Escape from Israel's Ultra-Orthodox: The High Price of Religious Defection

By in Tel Aviv

The community of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel is half a million strong and growing. They live in a parallel universe cut off from the modern world in tight-knit communities where everything revolves around religion. Only a few dare to abandon this life -- and the price for doing so is high.

When she left, she left everything behind -- even her name. She no longer wanted to be known as Sarah, the name her parents had given her. She'd felt imprisoned by that name for too long; it made her feel different and subject to laws that others imposed upon her. So, she started her new life with a new name, Mayan, the Hebrew word for "source."

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Photo Gallery: Leaving Ultra-Orthodoxy Behind

It's been seven years since Mayan "landed on planet Earth," as she puts it. But the 27-year-old doesn't feel completely at home here yet. She's a young, modern Israeli woman. Still, despite the dragon tattoo on her shoulder and the loose top offering occasional glimpses of her bra, there are always some moments that betray her past. For example, when her friends talk about old TV series, classic pop music or their first schoolyard crushes, Mayan can't join in. Until she was 17 years old, Mayan lived in another world, a world where those things simply didn't exist.

A Life Completely Focused on Religion

The "parallel universe" Mayan used to live in has around 550,000 inhabitants. It is the world of the Orthodox Jews in Israel, whose adherents live in tight-knit communities where everything revolves around religion. They radically shield themselves from modern life. Television is frowned upon, as is non-religious music, telephones and the Internet. News that is important to the community is disseminated via notices posted on walls. Boys and girls go to school, but their education is primarily focused on religion.

"Everyone can read and write, but math was over after simple multiplication," Mayan says. "When I left school, I didn't even know what New York was, and I had never even seen a dog because nobody kept any pets."

According to Irit Paneth, it is this lack of education, in particular, that makes it almost impossible for doubters in these communities to break out of the inflexible corset of their belief. Paneth is a member of Hillel - The Right To Choose, an organization that helps those leaving the Orthodox faith start a normal life. "We are not against the religion," Paneth explains. "But Ultra-Orthodoxy is more like a cult that intellectually cripples children in the name of religion." For most young people who break away from the Orthodox life, she explains, it's like leaping off a cliff into the unknown. "They come without money, without education in the classical sense, without any chance of employment," Paneth says.

One of the Fastest Growing Groups in Israel

According to government estimates, ultra-Orthodox Jews make up one of the fastest-growing groups in Israeli society. By 2025, the government forecasts that roughly 22 percent of school-age Israeli children will come from one of the groups with strong religious beliefs.

Over the 19 years it has been operating, only around 2,000 defectors have turned to Hillel. "There are tens of thousands who have doubts and want out," Paneth says. But only a small number are ready and willing to make the sacrifices that defection demands. For example, most families completely break off contact with defectors. "Some even hold wakes," Paneth says, "as if the daughter or son has actually died."

Mayan grew up in Beitar Illit, an Orthodox settlement just south of Jerusalem in the Judean Mountains of the West Bank. There, men wear black suits and wide-brimmed hats. The women -- whose style of clothing is intended solely to denote chastity -- wear high-necked blouses, long skirts and often a head scarf. Likewise, the men don't hold jobs but, instead, devote their lives to studying the Bible. The women feed their families and often raise up to 12 children.

Mayan's childhood finished when she was seven, when her widowed mother remarried. From then on, she had to wear socks and long pants to bed under her nightgown -- even in the summer -- lest the bed cover slip off and expose here bare skin to her stepfather. And since her stepfather was not a blood relation, he was not allowed to touch her. In fact, he barely spoke with her, either.

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