From Orthodox to secular and back again

From Orthodox to secular and back again

A conversation with Rockland County Y.U. professor Dr. Joshua Karlip

Dr. Joshua Karlip
Dr. Joshua Karlip

It’s an only-in-Israel reality show premise. The 10 episodes of “Od Nipagesh” — “We Will Meet Again” — followed five secular Israelis who were estranged from relatives who had become charedi.

Dr. Joshua Karlip ran across it on YouTube. He was fascinated by it.

Dr. Karlip, who lives in Rockland County, is a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University. He recently was appointed associate director of the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies. In that capacity, he wants to look at the secular-religious divide in Israel. And as part of that project, on December 3 he hosted a Zoom presentation spinning out of “Od Nipagesh.”

For “Healing the Rift: A Secular Israeli’s Journey to the Orthodox World,” which drew an audience of 100 people, he interviewed two women who appeared on the show, Nurit Sirkis-Bank and Bella Raboy.

Ms. Raboy went to Israel from Moscow with her family in 1991, when she was 2 years old. Her parents divorced when she was young; her father then found religion and became charedi. He remarried and had seven more kids.

“Growing up, she had nothing to do with him,” Dr. Karlip said. “She felt very abandoned. When he picked her up for visits he forced her to go to shul, which soured her on Judaism and charedim in particular.”

The show paired each of the secular Israelis with a charedi mentors, who are themselves baalei teshuva, people who embraced Orthodoxy after growing up secular, “so they understand each side,” Dr. Karlip said. The reunification is a nine-day process; for the first 36 hours the secular Israeli has to take a vow of silence. “The idea is after 36 hours of shadowing their charedi mentor, their opposition and hatred will drop,” Dr. Karlip said. “Through the process the mentor is coming to respect the charedi way of life, so they can respect the family member. The mentor creates a channel so they can reconnect to the family member.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the show was created by baalei teshuva.

Dr. Sirkis-Bank was Ms. Raboy’s charedi mentor. “She’s an art curator, who finished her Ph.D. in visual aspects of chasidic weddings,” Dr. Karlip said. “She does a lot of volunteer work in terms of introducing art to girls in the charedi school system in Jerusalem, and works with and mentors single mothers. She works on a lot of programs bridging the charedi-secular divide. She’s a very impressive person.

“As soon as Bella and Nurit meet, they have an instant soul connection. All of Bella’s anti-religiosity falls away as she learns to disentangle her father from charedism and Judaism in general. They become very close friends.

Nurit Sirkis-Bank and Bella Raboy

“Nurit opened up a path to reconcile with her father. Today, 14 months later, she has a very good relationship with her father, and good relationships with her sisters. She’s extremely close with one of the sisters. She goes there for Shabbos and they were planning on going away together for Chanukah. She’s keeping Shabbat and kashrut. The show is really about bridging the gap between charedim and chilonim” — secular Israeli Jews — “through individual relationships and love.”

Dr. Karlip’s conversation with the two Od Nipagesh participants is part of a series of live webcasts that YU began this summer.

“There was this joint crisis of covid and the murder of George Floyd and the protests that swept the country,” he said. “We wanted to have a voice at this moment.

“As historians, we believe we have something to say about the present. Past crises and the way out of those crises can serve as a model for the present.”

In August, as part of the series, he interviewed Dr. Larry Martin, “an African American man who is now in his late 70s, who was born and raised in the Jim Crow South. He made his way in his lifetime from being a sharecropper to getting a Ph.D. in history at NYU and becoming a history professor.” He recently retired from Coppin State University in Baltimore.

The topic of the divide between Orthodox and secular Jews ties back to Dr. Karlip’s dissertation research. His first book, “The Tragedy of a Generation: The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism in Eastern Europe,” looks at three Yiddishist intellectuals who advocated Yiddish-speaking autonomy for Europe’s Jews in the wake of the First World War, only to find themselves embracing Zionism and a renewed religiosity in the face of Nazism.

Dr. Karlip traces his interest in European Jewish history to his childhood in Baltimore, and particularly to when he discovered Isaac Bashevis Singer’s children’s books. “I wondered what it would be like to grow up in Eastern Europe,” he said. “I heard stories from my grandmother about her parents growing up in Russia.” And several of his elementary school teachers at the Beth Tfiloh day school in Baltimore were Holocaust survivors from Poland.

“All that ignited an interest in me,” he said.

He studied history at John Hopkins University, with an assist in Jewish studies at the Baltimore Hebrew University. For graduate school, he went to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. “JTS is a real center of Eastern European Jewish studies,” he said.

“My family history mirrors the story I told in my book, about a movement from socialism and secular Yiddish culture to a move to re-embrace traditional Judaism. I grew up very close to my maternal grandmother, who told me stories about her father, who was a socialist and and a Yiddishist and came to Baltimore from Russia. In my personal life, my parents sent me to Jewish day school. At the time of my bar mitzvah I decided to become observant and keep Shabbos. That’s been the trajectory of my life.

“I sort of see this process that occurred in several generations in my family paralleled in some of the life stories I discovered in my book. People went from being traditional religious Jews in Russia to rejecting that and adopting a secular identity of Jewishness, to feeling a sense of despair over the future of secular Yiddish culture, to a re-embrace of Judaism on different level.

“To bring it back to this Israeli TV series, I see myself as like Nurit, who was Bella’s mentor, as a bridge between the world of secular Israelis and the world of charedi Israelis. In a similar way, I’m a bridge. I’ve lived on both sides. At least I understand both sides of the Jewish scene in America.

“I understand the secular American world from the world of my grandmother and my family’s friends and acquaintances. On the other hand, my parents started becoming more traditional once they sent me to Beth Tfiloh, and I’ve lived in the Orthodox world for a long period of time.

“I believe strongly that the two communities should get to know each other,” he said.

For his next project, Dr. Karlip is looking at Russian rabbinic responses to the Soviet Revolution, and the secularization that the Communist Party imposed on the Jewish community in subsequent decades. “I believe there’s a whole untold story of rabbinic resistance and a struggle to maintain religious life in the Soviet Union,” he said.

“Dr. Elissa Bemporad wrote a book, ‘Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk,’ where she finds evidence that the majority of meat produced and sold in Minsk in the 1920s was kosher. At one point in the 1920s, the Red Army was buying kosher meat, which scandalized the Jewish communists.

“My book will be one of the first to look at what the rabbis say in their own words about trying to maintain Jewish life in an overtly atheistic state that has declared war on religion. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein” — who at his death in 1986 was the leading American Orthodox halakhic authority — “didn’t leave the Soviet Union until 1936. From 1921 to 1936, he was the rabbi in the small town of Lyuban near Minsk. If you go through his responsa, collected and published much later in his life, you’ll find many written in that period.”

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