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Tuesday, January 26, 2016 

The former Haredis who leave that world

Here's a worthy article, not something very frequently found in Haaretz, about the growing number of ultra-Orthodox who're leaving that lifestyle behind, and one family that just recently left:
Evening was beginning to fall on the playground that one sees from the balcony of the Heller family home in Beit Shemesh. Six-year-old Pini entered the house excited, his cheeks flushed. “Mom, I played with the ball,” he declared, speaking in Yiddish. There was an unmistakably triumphant tone in his words.

Yisrael Heller and his wife, Rachel “Cheli” Heller, exchanged a quick look. They were sitting at a table on the balcony, their 1-year-old baby cavorting between them. It looked like another ordinary day, as though a boy coming into the house holding a ball was an everyday event. In fact, it was one more sign of the revolution the family is undergoing.

In the closed Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community in which the Hellers lived until not long ago, children only came home from school at this time of the day, playing with a ball was beyond the pale and Hebrew was the language of the “Zionist heretics”: To speak it was strictly forbidden (other than as the holy tongue).

A few months ago, the Hellers and their four children left Ramat Beit Shemesh, a Haredi neighborhood within Beit Shemesh, a city between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They stole out from their apartment late at night, without telling family or friends. Their move had been preceded by an ugly wave of rumors, accompanied by pressure that pushed them into a corner and made their lives intolerable, until they were forced to leave ignominiously.

The target of the firestorm was Yisrael, head of the household and a man of power in the community. He had trimmed his beard and had gradually started to deviate from the community’s stringent dress code, referred to as the Yerushalmer [that is, "Jerusalemite," which is also the name of the sect] style. The members of the community are quick to spot the slightest change in shirt style or hat size; such behavior is considered a gross infringement of the rules and traditions to which it adheres.

“Within a single day, rumors spread that I was becoming a ‘questioner’ [giving up the religious life],” Heller relates now. “That I was studying ‘The Guide for the Perplexed’ [a forbidden text even though it is by Maimonides, the 12th-century Torah scholar] in Jerusalem every Sabbath eve, that men and women attended the tisch [a gathering of Hasidim around their rebbe] I went to, where I was playing a musical instrument. I started to receive threats, questions from functionaries. I realized that I was under surveillance.”

In their former small, insular community, identified with the most extreme sects of Haredi society, the disappearance of the Heller family is perceived as desertion, the crossing of a red line. Still, everyone expected them to return. Within hours, all 12 employees of his consulting firm resigned. Heller was not surprised: The move was intended to signal him that his livelihood would be harmed if he didn’t return to the straight-and-narrow. But he did not yield, nor did he beg for mercy.

“There is a great deal of fear. But after you contend with it, you feel good,” he says, a thin smile on his lips.

Brave new world

For good reason the Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet neighborhood where the Hellers formerly lived is known as the Casbah. The so-called Taliban women walk the streets here, together with their daughters, their faces completely veiled. Yisrael Heller, 32, and his wife Rachel, 31, had been an integral part of this conservative community. Yisrael’s family is well-known among the Haredi public as one of the most zealous, over many generations. His father, a rabbi, moved to Ramat Beit Shemesh from Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea She’arim neighborhood when Yisrael was a child, and became a leader of the so-called sikarikim – an extremist group that is behind many of the violent demonstrations by Haredim in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh over desecration of graves, army service and other issues.

Yisrael, the second oldest in his family, is a media expert and strategist who gained a reputation when working on various campaigns launched by closed Haredi communities. Is it conceivable that someone like him, the scion of a deeply rooted Jerusalem family, would leave the community? Now all the evidence has led his former neighbors to one logical conclusion: that Heller has become a Christian, God help us.

Well, hardly. He and his family simply fled into the adjacent Haredi neighborhood in Ramat Beit Shemesh. To ease things, Heller initially informed everyone that he had become a Hasid of the Bratslav sect, and inwardly he hoped that something of the Hasidic feeling would cling to him, but in vain.

“As long as the children don’t speak Hebrew,” Heller’s mother warned him, when she grasped that his decision to leave was irrevocable. For her, if the grandchildren speak Hebrew, they will have severed every tie to Judaism. In fact, after they moved, the family did not stop speaking Yiddish or sitting down together around the Shabbat table. Not to please other people, but because “you don’t leave a good thing – that’s something you learn as a child,” Heller says.

The new neighborhood is a different world. The population, though Orthodox, is moderate in its views and behavior, and immeasurably more open than the one they left. The new apartment, where they live in complete anonymity – none of their neighbors knows them or their parents, and no one asks questions – is like a refuge for them. It’s a first stop on their migration, a first foothold in the world outside the walls.

