Beyond questioning

Though it oftens means being ostracized by family and community, an increasing number of haredi youth are abandoning religious life to join secular society

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March 7, 2007 11:35

 
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It's Friday night and it looks like a party is happening on the balcony of the beachside Tel Aviv apartment. Men and women in their 20s and 30s dressed in jeans and T-shirts are talking, flirting, laughing and smoking cigarettes. Passersby would have no reason to suspect that only a few years - in some cases months - ago, almost everyone on that balcony would not have dared to smoke a cigarette on a Friday night. Nor would they have worn jeans or mingled with members of the opposite sex. Eventually, they gather around the Shabbat table and begin their feast with announcements. One woman invites everyone to her upcoming wedding, and immediately everyone breaks out in sacred wedding songs and niggunim (religious tunes usually sung in groups), chanting joyously for about 10 minutes as they would in a yeshiva. For a moment, it seems like everyone has gone back in time to their previous lives as haredim. For some, this kind of gathering is the closest they get to feeling like part of a family, says Rina Ofir, director of Hillel, a non-profit organization that assists former haredim adjust to mainstream, pluralistic Israeli life. "They don't really have the chance to go to home on Friday nights," she points out. Most haredi defectors are immediately ejected from their homes once they appear at the family doorstep without peyot (sidelocks) or, in the case of women, without a modest skirt. Two years ago, Hillel made communal Friday night dinners a tradition, alternating weekly between their Tel Aviv and Jerusalem branches. "It's important for them to be together, for the food as well - for some of them it's their only real meal because they eat here and there and don't really have money," says Ofir. Leaving haredi communities to join mainstream Israeli society is for many tantamount to moving to a foreign country. It entails learning a new language (particularly English, but in some cases also spoken Hebrew), internalizing modern codes of dress and behavior, creating a social framework, and securing housing and employment. Some haredi communities can be likened to Yiddish-speaking Eastern European shtetls - albeit minus the cold weather and with modern appliances. "Yotzim define themselves as new immigrants," says Ofir, referring to haredi defectors who are commonly called yotzim b'she'ela ("going out to question," a pun on hozrim b'tshuva, the Hebrew term for those who become religious). Despite these difficulties, the number of newly secular is apparently increasing, judging from last year's hike in inquiries to Hillel's open line. The proliferation of the Internet has made access to secular worldviews more readily available to haredim via their computers or cellphones. Many yotzim and prospective yotzim congregate digitally on the popular chat forum "yotzim b'she'ela" on the Tapuz Web site portal. This is one reason, says Ofir, why some haredi community leaders are beginning to outlaw Internet use. "It's important for us to state that we are not missionaries," she clarifies. "We work with those who choose to leave the haredi community. We have no interest in drawing them out." Nor does Hillel seek to engage former haredim in religious debate. Instead, the organization refers them to libraries and the Internet to find answers to theological questions. Da'at Emet was founded in 1998 by Yaron Yadan to provide such answers. The organization, dedicated to disseminating a scientific, humanistic interpretation of Judaism, initially went to haredi yeshivot and handed out pamphlets divulging ideas that countered haredi faith-based beliefs, such as those dealing with the divinity of the Torah and the veracity of the Talmud. "We try to teach the haredi public that they live by an unethical, mistaken and inequitable system," says Yadan, who fears that haredi influence and growth in Israel is undermining the state's democratic character. "We try to explain to them that the secular world is more beautiful - it is filled with creativity, ethics and spirituality." These days, Da'at Emet reaches haredi communities in Israel and abroad through lectures, workshops and its Web site featuring a range of articles written from an academic, humanistic perspective that expose inconsistencies, scientific errors and ethically problematic passages in the Bible and Talmud. Da'at Emet is the fruit of Yadan's intellectual journey - he went from being secular to haredi, before becoming secular again. Having grown up in a secular household, he began to study at a Jerusalem yeshiva at age 17 to satisfy his search for meaning and purpose. "I was (and still am) very knowledgeable in Jewish texts - the entire bookshelf," he says of his break from religion. While serving as head of a yeshiva for three years, Yadan began to critically examine biblical and talmudic texts. "I found errors in zoology, medicine, astronomy, cosmology, anatomy and other fields, and