What’s fueling the growing phenomenon in Israel of datlashim – the Hebrew acronym for formerly religious Jews? And how big is it in real numbers?

Based on surveys conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Chotam religious lobbying organization found that, among the national religious public, only 46 percent of those who defined themselves as religious in 2002 remained so ten years later.

Jewish educator Aryeh Ben David has been trying to make sense of the numbers – both on a personal and professional level. The director of Ayeka, a Jerusalem-based institute that offers training in “soulful education,” Ben David says that too often religious parents blame themselves. That includes Ben David, whose own sons have left the religious path.

“If only we had sung different songs, practiced different rituals, or followed different halachic opinions, maybe things would have turned out differently,” he writes in a recent soul-baring column.

But what is happening now among religious teens and twentysomethings “is way beyond any individual tweaks we think we should or should not have done,” he continues. “The issue is systemic. Traditional Judaism is not working for this next generation.”

Ben David says we are in the midst of a “radical disruption” prompted by the establishment of the State of Israel itself. Growing up as a ‘powerful majority,” he says, has been transformative. “For this generation, Jewish continuity has never been in doubt. Jewish existence is simply a fact. Individual Jews may slip away but the fear of the Jewish People not continuing is a worry of the past.”

That creates a new reality where “obedience is no longer a prized value.” Strict adherence to Jewish Law is all about sustaining, Ben David emphasizes. “This generation does not know from obedience.”

Aryeh Ben David is a friend; a deep and honest thinker and that rare religious educator who dares to confront his and his community’s core assumptions without having already defined a path to a future that gives him comfort. His analysis is precise and insightful. But it also misses the elephant in the room.

It’s not just that living as a Jewish majority gives young religious Israelis an “out” from following the traditions of their parents. It’s that Jewish Law hasn’t been speaking to Jews for a long while.

Indeed, as soon as the gates of the shtetl opened to the outside world, Jews rushed to drop observance. They set up secular Yiddish-speaking societies, opened theaters and made art. Some immigrated to Israel and became kibbutzniks and soldiers. Those who moved to America gravitated towards frameworks with less stringent forms of Jewish expression.

And while some did remain observant, it’s their turn now to drop out. In that sense, the modern datlash phenomenon is not unique. It is simply the second wave.

But there’s a fundamental difference between today’s datlashim 2.0 and their historical counterparts. Datlashim in 2017 are seeking to create their own forms of spirituality, just not those centered on “obedience.”

They may spend a decade smoking pot and eating treife, but eventually, as they have children of their own, they consider ways to fuse their pasts and presents in a way that looks foreign to their parents but may very well be the future of the Jewish people.

For example, Trybe is a new age Jewish group in Los Angeles and New York that sponsors lavish Friday night “parties” that mix challah and blessings with haute cuisine (think honey-roasted kabocha squash dolloped with ricotta, braised short ribs and cauliflower rice). Its Yom Kippur services are pitched less as prayer and more as “spiritual restoration and communal vibes followed by a superfoods menu.”

My initial thought when I read about Trybe was: “How is this Jewish?” Or as Mattie Kahn, who wrote about Trybe in BuzzFeed News, asks, “Is ‘Shabbat Shalom’ the new ‘Namaste?’”

But that was the old religious me talking. My datlash self could imagine that if I were a Millennial in America, I might really dig a Trybe Shabbat.

Closer to home, the “Shalom al Lechem” project of the Jerusalem Village organization describes itself as a “social concierge and strategic matchmaker,” placing young Jews of differing practices at the same Shabbat table. Don’t know how to cook? No worries. Shalom al Lechem provides its own gourmet chef and a portable kosher kitchen, all expenses paid.

Yet, there’s another elephant in the room, and it’s one that threatens to spoil the post-denominational party. That same Chotam survey also found that the number of pupils in ultra-Orthodox schools had tripled in the last decade, seemingly offsetting any gains for datlashim.

