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Leaving Orthodoxy for the IDF

As the Knesset debates conscription for Haredim, some teens are already leaving their community to serve

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Left to right: Avi, Moshe, and Haim. (Ada Broussard)

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.”

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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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What a chillul Hashem this man’s father is! There are many people who can’t even have children — and he goes and says something as terrible as this. The biggest shame of his life should be the fact that he is a true hypocrite. Going into shul daily, praying, and not getting it at all. Life is not about having everything turn out exactly how YOU want; this includes the lives of your children! He needs to be more concerned about himself and his capabilities as a father. And that’s it.

Was there supposed to be a point to this article, because it seems little more than a rambling mess.

Beyond the traditional ‘Look! Hasidim leaving the fold’ tabloid attempt at shock, there was little that truly connects the article with the wider debate going on in Israel.

Benjamin_Isaac says:

Israel should divert more energy to the “internal aliyah” of the ultra-Orthodox to modern society, instead of wasting effort on getting perfectly content North American Jews to upend their lives. This should be the new Zionist project: not getting already-Zionist Jews to move to Zion, but getting Jews in Zion to become Zionist.

Why not write an article about guy’s who become more religious in the army….

It’s always heartening to read about young people who manage to flee the Haredi cult.

I don’t think the way this story is framed is that helpful. So some ex-Haredi join up. This has nothing to do with getting Haredi to join unless the idea is to destroy their way of life as a prerequisite.

Natan79 says:

Excellent!

Natan79 says:

The main point is not that they become less religious, but that they serve. Most people have no problem with Haredim because they’re religious, but because they don’t serve like the rest of us Israeli citizens.

The reason they don’t serve is because they’re religious though.

cipher says:

The Haredi way of life is a form of child abuse, and it’s horrendous that these kids have to live on the street in order to be free of it. Gradual change won’t work; it has to be revolutionary. Their society has to be forcibly dismantled. They don’t like it? Stop all financial support and housing subsidies, and take the kids away from them. They’ll fall in line pretty damn quickly.

In the meantime, exit organizations like Hillel and Footsteps deserve all the support they can get.

herbcaen says:

The Forward has a couple of stories a week about people leaving Orthodoxy. It is no longer newsworthy. yawn

Raymond_in_DC says:

The demographics suggest you’re right. One study predicts that in 50 years, roughly half the country will be either haredi or Arab. Which means half the country will be composed of people who don’t really believe in their country. Look at Jerusalem today. Between the haredi and the Arab populations it’s already majority non-Zionist.

Reptilian2012 says:

People don’t react too well to pressure. Hardeis must be offered proper incentive to integrate into society, and most definitely not at the expensive Torah study – the silly book that kept the Jewish people alive for 6000 years.

cipher says:

A. It’s been 4,000 years (supposedly)

B. “Torah study”, to them, means Talmud almost exclusively, and that brings it down to around 2,000.

C. This business of full-time study without work or contribution to society is a modern invention. Israel can no longer afford to support them; its economists are predicting bankruptcy within a generation if they don’t get the Haredim off the social service rolls.

D. I really don’t care about their reaction. It’s time to stop allowing them to dictate terms, both in Israel and here.

Steve Kolodny says:

The reason they don’t serve is that they can get away with it.

Conscription is an odd beast. If there is one thing the states learned from Viet Nam is that filthy hippies are dangerous but more importunely that the draft is an awful idea. General Tommy Franks latter head of CENTCOM had to deal with the after effects of the draft,mostly race riots and drug abuse. It’s hard to fight next to a man who does not want to be there. The armed services are a warrior breed and perhaps an uncouth bunch but this never takes away from their professionalism and adherence to duty. The draftee however comes with all sorts of baggage and trouble. I for one do not want a return of the draft in the states. I understand that Israel is a very small country and half the place is on reserve status of some kind to keep up its strength but do they really think adding people who don’t want to be there for religious reasons is going to help the military? This is a political move. Someone who does not wish to serve based on religious grounds will not be broken by a military machine. The state here is underestimating the power of faith and the need to have at least some semblance of unit cohesion in its ranks. Those who really wish to the see the Israeli military succeed should be grateful not to have the hardioum in its ranks. You don’t need em and trust me you don’t want em.

Those who speak of overnight revolutions and conquestioun dismantling of religious societies do not know the history of revolutions and the value of reform over change. See Edmond Burke’s Reflections On The Revolution In Rrance 1791.http://www.amazon.com/Reflections-Revolution-France-Penguin-Classics/dp/0140432043

Those who speak of overnight revolutions and conquestioun dismantling of religious societies do not know the history of revolutions and the value of reform over change. See Edmond Burke’s Reflections On The Revolution In France 1791.http://www.amazon.com/Reflections-Revolution-France-Penguin-Classics/dp/0140432043

It’s nice to know you support forced labor. Not my point.

daized79 says:

Why can’t that dude do another three years? Is he that bad a soldier? Maybe that’s why they he likes it so much… :) Kind of a pointless piece, though.

daized79 says:

You assume there was a point, Natan, but see Jacob, above.

daized79 says:

Why don’t you do that to the Arabs first cipher, you antisemitic son of a…?

daized79 says:

However it worked in WWI and WWII. The difference is whether the culture and media support it.

cipher says:

Yes, of course – being anti-Haredi makes me antisemitic, because the Haredim are the only real Jews.

There’s a reason no one but your mother has told you how bright you are.

daized79 says:

Plenty of tests, professors, judges, and attorneys have told me how bright I am, but that’s certainly beside the point cipher because I don’t advocate a human rights crime even against the Palestinians who teach their children that killing Jews is not murder. What makes you an antisemite is that you would rip Jewish children away from their parents on the basis of religion. Intelligence does not make me better than anyone else. Having a shred of morality does.

daized79 says:

Any man who cites Burke has my vote!

daized79 says:

If you actually advocate Israel ripping children away from their traditional Muslim and Druze families (and countries around the world doing the same for Hindus and Muslims worldwide) I’ll call you an evil Leftist, but I’ll drop the antisemitic accusation. Antisemitism is treating Jews singularly, not being a general totalitarian.

And how did you do italics? :) Hey — I’m not so bright after all…

daized79 says:

Bob, you’re right it’s a political question. It’s a question of normalizing them into the productive sector of the country. I’m not saying it needs to be this way, but the way Israel is set up, without army service you can’t go to work at 18. So an alternative program would be allowing people to skip service for religious reasons and letting them work. We have the Quakers and others (e.g., Amish) that didn’t have to fight (though many did to great distinction). But in Israel, there is a rift in the polity — huge resentment against the kharedim because they are such a relatively large percentage of the population. You are correct militarily, and many non-kharedim get out of service, as well. But it angers the rest of the public that by being born into the right (kharedi) family you won’t have to serve in the military. Until Israel ends its draft, which it can’t do in the foreseeable future because of the existential threats that surround it, I can see the argument that this may be necessary. Or some compromise. But you are correct from a military perspective. I have read that the IDF doesn’t want it either. But the Israeli people and the Knesset are the top brass at the IDF and Israel isn’t a military dictatorship. So we’ll see.

Evelina Grezak says:

Very good points, especially C. As another article on this site mentions, the Haredi’s claim that they are living a traditional life is wrong – it is very recent invention. In pre-war Europe and the early Israeli state, the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox worked and served in the military like everyone else. In New York, Orthodox Jewish immigrants made tremendous contributions to several industries; there is a statute on 7th Ave. of a man in a yarmulke sitting at a sewing machine.

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Leaving Orthodoxy for the IDF

As the Knesset debates conscription for Haredim, some teens are already leaving their community to serve

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