Think about it: ‘Yotzim Beshe’ela’ – Those who drop the religious way of life

The current situation discourages many thousands of people in the haredi community from leaving, imprisoning them in a community in whose premises and values they no longer believe.

Haredim 390 (photo credit: Illustrative photo/Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusale)
Haredim 390
(photo credit: Illustrative photo/Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusale)
Since the beginning of 2014, two young persons in their 20s who had dropped out of the haredi community committed suicide. In the past year and a half, the reported cases of yotzim beshe’ela (Orthodox Jews who choose the secular way of life) committing suicide was six.
The reaction to these suicides depends on the background of those reacting. As far as the seculars are concerned, the suicides are caused by the fact that in most cases, the haredi families whose sons and daughters have decided to turn secular choose to repudiate and excommunicate them – thus adding to the almost insurmountable emotional and material difficulties confronted by the latter.
The seculars also accuse the state of offering barely any sort of assistance to these people, who have very few places to turn; Hillel, a nonprofit established in 1991 that provides yotzim beshe’ela with professional and personal support, is one of the few.
Haredim, on the other hand, accuse those who in their eyes encourage ultra-Orthodox youngsters to leave their community, and neglect them once they have made the move. Even though Hillel does not encourage anyone to become secular, and merely offers assistance to those who have decided to do so independently, it is the main target for these haredi attacks.
The haredim also vehemently deny secular accusations that their community reacts callously to those who leave it, claiming that cases in which youngsters are repudiated and excommunicated are the exception.
While the seculars view the process of the yotzim beshe’ela as a positive development, even though they accept the legitimacy of the haredi way of life within a free, pluralistic society, the haredim, who do not believe in the desirability of the pluralistic society (though they accept it as an unfortunate reality), view it as a tragedy – in which those involved have lost their way, at best, and are traitors, at worst.
There is no question that any change in a person’s religious status, which is freely adopted by him or her, involving the departure from a religious way of life, the adoption of a religious way of life, or conversion to a different religion or a different way of practicing one’s religion, is a difficult and frequently painful process.
My conclusion, on the basis of personal acquaintance with those who have undergone one of these transitions, is that the most difficult transition is from a haredi to a secular way of life. The change is difficult because one is moving away from a community and way of life in which the course of one’s life is more or less laid down at birth – there are spiritual leaders to direct you at every turn, and there is very little free choice – to a life in which very little is predetermined, every person is free to make his own choices (even though he can consult others, if he desires), and in most cases, the options on offer are vast.
What adds to the difficulty is that most of those who move out of the haredi community have neither the social skills nor the educational tools to contend with the modern secular world, and almost invariably have neither the material means nor the emotional support required to acquire them.
Of course, not everyone leaves the haredi way of life for the same reasons. If the transition is to a secular way of life, rather than to another stream of Judaism, the background usually involves a loss of belief in God, the validity of the scriptures and the existence of a single irrefutable truth.
To this one might add an individualistic personal disposition; abhorrence of strict external discipline; a questioning and inquisitive mind; a traumatic personal experience which parents and/or spiritual leaders refused to acknowledge or treat on its merits; and occasionally, longstanding, untreated psychological problems.
While some simply dive into a life of unbridled pleasure- seeking, and the breaking of rules and conventions, others seek to rebuild their lives in a manner that is meaningful and intellectually satisfying. The majority fall somewhere in between these two patterns, with basic material and emotional issues filling most of their daily lives.
In the last decade only two deliberations have taken place on the issue, in two different Knesset committees.
The first was in the Education, Culture and Sport Committee on June 30, 2004, on “assistance and completion of education for yotzim beshe’ela,” and the second was in the Public Petitions Committee on November 27, 2003, on “state assistance to yotzim beshe’ela.”
In both cases the discussion was serious, with the conclusion that the situation is unsatisfactory and more should be done by the authorities. There were no practical results from the first deliberation, and there is little chance that anything will transpire as a result of the second (which took place before the two recent suicides).
In both cases, MK Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism party, who is usually a serious and insightful participant in practical dialogues, “participated” in the deliberation, though his only contribution was a few cynical comments and a superficial attempt to question the need for the discussion, and its legitimacy.
Apparently, the subject of the yotzim beshe’ela is not one on which any sort of secular-haredi dialogue can take place – it is a non-starter.
However, what is even more discouraging is the dialogue between the MKs who have raised the issues, and the authorities within whose frame of reference the issue lies. The contribution of the state’s representatives to these deliberations is to enumerate on the all-too-few measures that have been taken or the paltry services that are offered, with the excuse for the situation being the absence of funds.
In fact, it seems as if the state’s approach is based on three main factors. The first is the assumption that we are speaking of relatively few people – at most, a few thousand every year (Hillel takes care of the few hundred who approach it). Given the paucity of resources, it appears, it is preferable to concentrate on attempts to offer educational and occupational frameworks to tens of thousands of practicing haredim, who are willing to integrate into general society and make a positive contribution to the state.
The second, which nobody mentions explicitly but may be assumed, is that the state is aware of the fact that the issue is taboo in haredi society, and that the confrontation with them is already taking place on more fronts than can be effectively dealt with.
The third is that Israel is rapidly moving away from being a welfare state, in which the state considers it its duty to offer assistance to any legitimate population groups that have difficulty coping on their own, either on a permanent basis or during a transition period.
As one who believes in both free choice and the welfare state, I find this latter factor especially distressing, both because there are many people out there who urgently need help, and because the current situation discourages many thousands of people within the haredi community from making the move to step out, leaving them imprisoned in a community in whose premises and values they no longer believe.
There are those who refer to these people as anusim – those forced to pretend to be living a religious life they do not believe in – and all this in an allegedly free and enlightened country.The writer is a retired Knesset employee.