Do the haredim hold the key to the future of religious Judaism? I ask Ben David.

The comparison isn’t fair, he replies.

“It’s hard to survey the haredi world because no one there is honest,” he tells me. “I personally know families who have exiled their children from their homes when they became non-religious. It’s ironic: Judaism was the first religion to get rid of child sacrifice. Now we are bringing it back. Families are sacrificing their children in the name of religion.”

Ben David isn’t haredi and he would never dream of kicking out his non-observant kids. Still, “I thought that God wanted my sons to be a continuation of myself,” he writes.

For Ben David, his family’s new reality is a painful realization. For me (and for my own datlash children), it’s the energizing start to a transformative, authentically Millennial and radically Israeli dialogue.

I wrote about the future of datlashim first at The Jerusalem Post.

Picture in article from a Jerusalem Village event.

{ 0 comments }

Driving past the “Buds and Roses” storefront on Los Angeles’s Ventura Boulevard, you’d be forgiven for surmising this must be a fan shop dedicated to all things Axl Rose. The friendly but firm armed guard out front, however, suggests that what’s behind the locked door might be somewhat more circumspect.

Which it is: Buds and Roses is one of hundreds of medical cannabis dispensaries now dotting the California landscape, all in plain view and entirely legal. On a recent trip to the U.S., I decided to pay a visit. I had a legitimate medical need: to determine if any of the vast array of tinctures, vapes, pills and edibles on display could help me with my chronic insomnia.

When I walked out of the store an hour and several hundred dollars lighter, I had also gained first-hand insight into how different California’s medical cannabis business is from Israel’s – and how those differences will be even more glaring in the near future.

To gain entry into a California cannabis dispensary, you first need a medical cannabis card. It’s shockingly easy to get one. You simply go online to a website like HelloMD, enter your credit card details and a doctor promptly calls you back.

“How can I help you?” the voice on the line said.

“Well, I suffer from insomnia and I wanted to try…”

“You’re approved,” the doctor cut me off.

“Wait, don’t you want to hear about what I’ve tried in the past and any medical history?”

“Nope, you’re all set up,” the doctor continued, clearly eager to move on to the next call. “I’ve already sent you an email with your certificate. Anything else today?” he added, like he was selling me a pair of pants at the Gap.

It was frustrating but also liberating, especially compared to Israel where, while it’s possible to get a medical cannabis license, you have to jump through so many hoops that too often patients just give up. And insomnia is not even on the approved list yet.

Once my card arrived in the mail, I drove to the Buds and Roses, where I was ushered into a windowless back room filled with what looked like clear glass jewelry stands – except that instead of diamonds they were filled with all kinds of cannabis.

I explained to Jen, my “budtender,” what I needed.

“Insomnia responds best to a formulation with a higher amount of the cannabinoid THC (the psycho-active component of cannabis) than CBD,” Jen explained.

“Really? That’s a surprise,” I told Jen. In my previous research, I’d learned that the more benign CBD, which addresses auto-immune and inflammatory conditions, was key to curing sleep problems. But who was I to argue with a certified budtender?

Jen recommended a high-tech disposable vape pen that automatically shuts off after delivering a precise 2.5 mg dose. It was named one of TIME magazine’s top innovations in 2016.

“Is this your first time here?” Jen asked as she was taking my money.

“Yes…” I answered, a bit hesitantly.

“Great, then you get a free gift!” she crowed, motioning me to a case full of edibles. Did I want the chocolate with hints of blueberry or a granola bar?

That night, I tried the vape. I quickly felt something – but it wasn’t sleepiness. I was nauseous and my stomach hurt. The next night was even worse: I was up until 3 am pacing, praying for the pain to pass.

Maybe so much THC was not the right mix for me.

By now we’d left Los Angeles for Berkeley. I easily found another dispensary where Rick, my new budtender, suggested I try a more balanced 1:1 THC to CBD tincture.

“Is it your first time here?” Rick asked.

