Former haredim: Why do some drop out to join the modern world? 

Ex-haredim share their early life experiences in haredi society and how and why they left.

Illustrative photo of young haredi men walking in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Illustrative photo of young haredi men walking in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

As we enter the year 5782, it is a good time to reflect on the ongoing regrettable phenomenon pervading haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish youth. Israel’s haredi community is growing faster than any other sector, and their influence on Israeli society and politics is considerable.

At the same time, their traditional efforts to protect haredi youth from the pervasive influences of the secular world have become more and more difficult. The convenience of using mobile telephones can no longer be averted and preventing Internet access, by only allowing specially adapted so-called “kosher” phones can easily be circumvented by young teenagers with access to money. There is a surplus of good secondhand phones available at very cheap cost. It is impossible to avoid sexually implicit advertising posters assaulting everyone on every street corner, all to the detriment of sheltering the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle

When one hears the word “haredi,” one thinks immediately of black-dressed bearded men, or somberly clothed women with their hair covered, pushing a baby chair with several children in tow, each sprouting sidelocks of varying length. That’s a sight common in Stamford Hill, London; Williamsburg, New York, or several districts in Jerusalem, among other places in the world.

The ultra-Orthodox lifestyle necessitates ghetto-like communities for several reasons. The very strict observance of Torah law requires services that need to be within proximity of their homes. Apart from synagogues that conduct the services according to the ritual prescribed by their spiritual leader or Rebbe, there is the necessity of the ritual bath house the mikve, to enable a halachic requirement mainly for women, though men also regularly use it.

To lead an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle within an environment that is exposed to influence from the outside world, such as for instance, the Internet and publicly displayed advertisements needs strict discipline to resist. Firm control is exercised by education from a very early age and an extremely sheltered milieu.

However, it is the nature of youth to rebel against the establishment, both political and social. In haredi circles, this tendency is prevented from developing by the exercise of a strict religious routine, that leaves little time, indeed opportunity to think of matters non-spiritual.

It is not surprising therefore, that a not inconsiderable number of haredi young people, particularly those with an inquiring mind begin to ask questions about the value of living a life that restricts what they consider to be the opportunities that the wider world offers. Ever more have left their family homes to discard the restrictions that haredi life imposes.

Such sudden change from a sheltered environment to the world outside, being totally unprepared following what is often an emotional rather than rational decision can cause serious shock and problems.

To assist in the transformation and continuing support of drop-outs from their haredi families, there exist several organizations founded by people who have themselves left the haredi lifestyle.

One of these, “Out for Change,” aims to help former haredi youth to integrate into secular society. Its “non-drop-out” administrator is Debbie Perla, who explained the organization’s mission: “Most of the people who come to us have almost no English, and very basic math skills, because this is not a part of ultra-Orthodox education. Their secular studies stopped at third grade level. We only accept people over the age of 18, no minors, nor do we convince anybody to leave the ultra-orthodox community. In the case of men, they mostly come from yeshivot, Jewish scripture learning establishments.

YOUNG HAREDI students in Rehovot last year. (credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)YOUNG HAREDI students in Rehovot last year. (credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)

“Men and women leave for a variety of reasons, including a crisis with the belief system itself, perhaps to avoid the pressure of early marriage, or simply to be free of the strict orthodox routine or for issues of sexual identity. There is no appreciable difference between the sexes. Research shows that about 51% men and 49% women drop out. In our centers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem we provide courses in English and also offer all kinds of cultural programs. We also offer life skills workshops; how to speak and dress for interviews or write a resume, all of which are lacking in ultra-orthodox communities. On the macro level we deal with government and the IDF to impress on them that people who dropped out come from the same background as those who remain ultra-Orthodox and should therefore be given the same special consideration.”

To find out what moves such young people to take that life-changing step against the traditions of their families, I talked with Ricky, who is 22, and Eli aged 27,and asked some searching questions about the process that moved them to change into a secular life. Here are some of their abridged answers during our conversation.

Describe some of the life of your youth.

Eli: Living as a haredi is a very easy choice, every morning you wake up to the same routine, preprogrammed into you. It makes life much easier than a secular lifestyle that requires you to make your own choices nevertheless I chose to leave.

When did you begin to feel that you were a misfit in your family?

Ricky: It’s a long process that begins at early teenage when one questions the strict routine and the existence of God.

How many siblings do you have and do any of them consider to follow your example?

Ricky: We are seven brothers and sisters, but I am the only one who is not Orthodox any more.

