'Who wants to make kiddush?" a long-haired man asks at the Friday night table, holding a kiddush cup. There seem to be no takers, so he begins himself to say the blessing but stops somewhere in the middle when he realizes no one is really paying attention. "Yalla!" he says, dismissively, cutting the kiddush short while everyone proceeds to eat the three-course, buffet-style Shabbat meal. Once skipping kiddush would have been a sacrilege for almost everyone around the table. These days, making the choice is its own blessing. The men and women sitting at the table are all former haredim who broke out of their dogmatic, strict confines, on pain of excommunication, poverty and loneliness, to live in a world in which they can choose how to live.
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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 helps former haredim adjust to mainstream, pluralistic Israeli life. "They don't really have the chance to go to home on Friday nights."
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 its 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," explains Ofir.
Leaving haredi communities to join mainstream Israeli society is for many like 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 - 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'teshuva, the Hebrew term for those returning to religion).
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 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 here and abroad through lectures, workshops and its Web site, which features 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 non-religious 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.
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 lies, 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 toward 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 from haredim, he confirms that the phenomenon 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."
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.
"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 position. Each Hillel member is assigned an individual tutor on secular living, and at both the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem branches, a library and racks of secular clothing are at the members' disposal.
Last 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. Haredi women are often expected to support the family while husbands learn 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 a 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 18 she joined Hillel, which guided her toward a healthier framework of work and study. "They hammered into my skull that there are no short cuts 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 experiences. "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 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 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 toward his matriculation exam. He currently works in a stationary 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 toward 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, which 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 notes.
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 toward 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," she says.
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 overachieving members of 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 Friday dinner, when they gathered to watch the popular television parody show Eretz Nehederet. They sat on sofas, laughing at all the jokes poked at 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.