Initiative bridges gap between religious and secular

A unique initiative that is settling newly religious haredim in Israel’s Negev and Galilee is supported by a wide range of governmental and private organizations, including two Jewish groups from the Bay Area.

Nettiot, which means “plantings” in Hebrew, has grown from two to nine communities, mostly in the Negev and Galilee, and more are being formed.

It started three years ago when several haredi ba’alei tshuvah (Jews who became Orthodox later in life), feeling isolated within Israel’s tight-knit mainstream haredi world, headed to the Negev and Galilee to form new communities. As newcomers to haredi life, they felt they could never fully integrate. They kept coming up against roadblocks as, for example, their children started school, or when the time came for shidduchim (marriage arrangements).

According to Aharon Ariel Lavi, 31, one of Nettiot’s founders: “For haredi ba’alei tshuvah, there is no safety net, no family or friends from a previous ‘life’ on whom to fall back regarding issues of religious behavior.”


Ya’akov Trabelsi, member of a Nettiot community in the Negev, leads a flower workshop in a bomb shelter during the Gaza miliary operation in 2012. photo/courtesy nettiot

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, about 200,000 ba’alei tshuvah live in Israel. Lavi says that many  identify with the strictly Orthodox lifestyle and may account for as much as 20 percent of haredi society. These are people who grew up in both the secular and religious worlds, and may help bridge the gap between ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis.


Lavi illustrates the movement’s crossover potential. Active in Israel’s environmental movement since his youth, Lavi became a ba’al tshuvah after his army service. Instead of isolating himself in the haredi world, he moved to an urban kibbutz in a poor neighborhood of Jerusalem, where he spent three years.

“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 haredi community were not open to ba’alei tshuvah,” he says. He and his friends launched Nettiot to combine the intensity of religious belief and behavior of haredi Judaism with the commitment to environmental and social activism that they brought with them from the “outside” world.

“We believe in a Judaism that cares about environmental and social issues, in connecting Torah with life,” he says.  “There are quite a few dati-leumi (religious-Zionist) families who come to us specifically due to that.”

The Nettiot communities now encompass more than 250 families, operating more than 30 social, environmental and educational projects. The programs range from mentorship for children and youth at risk, to developing centers for haredi employment and schools that combine religious and secular education. The  belief is they will pave the way for a new and more sustainable education for the haredim, and the religious population in general.

It is this last project, called Rakee’a, that recently received more than $28,000 jointly from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the Israel Venture Network in Palo Alto, a social investment organization devoted to sustainable social change in Israel.

The initiative develops curricula that combine religious and general studies for haredi schools throughout Israel, with the goal of enabling graduates to join the employment market with a minimum of ideological conflict. The high birth rate (almost 30 percent of first-graders in Israel this year are haredi) means that addressing this challenge is more than helping a community that is among Israel’s poorest, but also could contribute to the country’s economic sustainability.

Taly Dunevich, U.S. director of IVN, says, “We believe in Rakee’a’s solution because in order to secure Israel’s economic sustainability, we need mobilize the rapidly growing haredi population to take part in the modern workforce. This requires a modern education that includes mathematics and the ability to understand and reason scientifically, but does not contradict the mainstream Orthodox hashkafah,” or religious conceptual view of reality.

Sigalit Rubinson, the program officer for international grant-making at the S.F.-based federation, agrees: “Through efforts like these, we build social integration and economic justice in a way that respects cultural and religious diversity.”

The Nettiot ba’alei tshuvah see themselves as an integral part of Israeli society. Their literature discusses their dedication to tikkun olam while trying to live a profoundly religious life. In contrast to most haredi Jews, nearly all of the members of the Nettiot communities have served in the army, many in elite units or as officers.

Interestingly, says Lavi, Nettiot also provides a service to the mainstream haredi community by offering a middle ground to its young people who are tempted by the outside world and might, without help, “fall off the path” and become secular.  “Nettiot offers them the option of not leaving religion, but giving them an ‘in house’ solution,” he says, “a haredi worldview of a different flavor.”

Interest in Nettiot is growing, with waiting lists at some of communities in the Negev and the north of the country. A wide range of governmental and private agencies are working with the movement, including the Prime Minister’s Office, the Jewish Agency, the Shahaff Foundation (led by Israeli high-tech entrepreneur Avi Naor) and the Jewish Federations of North America.