Contrite mercenary

Yisrael Heller is not the first person to leave Haredi society, nor will he be the last. But his move is more resonant, in part because he took a whole family with him. He’s a former editor of the ultra-Orthodox magazine Ha’eda (The Community), and was an adviser to and creator of major public campaigns mounted by the Haredi community in recent years. Most prominently there was the struggle against service for ultra-Orthodox men in the Israel Defense Forces, in 2014. Heller also organized campaigns against yeshiva students attending secular colleges, and he waged a fierce fight against Internet use. His campaigns, which crossed the lines of individual Hasidic courts, had the effect of strengthening the conservative forces in Haredi society.

Heller even coined a term, “hardak” – a combination of Haredi and harak, the Hebrew word for insect – that was intended to humiliate Haredim who did army service, and to stigmatize such service in the eyes of the community. According to Shahar Ilan, vice president of Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious tolerance, “The hardakim campaign had a very significant influence in the period after the new draft law was passed, and it continues to negatively brand Haredim who enter the army to this day. In the most intense period, children would chase Haredi soldiers, calling them ‘hardakim.’ The campaign’s influence waned after the government was dissolved [in 2015] and it became clear that the law would be revoked.”

In his period as a media adviser, who helped develop strategies to change public opinion within the ultra-Orthodox world, Heller was close to Haredi functionaries and rabbis. He describes himself now as a kind of mercenary and admits that it took him a while to consider the full implications of his actions. The more strongly the campaigns took root, the more alienated he himself became from them and the less he was able to justify them to himself. Today he seems contrite about that period.

Heller says he actually began to break away when he was just a teenager. “I was never truly religious,” he says. “As a boy, I experienced great torment and I grappled with a big, inner question: Why am I like this? I wanted to change. I liked studying but didn’t connect with prayer. I spent time on the street instead of in the synagogue. My father didn’t grasp the situation. He has 13 children, and if he understood, he preferred to ignore it. When people reported on me, he tried to ‘tame’ me. But I kept doing my thing.”

One day, around bar-mitzvah age, Heller saw a man jump to his death at a construction site next to his home. “I started to think about death,” he recalls. “I asked myself why someone would want to die. Why one lives. As a Haredi, the answers are very clear. But I was flooded with thoughts. About the world-to-come. They teach you that secular people are useless garbage, but suddenly you understand that every person has a soul.”

During adolescence, he started fishing newspapers out of recycling bins and mailboxes, and read them avidly. When he was a yeshiva student, he would spend hours in the local library reading books on philosophy, history and whatever came to hand. He wanted to remove the shackles but lacked the resolve to take even one step. His sense of helplessness paralyzed him. After marrying, at 18, he abandoned his daydreams, doubts and agonies of faith in order to immerse himself in making a living. He began to learn about the world through the Internet and taught himself, slowly but persistently, English and computer programming. He became an authority on graphic design in the Haredi press and entered the media world. He thought that his crisis of faith would recede, but the opposite was the case.

In the meantime, he was distraught over the dynamics between the different sects within the Haredi community. “In my work, I became acquainted with the workings of Haredi society,” he explains. “I discovered that there is a great deal of hatred. Every group knows that it has its ‘outstanding rabbi of the generation’ – and that the rabbi of the other group must be diminished in stature. The more I push him down, the higher I will elevate my rabbi. In all of Haredi politics, there is no discussion of what Hashem [God] really wants. That’s not part of the lexicon.

“In fact,” he continues, “you can be a Haredi and not think about God at all. No one thinks about God, but they are all working in the name of God, against the Zionists, against the Internet. That’s the method. The moment you understand how things work, you feel disconnected. And then you ask yourself: Why do I observe Shabbat? Because I’ve been trained to do it? What about Yom Kippur? The method isn’t based on belief but on empty slogans. As a result, when you lose the Haredism [literally, the fear], and take a critical view, there’s no way you can continue. It wasn’t until I shed Haredism that I was able to start thinking about God, and my faith was then built from the ground up. I have a different view of the Torah now; I discarded Haredism and became a Jew.”

Heller adds that the Torah is spoken of as “the way of truth,” but “actually, nothing has anything to do with the truth: Contrary to what people think, the Torah of the Haredim is not the Bible. The Torah of the Haredim is new prohibitions that were created in the past decade, such as against learning a profession or serving in the army. They are observed more rigorously than the prohibitions in the Torah. And there are also the rules of modesty: the length of the skirt, the thickness of the stockings, the width of the hat. The true Torah contains not a word about the current form of modesty. It’s all politics between the rabbis – which of them will be more extreme.”

