Since the beginning of 2014, two young persons in their 20s who had dropped out
of the haredi community committed suicide. In the past year and a half, the
reported cases of yotzim beshe’ela (Orthodox Jews who choose the secular way of
life) committing suicide was six.
The reaction to these suicides depends
on the background of those reacting. As far as the seculars are concerned, the
suicides are caused by the fact that in most cases, the haredi families whose
sons and daughters have decided to turn secular choose to repudiate and
excommunicate them – thus adding to the almost insurmountable emotional and
material difficulties confronted by the latter.
The seculars also accuse
the state of offering barely any sort of assistance to these people, who have
very few places to turn; Hillel, a nonprofit established in 1991 that provides
yotzim beshe’ela with professional and personal support, is one of the
Haredim, on the other hand, accuse those who in their eyes encourage
ultra-Orthodox youngsters to leave their community, and neglect them once they
have made the move. Even though Hillel does not encourage anyone to become
secular, and merely offers assistance to those who have decided to do so
independently, it is the main target for these haredi attacks.
haredim also vehemently deny secular accusations that their community reacts
callously to those who leave it, claiming that cases in which youngsters are
repudiated and excommunicated are the exception.
While the seculars view
the process of the yotzim beshe’ela as a positive development, even though they
accept the legitimacy of the haredi way of life within a free, pluralistic
society, the haredim, who do not believe in the desirability of the pluralistic
society (though they accept it as an unfortunate reality), view it as a tragedy
– in which those involved have lost their way, at best, and are traitors, at
There is no question that any change in a person’s religious
status, which is freely adopted by him or her, involving the departure from a
religious way of life, the adoption of a religious way of life, or conversion to
a different religion or a different way of practicing one’s religion, is a
difficult and frequently painful process.
My conclusion, on the basis of
personal acquaintance with those who have undergone one of these transitions, is
that the most difficult transition is from a haredi to a secular way of life.
The change is difficult because one is moving away from a community and way of
life in which the course of one’s life is more or less laid down at birth –
there are spiritual leaders to direct you at every turn, and there is very
little free choice – to a life in which very little is predetermined, every
person is free to make his own choices (even though he can consult others, if he
desires), and in most cases, the options on offer are vast.
What adds to
the difficulty is that most of those who move out of the haredi community have
neither the social skills nor the educational tools to contend with the modern
secular world, and almost invariably have neither the material means nor the
emotional support required to acquire them.
Of course, not everyone
leaves the haredi way of life for the same reasons. If the transition is to a
secular way of life, rather than to another stream of Judaism, the background
usually involves a loss of belief in God, the validity of the scriptures and the
existence of a single irrefutable truth.
To this one might add an
individualistic personal disposition; abhorrence of strict external discipline;
a questioning and inquisitive mind; a traumatic personal experience which
parents and/or spiritual leaders refused to acknowledge or treat on its merits;
and occasionally, longstanding, untreated psychological problems.
some simply dive into a life of unbridled pleasure- seeking, and the breaking of
rules and conventions, others seek to rebuild their lives in a manner that is
meaningful and intellectually satisfying. The majority fall somewhere in between
these two patterns, with basic material and emotional issues filling most of
their daily lives.
In the last decade only two deliberations have taken
place on the issue, in two different Knesset committees.
The first was in
the Education, Culture and Sport Committee on June 30, 2004, on “assistance and
completion of education for yotzim beshe’ela,” and the second was in the Public
Petitions Committee on November 27, 2003, on “state assistance to yotzim
In both cases the discussion was serious, with the conclusion
that the situation is unsatisfactory and more should be done by the authorities.
There were no practical results from the first deliberation, and there is little
chance that anything will transpire as a result of the second (which took place
before the two recent suicides).
In both cases, MK Moshe Gafni of the
United Torah Judaism party, who is usually a serious and insightful participant
in practical dialogues, “participated” in the deliberation, though his only
contribution was a few cynical comments and a superficial attempt to question
the need for the discussion, and its legitimacy.
Apparently, the subject
of the yotzim beshe’ela is not one on which any sort of secular-haredi dialogue
can take place – it is a non-starter.
However, what is even more
discouraging is the dialogue between the MKs who have raised the issues, and the
authorities within whose frame of reference the issue lies. The contribution of
the state’s representatives to these deliberations is to enumerate on the
all-too-few measures that have been taken or the paltry services that are
offered, with the excuse for the situation being the absence of funds.
fact, it seems as if the state’s approach is based on three main factors. The
first is the assumption that we are speaking of relatively few people – at most,
a few thousand every year (Hillel takes care of the few hundred who approach
it). Given the paucity of resources, it appears, it is preferable to concentrate
on attempts to offer educational and occupational frameworks to tens of
thousands of practicing haredim, who are willing to integrate into general
society and make a positive contribution to the state.
The second, which
nobody mentions explicitly but may be assumed, is that the state is aware of the
fact that the issue is taboo in haredi society, and that the confrontation with
them is already taking place on more fronts than can be effectively dealt
The third is that Israel is rapidly moving away from being a
welfare state, in which the state considers it its duty to offer assistance to
any legitimate population groups that have difficulty coping on their own,
either on a permanent basis or during a transition period.
As one who
believes in both free choice and the welfare state, I find this latter factor
especially distressing, both because there are many people out there who
urgently need help, and because the current situation discourages many thousands
of people within the haredi community from making the move to step out, leaving
them imprisoned in a community in whose premises and values they no longer
There are those who refer to these people as anusim – those
forced to pretend to be living a religious life they do not believe in – and all
this in an allegedly free and enlightened country.
The writer is a
retired Knesset employee.