Israeli Couples Face Crisis of Faith as Secular-religious Divide Becomes Personal

'Mixed' couples, where one of them either left religion or became newly pious, share the challenges they face at home and in the community: 'In Israel everyone tries to put you into a box, in the U.S. you’re a Jew and that’s it'

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A gathering organized by Hitkashroot NGO for secular-religious couples in Modi'in, Israel, December 11, 2019.
A gathering organized by Hitkashroot NGO for secular-religious couples in Modi'in, Israel, December 11, 2019. Credit: Meged Gozani

The hundreds of couples who gathered last Thursday could not have found a more symbolic place to meet: between the holy city of Jerusalem and the secular "state of Tel Aviv." They had arrived at the hall in Airport City, near Modi'in, to participate in the annual gathering of the Hitkashroot (literally, "attachment") NGO – and all were "mixed families," in which one spouse is religiously observant and the other is not.

The vast majority of couples there found themselves between two worlds after marriage, when both partners had either been secular or religious – to the same degree. At some point, one of them either left religion (in part or totally) or one became newly pious.

On hand were stylishly dressed secular people; young couples, some expecting a child; older couples with teenage children; ultra-Orthodox individuals wearing their extremely modest garb; religious Zionists; some women with wigs and others sporting more symbolic hair coverings.

Most of the participants knew each other from previous seminars, workshops and virtual support groups run by Hitkashroot. The organization is supported by the Religious Services Ministry's Jewish identity department and the Education Ministry's Jewish culture division, as part of its effort to promote the "strengthening of Jewish education."

“Me? I don’t identify myself with any sector,” scoffs one woman in a long skirt and head scarf. “I’m newly religious and that’s it.” Her friend nods, “In Israel everyone tries to put you into a box, in the United States it’s not that way. You’re a Jew and that’s it.”

“Mostly it’s the man who makes the change – that’s the way it is,” explains Dina, an ultra-Orthodox woman who says that her spouse began "questioning his faith" a few years ago, but has still kept the Haredi trappings and wears a black kippa.

“For the woman, if things are good for her at home, she doesn’t look for changes. For men it’s different,” says Dina, before rushing off to see friends: a Haredi woman and her husband, who's wearing the telltale knitted kippa of religious Zionists.

One couple – a man dressed in Haredi attire and his wife in tight-fitting pants, with her hair uncovered  – explains that about two years ago, the wife had "left religion," but they continue to live together harmoniously. They removed their children from the ultra-Orthodox school system, since “they wouldn’t have accepted mehere,” she says, and have enrolled them in state religious schools.

“I don’t think they are confused by the situation, they understand that their mother and father are different from one another, and everything’s okay," the wife continues. "When the children grow up they will choose their own path."

Her husband quickly agrees, saying he doesn’t care if their children will be religious or not when they grow up.

The audience is welcomed by a representative of the city of Modi’in, Ilan Ben-Sa’adon, who says, “At a time when in the Knesset it seems to be everyone against everyone, you are uniting the people of Israel.”

Arik and Amit in a gathering organized by Hitkashroot NGO for secular-religious couples in Modi'in, Israel, December 11, 2019. Credit: Meged Gozani

Arik and Amit Baron take the stage to tell their story together in rhyme (in Hebrew), recalling how they had been on the same secular wavelength until a few years back, when Amit began attending classes in kabbala, Jewish mysticism, and exploring Judaism more deeply. The idea of divorce was raised – but of course there’s a happy ending: Arik with his shaved and uncovered head, and Amit in a modest skirt and partial head covering explain that they overcame their difficulties and decided to keep living together.

The same message of tolerance is echoed by Ami and Avital Baram, the founders of Hitkashroot.

“Together it is possible. You can preserve the family, without changing anyone’s attitude toward their faith,” Avital tells the crowd.

The Barams often give interviews to the media and relate their personal story: Both were secular but Ami became increasingly pious shortly after they were married, over 20 years ago. Avital followed in his path – but only a decade later. Since 2007 they have run the nonprofit, whose goal is to help bridge the gap between couples in which the spouses relate differently to Jewish precepts and practices.

“The desperate attempts to force a lifestyle upon the other spouse doesn’t work,” says Avital. “It doesn’t help to impose a veto or threaten, it only deepens the differences. It’s impossible to stop someone’s spiritual journey, or to impose one on someone else. The spirit is independent."

However, she adds, couples must show flexibility and consideration for each other: “If I’m formerly religious, I don’t abandon the family at the Sabbath meal. If I’ve left religion, I don’t disappear from the synagogue for the entire Shabbat.”

On stage at the Hitkashroot event a sign bears the slogan “Secular, religious and Haredim – we are all Jews!” Speakers were stressing the necessity or achieving “domestic harmony” and preserving the unity of the Jewish people.

Psychologist Hila Rathaus, who says “I’m the wife of Tomer, who's really religious,” offers some general insight: “When the partner becomes religious the feeling is one of a heavy load: concepts, ideas, prohibitions. You feel you are drowning under the infinite 'Jewish bookshelf.'” But when one's spouse stops being religious, “the family picture around the Sabbath table is destabilized. There is a fear of ideas and concepts that come from the secular world.”

Hila Rathaus in a gathering organized by Hitkashroot NGO for secular-religious couples in Modi'in, Israel, December 11, 2019. Credit: Meged Gozani

Einav and Erez Levin take the stage and recall how long it took for Einav, the nonreligious partner, to explicitly call Erez’s newfound religious piety by its name. She preferred to see it as a spiritual search, and only after “another Shabbat and then another holiday in which your spouse changes in front of your eyes, did I manage to accept that he was becoming religious.” She admits that she thought the process would become extreme.

“When one's partner becomes a vegan, the problem is solved by eating vegetables. But when you become religious, it is impossible to know where it will end," Einat sums up. "You don’t know alongside what type of person you’ll wake up tomorrow morning.”