“Yes,” I responded, this time more confidently. Out came the edible goodies.

The tincture didn’t make me sick but it didn’t get me to sleep the way I’d hoped either.

But it doesn’t really matter. This was more an experiment; an exercise in data collection. All that legal medical cannabis is in California. I’m now back in Israel where there are no dispensaries next to the Aroma on Emek Refaim Street.

Nor will there probably ever be.

Israel is going down a very different path. Instead of standalone shops, changes coming to Israeli policy aim to bring medical cannabis to the local SuperPharm.

Over the summer, 81 doctors completed an official medical cannabis course from the Ministry of Health in order to be able to prescribe pot for specific ailments.

The differing approach is not surprising: Unlike California, where come January 2018, cannabis will be available for sale to anyone – no plastic card required – there are no plans for legalizing recreational use in Israel. So the focus has been on utilizing traditional medical infrastructure.

On our last night in California, we were invited to a launch party celebrating the imminent legalization of cannabis sponsored by Atlas Edibles, a company founded by members of the Orthodox Jewish synagogue my wife and I used to attend when we lived in Berkeley.

An unlikely pairing? Not really. There’s already a new Jewish tradition emerging in the U.S. called Chai Havdalah (chai is pronounced “high”) where participants greet the new week by smoking and eating cannabis-infused cookies.

Me, I just want to get some sleep. And it would be really helpful if I didn’t have to fly all the way to California to do it.

I started my search over at The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

I spent the night in the Emergency Room recently. I was expecting a nightmare. After all, Israel’s socialized healthcare system is supposed to be crumbling. There’s a shortage of doctors and hospital beds; waits for specialists can take months, physicians are allotted patients at impossibly tight intervals.

So when I woke up at 3 am with shooting pains just below my breastbone, my first response was: Do everything you can to suffer at home. Just don’t go to the hospital. It will pass. Watch a few episodes of “The Good Place.” Ted Danson and Kristen Bell will distract you.

But when the pain continued at a level beyond which I could tolerate, I had no choice. My wife Jody drove us to the nearest facility: Jerusalem’s Sha’arei Tzedek Medical Center.

When it was all over, my verdict from our experience in the ER: surprisingly not bad.

I was hopeful when we got to the waiting room and found it mostly deserted except for this one guy in hand and leg cuffs. He was in a jovial mood, joking around with his posse of police; clearly it wasn’t the first time they’d been together.

Rachel, the English-speaking nurse took my blood and checked my vital signs within 15 minutes of arrival. Another nurse hooked me up to an EKG. Everything came out OK. But the pain in my upper abdomen was stabbing like a bad trip to Damascus Gate.

I was given a bed and hooked up to an IV where they put me on a drip of pain killers. It took another couple of hours but the misery finally subsided.

We chose Sha’arei Tzedek’s Emergency Room because we feel an awkward connection to the place. It was David Applebaum’s last job before his murder in the suicide bomb attack at the Café Hillel on Jerusalem’s Emek Refaim Street, in 2013.

Applebaum, who was also our neighbor (our kids played together in the park) was already an icon in the Israeli medical world – he established the Terem Emergency Medical Centers network that now serves as first line care in many cities, taking a much-needed burden off the country’s overcrowded hospitals.

Applebaum was having coffee with his daughter Nava the night before her wedding when the bomb went off. Seven people were killed, including both the bride and her father. Applebaum was rushed to the emergency room he managed but it was too late.

Applebaum had left Terem a few years earlier to transform Sha’arei Tzedek’s ER into a model of efficiency and compassion in an era when Israelis were being blown up on a near daily basis.

Fourteen years later, it lives up to its reputation. But as well run as it may be, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s just not large enough for the number of sick people.

Not only was I not given a room (private or otherwise), my bed in the hallway next to one of the nurses’ stations wasn’t even temporary. There was a number on the wall that indicated this was a permanent space. I was taken good care of, but it wasn’t the place to recuperate or sleep, what with the lights on full blast while doctors, nurses and other patients streamed past me (and Jody, trying to rest in a hard plastic chair) for the next 7 hours.

