|Written by Tamara Symonds|
Leaving the Fold
Yonatan [name has been changed] was raised in a typical ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem. He went to a Haredi school and yeshiva, and married when he was 18. Then something changed. "At a certain stage I began to think outside the box," he explains. "About whether what they taught me is true, if God exists, and if he does whether he expects us to do mitzvoth. Why should I keep practicing when everything contradicts it?"
His crisis of faith was not sudden. It began with him sneaking off to the library to read up about science when he was 16, and it wasn't until Yonatan was in his mid-twenties that he told his wife about his thinking. By then the couple had three children. "She already knew that I was critical and unconventional, but she didn't know to what extent." By that point, though, he had decided that he was no longer religious. "Let's continue with the status quo," was his wife's response. Outside the home, she said he could live his life as he saw fit, but she asked him not to tell her about the things he had been reading. Then, independently, she began her own process of self-exploration, until she eventually came to the same conclusion. "It was a slow process of disconnection," Yonatan reflects. Today, so as not to confuse the children who attend a National Religious school, they continue to keep Shabbat and maintain a kosher home, but they no longer live in an ultra-Orthodox area.
As a result of his experiences, Yonatan became one of the founding members of NIF grantee Yotzim L'Shinuim (Going Through a Change), which supports families going through the process of leaving the ultra-Orthodox world. Yotzim L'Shinuim is not an outreach organization trying to convince people to leave the Haredi world, but rather, it works with people who have already made that decision. The group provides people with educational and emotional support, as well as help in finding work.
Soon after their inception, the group found out about NIF/SHATIL, who introduced them to another group of ex-ultra-Orthodox working to change government policy regarding those who leave the Haredi community. The two groups teamed up. At present, there are special educational and employment benefits for haredim that are denied to those leaving the community, even though without communal support they need transitional assistance even more. "We want to ensure that those leaving the community receive the same rights that other Haredim receive," Yonatan says.
Yotzim L'Shinum meets every two weeks for cultural events, lectures, and film screenings such as the recent Ponevezh Time. These events are vital in helping the members integrate into wider society. One member commented, "I didn't know about The Beatles until I was 25!" They also run guidance session for parents. "We don't want to disconnect from our families, but the relationships are very complicated. Maybe they understand, but they can't accept it.," noted another member. Future plans include the creation of an institute that will help ex-Haredim complete their studies, thus helping them properly integrate into society. "I missed the train," Yonatan reflects. He is studying in his spare time, but he also needs to work so as to provide for his children, which means he might have to drop out. "I want to help others so their path will be easier." The more Yotzim L'Shinuim develops, the more likely that will be.