For ultra-Orthodox Women in Israel, Losing Their Religion Can Mean Losing Their Children

After the suicide of one lapsed Haredi woman, another formerly ultra-Orthodox mother tells of being cut off from her six children and attempting to kill herself.

Rivka (not her real name). She says the separation from her children after her divorce is a physical pain. The photograph shows only her head and shoulders, from the back.
Moti Milrod

Rivka says she gave up a lot more than she bargained for when she swapped her heavily cloistered ultra-Orthodox lifestyle for a non-believing life in an Israeli coastal metropolis a few years ago.

She’s but one of thousands of an ever-growing wave of fervently religious Israelis breaking free of confining rabbinical dictates of the Hasidic world, or taking steps toward a more modern lifestyle.

But unlike other lapsed Haredim, the mother of six in her 30s says she can hardly savor the freedom. Her enormous choice to leave has also torn her away from her children — a plight that highlights the difficulties faced by those who wish to leave the fold.

Rivka’s story is similar to the circumstances that led up to the suicide last month of Esti Weinstein, who left behind a memoir and letter suggesting her tragic choice was due to a painful estrangement from seven of her eight children.

Rivka is a pseudonym for the woman interviewed for this story. Her real name and other details that could identify her are kept secret by an Israeli law barring publication of cases being judged by family courts.

In an interview with Haaretz, Rivka said she tried to take her own life a few years ago, because of abuse on the part of her ex-husband, who would abandon the family home for days without leaving money to buy food and putting the children on the verge of starvation.

Later she left the ultra-Orthodox sect to which the family belonged, and they divorced. Her husband had initially agreed to leave the group as well but changed his mind. They had both grown up secular and discovered religion together as teens.

“The Haredi world is very difficult to live in. I had a lot of frustration, I went through that charade for the kids’ sake. But at a certain stage I could no longer live that duality,” Rivka said of her decision to leave the lifestyle behind.

Rivka said she never imagined the divorce would also tear her away from her four sons and two daughters.

According to Rivka and her lawyer, her ex-husband won a rabbinical court order barring her from any contact with their children except for weekly visitation at a community center in the town where he lives. She finds the public nature of these meetings awkward for maintaining the kind of intimate ties a mother and her children ought to have.

Once a session at the center was interrupted when someone there thought her dress too immodest, her lawyer, Yisrael Weisblatt, said.

Rivka says she was also kept away from a son’s recent bar mitzvah and two teenage daughters refuse to see her at all.

"Rivka."
Moti Milrod

“They are angrier [than my sons], I violated all that I had taught them, and they now have to take my place. How can they understand, they’re just children?” Rivka said.

Based on her and her attorney’s accounts, Rivka faces an uphill battle to try and amend the ruling and extend visitation rights with her children.

The rabbinical court has primary jurisdiction, as Rivka waived the right to keep the case solely in family court as part of the divorce, in hopes of avoiding just this situation, she said.

The separation from her children “is so painful, you literally feel the pain in every part of your body,” Rivka said. “The children you gave birth to, you can’t even counsel them anymore. It’s not something you can ever get used to.”

An extreme case

Experts on the ultra-Orthodox community see Rivka’s case as an extreme example of the difficulties faced by Israelis leaving the Haredi fold.

Most who abandon the fervently religious lifestyle are younger and either single or not yet parents at the time, said Menachem Friedman, a professor emeritus at Bar-Ilan University who studies the ultra-Orthodox.

But pressure from rabbis and the community against leaving, educational gaps and the indifference many meet in the secular world still make it tough for anyone to successfully move away from ultra-Orthodoxy, Friedman said.

“Generally rabbis will establish difficulties and try to prevent the person from leaving even at the price of injustice,” he said, adding however that often the rabbis’ influence is mitigated in cases where immediate family are more accepting of the lapsed member.

Despite the difficulties of the lifestyle swap, statistics show an overall rise in cases of younger ultra-Orthodox Jews leaving, or seeking to do so, in recent years, Friedman and other experts said.

Friedman said the impetus is often not only the existential questions about faith that seep through the somewhat porous boundaries between secular and Haredi life in Israel.

The poverty of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up a disproportionately high number of Israel’s poor, is also a critical factor driving increasing numbers of adherents to seek to leave.

A 2010 government report found 56 percent of Haredim live beneath the poverty line, and that while comprising just 10 percent of Israel’s population, the ultra-Orthodox made up a fifth of the nation’s poor.

Many lapsed Haredim are nearly doomed to failure in the secular world, which they often approach with very little of the modern education — math and language skills — needed to integrate socially and make a living, Friedman said.

Underscoring this obstacle is a current case in Israel’s Supreme Court. A group of 52 lapsed Haredi men filed suit in October for 4 million shekels ($1.1 million) in damages, accusing the government of enabling ultra-Orthodox schools to avoid teaching a core curriculum, permitting them to focus mainly on religious texts.

The state rejects these claims, saying the plaintiffs’ parents bear responsibility for their choice of schools.

The court has yet to render a decision.

Gilad Malach, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, sees a higher incidence of psychological stress and suicide among formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews in comparison to the rest of Israel’s population.

‘Like stepping into chaos’

Malach, who studies the ultra-Orthodox, said both men and women leaving the lifestyle were under a great deal of mental pressure for being often shunned for their choice. But many also feel isolated and miss the strictly scheduled days of prayer and religious study they once had, he said.

“Leaving Orthodoxy is like stepping into chaos. You have to rebuild your entire social system. The way the Haredi world speaks is entirely different than the secular world. You’re starting your life anew. That’s the toughest thing,” Malach told Haaretz.

Malach said the numbers of those openly leaving ultra-Orthodoxy are small, but on the rise. “The phenomenon is not insignificant,” he said.

While the vast majority of ultra-Orthodox continue to adhere closely to their lifestyle, more and more are opting for high-tech jobs, or other vocational training, which exposes many more than in the past to secular compatriots.

Malach said a third or so of the fervently religious now have access to the internet, enhancing their exposure to the outside world.

Citing the latest figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics, he said 8 percent of Israelis raised in ultra-Orthodox households have transitioned to the less strictly observant category by their 20s and 30’s.

From 3 percent to 3.5 percent have opted out of religious practice altogether in the past few years, he said.

In many instances, Israeli Haredim, lapsed or otherwise, succeed in bridging cultural and lifestyle chasms between the two worlds.

Heidi Moses, a Knesset lobbyist and daughter of ultra-Orthodox Knesset member Menachem Eliezer Moses (United Torah Judaism), has maintained a relationship with her parents despite parting ways with fervent religious faith since coming out as lesbian a few years ago.

Moses’s transition involved leaving a marriage she was forced into at 17.

She said her biggest obstacle in leaving ultra-Orthodoxy was loneliness.

“It’s very, very difficult. You are shunned emotionally, and suddenly, you don’t exist. That’s what it’s like when you leave the Haredi world,” Moses said.

Moses tries to help compatriots like Rivka to overcome painful adjustments to leaving the ultra-Orthodox world.

Despite the odds, Rivka hopes to someday reconnect properly with her offspring, even if it takes a long time.

“When they grow up they are going to understand. It’s hard for a parent to wait that long,” she said. “But even if it takes 20 years for them to realize they need their mother, I’ll be there for them.”