Between worlds: Former ultra-Orthodox Jews speak out

A look at those who leave the Haredi community and the people who help ease the transition.

Ultra-Orthodox Jew (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Ultra-Orthodox Jew
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Donning an extra oversized white button-down shirt and a black Borsalino hat, holding a full wine glass in her right hand, Yael Shalem closes her eyes and begins reciting the Friday night kiddush for her guests.
Shalem, 25, from Telz Stone (a haredi community outside Jerusalem) has been out of her haredi world since she was 18, but still finds a way to fit Shabbat into her adopted lifestyle.
She and her ex-haredi friends often prepare elaborate meals from their childhood complete with the singing of traditional Shabbat songs and reciting of blessings as one does for Shabbat.
The handful of guests clad in street clothes, including a male using a napkin to cover his head as a makeshift kippa and others taking drags of handrolled cigarettes – with their cellphones all within reach – are part of an exclusive tribe known as yotzim, people who leave the ultra-Orthodox community. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Israeli haredim born in 1992 have a 10% chance of leaving the fold.
This number has been increasing steadily over time, although analysts have yet to compile the data to map more accurately the motivations and trends of this growing population in Israel.
Not religious enough for their past lives and not secular enough for their new ones, the yotzim are forging a new path and gaining more members over time. Thanks to the Internet, these thousands of Israelis are having an easier time leaving their insulated communities while maintaining relations with their families and even finding the right kind of help they need to integrate fully into their new surroundings.
However, the yotzim have similar pasts and therefore make strong bonds with fellow members of this newly forming tribe of individuals who are not quite comfortable in their former worlds, nor fully at home in their current secular surroundings.
“For years I was in chains,” Shalem tells The Jerusalem Post Magazine.
“I was born to be free. I was very independent since I was young and I needed my freedom in every sense of the word. In order to achieve this vision, I had to leave.” In addition to the freedom she holds dear, Shalem also explains her difficult relation with God and the Jewish religion.
“Growing up, I felt like my mind was held prisoner. I remember learning about the prophet Joshua in the fourth grade and how he healed people, and then we learned about the Holocaust, and I couldn’t make sense of the two; it made me mad. I really didn’t like God. I was taught my whole life that Jews are the chosen people and that everyone else was inferior to us. That idea that you are better than everyone isn’t true. I wanted to travel the world and see these people and I couldn’t understand how I am better.”
When Shalem was a teenager, she began to ask questions and those questions were not received well.
Concerned about her growing skepticism, Shalem’s parents did what she explains is a common practice among haredi families dealing with “rebellious” children: They sent her to a more “liberal” seminary.
“My parents thought it was a problem with the community, so they sent me to a more “open” seminary in England. They let us wear makeup, and we didn’t have to wear a uniform. We could wear black socks and stuff, but in the deeper sense, it was closed as f*ck,” she said.
“They were experts in giving those teenagers an outlet for their ‘rebellious phase,’ but of course it was pure b.s.”
Shalem also explains that this effort to keep people “on the path” is very strong within haredi communities.
“There’s a big motivation to keep people inside the community, so they set up people like us with a “cool” rabbi or rebbetzin to make them feel included and that they really do belong. The idea is to keep you in and make you feel like you are not lost, so when you find a safe spot, you are more likely to stay. There are tons of people and things like this, and for some it works. I know a lot of religious friends who are married with big families who got past their rebellious phase with the help of these efforts.”
However, for those who have no other option but to leave, the path is becoming more and more visible and accessible over time.
A haredi man in Jerusalem. (credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A haredi man in Jerusalem. (credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
HILLEL IS the first center ever created to help ex-haredim make the transition into the secular world.
For 26 years, it has been offering a variety of social services to tens of thousands of individuals looking for a way out of their old lives. Located in the heart of Jerusalem on Hillel Street, its newly renovated facilities offer social workers and psychologists a social space, as well as a kitchen for ex-haredim. It even provides second-hand clothing for those fresh out of their communities.
In addition, it helps those who left the haredi community get up-to-date with their educational gaps by offering generous grants. This year the center received NIS 2 million in scholarships from private donors (the Education Ministry has yet to offer funding to Hillel).
Yair Hass is the executive director of Hillel. An ex-Orthodox person himself, he came from the hardal (haredi national religious) community of Kiryat Moshe in Jerusalem. After being estranged from his family following his exit, he began volunteering with Hillel in 2006 and eventually worked his way up to becoming the executive director.
“We are the devil in the haredi community,” Hass told the Magazine.
In Hillel’s early days, its location was hidden due to protests from within the haredi community. Those seeking refuge from the community had to make an effort to locate the facilities on their own.
Hass explains: “Their parents think, ‘What did we do wrong?’ There’s a lot of guilt, so they tell themselves, ‘We did all we could,’ and they seek someone to blame. So they blame us.”
