(photo credit: )
In a ceremony held in Ramat Aviv on Wednesday night 54 former haredi men and women received academic scholarships from the Hillel organization that will help them catch up academically with their fellow Israelis.
Hillel, founded in 1994, is an entirely voluntary organization, that gives guidance and assistance to young men and women from ultra-Orthodox families who choose to leave their communities.
The young ex-haredim discover that their education has not prepared them for the secular workplace, according to Irit Panepe, the organization's volunteer spokeswoman. "Usually we are talking about extremely intelligent people who came to a real conclusion, that "the ultra-Orthodox world" is not their place," she told The Jerusalem Post before the start of Wednesday's ceremony.
"Even those who come from the best yeshivas, such as Ponevezh, stopped their [secular] education at somewhere around the fourth grade level, she said." They learn nothing about history, civics, literature, and geography - not even Bible as we now it. The organization emphatically affirms that its agenda is apolitical.
"We have no political identity," Panepe insisted. "We are a social organization; we help people who need help."
And that help is impressive in scope. Hillel operates apartments in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in which 'yotz'im beshe'ela', those who left the haredi world behind for secular Israel, can live for a few weeks or even months.
During this time the organization's 300 volunteers help them with writing resumes and finding work.
The young former haredim also receive academic tutoring and psychological help in addition to what volunteers call "basic help," such as assistance in choosing and purchasing colorful clothes.
In addition, Hillel takes groups on weekend trips all over Israel.
Many of the young people taking part on the trip have never seen Israel's outdoors.
The trips also offer an opportunity to meet people going through similar experiences.
For scholarship recipient Efi Shalom, the organization offers an opportunity he would not otherwise have had.
"I'm learning in a mechina (college preparatory program)," Shalom told the Post, saying he had to start "at the beginning, literally learning to write the letters ABC." "I discovered there were many people who have the same foundations as mine," he said excitedly, ahead of the ceremony at which received a scholarship to pay for the academic program.
While Shalom found his way on his own to military service in the 202nd battalion of the Paratroopers, "where I got my perspective from the other side of Israeli culture," Hillel's help has been instrumental in his academic advancement since leaving the haredi world.
At the mechina, "a teacher who himself came out of Hillel met me at the beginning of the program and saw me through it."
While Hillel doesn't have any political affiliations, it does openly call for establishing and enforcing a standardized educational curriculum throughout Israel.
"If the state doesn't mandate a minimal curriculum," said one representative of the organization, "then we believe the Education Ministry should take responsibility for these people who know nothing, and help them to catch up." Until such a policy is in place, vowed the representative, "we're doing it."
Hillel's work has encountered much resistance in the haredi world which views leaving the ultra-Orthodox community for a secular lifestyle as a danger to the community's cohesion and ideals. The organization's offices have experienced several break-ins during which identifying information about the organization's participants was stolen. In addition, Hillel representatives claim that haredi leaders have set up a similarly named organization meant to receive phone calls from confused haredi youth seeking Hillel.