By Toby Klein Greenwald
Elections have a tendency to polarize communities and topics, but not everything is black and white. Two issues that have occupied Israeli society’s attention have been joined in what, it turns out, are not strange bedfellows—chareidim and the settling of the Negev, which often finds itself on the front line of attack.
Three years ago, several chareidi ba’alei teshuvah—along with people from religious homes who sought an alternative way to combine Torah with life—decided to do something about their rejection by the mainstream chareidi community.
Try as they might, they recognized that they may never be completely integrated into the greater part of mainstream chareidi society. They found themselves up against constant roadblocks, whether when the children started school, or when the time came for shidduchim.
This is according to Aharon Ariel Lavi, 30, one of the leaders of a new movement, Nettiot. Lavi and several others involved in the movement went public only recently, though in the three years since their establishment, they have grown from two to ten communities, mostly in the Negev and the Galilee, while more communities are in formation. Keren Doron-Katz, of the Negev and Galilee settlement administration, says, “The rapid growth rate, the quality human force, and the social mission make Nettiot a significant factor in the scene of renewed settlement in the Negev and Galilee and part of the national effort to strengthen these areas.”
These communities include over 250 families who operate over 30 different social, environmental, and educational projects that range from mentorship programs for children and youth at risk, to Jewish environmentalism and social justice workshops, to developing centers for chareidi employment and schools that combine religious and secular education, using a curricula developed by members of the Nettiot communities. They believe that they will pave the way for a new and more sustainable type of education for the chareidi population and for the religious population in general.
Nearly all of the members of the Nettiot communities have served in the army, many in elite units or as officers. This is one more difference between them and many (though no longer all) mainstream chareidim. The Nettiot ba’alei teshuvah see themselves as an integral part of Israeli society. Their literature discusses their dedication to tikun olam through social and environmental justice, while trying to live a profoundly religious life.
Lavi says that the Nettiot activists were approached by several parties before the elections, but they prefer to remain “untagged” to any one party, and to work with everyone.
How It Began
Lavi, who spearheaded the movement, had been intensely involved since his youth in activities relating to the environment and ecology. This led him to explore what Judaism had to say about those issues, and he says that he was deeply moved by what he found in the Jewish sources. As a result, he became a ba’al teshuvah when he finished the army, and subsequently spent three years in the urban kibbutz in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Lavi says, “I felt at the time that the religious-Zionist community was not involved enough in environmentalism and social and economic issues, and many among the chareidi community were not open to ba’alei teshuvah.” As a result, he and others began a new movement, one that, he says, “combined the intensity of religious belief and behavior usually found within the chareidi community, with environmental and social activism that we brought with us from the ‘outside’ world.”
Regarding the psychological issues that led to the creation of Nettiot, Lavi says, “Many ba’alei teshuvah are in denial regarding what awaits them when they join the chareidi ‘community,’ which is really not one cohesive community, but a loosely defined collection of groups that follow a range of philosophies.
“For chareidi ba’alei teshuvah, there is no safety net, no family or friends from a previous ‘life’ on whom to fall back regarding issues of religious behavior.” On the other hand, he says, “We believe in a Judaism that cares about environmental and social issues, in connecting Torah with life. There are quite a few dati-leumi (religious-Zionist) families who join us specifically due to that. Our understanding of Torah includes relating to the sociological and philosophical development of a community.”
It was Lavi, a prolific lecturer, who wrote the paper about the housing crisis that was presented to the government in the wake of the social protests of 2011. He also participated in the writing of a position paper about sustainable development, from a Jewish perspective, that was presented at the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June, 2012, and he also published the book (in Hebrew) “On Economy and Sustenance” that deals with economics and society in the light of Judaism.
“We are against polarization and believe in living in and dealing with the real world. We call our communities ‘mission-driven communities’ and we hope that our community activity will reach beyond ourselves and beyond chareidi communities and enclaves. We are not connected to any political party and are emissaries only of ourselves.”