I noticed that in Jewish religious texts morality is based not on ethics, but on mitzvot [commandments] founded upon halachic [religious law] errors. As a believer whose whole life was bound to the idea that God wrote the Torah, it eventually became clear to me there was no divine connection to the Torah." Finally, when he was convinced that his life was based on falsehood, Yadan broke the news to his wife. Unable to stand the idea that their seven children would continue to live and study an irrational belief system, he worked for three years to guide his wife towards his new truth. "I succeeded. I don't know how. One night she turned on the lights on Shabbat, and that was that." Yadan has since divorced and remarried, and is currently completing his BA in Jewish Thought. Judging from inquiries reaching him from haredim, he confirms that the phenomenon of yetzia b'she'ela is growing. "Today, unlike the time when Da'at Emet was founded, there is no haredi household that doesn't know someone who left the fold. It used to be that if a haredi family had a son or daughter who [became secular], other children in the family would not be considered for arranged marriages." These days, says Yadan, defection is more commonplace and no longer scars the reputation of other siblings. His transition into the secular world may have been easier than that of other yotzim because of his secular roots, but with seven children to support and no profession, Yadan faced enormous financial hardship. Sometimes he advises haredim with many children not to leave. "If you have no profession and even if your wife agrees with you, live a double life," he tells them. "Try at least to send your kids to schools that offer general education." While previous generations of yotzim laid the groundwork for others to follow, Yadan thinks the process remains a difficult one, as one former Jerusalem hassid attests. "At first your life is hell. On one hand you're not familiar with secular culture, while on the other, you want to be a part of it," says S., 23, who shaved off his beard and peyot only a few months ago. "I never thought I'd do it. It takes courage to leave everything and go into a world you don't know," he adds. S. doesn't describe the process of leaving as the result of an intellectual journey or sudden revelation. He simply never felt like he fitted in. "I lived a regular haredi life - I wasn't such a rebel - but I reached a situation where I couldn't stand living that way anymore. I never got along with my immediate family. We had no emotional connection. We had different mentalities. I was more drawn to a life of freedom, nature." A year ago, he divorced his wife from an arranged marriage that was a mismatch from the start. "They married me to someone, it didn't work, and I got divorced," he says, simply. Several months later he took off with his savings, and lived out of a suitcase in the center of the country until he eventually settled in a Tel Aviv apartment subsidized by Hillel. He found a job at a food stand but speaks with bitterness of his early work experience. "They take advantage of you. At first you're very timid." S. doesn't expect to secure a better paying job without an academic qualification, as is common among yotzim. "Those who study in yeshiva don't really know anything," Ofir explains. "They know Talmud very well, but don't know English or math." To achieve a BA, the average male yotzeh must learn English from scratch, complete matriculation exams (a process that can take up to two years) and attend college for approximately four years. Some opt for army service, which further stretches the time until they graduate from college (see sidebar). "If someone becomes more religious, they get help, education, housing, food," relates S. "Hessed [charity] is an integral part of haredi life, and many charity organizations provide food and services for needy haredim. You don't have that for people who become secular. Secular people live their lives. As a yotzeh, you're on your own. It's like you're thrown to the winds." To fill that void, Hillel models itself after charity organizations. Unlike some religious outreach organizations that receive government funding, Hillel subsists on private donations, mostly from abroad. The funds are channeled primarily for its members' education. The staff consists entirely of volunteers, except for one part-time staffer. Each Hillel member is assigned an individual tutor on "secular living." At both the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem branches, a library and racks of "secular" clothing are at the members' disposal. This past weekend, Hillel organized a Purim retreat with workshops on employees' rights, dating, and love and sex. In a world of arranged marriages, yotzim do not acquire basic dating skills. "A lot of women at Hillel complain that the yotzim are very rude in their advances, because they have no idea how to approach a woman," says P., a former haredi woman. "Women have their own difficulties approaching men in the outer world because the codes are so different. The rules of the game in the secular world are much more varied. In the religious world it's