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The appeal of Orthodoxy to young, secular-born Jews

Ezra Krybus of Toronto was raised in a secular home, but has become an Orthodox Jew. 'One thing that really struck me was the amount of passion these people had,' he says.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

As Canadian youth continue their march toward secularism, with the majority of religious communities aging and shrinking, a small but steady trickle of secular Jewish youth have been heading in the opposite direction.

In what one scholar says is a movement of "tens of thousands of people" worldwide in the past two decades, Jewish youth raised in secular homes have been adopting Jewish Orthodoxy, one of the more demanding religious practices.

Becoming Orthodox means more than just giving up bacon. From bans against driving and using electrical or electronic devices on the Sabbath, to dietary laws so strict that very few grocers, restaurants or butchers can meet their requirements, to a daily routine permeated by prayer and ritual observance, adopting Orthodoxy is more than an embrace of faith, it is a dramatic change in lifestyle.

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Ezra Krybus made that change. He grew up in a secular Jewish home in Toronto where only the most important holidays were observed, and then only loosely, as a matter of tradition rather than faith. But near the end of his film degree at York University an Orthodox rabbi moved into his neighbourhood and began inviting him to the synagogue, and to Orthodox homes for the Sabbath meal.

"One thing that really struck me was the amount of passion these people had," Mr. Krybus said. "And they were doing all kinds of things that I didn't know what they were doing, or why they were doing them. But they had such a passion that had such a truth behind it."

Mr. Krybus was hooked. By 25, he had committed to Orthodoxy and now, five years later, he visits the synagogue most days, has a wife, a two-year-old son and a bushy beard.

Ever since Orthodox Judaism experienced a revival in the 1970s there has been a steady stream of secular Jewish youth embracing it. According to Charles Shahar, a Montreal demographer who specializes in Canadian Jewry, the Canadian Orthodox population now doubles every 20 years.

This can largely be explained by the fact that procreation is one of Orthodoxy's many religious duties. But in a 2005 survey of Toronto's Jewish community, the largest in Canada, Mr. Shahar found 4.2 per cent had committed to Orthodoxy from a less-observant lifestyle. Mr. Shahar said this is probably just scratching the surface, considering the number who move to Israel, or to communities in the United States.

The presence of Orthodox outreach groups on university campuses, which operate a little like missionaries, and programs that provide Jewish youth free trips to Israel have helped spark an interest in Judaism.

But beyond providing answers to life's great questions, those who become Orthodox say that an important draw are the answers it provides to more mundane questions, like how to spend a Saturday afternoon.

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Tzvi Freeman, who left the secular world 36 years ago and is now a rabbi, said that the same religious duties that make Orthodoxy seem so restrictive help foster a tight-knit community. The prohibition against driving on Saturday seems like a major inconvenience, but forcing an entire community to pound the pavement one day a week helps people to get to know their neighbours.

"I had a niece of mine come to visit and she wanted to walk on the streets just for that," Mr. Freeman said. "She said, 'Where else do you see such a thing?' Everybody's walking, and walks together, and they say Shabbat shalom [Good Sabbath]to each other. And you feel a sense of community."

Religious duty reinforces families in a similar way. The demand to ring in the Sabbath on Friday nights through prayer, candle-lighting ceremonies and symbolic bread-breaking turns a family meal into a religious obligation.

"The fact that families are very close and very large and have meals together frequently is really a big attraction," said Sarah Bunin Benor, an American sociologist who studies secular Jews who become Orthodox, known among the religious community as ba'alei teshuva, or "those who return" in Hebrew.

According to Ms. Bunin Benor, the restrictions and rituals provide something some people crave.

"It says this is how you have to live, this is how you have to schedule your day and your week, and this is how you have to dress and this is how you have to eat," she said. "And for people who feel kind of lost, I think that is a real useful change. And not just people who feel lost but people who like structure."

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Far from feeling restricted, Mr. Krybus said carefully following the religious rules - like the prohibition against using electronics on the Sabbath - helps create a sense of inner peace.

He said he appreciates "the liberty that you feel turning off your cellphone and saying, 'Even if the most important person in the world is going to call me right now, I'm not available, it's Shabbat.'"

Of course, not everyone finds that liberation in restriction. Mr. Shahar's 2005 survey found the number of people leaving Orthodoxy far outnumbers those coming in.

Nonetheless, for those who have embraced Orthodoxy there is something attractive about all the prohibitions, beards, black hats and lack of bacon.

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