Beyond black and white: Life isn't easy for Israeli Haredim who want out

People who opt to leave the ultra-Orthodox community are a growing, but often overlooked, sector of Israeli society, and they urgently need help.

Haaretz, Israel/January 23, 2014

By Anshel Pfeffer

Imagine for a moment that in the lottery of birth you had been granted life in a typical ultra-Orthodox Jewish family, living in a typical Haredi neighborhood somewhere in Israel. Your entire education, from the age of 3 onward, was in religious establishments, without any connection to members of the opposite sex, and all the people you had any close acquaintance with were from your community, with the same level of observance and identical customs.

If you are a boy, then from the age of 12 or 13 you ceased to study any “secular” subjects and all the education you ever had in mathematics, grammar, science and history was the very basic lessons you received in primary school, often by unqualified teachers. From then on, your entire day was dedicated to Torah and Talmud.

If you were born a girl, you continued to receive a slightly more comprehensive education, though not at the level of the national curriculum. Unless your family emigrated from an English-speaking country or your parents are particularly enlightened and provided you with private lessons, Hebrew and perhaps Yiddish are the only languages you know.

Now imagine that in your early teens or at even earlier age, you began asking yourself questions. The contradictions in the biblical stories and the presence of God – invoked in every lesson and conversation, yet entirely absent from your everyday life – open up a void within your soul, only you’re not even sure you have a soul anymore as you feel so emptied by the drabness of your existence.

The rabbis your parents revere don’t seem so impressive, and your teachers fail to inspire you. And just beyond the neighborhood, you glimpse a life that seems carefree and colorful, where people wear different clothes every day.

You are wracked by guilt, which intensifies as your body begins to change and you are filled by impure desire. You curse your maker for the impossible circumstances of your birth. The answers you receive from the grown-ups around you are unsatisfactory at best, if not scolding. If only there was a way out. But there isn’t one.

Imagine you had summoned up the emotional strength to disassociate yourself from your entire identity, cut yourself off from the family, friends and community that were your entire world from birth, tell them to their face that you no longer believe in them. Where do you go next?

If you are still a minor, the option to continue living with your family while openly expressing your new beliefs or lack of them simply does not exist. Your loving parents will not allow you to live any other way than the one they expect from you and your siblings under their roof.

Even if they were capable of understanding you and accepting you as who you are, they are part of a community where “success” in raising upstanding children is everything. Your presence in their midst is an embarrassment and will totally ruin your brothers and sisters’ chances of a decent match.

But you can’t leave, either. Where will you go?

You can’t find refuge with any of the private organizations helping youngsters in trouble as you are still legally in your parents’ custody, and social services won’t help you as your family is functional. Homelessness and then petty crime, drugs and prostitution don’t appeal, though some will inevitably go down that road.

But you choose to stay. You wear the clothes, mouth the prayers, attend lessons and try to remain a faithful son or daughter, burying the doubts deep down. Life at home may be unfulfilling and frustrating, but at least its warm; there’s food and a roof over your head.

For a short while, you’re relieved you decided to stay and believe it was just a passing phase of heresy. It isn’t, and you are falling into the abyss again.

Imagine you are 17 and the summons for your military service arrives. Like all of your friends you are directed to declare you cannot serve, but suddenly you realize this is your chance to get out – the draft is your golden ticket.

But after just a couple of hours at the induction center, you are disabused of these hopes.

The army is a harsh and foreign environment – you find yourself stuttering when the officer talks to you, secular recruits mock you, and you discover that, without a formal education, most positions are closed to you.

What’s worse, you are told that the army will not pay for your rent and food when you are on leave, since you have a family with whom you are still in contact. It’s back to the yeshiva or women’s seminar for you, and you’d better knuckle down, because in a few months your parents will begin vetting prospective spouses for you and you don’t want to disappoint them.

Three or four years later, you are finally “independent.” You live in your own apartment, with your own bank account and your own small family. All still in the Haredi neighborhood that you yearn to escape. But how can you?

Your spouse can’t believe you would even contemplate a move that is tantamount to abandonment. And even if it wouldn’t lead to divorce, or had, how on earth could you ever survive outside, without the support structure of family and community, bereft of any of the qualifications necessary for employment in all but the most low-paying of jobs?

Although the government is now offering a growing range of vocational training programs and grants for ultra-Orthodox men and women interested in joining the workforce, only those who remain Haredi are eligible. What choice is there but to remain inside and raise another generation in denial?

The incredible thing is that, despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, a growing number of young Haredim do choose to leave.

An analysis of Central Bureau of Statistics figures – carried out by Moshe Sheinfeld, founder of Yotzim Leshinui, which advocates on behalf of those who leave the Haredi world – finds that in the 20-40 age group, 4 percent of those who were born ultra-Orthodox are today either secular or religious, but not Haredi. That’s over 900 leavers each year, without education and support, and their number is growing annually.

While hundreds of millions of shekels of taxpayers’ money fund the yeshivas they left, those who were left without any relevant qualifications, thanks to this state-funded trap, receive no assistance, save from a couple of underfunded volunteer organizations.

Of course, it’s the government’s responsibility to provide solutions for this growing sector of Israeli society – the ex-Haredim. But it will take years for the government to get its act together, and meanwhile there are lives to be saved and built.

This is a wake-up call for Jewish philanthropy. Imagine what a difference a well-funded comprehensive program of education, counseling and long-term loans could make in the lives of the thousands of young men and women who will leave the Haredi community over the next decade and make their first brave steps in the real world.

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