very black-and-white - it's clear what you're supposed to do at every stage in the courtship." Ironically, female yotzot from certain haredi communities leave their world better equipped to adjust to the secular world. Haredi women are often expected to support the family while husbands study in yeshiva, and study math, English and science in high school. However, far fewer women than men leave haredi communities, in part because their lives are situated around the home and they are usually married off at a younger age. They also have a lot more at stake, including losing the amenities that go with an arranged marriage and often being stigmatized as "whores" who should be distanced from their community at all costs. But, R., a member of Hillel, points out that even girls' education is usually not enough. "When you grow up you don't have television or radio, and don't hear English songs - you just see and read Hebrew." Upon breaking away from her community, R. traveled to India where she had to converse in English for the first time. "I didn't know how to say 'restaurant,' 'hotel,' 'waiter' - nothing. I felt so stupid." Racheli Granot, who left her home in Bnei Brak as a teen, describes herself as having adopted provocative dress and vulgar speech in her early rebellious years. "As a girl who grew up in the hassidic world, when I went out to the free world I was very 'anti.' I rebelled against values, parents, family, myself and friends. I lost control. I wanted to swallow the world in one go." At age 18 she joined Hillel, which guided her towards a healthier framework of work and study. "They hammered into my skull that there are no shortcuts in life, that I must study, to bridge the big gap in my education, to aim high and try to be something in life," she says. While yotzim often consider their entry into mainstream society a type of rebirth, replete with a new slew of opportunities for intellectual growth and freedom, the process of fully integrating may take many years for some. There is a common debate among Hillel members as to when a yotzeh stops being a yotzeh. "You can't say I feel better," says S., whose natural early-20s uncertainty is exacerbated by his limited childhood identity. "When you don't know yourself, your way around, you can't feel better. But I try to deal with what I have, to make the most of it." Meir Tahover, 25, believes that his process of adjustment took only several months because he began to scientifically research the non-haredi world as a teen, when he already began to doubt his hassidic lifestyle, asking questions like: "It didn't make sense that God would create a person so that he'll suffer - why create fruit only to forbid it?" From age 19, this self-professed former model yeshiva student began to investigate other streams of Judaism, including religious Zionism, until he came to the conclusion at age 23 that "religion is not for me." When his parents understood that he had abandoned religion completely, they threw him out of the house. At that point, Tahover became a member of Hillel, which assisted him in putting a roof over his head and funding studies towards his matriculation exam. He currently works in a stationery store and defines his goal simply: "To build a new life. To make a better future for my children." With the passage of time his parents have softened towards him. Tahover recently attended his sister's wedding, where his father shook his hand for the first time in two years. He participates regularly in the popular Tapuz chat forum, responding to concerns raised by potential yotzim. "One type is very intellectual and asks the right questions," he says of the yotzim he has encountered. This group, he says, is a minority because a healthy sense of reason and inquiry is stifled at an early age. "The second type, of which there are more, consists of those who don't have it good in the haredi community and seek a change." Faranak Margolese, author of the book Off the Derech that examines why Jews leave Orthodoxy, cites a common thread in the motivations of haredim who leave. "It seems the pressure to be religious in one particular way is often too stifling. The road becomes too narrow to walk, and the inability to legitimately move to another brand of observance leaves too few options for those who don't fit the mold," she noted in an e-mail interview. Ofir notices that most Hillel members abandon any belief in God or religious observance - at least in the early stages of rebellion. This trend could be stemmed, says Margolese, if haredi communities would change their attitudes towards other Jewish streams. "A fair number of those in the haredi world who go off might have stayed at least somewhat observant if other communities or observant options were considered legitimate to their own world," wrote Margolese. Considering the independent spirit, intellectual curiosity and mental fortitude required to leave their communities, yotzim who succeed in providing for their basic needs - whether through organizations like Hillel or on their own - often become productive, even over-achieving members of Israeli society, notes Ofir. Hillel members have graduated from top Israeli