The phenomenon of haredi men and women leaving religious life has come to the fore in recent weeks and months, with a group of ex-haredim suing the government for damages for their lack of a basic education and the tragic suicide of Esti Weinstein, who had left the Gur hassidic community and became estranged from her children.
According to Hillel – The Right to Choose, an organization which helps people from the haredi community adapt to life outside their former community, the number of people leaving the fold is increasing.
According to one estimate, approximately 1,300 people leave the community each year.
And in recent years, it is not only young teenagers and men and women in their early 20s who have been leaving, but single mothers and single fathers, as well as even entire families.
One person who left some 10 years ago is Esterina Trachtenberg, now 27 years old.
Her family immigrated from Moscow in the early 1990s, and over the course of some five years after their aliya the family grew increasingly religious.
Eventually, her family became a part of the haredi, non-hassidic “Lithuanian” community, and her father became a rabbi.
Esterina, the second eldest child in her family and one of 12 children in total, was placed in a Beit Yaakov school, where she says she was taught only to become a wife and a mother.
But she had a natural intellectual curiosity and began reading books not of a religious nature from a young age, visiting a local library secretly to maintain her voracious reading habit.
Tensions between Esterina and her parents began when she asked to go to a high school where she would be able to study for and take the matriculation exams which most other Israeli school pupils do. Her intention was to go to university and she knew that without matriculating from high school this would be very difficult.
Esterina’s parents refused to let her go to such a school and instead sent her to what she describes as “the most extreme school possible,” where a general education was not taught.
Unhappy in school, her frustrations began to show and various minor acts of rebellion eventually led to her being expelled. This led to a fierce row with her parents, ending when her father told her to leave the house at the age of just 16.
After finding a place to live, Esterina began working with special needs children to make money.
She wanted to join the army, but her high school had arranged a military service exemption for her, as is the common practice for haredi girls schools.
Since the bureaucracy required to revoke the exemption was too complicated, Esterina volunteered for national service at a hospital, where she worked for a year as an nursing assistant.
While working there she began a high school diploma program, which she managed to finish in one year.
She applied to a university degree course in nursing at the Hebrew University, but because of her relatively low grades, due to her lack of a general education growing up, she was not accepted.
She was however successful in securing a place in the nursing school at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center.
“This was the realization of my dreams. It was something I had wanted from when I was young, and now I was flourishing because I love to study,” said Esterina.
It was nevertheless a difficult time for her, “the hardest years of my life” she says, since she had to work on the weekends as an assistant nurse in the hospital to make ends meet while studying full time.
Nevertheless, Esterina says with gusto that she was “flourishing” at this time because of her love of studying.
Finally, she finished her degree and qualified as a nurse, and completed her dream. After working as a nurse for several years, she joined a masters and PhD program in medical science at the Technion in Haifa, which she is currently studying toward.
Esterina is still in touch with her family, although she visits them very occasionally, “just enough so we don’t kill each other” she says with a wry smile, describing the relationship as “delicate.”
At an earlier stage she did not go to family celebrations, although that has since changed. She continues to find such experiences difficult, saying she feels judged by her members of her former community.
Her parents she says think she has shamed her and tell her that they now have problems marrying off their remaining single children.
She says she is particularly saddened that her maturing siblings have no general education and are not able to study anything beyond the realm of Jewish religious texts and disciplines.
Sometimes, with her parent’s approval she buys them a book on science or similar topics to give them an insight into the world beyond their communal horizons. One of her brothers tells her though that all worldly information is contained within the books of the Talmud.
“I have no answer to such a response, because for him this is the truth,” she says simply.
Esterina says she has questions her parents directly on how they can deny their children a general education when they themselves received one, and her father in particular was a professor.
Her mother responds that if the other children wish to get a broader education they could do what Esterina has done, an answer that leaves her flabbergasted given the hardships and difficulties she faced in achieving what she has.
Avi Neuman, the resource development director for Hillel, which currently serves approximately 800 former haredim, notes that people in the position Esterina was when she left home face numerous and severe challenges.
“When people leave the haredi community they leave everything behind, “ he says.
“They leave the support of their family and community as well as the social norms of haredi society, which are so different to mainstream society that often its like an immigration process but without any of the tools needed for coping, such as an education or an understanding of societal norms and conventions.”
Hillel runs numerous programs for “leavers,” as they are termed in Hebrew, through centers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where it also operates a hotline open 12 hours a day for people to call and seek advice.
The organization provides housing subsidies and even free accommodation for up to 12 months for those who need it, as well as educational scholarships for studying toward a high school diploma, and bachelors and masters degrees. Social workers and psychologists are also made available for those who need such services.
Hillel also runs an emergency shelter in Jerusalem for up to six men and six women, usually for people who have very recently left their community and are in immediate need of a place to stay.
Many of the people using Hillel’s services do so for as long as five years, with approximately 150 new “leavers” coming to the organization every year.
The group has an operating budget of some NIS 6 million, 16 percent of which comes from government sources, principally the Welfare Ministry.
However, a 28% increase in the number of former haredim seeking Hillel’s services in 2015 over the previous year has put a strain on its operations.
“It is an intense experience to be all alone in the world, and anyone making such a radical break will have problems and pain, and many difficulties,” says Neuman.
“Sometimes people leave without any money at all and with only the black and white clothes on their back.
“But a lot of those who leave the haredi world are succeeding and moving forward with their lives, and at the same time need deal with the emotional consequences and trauma that this process brings.”