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Fleeing the ultra-Orthodox

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Many years ago, I found myself in an airport lounge next to a man in Hasidic garb. I addressed him in Yiddish. He responded with a mixture of enthusiasm and surprise. Perhaps because I was a complete stranger, he preceded to tell me that he was an atheist. I tried to show him another way. It startled him that the argument for God would come from someone like me, who he perceived to be a renegade.

He told me that he stayed in his community despite his unbelief, because he knew no other life. He didn’t want to break with his family or abandon the only world he knew. He also feared that having no trade or profession, he wouldn’t be able to make it in the outside world. So he carried his burden in secret and only spoke about it in anonymity. All I could offer him were theological arguments.

Nowadays, people in his situation seem to have better options. Though they still find it very hard to leave their previous life and may not know how to earn a living, there are organizations
in Israel and elsewhere that offer assistance.

According to a recent report in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, figures published by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics suggest that “Israeli haredim born in 1992 have a 10 per cent chance of leaving the fold.” The author, Sarah Levi, wrote that, “Thanks to the Internet, these thousands of Israelis are having an easier time leaving their insulated communities while maintaining relations with their families and even finding the right kind of help they need to integrate fully into their new surroundings.”
By no means do all those who leave the haredi world give up on God or on Judaism. Many remain religious, but want to practice their faith in freedom. They also wish to get an education outside the confines of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

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An apt illustration of the restrictive nature of some haredi communities is the recent decree by the leader of the Gur Hasidic sect that forbids adherents under 30 from volunteering with Israeli paramedic and police services, because that may expose them to lifestyles that are seen to be “inappropriate.”
The Israeli paramedic organization Hatzalah is often the first on the scene of terrorist attacks and accidents, and Magen David Adom, Israel’s equivalent to the Red Cross, has been able to function as well as it has because of its many ultra-Orthodox volunteers. Now, Gur Hasidim will no longer be able to serve the larger community in this way. If they do, reports indicate that their children may be barred from the schools that are run by the sect. Ironically, Israel’s de facto minister of health, Yaakov Litzman, is a prominent Gur Hasid.

Of course, the ultra-Orthodox have no reason to fear that their ranks will be depleted by the occasional defection. The high birth rate and the steady trickle of new recruits from non-observant and mainstream Jewish families guarantees the continued growth and electoral power of the ultra-Orthodox, which allows them to extract institutional privileges when joining Israeli government coalitions. Their fear of exposing their adherents to the rest of society seems unnecessary for the stability of their organizations.
Unlike in Israel, even very Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora are more open to the world, in general, and the Jewish world, in particular. Many earn a living and some, particularly women, have access to a secular education. Even though the ostensible tolerance shown by sects like Chabad may be a way to raise funds from outsiders and to attract new recruits, it behooves us to welcome their commitment to klal Yisra’el, the totality of the Jewish people.

But being open to Orthodox Judaism doesn’t mean that we should tolerate the efforts by some of its exponents to strangle society in the name of God, or to keep their adherents as virtual prisoners.