A maddening beeping sound played unabated until the end of my stay, the audio replacement for the stabbing pains in my belly. I couldn’t figure out what it was until I saw a man being wheeled out of the room, his face encased in a breathing mask. The beeping was the indicator – for all to hear far and wide – that he was still alive.

So when my ER doctor suggested they’d like to keep me for an additional 24 hours hooked up to that IV, I asked, “Could I get a room if I stayed?”

“No,” the doctor shook her head.

“Well, if I stayed, would they at least run some tests to determine the source of my pain?”

The disheartening answer: you’re not sick enough. “Our job is to keep you alive. Diagnosis belongs to your HMO,” she said.

“Then, um, no thanks,” I said. “Can I do the getting better thing at home?”

The doctor nodded her approval. She wrote up some prescriptions and, an hour later, I was unceremoniously discharged.

I had another reason for wanting to get out of there: Hospitals are no place to get better. In fact, you’re more likely to catch one of those antibiotic-resistant superbugs terrorizing medical facilities.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one out of every 25 hospital patients contracts a healthcare-associated infection (HAI) and one in seven catheter and surgery-related HAIs is caused by an antibiotic-resistant superbug. Twenty percent of patients who leave a U.S. hospital return within a month.

I’ve been out of the hospital a few weeks now and I’ve taken my pills diligently. My HMO approved more tests; we’re still trying to get to the bottom of my pain.

My stay in the ER wasn’t exactly how I’d intended to spend the night, but everyone was remarkably pleasant for an Israeli bureaucracy, which was reassuring if something ever goes catastrophically wrong.

My only regret: that I didn’t take advantage of the “full experience” and receive the chauffeured ride to the hospital…in the ambulance.

I first described my ER experience in The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

Are we on the verge of an “epistemic crisis?” Vox Magazine’s David Roberts seems to think so. And it has implications for battles we’re seeing in the Jewish world, from the Western Wall to the army induction office.

In a recent article, Roberts pondered with alarm what happens if FBI special counsel Robert Mueller proves his case that Russia colluded in the 2016 U.S. elections, but half the population simply dismisses Mueller’s conclusions because, as Roberts explains it, we’ve lost any sense of shared language on the concept of truth.

This is not an isolated topic that touches only U.S. politics. The breakdown of common language can shed light on why in 2017 people still refuse to vaccinate their children or accept the danger of climate change.

How did an ancient Greek word that I’ll bet most of us have never before spoken aloud become one of the greatest challenges facing the modern world?

Let’s take a step back. “Epistemology” is the branch of philosophy having to do with how we know things and what it means for something to be accurate or inaccurate.

When Roberts wrote that we’re in an epistemic crisis, he meant that we no longer agree on the standards for what we believe exists, is true, has happened or is happening.

It’s easy to see if you’re a Trump critic. The president claims, for example, that there were millions of unlawful votes cast in the 2016 election, causing him to lose the popular vote. A commission was established to investigate, even though studies repeatedly show instances of voter fraud to be very rare.

But that’s not enough for the Trump “base.” And if the commission concludes there was no funny business going on in the voting booths? The base may very well reject that as “fake news.”

Another example: 97 percent of climate scientists believe that the earth is warming and that human activity is the most likely cause, but that’s a narrative climate change deniers won’t accept. The scientific method, with its empirical systems of data collection, hypothesizes, tests and results, can’t compete with group beliefs to the contrary, no matter how much evidence is presented.

I see the same thing in the Jewish world. The study of epistemology can be a good way to understand why squabbles along the religious/secular divide quickly become so fraught.

The catalyst for the recent Days of Rage held by ultra-Orthodox extremists is essentially epistemological. One side says “every young Israeli must serve in the army”; the other says “no, Torah is keeping Israel safe.”

