By Lianne Kolirin
Israel, a nation founded on religion, has long been divided on just how much a role faith should play in society.
While observance is all-important in Jerusalem, secularism rules in coastal Tel Aviv. That polarisation has been brought into sharp focus since prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu joined a coalition of far-right religious groups after the election in 2022.
However, the cataclysmic events of 7 October turned everything about life in Israel upside-down — including entrenched religious beliefs and positions.
“Jewish identity has become stronger,” according to Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, co-founder of Tzohar, a socially conscious modern orthodox movement.
The group was set up in 1995 in the wake of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin which highlighted — its website says — the “deep divisions within our society based upon differing perspectives on religious practice and identity”. It sought to reverse this trend by promoting “dialogue and common elements of Jewish identity”, something now more pertinent than ever.
In an interview with the Religion Media Centre, Rabbi Cherlow said there had been a definite mark in expressions of religious identity. “There’s a lot of suffering and pain here, while Jews all over the world are facing escalating antisemitism so we’re aware that we’re part of one nation,” he said.
As examples, he referred to a growing number of soldiers wearing tzitzit (ritual fringes) under their uniform, while the lighting of candles united many over Hanukkah.
It is too early to identify significant change, he said, adding: “Jewish identity is the main engine of this short-term change. People want to be connected to their traditions.”
The hostages taken by Hamas have been a focal point for everyone, whatever their background, he said. “In every religious community they have prayed for the hostages.”
However, the weekly demonstrations in Tel Aviv were not at first attended by members of the religious community whom, he believes, saw these as aligned with the previous political demonstrations from earlier on in the year.
But that’s changed now, said Rabbi Cherlow, who addressed the crowds at the big demonstration to mark 100 days of the war. “Things are now changing and it’s a better situation. I think everybody understands we’re trying to do our best to bring them back home.”
Earlier in the war, headlines were made when hundreds of Haredi men voluntarily enlisted in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Under Israeli law, they are exempt from conscription.
About 3,000 have signed up, a tiny amount when compared with the 300,000-plus reservists who have been drafted in to fill gaps in the country’s defence forces since the attacks.
Nevertheless, the volunteers do reflect some shift in the relationship between secular and religious. It should not be overestimated however, the rabbi said. “There’s a lot of anger toward the Haredi groups that are part of the government but not part of the war,” he said. “You can see every day soldiers killed all over the state and country except from the Haredi centres. There’s an escalation of the tension.”
He said “now is not the time to criticise each other”, but that this deeply problematic issue will need to be addressed.
Tzohar has stepped up its efforts to promote dialogue and Rabbi Cherlow believes it is vital to look beyond labels. “People understand that you can’t talk any more about the Haredim or the settlers or the secular. There are people behind those phrases and in every society there are good people doing good things,” he said.
Someone who wholeheartedly agrees about the need for unity is Tzili Schneider, founder and chief executive of Kesher Yehudi. The organisation aims to establish relationships between secular and religious Israelis. The idea is to learn the Torah together. The intention is not to make anyone more religious — but to offer an opportunity to bond over a common heritage.
Schneider said the events of 7 October came after a “hard year in Israel with deep divisions between left and right, religious and secular and even between different streams of the religious community”. As a Haredi woman she believes the war is “in the hands of God” and that only “unity and love” can bring it to an end.
Kesher Yehudi has seen a surge in interest since the start of the war, with average monthly inquiries jumping from 100 to 500, Mrs Schneider says. She believes the “nation has woken up” to the need for unity. This can be seen through the huge amount of volunteering and acts of kindness that have been carried out. Her organisation has organised many such activities, including communal prayer sessions and distributing handmade challah bread for Shabbat.
“Suddenly people understood that we’re one people,” she said. “The IDF, the iron dome, US support — it will all fail if we don’t have unity. Israel is a wonderful puzzle that needs everyone.”
When it comes to looking at how perceptions have changed, one group stands out: Zaka, the country’s leading non-governmental rescue and recovery organisation. It largely comprises religious volunteers whose job it is to respond to terror attacks, accidents or disasters.
Its work is based on chesed shel emes, the charity of truth, which includes honouring the dead. This they do by ensuring a full Jewish burial for those who meet a sudden death, which can involve collecting blood and body parts. The demands on 7 October were unprecedented in their scale and horror and the Zaka volunteers have been overwhelmed by what they witnessed.
Religious groups have also been on hand to carry out the many funerals and subsequent mourning periods, or shivas. “People understand that there are very good Haredi people and are admiring what Zaka did and understand that it’s amazing,” Rabbi Cherlow said.
David Benjamin, rabbi of the Brit Olam reform congregation in Kiryat Ono, told the RMC that weekly services at his synagogue now featured new prayers.
“We’ve added special prayers for the return of the hostages,” he said. “We also pray for the healing of the wounded, the welfare of our soldiers and for the welfare of the State of Israel. “Every Friday night we read out the names of the soldiers who fell during the previous week before reciting the Kaddish prayer in memory of the dead.”
Some people have found that attending synagogue services have helped them cope, but others “who would ordinarily attend don’t want to leave home”, he said. “Many of our congregants have family members in the IDF reserves and suffer from constant anxiety. Even the rabbi (me) has had to do a lot of reserve duty, which puts pressure on the congregation. In short, we are hoping and praying for better days.”