universities and several have become army officers. Perhaps the most telltale incident of the yotzim's assimilation into secular society occurred after dinner at both the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem branches, when they gathered to watch the popular television parody show Eretz Nehederet (A Wonderful Country). They sat on sofas, laughing at all the jokes poked at Israeli politicians and celebrities. As one member put it: "The television show has nothing to do with being yotzim. Two million people watch it." In their jeans and T-shirts, they looked like the average Israeli who grew up on television, but their laughter may have been a little louder. Secular boot camp In haredi communities, the IDF is a symbol of the secular Jewish state that they reject outright. In principle, yeshiva students are exempt from military service and the government considers yeshiva study as national service. Haredi men who do not study in yeshiva, however, are required by law to enlist but are often encouraged by rabbis and community leaders to deliberately fail recruitment exams. "One reason haredim don't want yeshiva students to go to the army is very simple," says T., 19, a Hillel member in his second year of army service. "As soon as they're exposed to the secular world, they see a new way and there's more chance of them leaving the haredi way of life." Prior to his break from his Sephardic haredi community, T. lied to the army about the state of his psychological health in order to secure an exemption. After much hesitation, he eventually decided to fulfill his army service. He worked to nullify his self-imposed exemption, but given his fake psychological profile was placed in a unit for ex-cons and at-risk youth. Despite this setback, he successfully passed an officers' training course and now works in his field of choice, computers, although army bureaucracy still prevents him from upgrading his profile. "We sometimes get in the picture to help them gain better positions," says Hillel director Rina Ofir. "The army isn't attentive enough and doesn't listen to us enough, and so we always have problems with the army." A Hillel liaison takes up cases like T.'s, and also assists in shortening service for those who are not prepared to serve the standard three years. "Generally, we are supportive of their serving in the army," explains Ofir. "But not everyone can do it. They have been educated since childhood against the army, and it's not easy for them." Such was the case with M., a handsome teen with gelled hair who left his hassidic Mea She'arim community at 16. "At first I didn't want to be recruited because I heard bad stories about the army," he says, in Hebrew which he says he didn't learn properly until age 13. M. met with an army psychologist to veto his exemption, and now serves as a driver with the status of a hayal boded (soldier with no family in the country). Serving in the army, he says, has improved his self-image. Upon first leaving home, he would hang out with a ruffian crowd in Jerusalem streets before finding shelter at a youth hostel through a local organization assisting victims of family violence. "I see all types of people in the army," he says. "It's very interesting. At first I thought I couldn't be in a framework. I was a problematic kid. Now I see from the army that I can be in a framework." His military service, however, has tarnished the image of his family. "My 18-year-old brother is having trouble finding a shidduch (arranged marriage) because his brother is a soldier. They don't understand that we are protecting them." One of the greatest obstacles for ex-haredi soldiers is the loneliness. "When I joined up, everyone came with their parents and I came by myself," recalls M. "I almost wanted to cry." Understanding this, Hillel representatives attend army ceremonies with the members and send them care packages every month. Volunteer families work with Hillel to "adopt" soldiers - to give them a place to spend the weekend for a good meal, laundry and other amenities regular soldiers usually enjoy at their parents' house. Despite the obstacles, T. is grateful for this opportunity. "Thanks to the army I got a chance to understand secular society. I can still see the differences between them and me. They'll talk about cartoons they watched as a kid, and I don't." He also notices another, unlikely difference. "Today I love the army - probably more than the others. I think I'm moved more than any other soldier when I hear "Hatikva" played every Thursday." My date with the married haredi I met him months ago, long before I started working on my cover story on haredi rebels, at the Tel Aviv showing of Kol Nidrei, a play by Yehoshua Sobol. Inspired by true stories, the play follows haredim who lead double lives - Bnei Brak yeshiva bochers by day and Tel Aviv bar-hoppers by Friday night. The male stars of the show are actual former haredim who now study acting. When the play ended, my friend Tovy and I got in the elevator together with a man wearing a black kippa and a blue collared shirt. Curious, we asked this seeming haredi what he thought of the play. "I'm shaking," he said. "It really