A similar argument animates the fight over the Western Wall, where one group demands all Jews be able to worship as they please, while the other yells that there’s no support in Jewish texts for non-Orthodox expression at the Kotel.

These are really proxy arguments for the biggest one of all: God or not.

A scientifically-minded atheist says “prove to me that God exists.” A believer counters: “faith is beyond proof.”

I used to engage in this exchange around the Shabbat table. It was consistently fruitless. You can’t convince an atheist to accept the existence of God without science, and you can’t convince a religious person to drop his or her entire worldview because archaeology doesn’t back up biblical claims of miracles, exodus or conquest. We’re simply not speaking the same language.

When I was growing up, it seemed the world was moving in the direction of science and rationality. When Francis Fukayama wrote his famous essay “The End of History” in 1989, it felt like the population – at least in the West – was coalescing around a single narrative, one that was liberal, democratic and science-positive.

Post 9/11, though, the world has been pulling in the opposite direction, galloping towards fundamentalism.

We shouldn’t be surprised: it’s a problem the Bible foretold.

The Tower of Babel story in the book of Genesis is a brilliant parable for the nature of humanity and our lack of shared language. Unless you read the Bible entirely literally (in which case the Tower documents the creation of a new linguistic reality), the Babel story smartly frames what already existed in human nature – and continues to exist to this day.

Social media is the Tower of Babel amplified. It allows us to retreat into our respective echo chambers where all we’re exposed to is people with the same views – that is, the same language.

“The End of History” approach has taken a beating in recent years. Samuel Huntington’s 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order presented perhaps the most compelling counter argument: that history is alive and kicking harder than ever in the form of clashing “civilizations” that transcend borders.

Swap out “civilization” and substitute “shared language” (or the lack thereof) and we come full circle. Huntington’s clash of civilizations is today a full-on clash of epistemology.

I dreamed of a different Jewish world, one in which pluralism was its lingua franca and Jews of all types broke bread not heads together.

“If one side rejects the epistemic authority of society’s core institutions and practices, there’s just nothing left to be done,” writes Vox’s Roberts ruefully.

The good news is that there will be ebbs and flows with different groups gaining the upper hand at different points. But at this particular moment in history, I fear we’re not heading towards a shared language any time soon.

I first pontificated on Judaism’s epistemic crisis at The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

The price of memory

by Brian on November 9, 2017

in In the News,The Old Country

“We found Mom. She’s safe.”

That was the text message I received from my brother in California. It came out of the blue.

We were at an open air concert in Rishon Lezion and I hadn’t read the news. So I didn’t know about the massive fire that was devastating Northern California and the city of Santa Rosa in particular, where both my mother and brother live.

The smoke alarms at the Oakmont of Varenna senior retirement community began to blare around 12:30 am. The staff was soon banging on doors, waking up residents and telling them they had to get out – now!

That’s how, in the early hours of the morning, my 86-year-old mother found herself hurried out of her home with nothing but her pajamas. She didn’t have time to grab her purse or her meds. She had no identification, no cash, no credit cards, no cell phone.

It took my brother and his girlfriend several hours to find her at one of the city’s many makeshift evacuation centers and then even more time to drive out of town through gridlocked roads.

Two agonizing days later, there was good news: The main building at Varenna, which included my mother’s apartment, had been spared. My brother’s neighborhood on the other side of town was OK, too.

But everything around Varenna, up and down Fountaingrove Parkway, had been utterly destroyed.

Once the danger had passed and we knew no one in our family’s life was at risk, I had time to reflect on the nature of possessions and “things.”

What would have been the impact if everything my mother had owned had been wiped out? Not so much the furniture or pots and pans or shoes and clothing, but the memorabilia.

My mother has all the family photos. They’re all in albums; the older snapshots faded and yellowing, but still a cache of nostalgia.

