Divorce Is Becoming a New Norm Among ultra-Orthodox in Israel

Divorce rates in the Haredi community are catching up to those of the secular Jewish population. Beyond the ‘usual’ reasons for untying the knot, many cite another: declining religious observance by their spouse

Sitting, right to left: Nahmi, Yehudit and Rachel; standing behind them: Anonymous, A., and Avi
Tomer Appelbaum

Nahmi Kribus got married when she was 18. Today, at 31, she has three daughters and is married for the third time. Her husband Avi, 32, for whom this is also his third marriage, got married for the first time when he was 20; he is the father of two. B., married when he was 19. Today he’s 23, has two children and is divorced. These three stories are unusual – certainly in the ultra-Orthodox community – but provide a glimpse of how the Haredi world has changed over the past 15 years regarding divorce.

It’s not that the shame of divorce has disappeared, or that there’s a lack of social pressure for couples not to break up. However, today divorce is not considered a curse from which there’s no turning back – it’s become common. “During the first divorce, my parents and siblings were against me,” says Nahmi. “I know lots of couples who are suffering and afraid [to divorce] because of the response of the parents and the family,” says Nahmi.

B. says he decided to get divorced despite his fear of his parents. “I said to myself, ‘You’re young and you still have your whole future ahead of you. Why go on? It doesn’t work out, cut it.’” B. also says social pressure keeps many people from splitting up.

Rachel’s story is a case in point. Rachel, who is 37 and has two children, says she was married for 14 years, but only really married for seven of them. “My parents simply did not agree for me to divorce. They would send me back home. They said: ‘We will not have a divorced daughter and you will not wander the streets.’ When I got divorced two years ago I didn’t even tell them at first. I was alone. To this day, at family events my parents say it’s better that the family not know. I have relatives who still don’t know,” Rachel says.

Yehudit, 34, is a divorced mother of three. She works for a law firm that specializes in divorce and says she deals with hundreds of couples going through the process. She adds that the rate is on the rise, mainly among couples in their 30s.

Left to right: Two divorced Haredi men, Yehudit, Rachel, Avi and Nahmi - are married for the third time.
Tomer Appelbaum

According to the Israel Democracy Institute, the ultra-Orthodox community’s divorce rate is catching up to that of the secular Jewish community. While the divorce rate in the general population has remained steady at 13 couples per 1,000 since 2002, it has spiked in the Haredi community. In the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Modi’in Ilit, for example, the rate of divorce in 2002 was one couple out of 1,000 between the ages of 15 and 49. But in 2012, the rate rose to 2.4 per 1,000 and in 2014 it doubled to 4.8 per 1,000. In the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, the 2014 divorce rate was 6.5 couples per 1,000.

In Beitar Ilit, another ultra-Orthodox settlement, the divorce figures for 2014 were 6.5 couples in 1,000, up from 3.4 per 1,000 in 2002 and 5 per 1,000 in 2012.

Loss of faith

Beyond the process of modernization that ultra-Orthodox society is undergoing and the “usual” reasons for untying the knot, many divorced Haredi men and women cite another one: declining religious observance by their spouse. A., who is 32 and a father of three, divorced a year ago. “She suddenly decided she didn’t want to celebrate holidays, she was suffocating in the marriage and she became more modern,” he says of his ex-wife. “Three of my friends got divorced for the same reason.”

Avi, the twice-divorced 32-year-old, says that he and his ex were like any other ultra-Orthodox couple. They married when he was 20 and she was 19; she was a teacher and he was a yeshiva student. But “as time went on, she had more and more questions about religion. I was a boy who didn’t know anything about life. I went along with everything and I didn’t have answers for her. At some point she became secular and there was no possibility of continuing the relationship,” he says.

Avi says he consulted his rabbi about the situation, expecting him to prohibit him from living with his wife if she desecrated the Sabbath and did not wear a head covering. “But he actually didn’t fall off his chair. He said the marriage shouldn’t end yet because of that and if there’s a chance she might come to her senses, it would be better not to divorce,” he says.

Rachel says she was the more observant one in the relationship; her then-husband brought a television into their home. He is now secular. “When he comes to Bnei Brak, he puts on a kippa,” she says. “Our daughters have learned to compromise,” she adds.

Many divorced couples say that the divorce itself leads to a decline in religious observance. Of the dozens of divorced couples Avi knows, he says, none are as religious as they used to be. “There’s a dizzying sense of freedom and boredom and that leads to a decline in religious observance,“ he says. Nahmi, Avi’s wife, belongs to a group of 30 divorced women and says not one of them is as observant as she was before splitting with her ex. After a divorce, couples dress differently, spend their leisure time differently and there is less separation between men and women. “After the divorce I started wearing colorful blouses. There’s no doubt it influenced me,” Nahmi says.

Not alone

“Courage” is a word that many of those who went through a divorce used to describe their response to social pressure to stay married. “I was able to take the step only after I met a divorced girl who worked with me and I discovered there’s a whole world after marriage and it’s all right, and I wouldn’t be alone,” Rachel says. B. says that after his divorce, “a close friend who was suffering in his marriage also worked up the courage to take the next step. He saw I was supported and he realized it wasn’t the end of the world.”

There are those who “permit themselves” to divorce, but that is the less the case for yeshiva students and their wives. “For a yeshiva student and his wife to divorce, there has to be something extreme, like infidelity, abuse, obsessiveness or intense parental interference in their lives. Among more modern Haredim you can find couples who divorced due to lack of compatibility, fulfillment and other lighter reasons,” says A., another divorced ultra-Orthodox man.

According to Avi, social media has a major impact, because “you understand that there are many people who divorce and it’s not terrible. If my parents had gotten married today, I believe they would have gotten divorced,” he says.

Some ultra-Orthodox couples interviewed for this article said they weren’t the only ones in their family to have gotten divorced. According to S., “I went out with a girl from a Hasidic family who was divorced. Her older sister was married for the second time and her younger sister had just gotten divorced.”

“My big brother got divorced, my sister divorced twice and I’ve been married three times,” Nahmi says. Rachel says her brother got divorced and Avi says his sister got divorced. “She didn’t get along with her husband and our parents were very supportive,” he says.

Many of those who divorced say they were very lonely after the break up and social pressure led them to remarry quickly just so they wouldn’t be seen as different. Avi married a woman from his Hasidic community a year after his divorce. “I did it because I was afraid to be alone. I wanted to prove I wasn’t some unfortunate guy who had gone back to living with his parents,” he says. Two and a half months later, he was divorced again. “I realized I was making the mistake of my life,” he says. Avi’s wife Nahmi said that after her first divorce she was preoccupied with what people would say. “I wanted to show everybody that I had moved on and married again. In retrospect I realize I made a big mistake. Now I wish that everyone could have the kind of relationship I have with my husband.”

Social media offers lively opportunities for divorced Haredi men and women looking for new mates. However, for those who want to find their new husband or wife in the traditional way, through a matchmaker, “If you’re a man who’s been divorced twice or divorced with three children, it’s like having a fatal illness. So they offer you strange matches,“ says A. ”I’ve been divorced once and have three children, so they offered me a woman with no children but divorced twice, so one compensates for the other.”

“The parents of people who get divorced are still from the previous generation, where it was less accepted to get divorced,” Avi says. “With the change we are undergoing, it’s clear that the influences will be felt more strongly in the years to come. In our children’s generation it will be completely different because we have gone through it and we’ll accept them no matter what, so they will hardly feel social pressure, probably no different than in the general community.”