spoke to me." He revealed to us that he lives in an ultra-Orthodox community with his wife and two children, who believed him to be at work. By going to see the play, he too was leading a double life. Tovy and I sat down with him near the entrance to the auditorium, and he continued to tell us his story. "I was always a very appeasing child, I always did what people expected of me, and I've always suffered," Aaron, 28, explained. He was set up with his wife at age 18 and never loved her. He still didn't, and they both knew it. His work as a computer salesperson brought him into contact with secular Israelis, who seemed so much freer to him. "You have a choice," he said to us. "I want that choice." Internally, Aaron is completely secular. He no longer believes in God. He doesn't pray or don tefillin. Externally, however, he looks like a good yeshiva boy. "I can't just shave my beard and go to my family and say, 'That's me.' I don't have the courage." He also doesn't want to give his sick mother the heartbreak that his break from ultra-Orthodoxy would cause her. I felt sorry for him and his family - but also happy for him that he was courageously questioning his confines. And I couldn't help but feel tempted to entice him. "Are you into nightclubs and bars, like the characters in the play?" I asked. "I'm intrigued," he admitted. Once, an 18-year-old gas station attendant took him to a pub, but he felt "out of place." Then I told him I was well connected with the Tel Aviv nightlife scene, but I debated whether or not to exchange phone numbers. On the one hand, he seemed like an interesting project. On the other hand, he was married. "He's definitely into one of us," said Tovy, as he walked away. That was obvious enough. A few days later he called me with an "idea." "Maybe I can join you when you go to bars or nightclubs?" He wasn't really experienced in asking a woman out on a date. I deferred the date for a week; I was hesitant. Would I be evil by escorting him to the Tel Aviv underworld, while his wife and child are at home? Am I aiding and abetting a potential adulterer? But when he called me again, I decided to go out with the poor soul - with caution. We sat for beer at a pub on Rehov Ben-Yehuda on a Thursday night, Tel Aviv's party night. We didn't have to work through any small talk, as is usual on dates, to get to the nitty-gritty. We immediately began talking real life, and the dialogue was intense. "Doesn't your wife mind you're out late?" I probed. He looked at me with a concentrated, attentive glance rare among the secular men I date. "We both know that it's going to end sooner or later," he said. "We talk about it." His admission relieved some guilt I felt in luring this married haredi. His marriage was a lost cause anyway. As long as I didn't kiss him, I reasoned, we were kosher. And I wouldn't want to kiss him anyway. He really looked nerdy in his beard, white collared shirt, black kippa and black slacks. He totally didn't fit in at the bar, and I could tell people were looking at us, wondering what we were doing together. I fantasized about shaving his beard and taking him to the mall for a makeover. He had potential - if only one could see his face. We continued to talk Torah, philosophy, relationships, and I shared with him the process I underwent as I began to question the modern Orthodox way of life. I realized what I really liked about him: He was a thinking creature. He thought about life, its meaning and his personal happiness. "How does it feel to be in a Tel Aviv pub?" I asked. "I'm on a high," he said. As he dropped me off at my car, we shook hands and he kissed me on the cheek, but I didn't like the touch of his beard. If we were to go out romantically, I thought, he'd really have to undergo a wardrobe change. "I really enjoyed myself," he said. I guess I did too. But then I wondered if he was acting. Maybe he dramatized his frustrations to attract a female savior? Maybe I was insecure and liked the feeling of being appreciated and needed by a man who saw me as a tempting, exotic fruit. Then I remembered that this was not a play. Kol Nidrei was over. Art imitates life, but life rarely imitates art. His drama was real. Neither of us were actors. I met with Aaron only once after that, but decided it was better not to build the friendship, especially after he called me one night out on the street when his wife wouldn't open the door for him. I didn't think it was a come-on - he really had nowhere to go. I called him a few days ago as I was writing this article to find out how he was doing. Again, right away, he cut to the chase and updated me, as if no time had passed and we were just continuing our last conversation. "If before I wanted to leave in theory, now I'm preparing to leave in practice," he said. He's in the middle of the divorce process, and his friends and family are all aware of his intention to leave the haredi world. "But it's hard. It's very hard." He told me to keep in touch. I don't know if we will, and besides, I think it's best that for now - until he is truly free - I remain a minor, friendly character in his story.

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