The trigger for his dramatic move was the Internet campaign Heller led two years ago: He began to violate the rules of Shabbat. “It took me time to think about the children,” he says, “because I myself was caught up in the whirlpool for years. But when I began violating the Sabbath, the penny dropped. You realize that it’s your life, that you’ve fallen badly, and you ask yourself whether you will take the children down the same path. Will they, too, marry at 18 and have a child every year? You know that you are running the lives of your wife and of your children. I saw them coming back from the heder, without any knowledge. They learn Gemara [Talmud] there the whole day, not Bible, not anything Jewish. The atmosphere fans hatred of others.

“My son would see a soldier and shout ‘Hardak!’ – a word that was my creation," he says without any obvious pride. "That upset me. I felt that my children were becoming part of the routine, even if I was more liberal. I realized that I had to find the way that was appropriate for me, and that I would then be able to educate my children honestly. It came to me that I was responsible for their lives and that I did not want to continue with this way of life, primarily for their sake, not for mine.”

‘Gateway to knowledge’

The battle over use of the Internet is “one of the greatest failures of Haredi society,” Heller says. “The Web is truly the element that has the power to topple the walls. It’s a gateway to knowledge, to expressing opinions, a place that can provide support to people who are alone. Everyone who remains in the kollel [yeshiva for married men] is a Haredi; everyone who has Internet will shake off Haredism.”

According to him, “The rabbis themselves don’t really understand what the Internet is, but they are very afraid of it. The world of the functionaries who are busy trying to uproot the Internet is as tiny as that of an ant. They keep harping on lascivious stories and feed the rabbis with fear of images of women. What interests Haredim of all stripes – Lithuanians, Hasidim, Sephardim – is their own ego: Will something harm them politicially or benefit them? I would listen to the discussions and think to myself: There is a very serious Haredi public that believes you and accepts what you say. Just don’t speak in the name of God and religion.”

It is a “distortion” to educate a boy against looking at women, says Heller. “[It’s as if] you’re buying him inappropriate eyeglasses. It’s sick. And it also won’t work, because you might be blocking his vision but he will see women in his imagination. And certainly, when the Internet arrived, this public lost its reverence: There is a serious core public that pursues a spiritual life, but it’s diminishing by the day. I am aware of a very large public that has two phones, one kosher [in which Web access is disabled], the other non-kosher. These people don’t believe the rabbis. They don’t pray, they don’t put on tefillin – unless someone is watching. There is no God there.”

Then why don’t they leave Haredi society?

“It’s a matter of convenience. Haredi society is founded on dependence. When a person gets married, he needs charity, food distribution, synagogues. He needs a society. It’s a dependent system that manages to hold everyone by the throat, to the point where even someone who is asking questions finds it easier to suppress them. You stay by force of inertia. People don’t have the strength to leave. Their children will be thrown out of school – and who has the energy to look for a new one?

“I left because I was no longer capable of lying to myself and of continuing to live in a milieu that has no future. I envisioned my children entering the system, becoming part of the fanaticism, having to raise a large family without any way to make a living. If you get a job you’re considered second-class. I couldn’t tolerate the acceptance of the saying, ‘It’s all from heaven.’ The lives of Haredi men are over at the age of 36. To marry off their children they start scrounging for money and sink into endless debt. And then there’s the next one to marry off – it never ends.”

Incident of the dog

When Heller felt that the disparity between his inner and external lives was threatening to overwhelm him, he decided to share his anguish with Rachel. It was a gamble. He didn’t know his wife well enough to be able to predict how she would react to being told about his secret life and his dreams. Would she take the children and leave? Or would she sympathize and join him?

They’d been married 11 years at the time and had three children, the oldest a girl of 10, the youngest a boy of 3. He and his wife grew up in a similar cultural and familial milieu, both of them from large, extremist Jerusalem families. Yisrael, as mentioned, is the second of 13 children; Rachel is the eighth of 16. But, what did he know about her? Not much. They became engaged after a meeting of half an hour when she was 17 and he almost 18. Within a year they were parents.

“Mentally, many Haredi couples live separate lives,” Heller notes. “The man lives a full life, apart from his wife.” That was their pattern, too: He was preoccupied with business and other matters, she worked and looked after the home. They only engaged in small talk. But nevertheless, Rachel had a gut feeling that something was happening to her husband, even if she couldn’t pinpoint it.

