Losing my religion

From ultra-Orthodox to secular soldier, one young man's journey is not as unique as you'd think. He is one of hundreds who've dropped God and left their entire world behind.

Jewsweek/November 9, 2003
By Mati Milstein

Rebel with a cause: A.S. fled his haredi yeshiva in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim section and entered the secular Israeli world at the age of 17. Now 25-years-old, he poses in Tel Aviv's trendy Azrieli Center shopping mall.

At 2 in the morning, A.S. moved carefully around his darkened room and silently bundled a few belongings together in a bed sheet. Leaving behind only his religious texts, he hoisted the sack over his shoulder and walked swiftly out of the yeshiva forever.

A.S. was just 17-years-old when he burned all his bridges and left behind his whole world in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea She'arim quarter. For three years A.S. hadn't believed in God. For three years he walked around a secular boy dressed up in haredi costume and he said it ate him alive.

When he left the Belz Yeshiva for the last time that night seven years ago, A.S. hid his few possessions in a nearby construction site and began wandering the darkened streets. "I knew nothing about the outside world and I was scared," he said. "But I was free."

When the sun rose over Jerusalem the next morning, he went into a store and bought his first pair of jeans, his first T-shirt and a wool cap, beneath which he hid his long, curly sidelocks.

"I went into a barbershop and told the barber, 'I want to get rid of my sidelocks. All of them,'" A.S. recalled. "He was in shock. I watched as he cut them off and they fell down on the floor. I said to myself, 'This moment I will never forget.'"

For three weeks, neither A.S.'s parents nor his yeshiva teachers discovered his absence. After one month, he called home from a public telephone and said, "I am still alive. Don't look for me." Then he hung up the phone.

For six long months, A.S. slept in the streets. He has difficulty speaking of that period, and said he has intentionally forgotten much of it. A.S. did set one boundary for himself: no drugs.

Eventually, he was able to qualify for and was accepted to Hebrew University's computer studies degree program.

For three years after the wrenching break from his family and former life, A.S. did not contact or see his parents. Finally, a soldier in the IDF, he decided it was time to visit his family in Mea She'arim. Maybe they would be ready to accept his decision.

"I went home on a Friday. In uniform, with a gun, with my unit beret on my head in place of a kippah. And my mother immediately sent all the kids to their rooms and began shouting at me. 'How can you ruin my remaining children? Until you are a kosher Jew, don't come into this house!' She kept shouting and shouting. And so I left."

A.S. is now 24-years-old. He has a girlfriend (who also fled the haredi world) and two years of university studies under his belt. A veteran of the armored corps, he lives in Rehovot and works at a high-tech company. He has an earring and wears sunglasses perched atop his long, curly black hair.

But seven years after leaving his entire life behind in Mea She'arim, he still refuses to allow even his first name to appear in print.

"Until this day, if I hadn't gone to visit, no one in my family or yeshiva would have known anything about what happened to me. Oy va voi if they found out," A.S. said.

A.S.'s story is not unique. Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox youth have decided -- on their own volition -- to make a break with their families and communities and choose a secular lifestyle. According to one source, many more remain within the haredi world without actually believing in what they are doing.

"I reached a conclusion that there is no God," A.S. said. "I didn't want my children to live in a ghetto, to think they are the only ones to exist in the world. I asked myself a very simple question: How many Orthodox Jews are there in the world? Let's say 100,000. What percentage of the world's population is this? Less than half a percent? And they are the only ones who are right, they are the only ones who have seen the light? And everyone else is wrong?"

Becoming secular is not an easy journey. For a young haredi boy or girl, Israel is like a foreign country with different customs, different rhythms, and different priorities. And for those who grew up in Yiddish-speaking households, even the language is different.

When one leaves the haredi world, one leaves behind family, friends and entire support structures and can find oneself stuck between the haredi and secular realms. Existing in the secular world but living -- initially, at least -- in neither world, there is no one to back you up. You are entirely alone.

But A.S., who did not feel religious for three years before finally deciding to walk out, said he could not possibly remain within the world in which he grew up.

"It was a very painful feeling," he said. "Imagine someone who discovers after many years he is a woman, but continues to wear men's clothes because he is scared to admit he is really a woman. It is very hard. You are not who you are."

How could he possibly do 'normal' things the way he was? "You have sidelocks and a beard. You flirt with a girl on a bus, she won't even look at you. You know nothing about any sort of relevant education, you don't even know how to understand a sentence in Hebrew."

The multitude of personal options shocked and surprised A.S. more than anything else he found in the modern secular world.

"There is no such thing as choices or decisions in the haredi world," A.S. said. "Until you die, you follow the tracks of those who came before you. Suddenly, in the secular world, you are faced with a million different options: What to do before the army, after the army. You can study in Israel or overseas, in a university or college. You can study engineering, liberal arts, general BA. You can fall into crime, join the Shin Bet, join the Mossad. Everything is possible. How the hell can I possibly make these choices?"

