As increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews leave the fold, the government is offering to help

Newsweek, December 13, 1999
By Daniel Klaidman

To most people, it would hardly seem like an act of rebellion. When he was 16, Noam waited for his parents to leave the house for prayers at the local synagogue. Then he pulled the shades down in his bedroom and excitedly turned the overhead light on and off, again and again. It was the Jewish Sabbath, and Noam was shattering the religious injunction against what Orthodox authorities consider "working" on the day of rest. In his stern, God-fearing community, Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim quarter, this was an act of sacrilege. It was also exhilarating. "I felt so free," he recalls. Yet he was also racked with guilt. A week later Noam broke down and confessed to a rabbi, who excoriated him. "The rabbi told me that if I continued to sin, I'd get cancer," Noam recalls.

Not for the first time, nor the last, Noam was testing one of the most bitterly disputed borders in Israel: the one that divides the ultra-Orthodox from the secular. Born into the Toldoth Aron sect, an extreme strain of Orthodoxy, he lived in a Haredi community that has its roots in 18th-century Eastern Europe. Men wear a silk caftan and a large fur hat called a streimal. Women cover their shaved heads and wear long, shapeless dresses that shroud their wrists and ankles. The code is enforced by roving "modesty patrols." In Noam's home, televisions, radios and secular newspapers were strictly forbidden. The outside world, his elders warned him, was full of "whores and thieves."

But at the age of 20, Noam looked in the mirror, at his flowing beard, curled side locks and Eastern European garb, and saw a grim future. "I can be this person for the next 50 or 60 years, or I can change," he told himself. Knowing the decision would traumatize his family, Noam nevertheless thrust himself into a secular world he knew little about and was ill-prepared to handle.

Noam is one of hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews who have walked away from the Haredi community in recent years. The number of defectors is rising, if only modestly, and the stakes are growing. Many Israelis have long argued that if the Jewish state ever achieved peace with its Arab foes, political attention would quickly turn to the wide cultural differences within Israel itself. Now, with the government of Ehud Barak aiming to sign a final peace deal with the Palestinians within a year, new issues already are emerging.

For the first time, for instance, the Israeli government has decided to assist people like Noam who choose to leave the ultrareligious world. The new policy is important more for its symbolic than its financial impact. Education Minister Yossi Sarid hasn't specified how much money he'll commit, only that funds will go to Hilel, a private organization founded eight years ago that offers defectors everything from psychological help to a temporary home with a foster family. "They leave everything behind that gives them self-esteem," says Hilel's director, Ami Dolev, a passionate liberal who studied at Berkeley in the 1960s. "They come out with little support." This year Hilel's caseload more than doubled to 237 clients.

Many of the ultra-Orthodox dismiss Hilel as insignificant and discount the number of defectors. "It's a drop in the bucket in comparison to the general trend in Israeli society, which is for people to come back to religion," argues Jonathan Rosenblum, a Haredi newspaper columnist. Staunch secularists counter that the information revolution is making it much harder for religious communities to shield themselves from outside influences. More Haredi homes are acquiring computers, as a matter of economic necessity, and increasing numbers of young ultra-Orthodox Jews are secretly surfing the Net.

Sometimes the struggle between ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis plays like scenes from the cold war. This year Hilel discovered, for instance, that the phones in both its Jerusalem and its Tel Aviv offices had been tapped. One Hilel client who had told no one in his community of his plans to leave was suddenly confronted by a rabbi. "He was compromised," says a Hilel official, using the language of a spy rather than a social worker.

Noam began his secular conversion as a boy, sneaking peeks at mainstream newspapers. As he got older, he says, he began to create an "alternative world" in his increasingly stifling home. He listened to a radio under his covers at night, and wandered out of Mea Shearim looking for secular books and magazines. Occasionally he smuggled a copy of Playboy home, hidden under his clothes. The first novel he ever encountered was Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment", which he read in the bathroom so as not to be caught by his parents.

A turning point came for Noam at 18, when his parents arranged his marriage. He met his bride-to-be once for 10 minutes and didn't see her again until the wedding day, eight months later. After moving into a small apartment with her, Noam felt increasingly oppressed by his "double life." In the morning he would tell his wife he was going to the synagogue to pray; instead he wandered through the secular neighborhoods of Jerusalem. He'd heard about Hilel from articles in the religious press attacking it, and decided to call. "I was shaking," he recalls. Using an alias, Noam arranged a clandestine meeting with a Hilel representative at a Jerusalem hotel. Five months later, after much soul searching, he packed his belongings and left for a kibbutz in southern Israel, where a family was waiting to take him in. (He never saw his wife or spoke to her again.)

That same day Noam shaved his beard and peyot, the side locks that he had worn since he was 3. "After I did that I couldn't go back," he says, swilling a cold beer at a trendy Jerusalem cafe near Hebrew University, where he is studying classics. At 26, he still feels a little lost. "Even now I'm like an immigrant trying to learn a new culture," he says. Yet Noam sits only a few miles, a five-minute taxi ride, from Mea Shearim, that other Israel he once called home.

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