“Immediately after the wedding, I understood that he wasn’t totally ‘involved,’” Cheli says now. “He got up in the morning and didn’t pray. He wasn’t serious about anything. It hurt me that he was going to end up in hell, and I didn’t tell a soul. He was cut off from the family. During the day he disappeared, I didn’t know where he was. There was no communication between us.”

Yisrael: “I was alone with all the doubts. I didn’t share with her. She had her reward-punishment, heaven-hell Judaism. It was all built on fear. I saw that she had not the slightest doubt.”

His confession, about a year ago, was a turning point. “For the first time in our marriage we spoke honestly, and for hours,” Heller relates. “I didn’t want to ruin her. I felt that it would be on my shoulders if I told her that there is no God, and she ended up following me only because she respected me. I told her she didn’t have to think as I did, but I asked that she try to accept me nevertheless.”

“I cried all night,” Cheli recalls. “I wanted to understand how it had happened to him. I didn’t know what I felt.”

The next day they went to a café to talk. A first date in 13 years. “I didn’t know my wife until then. The conversations brought us closer,” Heller says, adding, “I was in conflict with myself. I didn’t want her to go through the wild experience I’d had. But it turned out that she is very sharp. Not conflicted. The moment she understands, she draws conclusions much faster than I do.”

Cheli did not run to her parents. She read one book and then another, investigating the life in which she’d been raised. Questions of choice, love, partnership and freedom of expression came up for discussion at the kitchen table. “I wanted to know,” she explains, “to understand his world. I didn’t want him to leave me. I loved him.”

After a few weeks, she decided to take the plunge and follow him. “We discovered our love,” Heller says, his face radiant. “In this process we found one another anew and fell in love. I even proposed again.”

Despite the feeling of liberation, they decided not to act hastily. The children would remain in their institutions of learning, at least for the rest of the school year. But in the end they were forced to leave before then.

“I didn’t want to play a double game with the children,” Heller says now. “We started to speak to them clearly. Not hiding what we really are. The result was that the children started to speak freely in school. My daughter told a girlfriend that she wanted a dog. Parents complained. I understand them, they are afraid.”

He was summoned urgently to his daughter’s school. He was told that he would be better off placing his daughter with another family, “so she can live there temporarily.” Children began to hit his son in the schoolyard. Heller knew he had to remove them from their schools before they were hurt.

‘Into an abyss’

At present, Yisrael and Rachel Heller feel like refugees on a desert island. But they are not alone. A thin but steady trickle of families has been leaving the Haredi world lately, including some from the most closed circles. For example, it’s hard to exaggerate the intensity of the aftershock when it became known that the director of the educational institutions of a large and well-known Hasidic sect in Jerusalem had left the community with his eight children, within the last year. Or when two sons from a respected family of the extreme Toldot Aharon sect left with their families to pursue a secular way of life. “Suddenly two families we knew disappeared, as though they’d fallen into an abyss,” a Hasid from the community says. “In a small community like ours, that’s a big gap.” Now, he says, “no one talks about them. It’s taboo.”

According to the veteran researcher of Haredi society Prof. Menachem Friedman, “Waves of people leaving Haredi society are intensifying today, because the boundaries have become loose.” He adds, “The financial difficulties with which Haredim are now coping, against the background of the vast size of their society, and the massive exposure to the Internet, have created a situation in which access cannot be blocked even for the most extreme among them.” These social processes “are allowing entire families and not just individuals to leave Haredi society.”

However difficult it may be to venture into the great wide world without the various economic crutches typically available to Haredim, adds Friedman, “outside, there’s a better prospect of making a living.” Whereas in the past, the window of opportunity for leaving was narrower, and the chances of a Haredi man with children being able to get along outside was negligible – these days, with multiple opportunities available for such men to acquire an education and a profession, the tables have turned.

“When young people of 18 or 19 leave, it’s a tragedy – they are alone, they lack the core subjects of education and they have no profession,” Friedman says. “They sink into depression. In contrast, the ability of older entrepreneurs to establish themselves economically helps them disconnect more easily.”

Men seem to be dominant in the current wave of persons leaving Haredi society. “The men have leisure to think, while Haredi women give birth every year and support the family. That is their tragedy,” Friedman avers. Consequently, “the real hurdle is the wife. If she can be persuaded to live in a new reality, the road is already paved.” In many cases, he notes, she has little choice: “She has no hope of help from her parents and is lost economically. What is she going to tell them – that she getting a divorce and they are going to have to take responsibility for her and the children? They’re not capable of that. And what will happen to her? Who will want to marry her?”