Everything in modern Jerusalem was new to someone who had spent his entire life in the ultra-Orthodox bubble.

"I remember the first time I went to the movie theatre," A.S. recalled. "I simply didn't understand. Some actor shot with a gun to the left so I looked to the left of the theatre: nothing, everything was dark. I was really living inside the movie. There was one scene in which someone was pointing a handgun at the camera, at the audience. At that moment he shot and I was so shocked I jumped and yelped. The entire audience burst out laughing. It knocked me out."

Even deodorant was a mystery to A.S. "I asked all my friends at university about it and I just didn't understand. Finally, one day I was in a pharmacy and I asked a woman who worked there what the deal was with deodorant. She explained to me that it closes the pores in your skin to prevent sweating. I was in shock that they developed a product that told the skin to close, to open. What is it, a door? It just didn't make sense."

Munching a sandwich in a decidedly non-kosher cafe in Tel Aviv's trendy Azrieli shopping mall, A.S. paused and said with a smile, "Now, I wear deodorant."

Even secular and religious body language differs. A.S. said that two close haredi friends, at the most, would shake hands in greeting. Whereas secular people will make physical contact -- hug or slap each other on the shoulder asking, "What's up?" A.S. said he just didn't get that either.

"When we finished the semester at university, my friends gave each other hugs before heading for home. And I'm like: 'What is this hugging? Are you homos? What do you want from me?'"

Life events that secular youth experience with a certain degree of warning and prior knowledge came at A.S. out of the blue. Girls, for example.

And sex: "An experience..." he said. "The first time, with my first girlfriend, was strange, exciting."

Between semesters at Hebrew University, A.S.'s roommates dragged him down for a holiday weekend in Eilat. They sat around playing backgammon in their youth hostel when a group of girls arrived on the scene. One girl asked who owned the backgammon board and A.S., who had never before spoken with a female aside from relatives, called out "Me, me!"

The girl and A.S., who was taught by his mother to play backgammon at the age of seven, talked and played backgammon all night. He beat her 107 games to five.

"It surprised me that she continued to stick around even though she kept losing," he remembered with a smile. "I kept wanting to ask her for her telephone number but I wasn't able to. Just before she went home the next day she asked me, 'Are we going to continue playing backgammon sometime?' I replied, 'Of course.'

"But like an idiot, instead of asking what her phone number was, I asked, 'What bus line goes past your house?' So she says to me with a smile, 'You don't think you should call first before you come over?' 'Yes, yes, yes. Good idea,' I said."

For one month, A.S. visited the girl at her kibbutz outside Jerusalem and they would stay up all night talking about life. And for the entire month, A.S. didn't as much touch the back of her hand.

"She was in shock," he said. "She thought I was gay or something. After a month or so I told her I was newly secular from the haredi world and she said, 'Ahhh! Okay, now it's all clear.'"

They stayed together for two years.

Like many who unilaterally leave the haredi world, A.S. has -- at best -- tenuous relations with his family. He said that, amongst other effects, his departure lowered his family's "rank" and made it harder for his brothers and sisters to be considered for arranged marriages.

He eventually came to an agreement with his father, whom he believes failed in providing him with a proper education to succeed in the world. "'Dad,'" he said, "I can no longer call you. If you want we can be -- maximum -- good friends." They now talk only every several months.

A.S. said that life would certainly be easier if he had "faith" and stayed within the haredi world. "To credit God for every difficult life situation, what's better than that? It's always fun to blame someone else."

Sometimes he does miss aspects of the religious world.

"Holidays were lousy at our house. My mom is a lousy cook and my father is too tough. But now when I go to a friend's house for the Passover Seder with a normal family, I am so f**king jealous. When I see a family like this I say, 'This is the kind of family I want'... But I don't have one like that."

A helping hand

There is a place questioning haredi and ex-haredi youth can turn to for help. The Hillel association, established in 1991, has helped hundreds in the process of leaving their religion behind.

Hillel is highly vilified in the haredi press as a missionary organization that attempts to drag susceptible youth into the secular world. In fact, Hillel will not even speak to anyone younger than 18-years-old and urge everyone who turns to them for help to seriously rethink on their own the life-changing decision they are considering.

The association, which is not affiliated with the American B'nai B'rith Hillel, runs a telephone hotline in Israel and provides social and emotional support to those who have made an informed decision to become secular.

Those who leave the ultra-Orthodox world, who no longer believe in God, do they believe in anything at all?

"I believe in myself," said A.S., who volunteers organizing cultural programming for Hillel. "If I am not for myself, who am I for? What I cannot obtain with my own two hands, I will not obtain."

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