JERUSALEM — Trying to integrate the Haredim — or ultra-Orthodox Jews — into mainstream society is a hot topic in Israel at the moment.
Many Israelis are afraid that with their high birth rates and opposition to secular schooling, a larger and larger segment of the ultra-Orthodox population will be incapable of surviving in a modern economy. Bills have been moving through the Knesset in recent months requiring more Haredim to serve in the army and learn Israel's common core curriculum.
A string of recent suicides among observant Jews in the process of leaving the faith has emphasized the strain of trying to cross from one world to the other. One organization, though non-political in nature, has found itself at the front of this charged issue.
Hillel (which has no affiliation with the American group on college campuses), has been working from their branches in Jerusalem and Ramat Gan for the last twenty years to help ex-religious make the difficult migration to the secular world.
In Hebrew this is referred to as “returning to the question” while going from secular to religious is known as “returning to the answer.” Hillel provides housing, scholarships and help in dealing with the army and the schools. It tries to create a community for people who no longer have one.
Two suicides within days of each other, including one woman who jumped to her death from the roof of a Tel Aviv hotel, have sparked an urgent call for aid by the Israeli public. Seven young, formerly religious Israelis have committed suicide in the last 18 months alone. Three of the victims had been a part of Hillel.
Yair Hass, the organization’s director, is trying to push back by founding a new crisis intervention center with professional psychiatrists. But the small nonprofit — it has no more than eight employees and relies on the help of over 200 volunteers — needs to raise millions of shekels to manage it and in the meantime, the formerly religious are struggling. Hillel is currently funded completely by donations, 50 percent from concerned Israelis and 50 percent from Jews living abroad, but they expect that some money will come from the government as well in the future.
"There are a lot of newcomers that have mental health problems, that are in a temporary crisis," Hass said. "We have a problem with how to deal with it."
According to a study done last year by the suicide prevention group Bishvil Hachayyim (“For Life”), 40 precent of Israelis who have left religious communities have suicidal tendencies compared with 12 percent among the secular and 6 percent among the religious. Leaving a society as isolated and strict as the ultra-Orthodox world tends to leave emotional and spiritual scars.
“The closer the community is, the harder it is to get out,” Rachel Chorin, a Hillel social worker, says.
Chorin said she has been working at Hillel for the last year and in that time they have helped more than 300 ex-Haredim. Hillel does not currently advertise but the ultra-Orthodox who seek them out say they have all heard the name many times before.
“They hear about it because it’s forbidden,” Chorin says. “[The Haredi rabbis] say we’ll try and turn you secular.”
The reality, of course, is much more complicated.
Employees of Hillel say they are very careful about training volunteers (and screening out potential volunteers) so that the people who come to them will receive a helping hand, not a shove in one direction or another. And although disbelief in God is one reason that young people choose to leave the ultra-Orthodox community, there are many others.
Chorin lists them off quickly: There are kids with ADHD who get frustrated trying to study all day in Yeshiva; some want to join the army and it’s forbidden; there are girls that don’t want to be married off at a young age.
Some are just looking for a change.
Most Haredim who leave do become fully secular. It is less common for them to move gradually through different levels of religiousness like Jews in other denominations might. In the Haredi world, the mentality is very black-and-white, either you are ultra-Orthodox or you aren’t anything, so those that are able to leave tend to do so completely.
Bar Von Mayer left when she was 17, but she says the process started much earlier. “It started to break the first time I didn’t keep Shabbat, when I was six,” she says. “I was playing with the lights to see if fire would come down on me or something like that.”
She says the night she told her father she wanted to leave was like coming out of the closet in a homophobic family. He didn’t understand. He told her it was just a phase she'd grow out of. But Bar was undeterred. The next morning she took the 5 a.m. bus to Jerusalem and left her sheltered Haredi village behind.
Bar was lucky enough to have a brother who had already left, but many of those who forsake their communities find themselves completely alone. Generally, there is a period of disconnect when the apostates are ostracized by their friends and family. The parents often try to cut off all contact so that their brother or sister’s newfound secularism won’t lead the other children astray.
Bar says that even now when they are all older, it’s tough to stay in touch with her siblings. She has twelve brothers and sisters that she left behind and now, 50 nieces and nephews. They talk on the phone once in a while but it’s a struggle to find common ground.
“They have babies every month or two,” Bar says, referring to her siblings. She is 30, unmarried and pursuing a degree in photography at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. Hillel is helping her with the tuition.