Study: Formerly Observant Israelis at High Risk of Suicide

Respondents talk about losing their feeling of belonging, about loneliness, and about a lack of meaning in their lives.

Israelis who were once religiously observant are at a high risk of suicide and 40 percent have suicidal tendencies, the Bishvil Hahayim suicide-prevention group says.

The group conducted a study about a year ago and gave the results to Haaretz following two suicides over the past two weeks, one in Tel Aviv and one in neighboring Ramat Gan.

The two cases raised the number of suicides among formerly observant Jews to seven over the past 18 months. Three of the victims were in contact with the Hillel organization, which assists people who have left the ultra-Orthodox world.

Also, Hillel officials were summoned this month to treat a young man who left a Hasidic community and tried to kill himself by swallowing pills. He called for help and was saved.

The study queried 170 people who had left the religious lifestyle in which they were raised. The study included control groups of both secular and religious people. It was carried out by Dr. Yossi Levi-Belz of the Ruppin Academic Center and Bishvil Hahayim with Nofar Grembek and Idit Libensohn.

Levi-Belz said 30 questions probed how often the respondents thought about death, both in the past and the present. The questions had nothing to do with subjects’ attempts to harm themselves.

The researchers found that 40 percent of those no longer religiously observant expressed suicidal tendencies, compared with 12 percent of the secular respondents, 10 percent of those who described themselves as traditional, and six percent of religious people. The 40 percent increases to 45 percent among young people in the process of leaving the religious community.

Also, roughly 90 percent of those who left the community reported a low level of social support, in comparison with an average of 17 percent in the control group.

“This is a high-risk population that is falling through the cracks individually, socially and culturally,” said Levi-Belz. “They have usually left a society that is very supportive, with a strong feeling of belonging and a high degree of certainty regarding what to do in the morning and what to do in the evening — and they haven’t yet entered another society.”

He said many risk factors were present, just as in the immigrant community, which is also considered a high-risk group. Many people in the study talked about losing their feeling of belonging, about loneliness, and about a lack of meaning in their lives.

“These are very well-known risk factors among the general population as well, and certainly when it comes to traits that also have to do with social strata. Obviously, most people who leave an observant lifestyle don’t commit suicide, but the change in identity creates a significant crisis, and for people with a low adaptive ability there’s a real risk.”

Bishvil Hahayim officials call their study the first of its kind and say Israeli society needs to expand support and assistance for formerly observant Jews. Bishvil Hahayim’s hotline can be reached at 03-964-0222. The officials say recent suicides prompted Finance Minister Yair Lapid to allocate NIS 3 million to Hillel.

Olivier Fitoussi