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‘Baal Teshuvah’: The Next Generation

Thousands of secular Israelis became newly observant and joined Haredi communities in the 1970s and ’80s. Now, their children and grandchildren are searching for a place of their own.

Dana Kessler
December 11, 2018
Photo: Raaya Vardi Teboule
A still from 'Reflected Light'Photo: Raaya Vardi Teboule
Photo: Raaya Vardi Teboule
A still from 'Reflected Light'Photo: Raaya Vardi Teboule

When the hippie culture of the late 1960s prompted a handful of young Israelis to search for meaning beyond a bourgeois 9-to-5 existence, many found the answer in Judaism. Thus began the chazara b’teshuvah movement; the term refers to secular Jews who have “returned” to their faith with a newly observant dedication to strict Orthodoxy, and is interchangeable with the term baal teshuvah, used more widely in the United States.

In the ’70s, after the Yom Kippur War, the trend in Israel grew. After a few celebrities, like filmmaker Uri Zohar, and a few prominent scientists, such as chemistry professor Doron Aurbach and mathematician Eliyahu Rips, turned ultra-Orthodox, it became a flood. Thousands more Israelis became chozrim b’teshuvah in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Most in this first wave joined closed-off Haredi communities, believing that the light shines brightest in the world of the ultra-Orthodox.

Now, their oldest children are grown-up and have children of their own, and can testify to the fact that for many, their cultural, financial, and social assimilation into the Haredi world can be deemed a failure. Many of the children of the original chozrim b’teshuvah have since left the Haredi communities where they were raised. And while their parents have, by and large, not returned to the secular world, many have changed their relationship to the Haredi world.

A fascinating new Israeli documentary called Reflected Light takes a hard look at the identity crisis of second-generation chozrim b’teshuvah. One of the subjects of the film is Moti Barlev, a 36-year-old tour guide from Jerusalem who left the Haredi world about 15 years ago. His parents are chozrim b’teshuvah and he grew up in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. His tours show visitors the life of Haredim and chozrim b’teshuvah, and emphasize the intricate behavioral and exterior codes that are at the root of the difficulty many chozrim b’teshuvah have assimilating into this society. Barlev also runs two Facebook groups: one of second-generation chozrim b’teshuvah and one that offers an opportunity for dialogue between first and second generations. “The biggest problem the second generation faces is lack of identity,” Barlev told me. “We don’t belong to the Haredi world and we don’t belong elsewhere, either. We grew up with a sense of shame and humiliation from a very early age. We were second-class citizens.”


I traveled to Jerusalem to meet Barlev and Rabbi Mordechai Vardi, the film’s director, producer, and screenwriter, in Vardi’s spartan office at Ma’aleh School of Television, Film, and the Arts, where he serves as head of the screenwriting department. Vardi is a Dati Leumi—meaning “National Religious,” Orthodox but non-Haredi Jews—who discovered the plight of the second generation after being exposed to a chozrim b’teshuvah magazine called Aderaba. Barlev, and other second generation chozrim b’teshuvah, shared with Vardi their experiences being born into the Haredi world that they felt never accepted them.

“The Haredi society is tribal,” Barlev told me. “What matters is what family you’re from. Second-generation chozrim b’teshuvah don’t belong to any tribe, they have no status in the Haredi society. You can’t become Haredi, you are born one.”

Most of the troubled youth in Haredi areas are second-generation chozrim b’teshuvah, according to Vardi, Barlev, and a volunteer from ELEM-Youth in Distress who appears in Reflected Light. “There are problems with drugs, conflicts within the home, even homelessness,” Vardi told me. One of the reasons is the communication barrier between chozrim b’teshuvah and their children. “Baalei teshuvah have to hide parts of their soul from their children,” Vardi said. “If they don’t want their children to know what they did when they were secular, they have to hide not only their biography but also parts of their soul.”

Another reason is lack of parental authority. “Often the parental authority of the chozer b’teshuvah is broken,” Barlev said. “Children of baalei teshuvah are in an interesting position, not dissimilar to that of immigrants. Often children of chozrim b’teshuvah know the dress code of the Haredi world better than their parents. Children sense their parent’s cluelessness and clumsiness. It is hard to have parental authority when your children don’t respect you.”

“Rabbi Oded Nitzani calls this ‘the shoelace-tying syndrome,’” said Vardi, referring to the rabbi who established the chozrim b’teshuvah community Sde Tzofim in Maalot. “The Halacha states how one must tie their shoelaces. First you put on your right shoe, then your left shoe, then you tie your left shoe and then your right shoe. A chozer b’teshuvah realizes he doesn’t know how to tie his own shoes. And if he doesn’t know how to tie his own shoes, what does he know? The moment someone enters the Haredi world they don’t know anything. Chozrim b’teshuvah parents lack confidence and experience and naturally make many mistakes. They weren’t brought up this way and don’t have the guidance of the extended family. For example, if a child plays hooky from the yeshiva and comes home because he missed his family, a chozer b’teshuvah father thinks this is the end of the world. He doesn’t know that Haredi kids do this, too. He doesn’t know what is serious and what isn’t.”

“This is a classic problem of immigrants,” agreed Ilan Kosman, CEO of Shlavim, a Haredi organization designed to support chozrim b’teshuvah—with advice, training, or even loans—in terms of education and employment.

“This is why it’s important to give chozrim b’teshuvah parents guidance on how to communicate with their children, which is one of the things we do. It’s also important that these families have ties to Haredi families so they can learn from them.”