Eli: Of my seven siblings, my 17-year-old brother considers me as his role model, but I want him to find his own way rather than follow me.

At your home, was there strict control of your mode of dress?

Eli: Yes, our dress code at school was the same as later in yeshiva and subsequently in the kollel, the adult Torah study institute. It’s always black and white. That’s what the community allows. That’s part of my problem; the haredi has to do as he is told. A special type of hair covering, shirt, trousers, even shoes. Noncompliance risks not to be considered as part of the community. Very unjust in my view.

Ricky: As a woman, I am not obliged to wear black and white, but you had to be fully covered, sleeves below the elbow and skirt well below the knee, to avoid men looking at you and thinking about you. Cover yourself and hide in the corner is what you are expected to do.

In haredi families it is expected that particularly girls marry very young, preferably in their late teens. Were you afraid of having to marry young and someone whom your parents choose?

Ricky: No, because in my community which is Chabad, that is not strictly applied. Most of my friends married at 21 or 22. But there is a lot of conversation about it when you are very young. At age 15 or 16 I was already made aware of my parents’ expectations to marry within the community and follow the rules.

At what age did you finally leave home and did you consider it a risk or a chance for life?

Ricky: There is a considerable element of pain when at 17 you find yourself out on your own. I really had no idea about life outside of my society. I realized that all my education was aimed to make me believe in something bigger than myself and to belong to the community; but I want to belong to something of my choice not what religion dictates.

You say that you felt unprepared for the life that you embarked on. What concerned you most?

Ricky: At the beginning I worried about material things, money, a home, because it looked as if I would never belong anywhere, as all my connections to society were broken. It was all new, but now I have the job I like, make money and I am well integrated.

Have you ever felt guilt?

Eli: I was very much in love with Judaism, so when I left at 14 I felt very guilty as if a piano were falling from heaven. I felt I betrayed God, not only my family for causing them pain. It took time to mature and to see the bigger picture. It was a difficult situation because my parents, my community, they all abandoned me, because they did not respect the choices I made for myself. Today my family accepts me as I am.

You said that the haredi lifestyle has advantages. Do you miss those now?

Eli: I think so. The sense of belonging is so strong that nothing in the secular world comes close.

Ricky: I want to separate tradition from religion. There are a lot of things in my past that I miss, for instance the concept of Shabbat is nice. I miss a lot of family stuff, holidays and traditional things that make you feel that you belong. But you can make it also in the unorthodox lifestyle, because it’s cultural and traditional. For that you don’t need to believe in God or be haredi.

Do you believe in God?

Ricky: No. I think God is a creation of the people to make you feel that you belong to something bigger than yourself and to give you confidence not to worry, because God makes all your plans. That gives you a meaning to all your experiences.

Eli: I have been deliberating on this since my early life. This question should not be taken lightly and just suddenly be driven out of one’s mind. I don’t know if there is a god. I guess that makes me an agnostic. To me it makes no difference if there is or is not a God. We are intrinsically good and should follow our path in life, not because God or someone else said so, but because we believe in what we do.

Some ex-haredim told me that they deliberately did something strictly forbidden like eating a ham sandwich. Did you do something like this?

Eli: Oh yes, on a recent Shabbat I went to a restaurant with friends and enjoyed some good shrimp. There was also bacon and horse meat on the menu.

Ricky: I think everyone who leaves the haredi lifestyle has a day on which he buys a ham sandwich, just to prove the point, like switching lights on Shabbat.

Have you now totally left, totally discarded Jewish religious ritual, or is there still something of it left in your practices?

Ricky: There are some things I like to keep. I can find myself on a Saturday night at a piano, singing the songs I used to sing on Shabbat with my family; but I distinguish between that, and the concept of religion that will frighten you with going to hell. It’s okay to keep some tradition.

Jewish tradition?

Ricky: It’s not Jewish tradition. The haredi lifestyle is a society and a culture separate from religion. The Jewish religion is okay, but the haredi lifestyle focuses on things that are not in the Torah, that date back to before the origin of the Jewish religion. To that tradition I feel connected, but not to the religious stuff.

Despite your enjoyment of shrimp, I have the impression, Eli that your view is not as extreme as Ricky’s. You may not follow God, but you have not denied him either.