Reliable statistics about the extent to which people are leaving the Haredi world are hard to come by. Not everyone is affiliated with one of the organizations that assist such individuals. According to one such NGO, Out for Change, drawing on 2012 data of the Central Bureau of Statistics, some 1,300 persons up to the age of 25 leave the community each year, and the figures decline as age rises.

Moreover, the difficulty in finding data is also due in part to the way people are leaving today: In contrast to the past, not everyone who leaves the Haredi world today classifies himself or herself as secular per se. Instead of sharply severing ties and rejecting ultra-Orthodox culture, the transition may be less drastic or dramatic now. As with the Heller family, many of those who leave make do, at least in the first stage, with simply departing physically, freeing themselves from the constraints of their former, closed communities and situating themselves between the two worlds.

A hotline for the lost

The wave of people leaving Haredi society has brought about the emergence of a new organization that offers support to those who do not identify with secularism even if they are total nonbelievers. Not surprisingly, it was Heller who came up with the catchy name: Uvacharta (literally, “and you have chosen”). The group, which is also meant to provide help not just to individuals but to families, was founded by Meir Naor, a tireless man of 36 and a former member of the Belz Hasidic sect. Even though he is no longer the director, he remains a magnet for those in need of professional and emotional support.

The NGO receives hundreds of calls a month and is currently assisting about 50 families who are in various stages of leaving the ultra-Orthodox world. “I don’t see a specific barrier, which, when you are one side, you are still part of the community, but as soon as you cross that line, you are not,” Naor says. When he left, more than a decade ago, things were different. Back then, he recalls, “if you made a particular change, in your thinking, your appearance, you dropped out, and then you’d decide that you are an atheist. It’s no wonder, because you get an education that hammers black-and-white perceptions into your head.”

Uvacharta took root in 2014, when suicides by former Haredim who lost their faith, among them a good friend of Naor’s, spurred him to become involved in thinking of ways to assist the leavers: “We launched a Facebook group called ‘leaving and entering the heart.’ Within a week we had 700 friends. We recruited volunteers and provided urgently needed accommodations, emotional support and employment. When the situation calmed down, I tried to get a handle on the reasons for the distress. One thing that stood out was that an overwhelming majority – 85 percent, according to a study by Out for Change (a group that works for the rights of people leaving ultra-Orthodoxy) – are people who are on a continuum of movement of identity change and do not define themselves as secular.”

When people suffer an acute crisis, Naor says, it is caused by “the undermining of the sense of identity and belonging. We are a group of people who ask every morning what we believe in and what we do not believe in. We do not live between the worlds but try out both.”

Naor can’t predict whether those leaving the Haredi world will continue to move about within the Orthodox community or will drop out entirely. Nor can he say whether they will one day constitute a critical mass in an election, for example. He paints an optimistic picture that not everyone will accept, when he says that the creation of Uvacharta has profoundly changed ultra-Orthodox society.

“In the past the Haredi society was dichotomous. Every small change of dress, for example, was labeled a deviation. That has changed. Many styles of Haredism that did not exist before are now considered legitimate,” he says. “No one is inspecting their tzitziot [prayer-shawl fringes].” That remains to be seen.

Learning with the kids

It’s early afternoon. Bluma “Blimi” Heller, a bespectacled, smiling girl of 12, takes her arithmetic workbook out of her schoolbag and proudly shows her father the problems she has solved. She and her 11-year-old brother Moish, aren’t yet registered in school. The reason: Not one state-religious school in Ramat Beit Shemesh would have them, because they don’t know the language (Hebrew) and because of the huge educational disparities between them and veteran pupils.

Pini, age 6, though, is in kindergarten, even if he should really be in the first grade. Unlike for Yisrael, who speaks Hebrew well thanks to many “stolen hours” of reading and because he has interacted with the outside world – for his children, who grew up protected in a Yiddish-speaking environment, the transition is not an easy one. They have to acquire Hebrew as if they were new immigrants, and to learn basic skills in arithmetic and English, as well as general knowledge and learning skills.

Under Israel’s compulsory education law, the local government is responsible for the education of children in its jurisdiction and is supposed to provide assistance where required. But for some reason, these children are invisible as far as the municipality is concerned. Last July, Heller had to beg the director of the Beit Shemesh primary schools department, Uri Ben Hamo, before the latter referred him to a few local state-religious schools; there, the principals shooed him away.