Kosman’s organization, and others similar to it, have been operating for the past 10 or 15 years. However, even in the days when the life of chozrim b’teshuvah was exceptionally difficult—before they had their own communities and support system—very few of those in the first generation returned to the secular world. “They have found the light. This is a very powerful psychological experience and commitment that you don’t turn your back to,” Barlev said. “My parents’ generation was willing to live a life of poverty and broken families in the belief that they will get their reward in the afterlife. Unlike our parents, we as second generation can’t experience enlightenment. Enlightenment is a very individualistic experience, which is something you don’t experience in the Haredi society.”

Vardi echoed this sentiment: “Enlightenment comes from a great thirst, from lack of spiritually in your life. Second-generation baalei teshuvah don’t feel this thirst,” he said. “Their parents are so afraid they will leave religion behind that they force-feed them with it.”

While most chozrim b’teshuvah don’t turn their backs on the light, many of their children do. “I can safely say that every household of chozrim b’teshuvah from my generation had children that left the Haredi community,” said Barlev. “Some might become secular but many become some form of light-Orthodox.”

Rabbi Oded Nitzani (in foreground) and Moti Barlev in a still from ‘Reflected Light.’ (Photo: Raaya Vardi Teboule)
Rabbi Oded Nitzani (in foreground) and Moti Barlev in a still from ‘Reflected Light.’ (Photo: Raaya Vardi Teboule)

And when the second generation starts asking itself questions, said Barlev, many times their parents follow suit: “Traditionally, in the first 10 years baalei teshuvah close themselves off in order to break away from the secular dogmatism and try to assimilate into the Haredi dogmatism. They strangle themselves trying to become something they can never become. After many years they can start to look at the world with curiosity and with critical eyes again—the same eyes that led them to religion in the first place. Many chozrim b’teshuvah parents are influenced by their children and begin to see the Haredi society for what it is, but it has taken them years to deal with the trauma and to get to this point. At some point, many of them start to differentiate between religion and being Haredi. Some start understanding that being Haredi is an ethnic and ritualistic identity and has nothing to do with religion.”

“They say that it takes chozrim b’teshuvah around 15 years to start asking themselves, where did we come to? Why did we throw away our culture, philosophy, literature, music?” Vardi continued. Many of them start a process of self examination—many times influenced by their own children—and start finding their true identity. They start understanding that they will never be able to be Haredi and that their true identity is that of baalei teshuvah.”

One of the major problems chozrim b’teshuvah face is difficulty getting their children and grandchildren accepted into the Haredi educational system. “Some yeshivot or seminars don’t want to hurt their prestige and therefore have a quota of children of baalei teshuvah they accept,” Vardi said. “They also check the children’s body language and appearance to check if they stand out. If you come from a baalei teshuvah family with money or if your dad is a lawyer, it will be easier for you to get accepted.”

It doesn’t help that many chozrim b’teshuvah suffer from poverty. “Nowadays when someone finds religion, he is warned not to leave his job,” Vardi said. “Traditionally baalei teshuvah left their jobs in order to study all day like Haredim. The difference is that the Haredi population gets by financially even though many men aren’t employed. They have ways to get by.” Those ways include family and social networks, donations from philanthropists, and free-loan societies known as gemachim. “Baalei teshuvah,” said Vardi, “aren’t part of this loop.”

Kosman doesn’t think the reason children aren’t accepted into the Haredi educational system has anything specifically to do with the fact that their parents are chozrim b’teshuvah. “My kids didn’t get accepted into some schools I wanted them to get into either, and I was born Haredi,” he told me. “Haredi schools that care about their Haredi identity want people who are like them. A cheder of Gerer Hasidim wouldn’t accept a child of Belzer Hasidim either. I don’t think that nowadays baalei teshuvah are considered second-class citizens. They are in a category of their own. They are their own movement.” Thus, Kosman sees the fact that second-generation chozrim b’teshuvah marry each other as a positive thing (“they speak the same language”). Others still perceive the fact that second-generation chozrim b’teshuvah aren’t offered born-Haredis as a shidduch as a sign of their inferior social standing.

Nowadays it is estimated that there are close to a million Haredim in Israel, and that chozrim b’teshuvah (and their offspring) make up more than 20 percent of them. There are many different movements of chozrim b’teshuvah, and today many of them belong to new communities of chozrim b’teshuvah which have been popping up in the last 20 years or so. “These communities have their own synagogues, schools and leaders, and they are a fantastic solution,” said Barlev. “I have seen children of baalei teshuvah in these places and I saw happy well adjusted children—a million years removed from how I was at that age. I was scared and closed off. They talk openly about things, they do sports, they learn English.”

Kosman is also very much in favor of chozrim b’teshuvah communities and schools, and strives to better these schools. “Children of chozrim b’teshuvah have different needs to Haredi kids,” he said. “These schools need to teach their children how to deal with their secular cousins, and to define their identity in a manner that will give them self-confidence. The fact that they teach English is also very important. Baalei teshuvah schools tend to the second generation’s needs as well as bestow upon these children the essence and principles of baalei teshuvah, like enthusiasm and devotion to your beliefs and principles.”

Kosman believes that a better educational system for second generation chozrim b’teshuvah will also help them in terms of employment and financial stability: “Chozrim b’teshuvah have huge earning potential and I believe the state needs to help them, just as it helps olim hadashim,” people who have recently made aliyah.

Barlev concluded: “I can’t promise baalei teshuvah who join these communities that their children will stay religious, but at least they won’t grow up broken and traumatized.”


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Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.