Who helps former ultra-Orthodox integrate into Israeli way of life?

Israelis who leave the ultra-Orthodox way of life find themselves without basic education, psychological support or career prospects.

al-monitor An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man performs the Tashlich ritual, to symbolically cast away sins, ahead of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, in Ashdod, Israel, Oct. 7, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.
Ksenia Svetlova

Ksenia Svetlova

@KseniaSvetlova

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Cultural heritage

Dec 5, 2019

Two brothers, aged 19 and 25, ended their lives Nov. 24 in a tiny apartment they had rented through Airbnb. The young men were part of a prominent family in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community and were in the process of leaving the religious world. Their names have yet to be released, apparently due to pressure from the family, and the double suicide has received almost no public or media scrutiny. Nevertheless, a quick Google search finds that tragedies like this are not as uncommon as one might think.

In the winter of 2014, two more young men leapt to their death after leaving the ultra-Orthodox community. They left behind a note saying they could no longer cope with life. The suicide of Esti Weinstein shocked many more in 2016. This former member of the Ger Hasidic community was not allowed to see her children once she abandoned religious observance. She left behind a book, describing the terrible difficulties she faced and the steep price she paid for her emancipation.

It’s not easy to break away from the ultra-Orthodox world. It’s hard for people to leave the community where they grew up, especially when its ideology was the basis of their existence. Not only does the move involve alienating oneself from old friends and extended family — simply adapting to the secular world poses enormous challenges. In many cases, the ensuing loneliness and helplessness are too much to bear, and people reach a breaking point. A study released in January 2014 by the BiShvil HaChaim (Path of Life) organization, which helps families who have lost loved ones to suicide, found that some 40% of people who left Orthodoxy showed suicidal tendencies.

“People who leave [the religious world] must get used to strange new social norms in order to find friends and build a social network for themselves," reads the website of Hillel: The Right to Choose. "The modern world does not embrace them with warmth and understanding. It does not support them in the same ways that they are familiar with from back home. The sense of loneliness and alienation builds up. They feel bad already, and this is only intensified by feelings of guilt over the suffering they caused their families and the ways they ruined their siblings’ chances of finding a good partner to marry.”

Even though they can expect to face a difficult path ahead of them, some 1,900 ultra-Orthodox men and women take this step every year, according to the group Yotzim leShinui, or Out for Change. They leave their old life and faith behind, and most must also leave their families and social circles.

“I knew that I didn’t belong to that world from a very young age," said Sari (a pseudonym) in a conversation with Al-Monitor. "I questioned my faith and faith in general. I suffered over it, because there was no way I could be like everybody else, but I also postponed dealing with it for years, all out of fear: What would happen to me? What would happen to my family, which would have to bear all the degradation and see their social standing drop?”

Sari was born in Jerusalem, but she now works and studies somewhere in central Israel. She watched intently in 2015 as a group of men and women who left the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle sued the state for not requiring ultra-Orthodox schools to teach a core curriculum, including mathematics and English. The courts rejected the suit on a technicality: The statute of limitations had passed.

Sari then realized she would never be compensated by the state. “I had no money," she said. "I stayed with friends. Even now, I am still filling in the gaps in my education. The government must step in and help people like me adjust to [this new] life.”

The government is dragging its feet, despite pleas from those who have left the ultra-Orthodox way of life. The government is in no hurry to support this sector of the population.

“What the government needs to understand is that the ultra-Orthodox will be much more successful in terms of education and employment if the people who leave religion succeed,” said Yair Hess, founder and CEO of Hillel. “The sense of crisis is very real, especially in the last few years, with the ultra-Orthodox parties playing such a prominent role in the coalition. They’ve managed to overturn everything we were able to achieve, when the Yesh Atid party was part of the government.

"As an organization that provides 450-500 stipends each year to people who leave the religious way of life, we are facing a dramatic problem. We receive no help [from the government], while the number of people turning to us has been growing steadily. All our money comes from private individuals, who understand the situation, even though the government is having such a hard time wrapping its head around it. Right now, our budget is 11 million shekels per year [$3 million], but we need at least 20-25 million shekels [$5-7 million] to provide the right kind of care, and that is just for the people we are already helping now.”

Former Knesset Member Michal Rozin, of the Meretz party, confirmed Hess' comments. While in the Knesset, she advocated on behalf of people leaving religion, and tried to get legislation passed to provide them with government financial aid. As she described it, every attempt she made got stuck in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation as a result of opposition from the ultra-Orthodox parties.

“People who leave the ultra-Orthodox community experience real difficulty," she told Al-Monitor. "They need help to integrate into society and overcome the painful sense of alienation. They have absolutely no life skills. They do not have matriculation certificates, and they lack the tools that would allow them to succeed. While the state is formally responsible for them, it has absolved itself of this responsibility. The state invests a fortune in all sorts of programs to help members of the ultra-Orthodox community integrate into the labor market, but since these people are no longer defined as ultra-Orthodox, they are not eligible for anything.”

Rabbi Julia Weinstein of the Reform movement told Al-Monitor that people who leave ultra-Orthodox life often need psychological assistance, too. “What do people who leave a religious life style feel?" she said. "That suddenly people stopped loving them, that that have no support. Then the carpet gets pulled out from under them. People like that need significant emotional support.

"By the way, a few of these people who leave the ultra-Orthodox world find themselves in Conservative or Reform synagogues later on. They disagree with the rigidity of Orthodox interpretations of religion and find that it does not meet their needs, but they do not want to cut themselves off from Judaism entirely. Conservative and Reform communities in the United States can help them by raising money for them and providing them with the support they need.”

In 2019, the Ministry of Labor and Welfare began providing 750,000 shekels in financial support for two community centers run by Yotzim leShinui in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. These centers offer emotional support, workshops and social activities for people who people who leave the ultra-Orthodox community. As far as the recipients of this aid are concerned, it is a meager sum. The problem is that while programs for newly religious (secular people becoming religious) and at-risk youth in the ultra-Orthodox community receive tens of millions of shekels per year, the state budget for people who leave religion amounts to just 4 million shekels.

Many who leave the ultra-Orthodox world are afraid to approach the very groups that might offer them aid. They are still influenced by the all the negative things they have heard about those groups in the ultra-Orthodox community. Others who want help have a hard time receiving it because they only have a “kosher cell phone,” and emergency lines to groups like ERAN (Emotional First Aid) or sexual abuse hotlines are blocked.

The efforts of the various organizations that support people leaving a religious way of life are worthy of praise. But all the goodwill in the world is not enough. It is up to the State of Israel to increase its support for people leaving the ultra-Orthodox world by allocating appropriate funds.

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