Heller: “One school agreed to place them in a class two years below where they should be. We refused. They are smart children and there is no reason they can’t integrate with their peers if they receive learning support.” (The Beit Shemesh Municipality did not respond to a query from Haaretz.)

Since September, the parents have been home-schooling the two older children and paying for private tutors in arithmetic and English, as well as for textbooks. Heller supervises the studies and teaches the children Hebrew. They are making good progress, their mother says: In three months, Blimi has reached third-grade level in math and English. She started from zero. In the closed Haredi communities – in contrast to the Beit Yaakov network associated with the independent education system – girls are taught core subjects only in the most rudimentary fashion. Blimi’s major difficulty is Hebrew, “because I am used to Yiddish with lots of aleph and ayin,” she says, laughing, referring to two letters of the alphabet. In conversation she gets stuck frequently and asks her mother for words.

In the meantime, the parents are filling in their own gaps with help from the children’s textbooks. Heller looks disappointed when he asks Blimi if she’s already studied fractions, and she says she’s still on double-digit multiplication. Like most Haredi men, he never studied mathematics systematically – now he’s taking advantage of the opportunity to learn. Cheli, for her part, is learning English and improving her Hebrew. One day she hopes to study at the academic level herself.

The children are sociable and open, and long for friends. Moish was happy to leave the heder, where he was hit regularly with a rod. “If I was late, the rebbe would hit me, so I was afraid to come late,” he says. After being thrashed, he relates, he would be upset: “It doesn’t help you to learn at all. A boy who is beaten sits with his head on the table between his hands. He doesn’t want to talk to anyone.”

Blimi has quickly adopted the bad habit of Israeli children of offering one-syllable answers to parents’ prying questions. How was her bat mitzvah? “Fun,” she replies.

There was no chance that girlfriends from her old school would come to the celebration, held at home; Blimi understood that she was an outcast and didn’t even invite them.

Initially, after they left, she did call her friends, but she constantly had the feeling that they were evading her. “Either I was told that they weren’t home, or if they did answer they hung up quickly, saying they had to help their mother,” Blimi says. Their behavior hurt, but Moish suffered more, she says. He was attacked by friends from school when he showed up in the neighborhood dressed differently from the others. Children called him a “goy” and made fun of him.

Among the girls whom the parents did invited to her bat-mitzvah party were a few Yiddish-speakers from families who had made a similar transition. One is two years younger than Blimi. Three years ago, this girl’s parents and her four siblings moved from a Yiddish-speaking community in Jerusalem to the center of the country. The girl’s father relates proudly that his 6-year-old son has already read all the Harry Potter books. “He did not remove the black kippa,” his father adds. “He’s an idealist [who says], ‘No one is going to tell me what I will wear on my head.’ He has something of me in him. I’m proud of my children. They are pure joy.”

Not only cholent

The Hellers are preoccupied with the concept of being free to make decisions in every aspect of their lives. “We are trying to impart the idea of freedom to the children,” Yisrael says. “They are starting to think, to feel, to go with the flow. But it’s amazing to watch it from the side. They can tell us, ‘We don’t want to do this or that.’ I’m all for it. But Haredim call it ‘impudence.’ I also get their cooperation in their schooling. It’s not pleasant for them to stay in the house and learn all day, but I keep telling them, ‘If you don’t learn, you won’t know.’”

Discussions about Judaism and faith are also part of the domestic dialogue. “It’s something new for the children to be able to talk about it openly,” says their father, who says it’s important for him to broaden their choices even when it comes to food: “Haredim eat cholent on Shabbat morning. We don’t do that. Everything is open. I ask them what they like to eat, to make suggestions.”

Cheli, who in old photos in the family album seems to lack joie de vivre, is gradually coming into her own. She will soon start a job in Tel Aviv. She is growing her hair out; like all married women in zealous Haredi circles, her head had been shaved beneath the wig. Now, “I have given my hair a great deal of air, so it will grow beautiful and healthy,” she says, pushing hair back from her forehead. It is indeed lovely and glossy.

One day the family even went to the beach in Tel Aviv. Cheli had never been in the sea, nor had the children. She took a few steps in the sand and scattered her hair to the wind.
I'm glad they were all able to leave behind an unhelpful world and start a new life where they really can practice Judaism in a way that it was meant to be, without any ridiculous notions that they must be isolationists rejecting modern inventions and society. It's quite an interesting account of a man who'd grown up in an extreme environment, but was able to see the light and make his way to it.

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  • I'm Avi Green
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