Another irreplaceable treasure: my father’s boxes of clippings – the thousands of articles he wrote over a 35-year career as a journalist in a time before there was a public Internet. Other than what might be stored on microfiche in the Hearst newspaper archives, these were the only copies of a lifetime of work.

Should we invest in digitizing our family’s visual and written history? I wondered. It’s expensive but not impossible. I’d already started such an ambitious project in Jerusalem.

A few years ago, when my old Hi8 camcorder died, I realized I had no way to access the hundreds of videotapes I’d made of my own children growing up. I found a firm in Ramat Eshkol that charged around NIS 25 a tape to convert everything to files. Now we can watch them whenever we want from any of the computers in the house. (And, yes, we do that from time to time, especially when the grandparents visit.)

What about other personal paraphernalia – the diaries I kept as a teenager, my diplomas and awards, CD-ROMs and even old floppy disks I’ve saved since the 1980s? Should I pay to back that all up to the cloud? And then pay whatever it costs year after year to keep it accessible?

I like to imagine my children will value such an investment; that they will regularly peruse this time capsule of their father’s creative output and will appreciate that I didn’t bequeath them boxes of physical detritus.

But will they? Or will the annual storage fee become an unnecessary financial burden that they will eventually pull the plug on, whether ceremoniously or with great anguish?

My friend, journalist Michele Chabin is making the choice for her children. She posted on Facebook that, prior to a temporary downsizing while her home is being renovated, she tossed out thousands of articles, saving a mere 150 in total.

“Sadly, I didn’t have the time or energy to scan or even photograph them, so they’re just gone,” she wrote.

For the hoarders among us, though, there may be significance in our saving psychosis.

“Nostalgia is crucial for finding meaning in life and for combatting loneliness,” writes Ben Rowen in the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic.

Nostalgic memories can trigger a release “of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and other neurochemicals that make us feel good,” adds Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern.

“Holding onto certain possessions may be a way to activate the recall of emotion,” writes Mary Lamia in Psychology Today.

Then there’s this consideration: Like many in the digital generation, I have spent a great amount of time “documenting,” sometimes at the expense of “experiencing,” life. My child is on stage at a performance and I’m behind the camera. Or posting about it on Facebook.

I justify my behavior by telling myself that this “offloading” of memory will allow me to revisit the event later on. But what happens if the digitized memories we spend so much time capturing are destroyed or erased?

The immediate questions about the price of memory, raised in the wake of the Santa Rosa fire, have been kicked down the road a bit. There’s still time to decide what to do with the family photos and my father’s clippings. And by the time we get to that point, the technology may have changed entirely (3D virtual “memory movies,” anyone?)

For now, it’s important not to lose the plot from this unsettling week. The most important take-away: “We found Mom. She’s safe.”

Everything else belongs in the digital “to do” folder.

I first pondered the price of memory in The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

High hopes for medical cannabis from Israel

October 13, 2017

Israel may have finally figured out a way to stop BDS. We’ll get the BDS leaders so stoned they won’t be able to demonize us anymore.

Read the full article →

Rosh Hashana resolution: breaking my Facebook addiction

September 29, 2017

The period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur presents an opportunity to reflect on how the last year went and what we could do better in the year to come. In that spirit, I need to come clean: I’ve got an addiction problem … to social media. Sure, we all are hooked on Facebook and […]

Read the full article →

Agreeing to disagree: the value of religious doubt

September 18, 2017

This is the key: “I disagree with pretty much everything they’re doing when it comes to their Jewish practice. But that doesn’t make them wrong.”

Read the full article →

Sleeping pill snafu ends on a restful note

September 10, 2017

I’ve been under enormous pressure lately, exacerbating my chronic insomnia. But never in all my years of sleeping pill-popping did I make this goof.

Read the full article →

Are we on the brink of a smartphone-induced mental-health crisis?

August 27, 2017

Pet peeve: the light shining from people’s smart phones at a concert or movie. I can’t concentrate. It’s rude. Is a mental health crisis coming?

Read the full article →