by Allen Selis
Silicon Valley specializes in creating new things. Silicon wafers with brains. Eyeglasses with cameras. Cars without drivers. To that list, I’d like to add one more innovation: a model of religious life for Israelis that gets beyond pointless divisions between religious and secular Jews.
For the last three years, I have served as headmaster of the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School, Silicon Valley’s one Orthodox day school for grades PK-8. The school is a unique institution. Its students include the children of Chabad rabbis, Modern Orthodox entrepreneurs, and Haredi kollel leaders. By far the most interesting families to me are the secular Israeli software engineers. They have come to the Valley to chase the dream of startups, venture capital, and the potential for enormous economic advancement.
Amidst the heady opportunities of Silicon Valley, these families often experience a crisis of identity that is stunning in its depth. Israeli parents are excited for their children to become English speakers but nervously watch the kids’ Hebrew skills deteriorate. They flock to public schools and the promise of a mixed cultural landscape but then recoil as their children return home with invitations to Halloween parties, Valentine’s Day cards and (secular) versions of Christmas carols dancing in their heads. That’s usually when the crisis hits home: D’vorah, you’re not in K’far Saba any more.
Then they come for a tour of my school.
When I meet these families, I always speak Hebrew. So does my assistant and my Director of Admissions. It’s our version of “welcome home.” But a Jewish home in diaspora runs on very different rules than the one they left behind. Our school day begins with prayer. The coursework includes Rashi alongside Agnon and Naomi Shemer. When parents ask our faculty how they’re doing, the reply is often some version of “baruch haShem” (thank God).
Israeli parents who meet with me invariably proclaim that they are “hiloni.” Secular, in English, does not even begin to touch this word’s meaning. For these families, the word hiloni captures an entire identity that includes dress, culture, and a certain progressive-but-pragmatic politics. It also includes extraordinarily negative cultural baggage surrounding religion, Jewish text, prayer and ritual. One family even asked me “can we come to your school and just skip the religious studies entirely?”
The last time this happened I looked both parents in the eyes and broke the news. “You’re not in Israel anymore. The rules are different here. If you do something religious, it does not mean that you have chosen sides. No one will force you to change who you are. So feel free to experiment and explore. Do what feels meaningful to you. And please, remember that this tradition belongs to you as well, not just to the religious people.”
As the family left, they passed a cluster of school parents. One Israeli woman wore tight jeans and short sleeves. Her American friend covered her hair and favored a modest long skirt. They were joined by a third, a Jewish woman from the FSU whose African-American partner and I have become good friends.
This is what a Jewish home can look like. We make a conscious effort to accept one another. We are passionate about what we believe. And even as we stand up for our own beliefs, we sample how others live their lives and incorporate what we see into our own lifestyles.
I understand the reasons that this pattern is not the norm in Israel. But I need not accept that the cultural habits of fear, exclusion and competition are immutable patterns that must shape Jewish life in Israel and beyond.
This is, after all, Silicon Valley, where innovation rules and collaboration is ultimately more valuable than petty competition. I’m hoping that this product might become our next great export to Israel.
Allen Selis (WGF Class 15) was ordained at JTS and later completed a Ph.D. in curriculum theory at the University of Maryland. After 20 years of leading synagogues and schools, Allen recently launched a startup company to provide STEM education for young children. He can be reached at [email protected]
cross-posted on the Wexner Foundation Blog