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Some 70 men and women who have left the haredi community to pursue a secular lifestyle have been awarded scholarships totaling half a million shekels, to help them pursue the education necessary for their integration into secular society.
Handed out by Hillel - The Right to Choose, which promotes the integration of young people who decide to leave the haredi communities in Israel, the funds are aimed primarily at assisting those people in completing their matriculation exams, taking preparatory courses for psychometric tests and enrolling in university studies or vocational training. The organization is supported via private donations and foundations in both Israel and the US.
"It is not easy for us," one ex-haredi woman, who wanted to be known simply as Hadas, told The Jerusalem Post. "I am rarely in touch with my parents, and when we do speak on the phone, they are very distanced from me."
Hadas, who opted to follow a secular lifestyle three years ago, has received financial support from Hillel since the beginning, and the group is currently helping her complete her matriculation exams.
"Looking back on my childhood, I think I always knew that I did not want to be religious," said the former resident of Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood. "At 17, I had doubts about it, but did not want to let my parents down. After I married, however, and had a child, I suddenly felt more independent. I decided that I did not want someone telling me what do all the time, I wanted to be free."
Both she and her husband left the community, and with Hillel's help set up a home outside, away from her family.
"I knew when I left that I would have to pay a heavy price and lose my family for good," said Hadas, one of six children. "It is hardest during the festivals and holidays, when everyone else is with family and I am alone. But I would not go back to that life."
Her husband, however, did go back, said Hadas. "He could not go through with it," she continued. "We have a civil relationship now, and my son stays with him about once a week."
She added, "There are many people in the haredi community who do not believe in what they are doing, do not believe in religion or God, but are too scared to stand up for themselves. It takes a lot of courage."
Varda Lifschitz, Hillel's executive director, agrees. "Leaving the only world they know, their family and friends, can be a very complicated path," she said. "Secular society is not supportive, and it is very hard for anyone to survive."
Lifschitz explained that the decision to focus the scholarship funds on education was derived from the fact that many haredim have a limited education in subjects like English, science, history, geography, literature and even math, which are essential for making their way in a secular world.
"It is a very difficult situation, but most people in the world would agree that the key to success in a secular life lies in education and vocational training," said Lifschitz.
While this year's scholarship total is the highest ever for the 15-year-old organization, Lifschitz said the increased number of people turning to Hillel did not indicate a sudden boom in the number of people leaving the haredi world.
"This trend has existed for many years," she pointed out. "These people are the same ones who would have left anyway, even if we were not around, but without our help, they would have had to go through an even more difficult time before they found their feet. We are not missionaries, but we help give support and answer some of their soul-searching questions. We help them move on more quickly than they otherwise would have."
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