Choosing to live in a secular city

More about why we moved to Karmiel – there was too much for one post!

Karmiel is primarily a secular city.  This wouldn’t appeal to many religious families, who prefer to live exclusively with religious families who are similar to themselves.  However, we saw this as an advantage to raising our children.  We want our children to appreciate people from all walks of life, to know how to respectfully and appropriately interact with different kind of people, and I have very strong feelings about the dangers of raising one’s children in an insular religious bubble.

This also means we have more room to be who we are without feeling like every detail about us is being looked over and checked to see if it meets community standards – I know quite well how common this is, albeit unconscious.  And I really dislike that.  I am very open about who I am and am not willing to pretend to be more than I am.  There are pressures in exclusively religious communities that I find stifling and unhealthy (even though I live according to the same values and standards for the most part!), that too often lead to hypocrisy, fear, and secretiveness.  I’ve lived in this kind of community for years very successfully (in Israel) in the past and understand the nuances and  reasoning, that most new olim (immigrants) don’t even realize are there.  But I don’t agree with it.

As your family gets older you realize that not every child in every family is going to religiously make the same choices.  I’ve seen this happen with many, many families and though we’re grateful that our older children have made choices in line with ours, I don’t take that for granted.  Do you know how hard it is to live in a community that has no room for even slightly different choices?  Do you know how many teens struggle to find themselves, to find acceptance, and so often feel that there’s no room for them?  This is a big issue regarding kids at risk.  I feel that raising children in an environment like we have here in Karmiel is much healthier spiritually and religiously.  Yes, they may see more immodesty, hear language or music that we would find objectionable (though honestly, this has been quite minimal so far), but as a result, they have to think and evaluate more, important skills to develop for life.

But living in a secular city means you see cars driving on Shabbos (though still drastically fewer than during the week), see people walking dogs instead of pushing baby strollers, and you’ll see people of varying levels of religiosity.  My wonderful guest who came with her family from a totally religious city, commented on Chanukah that it was strange for her to walk down the street and hardly see any menorahs being lit.  And it really is very special to be surrounded by visible signs of mitzva observance, to feel the holiday in the air they way you simply won’t when many fewer people are celebrating.  Here, there are many people who are traditional, and I’m sure they light menorahs,  but not in a window where people would see it.  So with things like that, you don’t have the same warm feeling you have in religious neighborhoods.

However, even here, I love that every Friday, a half hour before candlelighting, Shabbos music blares out over the loudspeakers to let people know that Shabbos will be beginning soon.  I can still greet everyone I pass with a Shabbat Shalom, or chag sameach (happy holiday) – and people seem to appreciate it, perhaps because it’s more uncommon, perhaps because we’re visibly Orthodox and there are (false) assumptions that people have that the religious Jews look down on people who are less religious.

The Jewish people were given the mission statement by G-d to be a light unto the nations.  How can we be a light to anyone if we live only among those that are exactly like us?  There’s a potential for kiddush Hashem (sanctifying G-d’s name) in a secular city that you’ll never have the opportunity for in a religious neighborhood, and children in an area that is more secular will learn that how every one of them behaves matters.  Sometimes that can be a pressure, but it’s a responsibility that truly every one of us has, but most of those living in totally religious surroundings won’t have a chance to teach their children.

Years ago my husband had been offered a position as a synagogue rabbi in an almost entirely assimilated neighborhood in the US.  I was concerned about the affect this would have on my children, and I asked a very experienced and knowledgeable rabbi for his feedback on this before accepting the position.  He said that kids who grow up ‘out of town’ (ie, not in large Jewish communities) have a strength of character that you don’t generally see among kids in the big communities.  That’s because they grow up knowing that there are other religious choices that people make other than Orthodox Jewry, and want to live a religious Jewish life, rather than doing it because that’s what everyone around them is doing.  Furthermore, they are often in a position of being looked to as an example, and that also strengthens them.

So what seems to some as a disadvantage of living in Karmiel, is in my opinion a big asset!


10 thoughts on “Choosing to live in a secular city

  1. We live in a small place (60 families or so), but a mixed one where secular and religious actually interact together , which is an “oddity” in Israel…. Part of us choosing this particular place had to do with personal issues, but the fact that it is a mixed place and not a closed bublle (as most small place are in this country) was one of the main plusses.
    Enjoy the diversity!

  2. Your statement about being a light to the nations is very convicting for me here in the mid-US. Things have become so increasingly pagan that the difference in the way our family lives is… Well, I tend to feel like I’m under a microscope all the time. I tend to feel like we are a bubble all to ourselves. We are blessed though with the opportunity to share bits and pieces here and there of the truths of scripture, and more people are becoming open to it. He has us here for some reason…

    1. I agree about each of us being put where we are for some reason. I’ve spent a long time thinking about why I live where I do, right now, and what my mission here is supposed to be. I’ve seen that I can have a unique influence if I choose to accept the responsibility; sometimes that seems like too much for me when I’m tired and don’t even want to wash the dishes. But then I remind myself that I just have to do the next right thing in front of me, and that’s enough – that makes it all easier!

  3. Avivah,

    I love this post. (I actually love all of them and so appreciate your writing.) We know families who treated wearing a colored shirt as abandoning Torah and have seen kids literally pushed out of mitzva observance by overly rigid attitudes.

    Now that our children are all adults (yikes!) some of them have made choices for themselves which veer slightly from ours – in different directions. But we appreciate that they are thought out choices and all have kept the essence of Torah in their lives. Because they did not grow up in a bubble, they “own” their Judaism in a way that sometimes doesn’t happen when you just ‘go with the crowd’.

    Mazal tov on the upcoming bar-mitzvah!

    1. Susan, I so much appreciate your comments! I’ve also said that although I hope my children choose a lifestyle similar to ours, the most important thing is that they have a relationship with Hashem and a lifestyle that is meaningful to them. It’s a lot easier to say that than to stand by it, though!

  4. Thank you for being so open about why you made your choices. I’m not Jewish and the news in the US this week has been focused very narrowly on Beit Shemesh. It is good to have a reminder that even comparatively smaller countries are very large and diverse :)

    1. Ugh, I hate it that the Beit Shemesh issue has been so blown out of porportion. I’ve been aware of this situation for months and it prompted a tremendous amount of thought for me regarding why this was happening and why, and why it was continuting. It also helped me clarify what I think of as my own personal mission statement in living here. I think what has been happening is disgusting and horrible.

      I was hoping that I overestimated how widely this was spread – your comment shows me I wasn’t overestimating and maybe I should post about what’s going on there to share some more perspective. Prior to your comment, I decided I didn’t want to be part of the media field day. I’m alarmed at the anti-religious sentiment that is sweeping the country, and it’s not aimed at this group of unbalanced maniacs claiming to act out of religious beliefs who don’t act according to the precepts of the Torah. All religious Jews are being smeared by this, even those who have spoken out and even actively acted out against this extremism.

      Israel really is a very diverse country and this kind of thing is unusual, but it still shouldn’t be happening at all.

  5. I do not know whether it’s just me or if perhaps everyone else encountering problems with your blog. It appears as if some of the written text in your content are running off the screen. Can someone else please comment and let me know if this is happening to them as well? This might be a problem with my internet browser because I’ve had this happen previously.
    Appreciate it

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