Secular No More

A true story of an Ultra-Orthodox Jew in Israel who left Ultra-Orthodoxy for a secular Israeli Lifestyle.

Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox community remains separate from much of mainstream Jewish Israeli society. Differentiated by their distinctive dress, separate school system, secluded neighborhoods, and the fact that most of their population does not serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, the Ultra-Orthodox Jews of Israel are a community unto themselves. However, small numbers of the faithful become interested in the secular Israeli lifestyle and leave their communities for a new and different life as this story, first published in Haaretz Daily on June 9, 2002, reveals. It is reprinted with permission. |

Yisrael Hecht’s story is a real-time account of what it means to cross the lines.  Last month he left the yeshiva [an Orthodox place of religious study], took off the black clothes and his skullcap. The tension of concealing his real identity, he says, was unbearable. The thought that his turn to be married off was drawing near was another factor; he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to stand up to the pressure from family and society, and that he would get married, only making it harder for him to walk away from the ultra-Orthodox way of life.

“I want to live like a normal person, working for my livelihood,” says Hecht. “Not like lots of the people I know, who wait for the check from the state on the 20th of every month and raise their children to hate the state.”

Secularization Widespread

And so, before the gates clanged shut, he took the step that, in his mind, he had visualized over and over again.

The phenomenon of secularization has grown more widespread in recent years. Dr. Neri Horowitz, an expert on ultra-Orthodox society at the Mandel School of Educational Leadership in Jerusalem, says that during the Hebrew month of Elul and the High Holy Days season, there is a steep upsurge in the requests for help fielded by organizations that support young people leaving the religious lifestyle.

At such times of the year, when religious discipline in yeshivas is much more aggressive, the young people who are “wavering” are subject to a higher level of distress, he says.

Hecht relates that more than 10 young men he knows from the ultra-Orthodox world have left in the past few months, including two close friends from his yeshiva. Some have already enlisted in the army. His impressions corroborate reports from Hillel (a nonprofit association for young people leaving the religious lifestyle) and Da’at Emet (or, True Knowledge, a nonprofit group that aspires to prove to ultra-Orthodox people that the Torah was written by man) about an increase in the number of requests for help.

Hecht’s story is a real-time account about this crossing of the lines. It lacks the perspective of time that sometimes produces acceptance and even nostalgia. In that respect, Hecht is like a man who fell from another star: The way he describes his difficulties and his happy moments, is evidence that the cultural gap of someone who grew up in ultra-Orthodox society is not only a matter of education or knowledge, but also prosaic human experiences, such as the feeling of a foot in sandals without socks, or the way people say good-bye.

The yeshiva pallor

Hecht, 20, is not a shababnik–an unstable yeshiva dropout who lives along the edges of ultra-Orthodox society. He says he was never one to be drawn to material pleasures like money or girls. He was naturally curious about the world outside, and felt the injustice of having been sentenced to live behind walls. The sixth child in a family of 12 children, Hecht always learned in yeshivas affiliated with the Lithuanian stream. He hasn’t yet lost his yeshiva pallor, even if he is wearing jeans.

His family has cut off all contact with him. He has had to find himself a place to live, but the more serious consequence of the abrupt separation is that he has been left to take the most difficult step of his life all alone, without any support. He came to Hillel for help, but due to an acute lack of foster families, they advised him to sleep on the beach or in public parks until he could find work and start to pay rent. Eventually, a family that knew Yaron Yad’an, the founder of Da’at Emet, agreed to host him for a few weeks until he gets on his feet.

“Even when you are a complete heretic for a long time, and you violate the Sabbath when you’re alone, the real barrier you have to break through is wearing jeans and taking off your skullcap,” says Hecht. That’s how it is in a society in which you are constantly being watched, from morning till night. The day he left the yeshiva, he tried on the new clothes that the Da’at Emet people had bought him: a pair of black jeans that was too big and had to be folded up a few times, and a black shirt with the Gottex logo on a label in the back. The touch of the shirt against his skin was eerie, he says, but simultaneously soft and pleasing. But old habits don’t easily die. For a few days, he wore the new shirt, but could not give up his old pants. Until he finally was able to part with them, and bundled them up into a plastic bag.

At first, he would spend a few hours a day without his skullcap. After two weeks or so, when he had gotten accustomed to the sense of relief he felt without it, he began to spend the entire day bareheaded. For now, however, he keeps it in his pocket, just in case. When he finds himself in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, he puts it back on his head, as if he were still afraid of being kicked out.

He had never walked into a store and bought himself an article of clothing, or anything else. Now, he has fearlessly gone on a shopping spree at the new central bus station and bought himself a few shirts and pairs of pants. He was not overly concerned about colors or materials, but for whatever reason, he chose dark shades. “It was a fantastic feeling,” says Hecht. “For the first time I felt I didn’t belong to the collective. That I didn’t belong to the rabbis. I’m a human being who dresses the way he wants to.”

Over the past year, he developed a veritable loathing for his ultra-Orthodox garb: “The Haredim dress this way in order to preserve their isolationism, so that they don’t mix in. But I felt that the clothes were marking me. Whenever I got on a bus or hitched a ride, people would ask me, why are you studying? Why don’t you enlist? Usually I would give the Haredi sort of answers that I didn’t even believe myself. A year ago, I said – it’s enough. It isn’t enough that I am suffering from living with Haredim, but I also have to give excuses for them? So I started answering that the Haredim should be drafted. People couldn’t believe what they were hearing.”

Mental hurdles

The most exciting purchase of all was sandals. The air that flowed between his toes excited him, made him giddy. “It’s like in biblical times,” he smiles.

