there are no longer represented only by religious settlers. I wonder then, whether this whole hadata campaign is not a last gasp from the staunch liberal secular elite that feels threatened by this spirit of Jewish renewal among Israeli youth.

This hadata discussion could be an opportunity for secular Israelis to take responsibility for the Judaism they decide to pass onto their next generation.

I do not look to Israeli secular schools as an opportunity for what is known as “kiruv levavot,” encouraging observance. I respect where people come from. But neither should teaching about our resilient, creative and long Jewish heritage have to turn into a milchemet achim, a civil war.

After all, we are the Jewish people, we are a Jewish state.

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