In an office in downtown Jerusalem earlier this month, two 20-somethings slurped homemade chicken soup leftover from the previous week’s communal Shabbat dinner. In T-shirts and jeans, they blended right in with the other young singles hanging out on Ben Yehuda Street. The difference is that Avi and Aharon’s families live less than two miles away in Mea Shearim, one of Israel’s most ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. And the two men have completely cut themselves off from their parents and their tight-knit community. “We are each other’s brothers,” said Aharon, 28.
Setting down his motorcycle helmet, 21-year-old Avi, who, like almost all of the former Haredim I spoke to, requested that his last name not be publicized, told me that from the onset of his teenage years he had been “constantly searching for a way to get out.” He said he couldn’t conform to what he called “the closed mentality trap of Haredi society.” So, at 15, he decided to leave his house, one day taking the 15-minute walk to a Jerusalem he had never before seen, leaving behind no trace for his family and friends. He slept in the parks of Jerusalem for almost two months until he met fellow ex-Haredi teenagers who helped him find an apartment and work. When he was 19, Avi joined the IDF’s Nachal infantry brigade.
“My father says my service in the army is his biggest shame in his life, that it’s completely against our religion,” said Avi, who hasn’t spoken to his father in more than five years. “Personally, I love the army. If I could do three more years I would—happily.”
He’s not alone in facing these sorts of obstacles. Avi lives in one of several communal apartments subsidized by Hillel, an NGO that helps facilitate ex-Haredis’ transition into mainstream Israeli society. One night last week, five boys who share another Hillel-subsidized apartment across town sat around checking out pictures of their former selves on their smartphones. Against the backdrop of the Israeli basketball game on TV, some smoked cigarettes, and they swapped advice on army units and university programs.
Another Avi, this one 18 years old and set to enter the army in March, has only been two months “on the outside,” as they call it. He told me he used to push his sidelocks behind his ears and walk around secular neighborhoods in Jerusalem before he finally mustered up the courage to leave his house this past December. He said he’s excited to join the army and that he expects talking to girls will be hard—“but because of my shy personality, not because I was once Haredi.”
These boys represent a rising trend of Haredi youth abandoning their communities. According to estimates by Hillel, about 400 Haredim, mostly youth, leave their homes every year. With the surprising success last month of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which promised to end the army exemption for the ultra-Orthodox, that number is expected to grow. But until government legislation materializes, volunteers man the Hillel hotline, where they receive their fair share of hang-ups and whispering voices, callers likely ringing from home and terrified of being found out. According to Yair Hass, who manages the hotline, questions range from “Can you get me a girl?” to “If I stop keeping Shabbat, will I die?”
“It’s important that we don’t create another rabbi figure for them, what we do is to make sure they’re mature enough to make this choice,” said Hass, himself an ex-Haredi. “It’s not our role to tell them if there’s a God or not. It’s our role to ask them if they have food to eat the next day, since many are finding themselves on the street.”
In February 2012 the Israeli Supreme Court declared exemptions from the army on the basis of religious study unconstitutional. The issue is sure to be a top priority for the next Knesset—and a major point of contention for Israel’s 760,000 Haredim.
“We have two nations in one country, with the middle class serving, studying, working, and the other section doing nothing,” said Zahava Gal-On, a board member of the organization Maahal Hafriarim, or “Suckers Tent,” which pushes for universal conscription. “From a moral perspective, as mothers of combat soldiers, we see that there is a very rude discrimination between our children’s blood and theirs.”
The Israeli mainstream’s overwhelming opposition to draft exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox underlines the deeper frustration of a mainstream Israeli public struggling to meet soaring costs of living, while Haredi families receive government subsidies and handouts. This state-sponsored policy of Haredi dependency has created what Benjamin Brown, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, calls “a kind of deliberate poverty, a kind that no other sector in Israeli society would agree to,” and that further “insulates and perpetualizes their way of life.” With the gains of centrist parties in the last elections, however, Brown believes many Haredim “will likely make concessions” with regard to the draft.
Though figures from the ultra-Orthodox political party Shas have threatened a community-wide resistance by means of an uprising or mass migration abroad if they are forced to serve, there are also those within the Haredi community, like 20-year-old Nachman Gallugher, who believe the army doesn’t necessarily pose a threat to religion. Supported by his family and his wife, Gallugher will keep his sidelocks and tzitziyot when he enters the IDF Central Command in three months. Though he admits that the Haredi community must do their part in “sharing the burden,” he asserts that the true yeshiva scholars must be allowed to stay in the yeshiva.
“We have the burden of all of the Israelis, also secular Israelis,” Gallugher said, “and if the yeshiva study stops, then we lose our right to be here, in the land promised and given to us by God so we could study Torah in it.”
The ex-Haredim drafted into the army are, for all intents and purposes, foreigners in Israel. Along with soldiers from abroad or from broken homes, they are eligible for “Lone Soldier” status and financial and social support during their service and into their studies. Lacking a background in math and English—yeshivas don’t typically teach either subject—most ex-Haredi face enormous challenges in passing the army exams, thus narrowing their choices for placement, Lone Soldiers’ senior adviser Tsiki Aud told me.
Though those with skills can join Nachal Haredi, a 1,000-man unit catering to Haredi soldiers by enforcing strict kashrut laws and forbidding women from entering the premises, “Most don’t join combat units,” said Aud. “And the fact that the best units don’t take them is, in my opinion, a big mistake, because they really know how to survive.”
Through the Lone Soldier programs, soldiers are set up with academic courses and Israeli host families for Shabbat and the holidays, since most soldiers prefer to keep distance from their families.
Wearing a sweatshirt and jeans and confidently reminiscing over coffee in a downtown Jerusalem café, 19-year-old Tsipi remembers her knee-length skirt and the day she came back wearing Converse sneakers to her home in Beitar Illit, one of the most conservative and rapidly growing settlements in the West Bank. Her mother wailed at her for becoming too secular and immediately ran to the local rebbetzin to pray for her daughter’s soul. After a fight with her parents about living a life she felt was suffocating her, Tsipi moved to an apartment in downtown Jerusalem and canceled her army exemption.
“My family keeps telling me that I’m making the mistake of my life, and actually it is really hard for me that my family isn’t proud of me.” But she said she sees it as an opportunity “to start over.”
“I decided I want to join the army because I want to be in a place where I have no identity, everybody’s equal,” Tsipi said, pulling at her blonde braid. “People think it’s bad to take away your identity, but it’s good. Even if it can be horrible, it’s worth it.”
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