And at his hosts’ home, he passed another mental hurdle when a large dog sniffed at him. “The first time, I was shaking, but the owner of the house told me that he doesn’t bite, and after a while, I found the courage to call him over to me and I even pet him. Now I can say that even though they raised me to be afraid of dogs, I like animals.”

It should come as no surprise that the culture of hanging out in coffee houses and pubs – the standard symbol among ultra-Orthodox of the empty, idle life of the secular – at first seemed strange to Hecht. But he is trying to get used to it. “I realized that people also work there, and talk about serious things. And besides which, so what if they are just enjoying themselves?” He now says that he likes pubs: “Maybe it is frivolous, but it is relaxing,” he says.

Hecht is sad that he was not exposed to the normal pleasures of life. He has no nostalgia or good memories of the ultra-Orthodox world. One Friday night, he went to a movie with a group of newly secular young people, who are now under Da’at Emet’s wing. He noticed the couples sitting in the cinema.  “I saw people around me who came not only to enjoy the movie but each other. It’s legitimate. In Haredi society, they made us learn and learn in order to disconnect us from any desires. But love is a legitimate emotion. It makes the world go round.”

His “detachment” began two years ago, but it has deeper roots. Hecht comes from a tough family background. His father is violent, and Hecht and his younger sister served as scapegoats of a sort. When the powers-that-be found out that the father was abusing his children, the whole matter was kept within the community. Instead of the father paying the price for the beatings they sustained over the years, Hecht was sent to a yeshiva in London.

A few months later, he made his own way back to Israel. The suffering he went through in that yeshiva, the sense of injustice he felt, and the doubts that began to smolder within him as he grew older and more clear-headed, would not leave him. He began to covet the outside world.  “For a long time, I dreamed of reading secular books,” he said.

“I knew that there were other books besides Gemora [Talmud], Mishna and other religious books, but I didn’t have the courage to open them up.” One day he went all the way to Beit Shemesh [a suburb of Jerusalem], where he found what he was looking for in the public library. “I was in shock. For five hours I sat there and didn’t pull my eyes off the book, just like they taught us to do with the Gemora.”

Heart pounding, one day Hecht crossed over the bridge between a small neighborhood on the outskirts of Bnei Brak [an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood] and Bar-Ilan University [a modern Orthodox institution]. A librarian who noticed his passion for knowledge and culture referred him to the right books, and also taught him how to surf the Internet.

“In yeshiva, I was considered the guy who didn’t like to learn,” he recounts. “But in the library, I started to read about evolution, about the `big bang.’ I wolfed down books about philosophy, scriptural criticism. I read newspapers. I learned about democracy, freedom, man’s relationship with society. I discovered that people make art. I went through the library, shelf by shelf. I read the introductions, I didn’t skip a word.

“All of this knowledge stimulated me. I realized that so many things had been hidden from me so that I would not open my eyes. I realized that there was a much higher level of culture in the world than what I’d been shown. Secular people have an idea of how the world developed. Haredim have no idea. I think that if the Haredim would open their eyes and see the beauty of the world, maybe they wouldn’t be so fanatic.”

Painful ostracism

Hecht harbors deep scorn for the rabbis, whom he considers dictators. “They bring the public to a state of poverty and absolute dependence through a uniform education system that has the aim that they should not think for themselves,” he says.

Hecht has a dream, he says, of another Age of Enlightenment, of young ultra-Orthodox people opening their eyes and making their way into the world. Last Rosh Hashanah, he felt disdain for his friends who swayed as they prayed.  “If they were Christians, they’d be praying to Jesus,” he says, “and if they were Muslims, they would be praying to Mohammed.

It all has to do with education, that’s all. So I made sure to open up the eyes of a few other Haredim, and now we are outside, together. It’s a lot easier when you’re not alone.”

But the ostracism hurts. He related emotionally how he had been banned from showing his face at his nephew’s circumcision ceremony two weeks ago. If he had gone, the whole family would have walked out of the party.

Rumors of his departure have spread. In the past two weeks, mysterious callers have been hassling him over the phone, cursing and threatening. Others in the community are still trying the softer approach, pleading with him to change his mind and avert a disaster from befalling his family. But Hecht has other plans. He has decided to complete his high-school matriculation and study in the university (“something in the sciences”). He is currently waiting for an answer from the army on a request to defer his service.

The adjustment to the independence he wanted so much has not been easy. He was raised to be dependent. The need to look after the most elemental needs is irksome. In an Internet forum for newly secular Jews a few days ago, someone asked what he called a “burning question”: Where do you do laundry? Hecht has also grappled with this issue. “When you’re in yeshiva, you don’t give it any thought. I ate three meals a day, somebody washed my clothes for me. All of a sudden, it has become your own worry. It’s hard,” he says.

Hecht is not alone. A counselor at Hillel is familiar with the breed of ex-ultra-Orthodox who have a hard time breaking loose from the religious mentality. Hecht, it seems, will have a long period of adjustment. He is in no rush to find any real work to support himself in the near future. Perhaps he doesn’t understand the urgency. In the meantime, he has been working three hours a day in a small grocery, and in his free time, continues to explore the new world and read books about it.

“Maybe I really am a bit of a parasite in my personality,” Hecht says. “Although I like the idea of working and supporting myself, it’s hard for someone who was raised not to work to get used to the concept that I have to fend for myself.”

When the conversation ends, Hecht says his good-bye with the standard “Kol Tuv” (All the best) that is so quintessentially ultra-Orthodox. He still hasn’t gotten used to the glib “bye” he hears all over, he says. Then he plods down the street, holding a plastic bag in his hand. Will he really manage to find his way in the new society? All of a sudden, he reappears, agitated. “Tell me, can people see that I’m ultra-Orthodox?” he asks. And then, he continues on his way.

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