Rav Oded Nitzani, who leads Nettiot together with Lavi and founded Aderaba, the national magazine for ba’alei teshuvah, says, “My agenda is: Take action! And we will cooperate with anyone who shares our goals. We see our way of life as a return to ‘Israeliness.’ We have a significant connection to and within Israeli society, including all other networks of mission-driven communities, from all sectors. We want to be relevant to any topic on the Israeli stage.”
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, there are about 200,000 ba’alei teshuvah in Israel. According to Lavi, many of them identify with the chareidi lifestyle and may account for as much as twenty percent of chareidi society. These are people who grew up in both the secular and the religious world, and as such, may help bridge the gap between chareidi and secular Israelis. Nettiot’s members are working to help bridge that gap.
There are some chareidi communities, says Lavi, in which, ba’alei teshuvah meet with a vicious circle of non-acceptance. First their children are not accepted into chareidi schools, then they are not employed by chareidim, and so forth. The youth, especially, face extraordinary challenges.
“When the children of chareidi families or of ba’alei teshuvah go off the derech, they go even farther than secular youth. Many of them go through horrific experiences. For example, they are sexually exploited because they come from an innocent world and don’t know better. This is one of the reasons that some of the most wrenching problems of chareidi ba’alei teshuvah relate specifically to young people. But it is important to note that even though the proportion of ba’alei teshuvah children at risk is greater than the proportion of chareidi children, there are non-ba’al teshuvah chareidi families who suffer from this problem, as well.
“Actually,” Lavi adds, “the fact that ba’alei teshuvah don’t have roots in the chareidi world is, in one sense, an advantage, because they don’t have a lot to lose compared to people born into chareidi society who are much more dependent on it. More young chareidim increasingly realize this and they come to us at Nettiot, confidentially of course, and say that if we lead the way, they will follow, to forge a new direction in the chareidi world.”
Lavi says that the fact that there are young chareidim coming to Nettiot for help is a refreshing counterpoint to the secular organizations that have been reaching out to those who wish to leave religion. “Nettiot offers them the option of not leaving religion, but giving them an ‘in house’ solution—a chareidi world view of a different flavor.”
An Expanding Network
According to Nettiot, there are more than 120 families on the waiting list to join the Garin at Shuva. The moshav was a rural community with an aging population, in need of rejuvenation, and the Nettiot organization claims that as a direct result of the Garin, young families began joining other moshavim around Shuva, as well, after fifteen years of stagnation in population growth. Another community, called Sde Tzofim, exists in the far north, where over 45 families who left Beitar Illit (a chareidi city near Jerusalem) settled in Ma’alot, a development town.
“We have the encouragement and support of both the local residents in Ma’alot and other organizations, including the government,” says Nitzani, who besides his general role in Nettiot leads the community in Ma’alot. They say they are seeking more partners from abroad—individuals who understand what they are trying to accomplish.
The combination of the various organizations and government offices already working with them in tandem is an anomaly in itself. They include the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, the Ministry for the Protection of the Environment, the Ministry of Health, the Jewish Agency, the Shahaff Foundation, the Negev Forum of Jewish Federations of North-America, local authorities, and several private donors.
Haya Jamshi, CEO of the Shahaff Foundation, which supports dozens of mission-driven communities all over Israel, says that the foundation “identified the Nettiot network as a unique force in the communities world that connects the chareidi and ba’alei teshuvah public to this general Israeli trend. Hence the foundation decided to support this network and its development.”
“We hope to form a critical mass to become one of the most significant bridge-groups between sectors,” says Lavi. “It is our hope that this unique approach will strengthen the social fabric between Jews in Israel in particular, and around the world.”
More information at www.nettiot.org. Aharon Ariel Lavi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 972-50-4734513. v
The author is a contributing editor for the Five Towns Jewish Times, the award-winning director of the Raise Your Spirits educational theater, and editor-in-chief of WholeFamily.com.