Eli: The haredi lifestyle has misconstrued Judaism which used to be much more inclusive and they made it exclusive, so that anyone who is not like they are, is not considered Jewish in their eyes. Haredim judge the lifestyle of the religious Zionists in Israel as worse than that of secular Jews. Haredim believe in their exclusive right to judge what is Judaism. Yet there have always been many variants. I feel very connected to every Jew, but not because of religion, but because they are my tribe and so is their culture. So on Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot, the three main Jewish festivals it would be amazing to celebrate with my family, not because God said so, but because that is my tribe’s community life.

I suppose you don’t agree with that, Ricky.

Ricky: I am really in a different place. I think the only way to keep something as primitive as religion in our time, is to separate yourself, because if you want to keep your children in this life, they must be closed from the outside world.

About family, yes I am in contact, but their life takes all the fun out of tradition, because the holidays are very strict.

You are from a Chabad family whose spiritual leader is the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who unlike most other haredi leaders was not brought up with a myopic Torah view. He was an engineer in a shipyard, he went to university in Paris, in other words he understood the secular world and combined that with Torah.

Ricky: Let me stop you right here. I am familiar with that line. So long as you believe in the same religion as that of all other haredim, you cannot combine it with a modern lifestyle. The concept of religion has to be primitive and most haredi choose that. But I disagree with Chabad who say our rebbe is liberal and progressive and feminist. You can be a reformist and change the rules of the Torah and combine it with a modern lifestyle, but as long as you believe in the original Torah you cannot be progressive. That’s populist. I am really sad that Chabad represent themselves again and again as liberal and progressive and able to live in the modern world. It doesn’t make sense.

Eli: I disagree completely. It’s like North Korea who have isolated themselves from the world, and that way retained absolute power. That is what the haredi are doing. Chabad presents themselves as being able to cope with the modern world, but they are far from it. So, in that aspect I agree with Katie. The Religious-Zionists have shown that one can take the best from the modern world and still be religious. In the olden days it was the way of the Hellenistic Jews.

Did you expect life to be as you now experience it?

Ricky: I didn’t have a lot of expectations, because I had no idea what I shall become. So, I joined the army and there I met for the first time in my life girls and boys with no connection to the haredi lifestyle or religion. This was a shock for me.

What drew you to the outside world? Was it the food, the music or pre-marital sex, apart from the religious aspect?

Ricky: None of those things was part of my choice to leave the haredi lifestyle. It was simply because I did no longer believe in this ideology, culture and the concept of God and the duties that someone once upon a time decreed. I really wanted to create my own life. I want to dance in a bar and eat a ham sandwich.

You both consider yourselves free and you both spoke of the unparalleled support that exists in the ultra-Orthodox communities. Do you feel that void and do you miss it?

Eli: For many years I thought I lost it, but in recent years I have found it in the secular world, but it does take time to build it, rather that it is handed to you in the haredi world. Today I don’t have any problems in that respect.Ricky: Of course there is a loss, because the community provided for your every need, you are never alone, but I don’t miss it because it comes from a motive.

Would you marry a non-Jew?

Eli: I would not actively pursue it, and would rather go out with a Jewish girl, but if I met someone and I happen to fall in love, I would not object. However, changing religion is out of the question. I would not like my children to be brought up as Christians. I would accept traditional customs of both religions, but I would not like a family that has a lot of religious lifestyle.

Would you marry a non-Jew, Ricky?

Ricky: I don’t see a problem with that, but when you get married, we need to understand each other and I don’t think a non Jew will understand me all the way. It might cause communication difficulties. In principle I don’t see a problem. In any case, I will never have a traditional marriage, because the Chief Rabbinate does not allow same-sex weddings.

How then will you bring up your children if you are married to a non-Jewish partner?

Ricky: It’s important to me to give them the base knowledge about Judaism, about Israel and about my family; after all, their mother is Jewish and it’s part of their identity.

But Judaism is belief in God.

Ricky: I don’t think so. One can have Jewish identity without thinking it is a duty to believe in God. You can keep traditional Jewish culture as a connection with Judaism.

Eli: Judaism comes from the word “Judea,” the place where we all came from 2,000 years ago. That’s what makes us unique. It has nothing to do with religion. Belief in God is a personal choice.

Finally, complete this sentence: If any haredi young people would ask for my advice I would tell them….

Eli: To look into their hearts, feel what is right, not necessarily what others think is right for you.

Ricky: Take your time, decide from the brain not from the heart, because you can regret it.   

The writer at 97 holds two Guinness world records, as the oldest active journalist and working radio talk-show host. He presents the weekly Walter’s World show on Israel National Radio (Arutz7) and The Walter Bingham File on Israel News-talk Radio. Both are in English