Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Modernity Lures Orthodox Jews

JERUSALEM -- When ultra-Orthodox Jews decide to question their relationship with God, a secular Israeli organization is there to help them find their way.

Hillel, whose Hebrew acronym means "the organization for the right to ask," was founded more than a decade ago to help devout Jews seeking to break out of traditional ultra-Orthodox society to be born again as more modern-day Israelis.

Laura Sachs, Hillel's deputy chairwoman, said the group has helped almost 400 faithful become secular, a drop in the ocean compared with the thousands of Jews from Israel and overseas who flock to seminaries each year to explore becoming Orthodox.

She said when ultra-Orthodox people "come out," they risk being shunned by family and friends and walk around "in a state of chaos, and just don't know what to do" in an alien society.

"A kid went to buy his first pair of jeans and he walked out with the zipper in the back," Sachs said of a newly secular Israeli helped by her nonprofit organization.

"He knew he was supposed to wear jeans in our world, but he didn't know how."

Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up about 8 percent of Israel's population. Men dress in traditional black costume -- even on the hottest summer day -- while women dress modestly in skirts and never bare their shoulders. Married women must cover their hair with wigs, hats or scarves.

Many of the male faithful study in religious seminaries, or yeshivas, into adulthood, supported by working wives or government stipends. Following the biblical command of "Be fruitful and multiply," many ultra-Orthodox families are large.

One of Hillel's disciples, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Amnon, said he left the fold at 17 for "ideological reasons" and is now serving in the Israeli army, which has been battling a 21-month-old Palestinian uprising.

"You wake up in the morning, go to prayers, go to yeshiva, study and study and study, eat lunch, and study until you go to sleep," said Amnon, now 23.

A 20-year-old woman, who would only give her first name, Michal, said she broke away from her ultra-Orthodox roots after graduating from high school.

"I was always arguing with the teachers -- I just didn't agree with what they taught me," she said.

"I reached the conclusion that I would never fit in. I am also a very individualistic person and there isn't a lot room for individualism there."

Hillel operates telephone support hotlines in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that are run by volunteers. Over the years they have logged thousands of calls, most from young people aged between 18 and 25.

After a few recurring calls, a meeting is set up with a Hillel member in a neutral setting, such as a cafe. If the caller decides to join Hillel, he or she is assigned a "mentor," who helps in the transition to secular life.

Suddenly, a new, materialistic world comes flooding in after a life in which family values, charity, community and a sense of higher purpose have taken priority.

"In first grade ... they have your parents sign a slip that states they do not have a television in their home and will never have one, nor will they have a VCR," said Michal.

Michal said she lost contact with her parents for a few months after she left, but today "things are OK."

"When I come home I have to wear a skirt, at their request," she said. "They're still not fully prepared to accept my being secular, or even see me in pants -- for them, that is the end of the world. They still often lecture me about it."

Michal's girlfriends from her previous life have cut all ties with her. "They are afraid I'll have a bad influence on them," she said.

Chaim Meir, 25, grew up in a small devout community in southern Israel and attended a yeshiva before abandoning a lifestyle he found too restrictive.

"A 19-year-old who comes out of ultra-Orthodox society is virtually helpless," he said, echoing some Israeli politicians who have advocated inducting yeshiva students into the army and teaching them a trade.

"No one taught me how to get a job and make money. I had to learn all these things on my own."

"An [ultra-Orthodox] yeshiva boy of 18, for example, is lucky to know third-grade arithmetic," Sachs said.

Sachs insisted that Hillel is not trying to remove people from their Jewish roots or religion, but help those who decide on their own to become secular to fit into modern society.

Critics take a different view. The organization suffers from crank calls and the guest book on its web site, at www.hillel.org.il, has become a forum for some who say nonreligious life is an abomination.

"Is [becoming secular] worth it? Just to be able to eat pork, drive on Shabbes [the Jewish sabbath] and have sex with your best friend's wife?" one message said.