Rabbi Moshe Grylack
He is a new breed of Baal Teshuvah, a seeker who starts keeping mitzvos while maintaining his secular appearance and persona. He keeps Shabbos under cover, and may lay tefillin in a closet. He wants Torah, but is afraid of being associated with the existing frum society. And he’s joined by hundreds of thousands of Israelis who yearn for deeper spiritual connection.
For now, let’s set aside the outrage of handing part of the Kosel over to desecrators. Let’s not dwell on the tragedy of Amona, slated for another terrible trauma in a few days’ time. We won’t talk about the massive chillul Shabbos coming soon to Israel Railways, and we’ll close our ears to the shouts of the anti-religious media. Instead, it’s time to share something encouraging from Eretz Yisrael, something so Jewish despite being secular. It’s a fairly recent and growing phenomenon that might be called “the invisible kippah.”
What, you’re probably wondering, is an invisible kippah? Is it made of some transparent material, or of fibers that bond with human hair? It’s none of those, but it is a source of great hope. It seems that there is a growing circle of people from Israeli society’s secular elite who’ve suddenly felt the urge to investigate their Jewish heritage as a private endeavor. Like Oren Brooks, for example, a partner in a highly successful financial services business. He told the Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon that, “it was a time in my life when I felt I’d come to a dead end. I was getting up in the morning and going to work, coming home, watching TV, and going to sleep. And every day was a repeat of the day before.”
From this place of frustration, Mr. Brooks found pathways to Judaism. But he didn’t follow the classic baal teshuvah template. He’s a member of a new breed of baalei teshuvah, a type of seeker who starts keeping mitzvos while maintaining his secular appearance and persona. He doesn’t move to a religious neighborhood or even start wearing a kippah. He remains affiliated with the secular community, but he lays tefillin at home, keeps Shabbos to the best of his knowledge and ability, and learns Torah. He wants Judaism, but does not wish to be associated with the existing frum society, which is not especially popular in his circles. He considers himself a “chiloni shomer mitzvot.” But what, no kippah? Why won’t he adopt that basic mark of an observant Jew? “There is a kippah on my head,” he will answer. “You just can’t see it.”
According to Makor Rishon, the phenomenon is much more widespread than it seems, although it remains under the radar of Israeli secular life as well. It seems that little by little these people are discovering that they’re not alone in their deviation from the norm. Many others from the top social and financial strata have quietly added mitzvah observance to their secular lives. Among the participants in this underground movement are magnates in the construction industry, owners of high tech companies, partners in major accounting firms, marketing-strategy gurus, and veteran members of kibbutzim and moshavim. Scattered over the map of Israel, each of them within his own sphere, is maintaining a front of business as usual, while running a Jewish initiative in his community. That means a change of direction is discernable within the secular community, despite the continual incitement not only against the chareidi community, but against Judaism itself.
The article describes a gathering that took place in the home of one of these individuals. They got together to discuss the road ahead on their search for Judaism, a road they wish to travel while determinedly steering clear of the dati and chareidi establishment. At the meeting, each one shared his own story, the personal quest that led him to a point of partial mitzvah observance without adopting any change of dress or behavior that would give him away. In a way they are similar to the anusim of Spain and Portugal, keeping mitzvos in secret within the surrounding secular society that would look askance at them.
Perhaps it sounds as if they are self-indulgent, trying to have it both ways. But, in fact, they aren’t having an easy time of it. The article describes the struggles and the hesitations born of fear and anxiety: How will my spouse react? Will my happy family life be ruined if she finds out? One man said, “I have a business partner who started putting on tefillin a few years ago. For a whole year he was hiding them in a closet and putting them on there because he was ashamed. I’m on a mission to get the chiloni out of the religious closet.”
Those who spoke up feel that they are the vanguard, only the first wave in a major sea change in the spiritual life of Israeli society. They believe that the Jewish people are in a waiting phase, and when they see that others like themselves are moving toward mitzvah observance, they will follow. As one of them put it, “Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are standing on the platform, and as soon as they see that people like us, businessmen from the mainstream, have already gotten on the train, they’ll find the courage to join us. This is also a message to the spouses, many of whom are afraid — and their fear might or might not be legitimate — but they need to realize that today it makes sense to connect with their Jewishness.”
Another riveting passage was the testimony of Professor Asher Elhayani, one of Israel’s top-tier doctors, who has held several senior positions including director-general of Meuchedet health services. Dr. Elhayani related that the pull he felt toward Judaism was strengthened during a visit to the Majdanek death camp.
“I accompanied a group of honor students on a trip to Poland,” he said. “The hardest day was at Majdenek. When I asked the students how it affected them, they all talked about hatred and what a terrible thing it is. Then I asked them if they themselves ever behaved in a racist manner, and naturally they said, ‘Of course not!’ I asked them if they accepted the Arabs, and after thinking for a moment, they admitted to being somewhat biased. What about activists who come to visit Israel from abroad? You give them a nice reception. Again, they admitted to a certain bias. I went on to ask, and what about the chareidim? Now their answer was unequivocal: The chareidim ought to be done away with. There was no chance of having any kind of relationship with the chareidim, they said. With Arabs yes, but chareidim, not a chance.”
Reading about the vast number of secular Jews who’ve begun to put on tefillin reminded me of a passage from Rav Dessler’s Michtav MeEliyahu. In the section entitled Kolo shel Eliyahu, he cites the following Midrash: “This teaches that the opening [of inward redemption] does not open all at once, but rather, Eliyahu comes to one city and disappears from the other; he speaks with one man and disappears from the other man’s sight.” Rav Dessler then cites the Maharal’s explanation: “Many times Eliyahu HaNavi would tell things to a person, and the person would not know where these ideas came from; he would imagine that they originated with himself, when they were actually the words that Eliyahu said to him.”
“And [the Jewish People],” says Rav Dessler, “will not do teshuvah until Eliyahu comes, as is said: ‘Behold, I send you Eliyahu HaNavi… that he may turn the heart of the fathers back through the children, and the heart of the children back through their fathers…’ The final teshuvah is attributed to those who hear the voice of Eliyahu speaking to them, that is, Eliyahu comes to them” (Michtav MeEliyahu Vol. I, p. 209).
And that is what is happening now: A sudden awakening of the heart as they heed the voice of Eliyahu, calling on people to return — even if their kippot are invisible.