He says that it is no longer necessary to hide the facilities, as the ex-haredi community is not only growing, but also thriving.
Since these humble beginnings, Hillel has relocated its center to the current location – not coincidentally on Hillel Street with signs clearly marking the center. There have been no incidents or disruptions to date.
Hass explains that those who are leaving the fold are increasing dramatically.
“If you look at the past 26 years, the number of people leaving the haredi community is growing rapidly – especially during the past 10 years.”
He points out two main reasons for this shift.
“First is the Internet. Now they have an ability to see the world and they are beginning to open their eyes and become curious. The second reason is poverty. Many young people are realizing that the community is not offering them a sustainable future. They have an education that tells them it’s good to be poor and they accept that, but there are some that find this doesn’t work for them and they want to work and financially support their own families. This has become a key reason for them to leave.”
When asked about the types of people leaving, he said they come from all types of ultra-Orthodox communities. However, he did point out that the more isolated a community is, the fewer people leave.
“In more closed communities people have less of an opportunity to see and experience the outside world. The price to pay is higher because they’re cut off from everything in their communities, so many of them don’t make it out.”
On the day I spoke with him, Hass was in high spirits after receiving a nearly flawless audit performed by the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry.
Munching on a sandwich with both meat and cheese he said, “There are two types of people who leave the community; those who no longer believe and others who don’t feel good where they are and don’t want to live a lie.”
“Those who leave are willing to pay a high price to live in a way that is right for them. The people who leave are people of truth.”
He notes that a significant number of people who leave – mostly men – do so because they were sexually abused within the community.
The main thing Hillel tries to do is to give these people a sense of belonging and community.
Despite the educational gaps and many challenges they have to overcome, Hass sees a bright and promising future for this growing segment of the population.
“Ex-haredim have already contributed a lot to Jerusalem. This is a group of people who are willing to pay a high price for their freedom. This is the stuff of leaders and I believe many of them will contribute a lot to Israeli society in the future. Right now, however, they need a lot of help because they don’t have the necessary educational background. They face huge gaps in math, science and languages, and they need about five years to catch up, so this is really an important thing we need to work on.”
Haredi rioters affiliated with extremist communities block traffic at Jerusalem junction. (credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredi rioters affiliated with extremist communities block traffic at Jerusalem junction. (credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
ODAYA HARUSH is 27 and is less than a year out of her former haredi life.
“God is like my ex,” she says.
She has big curly red hair and wears jeans and shows off her new ear piercings as well as an old photo of her when she used to cover her hair and wear modest dresses.
It wasn’t a lack of a belief in God that started her on her journey, but more of a desire to be free. Hailing from the Ramot neighborhood in Jerusalem, she recalls her childhood as being somewhat diverse.
“In Ramot, you had every type of person: haredim, traditional, secular – everything. I wasn’t really cut off from the outside world,” she explains.
Growing up in the Sephardi stream of haredi Judaism, she is the fifth of eight siblings. Her roots trace back to Morocco. “I started smoking when I was 18 because I wanted to do something crazy. I thought that this was an easy way to do something that’s ‘not good’ but also not against Halacha [Jewish law],” she explained.
Harush was 21 when she married and two years later she had a daughter, Rotem (a name, she made clear, that is not a typical haredi name).
It wasn’t until she and her husband decided to end their marriage that she left the fold.
“A little before I received the get [divorce document], I realized that when I got divorced, I would become a second-class citizen in the haredi world, so I said, ‘You know what? They won’t see me as a complete woman anymore, so, I will go ‘off the derech’ [‘off the path,’ a metaphor for leaving the religious world]. I was very religious and had faith, but after my divorce, I felt like I was at odds with God. I was very angry at Him and I felt like I did everything for Him and I said, ‘Leave me alone, I don’t want this anymore.’”
Two months later she wore pants for the first time on a trip to Amsterdam with friends.
“In Jerusalem everybody knows me, and if somebody had seen me with pants, I would have felt so ashamed. So my first time was in Amsterdam. It was very cold, so I had to keep warm.”
She relates that she didn’t feel particularly normal or modest and assumed that everyone was staring at her. Over time, she got used to it, but the exterior changes she was going through proved challenging.
“It’s hard to go off the derech as a woman, you are always taught ‘modesty’ and it’s not just about the clothes. It’s about everything.”
She still keeps kosher, lights candles for Shabbat and has no interest in trying such sinful delights as bacon or cheeseburgers, but is still reconciling her actions with what she believes. She does believe in a higher power, but when it comes to Judaism, its all about traditions.
“Everything that belongs to the religion makes me want to leave. I want a break from God.”
