Israel's Formerly Religious Students Hope to Find Support in New Campus Clubs

Those who have left the fold go through a process comparable to that of new immigrants, including separation from their families. The first club of its kind, at Ben-Gurion University, aims to help them adjust

Ofir Lugasi, left, and Ori Hendler, founders of a new club for formerly religious students at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Ofir Lugasi’s first experience as a student at Ben-Gurion University was loneliness and alienation.

Though born in a secular family, after her parents divorced and her father remarried, she was raised in the Zionist ultra-Orthodox settlement of Adei Ad. And after graduating high school, she originally followed the standard religious path: civilian national service, religious studies, marriage at a young age. But after a trip abroad, she got divorced and abandoned religion.

During her first year in college, she had no friends. Norms carried over from her old life prevented it, she said. For instance, it was considered “normal” in her former society “to talk about oneself and praise oneself.” But at university, “it’s totally unacceptable to say ‘I’m good, I got 100.’”

Meanwhile, her change in lifestyle complicated her relationship with her family and her old friends. So she remained almost completely alone.

Last year, her second year of college, 23-year-old Lugasi actively sought a social group where she would feel comfortable, but to no avail. However, she did find another student like herself, Ori Hendler. And together, they set up a group for formerly religious people, who often feel torn between two worlds.

When the academic year begins after the holidays, they plan to open an official student club for formerly religious students at Ben-Gurion University – the first such club on any campus. The club at the Be’er Sheva university will help students adjust to the secular world and academic life.

Hendler, who studied physics, was born into a religious family that moved from the United States to Jerusalem. He said the process of leaving religion was “a mess.”

“I found myself neither here nor there socially,” he said. “I automatically hooked up with the religious people. That shows how unable I was to integrate into the secular world at first. I tried to break out, to grow, to become empowered, and I failed.”

Lugasi said her family and community were highly critical of her divorce. “Slowly, I became very passive,” she said. “I felt like my situation was kind of miserable.”

But in the group she and Hendler formed, there were two other divorcees “who went through the same process that I did, and that gave me confidence. In the religious community, people told me I lacked values because I divorced young and didn’t fight for my marriage, while secular people couldn’t understand why this was a tragedy. To find someone who understood me, who had empathy – it healed me, without having to go through years of treatment.”

Last year, the group focused mainly on social issues – trying to deal with the feelings of being torn, difficulties with their families, being cut off from the communities to which they once belonged (and sometimes also from their families). It met once every two weeks, for Sabbath meals, holidays or just plain fun.

On the holiday of Shavuot, when religious Jews traditionally study Torah all night, they organized an all-night session of movies and pizza. “This was a way of relating to our shared past, instead of just sitting at home,” Lugasi said.

But Hendler and Lugasi said the social aspect is just one of many problems faced by students who abandon religion and then go to college. Consequently, the new club also wants to help with economic, financial and psychological issues.

High drop-out rate

Many such students have serious problems with their academic studies, resulting in a higher than average dropout rate. According to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, 48 percent of ultra-Orthodox men and 29 percent of ultra-Orthodox women drop out of college before getting a bachelor’s degree, compared to 25 and 18 percent, respectively, among the general population.

Formerly religious students also often have financial problems. Many get no support from their parents, and few scholarships are available for students in their special situation.

Tamar, who asked that her last name not be published, is from an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem. Now 35, she abandoned religion about a decade ago, and at age 28, with no support from her family, she decided to study education at Tel-Hai College. To do so, she first had to earn her matriculation certificate.

“The whole academic language is completely different from the language of my home, from the place where I was raised and educated,” she said. “Hebrew literature, civics – these are things I didn’t grow up on.”

Unlike her secular friends, she couldn’t pay for her studies with her demobilization grant from the army or get a scholarship as a former soldier. So she took out a 19,000-shekel ($5,400) loan to enable her to study for her matriculation exams, then got a scholarship for needy students. “The Education Ministry told me there used to be scholarships for formerly religious people, but they no longer give them,” she said.

She put food on the table with odd jobs – tutoring, modeling at an art school and cleaning bed-and-breakfasts. “It’s a kind of race,” she said. “On one hand, I really want to succeed at my studies, but on the other, I have to support myself ... And on top of all that is the desire not to be isolated, to make friends. The first year was very difficult.

“In many respects, what we go through is similar to what new immigrants go through,” she added.

Today, Tamar lives in Be’er Sheva and is studying for her master’s in film at Sapir College. But during her first year in Be’er Sheva, she once again found herself socially isolated.

A friend suggested that she join the new group for formerly religious people. After the first event, a Sabbath eve meal, “I told Ofir when I left, ‘Listen, I don’t know what it was there, but I left the meeting really happy.’ Something in the laughter, the in-jokes, the fact that there was something in common, that we were all in the same boat – it was wonderful. From the first minute, I felt comfortable.”

The club that will open this year has already been officially recognized by the university and the student union. Now, its members are planning to expand its activities. It will host lectures on the process of leaving religion and provide training in financial issues. It will also provide information on scholarships, and will be able to recommend its members as candidates for a dean’s scholarship.

Hendler said the club is negotiating with local employers about giving preference to its members in job applications. It also plans to locate professionals to whom it can refer students with mental health issues.

In forming the club, Lugasi and Hendler were helped by the Out for Change (Yotzim Leshinuy) organization, which promotes recognition of the special problems faced by formerly religious people, especially the ultra-Orthodox.

Yossi Klar, the organization’s co-CEO, said the new club was no more surprising than a club for new immigrants. “They have gone through a kind of migration process – separation from their families, from everything they knew,” he said. “Culture, language, content and education will be very different from what they knew before.”

He said the club was the students’ own initiative, but his group now plans to look into establishing similar clubs at other colleges.