A haredi man holds a chicken over a baby as he performs the "kapparot" ritual. (credit: REUTERS / Amir Cohen)
A haredi man holds a chicken over a baby as he performs the "kapparot" ritual. (credit: REUTERS / Amir Cohen)
AROUND FOR a little over four years, Out for Change is something of a cross between a next step after Hillel and an open house for ex-haredim.
Unlike Hillel, which requires a formal screening process for members, Out for Change is open to anyone who wants to leave their haredi community, no questions asked.
Originally based out of the homes of four founding members for its first three years, Out for Change relocated a year ago to the trendy Beit Alliance facility, which is centrally located in Mahaneh Yehuda’s parking lot.
Out for Change helps some 600 ex-haredim annually. Thanks to a generous grant from the Shusterman Foundation, it closes the education gaps with free courses in basic subjects like math, computers and English. It also offer people a place to hang out with couches, books, a handful of computers, printers, coffee and snacks.
During my visit to the space, or as it’s called, “The Salon,” several people came and went, taking a cup of coffee. A boy with a black velvet kippa and a wrinkled, untucked white button-down shirt and black pants lounged on a couch playing with his phone and drinking coffee.
In addition, Out for Change has begun offering activities such as movie screenings, including such titles as Ingmar Bergman’s harrowing The Seventh Seal to help ex-haredim immerse themselves in other cultures with very different conceptions of life and in this case, death.
Every other Thursday night, the organization hosts a cholent (a traditional Jewish stew eaten on Shabbat) party. For almost a year, this tradition has been bringing dozens of people in various stages of their journey out of their haredi worlds together to eat cholent brought in from the Mea She’arim neighborhood and socialize with other members of this community.
A few minutes to midnight, the cholent was all but couches or on the floor – someone with a guitar, two or three with hand drums – all singing old hassidic songs from their childhood loudly and fervently.
This went on for another hour until one of the participants opened a laptop hooked to a projector screen and started playing pop songs from the ’90s interspersed with remixes of hassidic tunes.
A wild dance party erupted with males and females moving together in something that resembled a cross between a hassidic wedding and an American highschool dance party. Some participants were dressed in secular fashion without an exterior trace of their former lives, while others sported kippot, tzitzit, beards and peyot.
A little before 2 a.m., the remaining handful of participants were still feverishly dancing to trance music or lounging on the couch, sitting close together and engaged in intense conversations.
YOSSI KLAR is the vice president of Out for Change. He is 25 and lives in Jerusalem.
Yossi Klar before and after leaving the ultra-Orthdox fold.
Yossi Klar before and after leaving the ultra-Orthdox fold.
He grew up in a “small” hassidic family as one of five siblings in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood, which he describes as “a relatively modern part of the city with all sorts of Jewish life, including haredim, hassidim, national religious, secular people and religious Sephardi families.”
He has been “off the derech” since he was 17, but tells the Magazine that the process took nearly a decade.
When he was 10, he and his family moved to Boro Park in Brooklyn for three years – a more modern world than he was used to. He and his siblings attended hassidic schools and yeshivot.
For the first time he was learning math and science on a higher level, something he says “was unheard of in yeshivot in Israel,” adding, “The hassidim in Brooklyn had TVs and computers in their homes,” a revelation for him. He felt a sense of freedom that he couldn’t really shake when he returned to Israel at age 13.
“When you are given freedom, you realize how hard it is to give up.” When he turned 15, he began his yeshiva studies and started asking “bigger questions” concerning God and religion, and that was when he made the choice to leave.
“I didn’t want to live a double life.” He says the haredim don’t care if you keep mitzvot, just as long as you look like them, then, everything is okay. He remembers the first time he broke Shabbat.
“I was about 18, and I had already started to leave. I was sitting at the Shabbat table with my family and thinking about it [breaking Shabbat]. At the time I really loved Seinfeld, but I heard most people break Shabbat for the first time by turning on a light switch. So I went to my room, and closed the door and turned on the light. It was amazing because I didn’t get struck by lightning. Then, I turned on the computer and just watched Seinfeld, it was great.
“I remember thinking it had to be an issue and I felt like ‘Wow, this is the first time,’ but when I did it, it was more like, ‘Oh, it’s not that big of a deal.’”
Today his relationship with Judaism is purely cultural. He also has a strong connection with his family and says that he loves coming from the hassidic world.
“My parents are very nice; we are still in touch. It wasn’t a big deal and they are okay with my other life.”
He added that his older sister left the community some years before he considered the move, and said that she was very helpful and supportive during his “skeptical times.”
Not fully embracing either the haredi nor the secular world, Klar reflects, “I loved my haredi days, I was a very happy child, I loved yeshiva and I have great friends. I love where I am today, and I don’t want to give up on my past.”
For those looking for a way out, he gave this piece of advice: “‘Take your time, don’t just jump out of it all at once. There’s no one waiting for you on the other side and there’s no haredim chasing after you, so you need to take it slow and easy.”