Until about a decade ago, someone like Yaakov would have been considered a disgrace to his family. He would have been ostracized, and any contact with him would have been kept hidden. His family might even have sat shivah for him.
A member of the “Lithuanian” community, as Israel’s non-Hasidic, Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community is known, Yaakov attended the right schools and studied at prestigious yeshivas until his mid-20s. But then he decided to leave Orthodoxy and tell his parents immediately.
“When I told them, there were no threats or arguments,” said Yaakov, who is now 30. “For many years I continued to live at home. Obviously my parents asked that I respect them, so I don’t desecrate Shabbat when I’m with them.”
Not only did his family accept him, but so did the surrounding society. “My little sisters married boys from good, standard ultra-Orthodox families,” he said. “This didn’t hurt them.”
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Yaakov represents a growing trend in ultra-Orthodox society in recent years. Not only has the number of both men and women abandoning Orthodoxy grown, but their families have started accepting them and staying in contact with them. This is true even in sects considered extremist.
Benny, 25, comes from a Ger Hasidic family. He abandoned Orthodoxy five years ago but didn’t lose contact with his loved ones. Nor is this unusual in his community, he said.
“There’s this stigma that those who leave are severed from their families, but a decisive majority among those I know remain in good contact with their families,” he said. “A small proportion have partial contact, and only a small minority are cut off.”
Benny knows he’s lucky. It’s enough for him to see his cousin, who underwent the same process in the late 2000s and was completely severed from his family, to understand the magnitude of the change in ultra-Orthodox society. “Today things are different,” he said.
The change goes well beyond attitudes toward people who abandon Orthodoxy. There is also greater openness on other issues, from getting a secular education to women’s issues to enlisting in the army.
“In the past, ultra-Orthodox society was in the process of building and protecting itself, so each little thing was significant,” said Chaim Walder, a prominent ultra-Orthodox educator who heads the Child and Family Center.
“Even a child with Down syndrome could cause problems in arranging marriages. Today attitudes have changed. People are less afraid that such things will hurt them. The work done by many educators, along with public diplomacy within the community, created a situation in which today an ultra-Orthodox person is ashamed to be estranged from his child.”
'Always leave the door open'
Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, who became the leader of the Lithuanian community after the death of Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, recently provided strong evidence for Walder’s claim when he said publicly that a child who doesn’t observe the religious commandments must be accepted with love.
“You must treat a child who went astray respectfully and affectionately,” he told activists who asked him about the issue. They must also show understanding if a boy brings a girl home, he said, and if the boy requests it, they should buy him “secular clothes.”
“Even if he desecrates Shabbat at home, there’s no other way but through respect and affection,” Edelstein added. “You have to explain to parents who find it hard to accept the child that this is the only way.”
His remarks sparked a lively discussion in ultra-Orthodox society. “I showed my mother a video of the rabbi,” Yaakov said. “It freed her of her discomfort.”
A book by Rabbi Elimelech Lamdan shows how different things used to be. Three of his 10 children left Orthodoxy, the first more than 20 years ago. When he and his wife asked their rabbi what to do, the rabbi told them, “Always leave the door open. Each child is a world unto himself and you have to accept him as he is.” They followed that advice.
But in those days, that approach was unusual, and the family’s neighbors in Netivot near Gaza were disapproving.
“My friends would cross the street to avoid meeting me,” his wife recalled. And when marriages were discussed, “they said we weren’t a normal family.”
Yet the Lamdans don’t regret behaving as they did, and over the years they began to help other parents whose children had left Orthodoxy. “If the parents include each other, that opens hearts,” Lamdan said. “They’ll understand that this isn’t their failure and they aren’t to blame for the situation.”
The Lamdans’ story wouldn’t surprise Walder. “Good families never abandoned their children,” he said, noting that the same is true for secular parents whose child becomes Orthodox. “Every parent wants his child to follow in his footsteps. But good families that love their child will accept him unconditionally.
“The rabbis always favored inclusion and staying in contact; Rabbi Shach and Rabbi Eliyahiv also favored this,” he added, referring to two former leaders of the Lithuanian community, Eliezer Shach and Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. “The rabbis understood that unconditional concern for one’s children strengthens the ultra-Orthodox community rather than weakening it.”
Still, it’s impossible to ignore that in the past, people who left Orthodoxy were often treated badly.
One person familiar with the issue said it used to be very shameful precisely because it was so rare. “Today there’s virtually no home without someone who left Orthodoxy, so it’s no longer traumatic,” he said.
Opting for dreadlocks
Hillel, the oldest and largest organization helping people who abandon Orthodoxy, said that last year it received 304 requests for help, almost triple the 113 it received in 2010. In total, it has so far helped about 1,550 people.
The large number of people contacting Hillel shows that many need help their families don’t provide. Yair Hess, the organization’s director, said that every year Hillel helps “hundreds of young men and women living in terrible isolation” completely cut off from their families.
Yet for every person Hillel helps, there are another four it doesn’t reach, and they probably are in contact with their families, Hess said. One possible indication of how things have changed is that over the last two years the number of lone soldiers – soldiers who have no contact with their families – receiving help from Hillel has fallen 11.5 percent.
T., an ultra-Orthodox woman from a Lithuanian family, wasn’t one of the lucky ones. “I left Orthodoxy about eight years ago when I was 20,” she said. “At 18, I didn’t want to continue at the seminary, I wanted to fulfill myself someplace else. I also didn’t want them to arrange a marriage for me and become a mother at such an age.”
Her parents were furious. There were bitter quarrels and even violence, so she left home.
“My parents didn’t accept the change in my life and ostracized me,” she said. “My brothers and sisters naturally sided with my parents, so I was left alone. I got a job and started my life over from scratch. Today I no longer seek contact with my parents, because I know they won’t accept me as I am.”
She remains in contact only with one sister, and has friends in similar situations. “I sometimes wonder if my parents think about me and care about me,” she said. “I don’t see the change in ultra-Orthodox society.”
Rabbi Lamdan’s wife also knows of such cases, citing one young woman “who said her mother prays she’ll die so she won’t commit sins.”
Another person involved in the issue agreed. “In the more closed communities, there will be more families who sever contact,” he said.
Still, he stressed, the change has been significant.
Perhaps the best example of this is Dov, 25, who lives in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem. Whereas many people who leave Orthodoxy still wear a kippa at home so as not to look too different, Dov has blond dreadlocks.
“At first my mother tried to hide it and didn’t want the neighbors to know,” he said. “Today it’s still not pleasant for her to walk with me in the street or go with me to a public place, but things are completely different.”
He doesn’t feel that his family is ashamed of him. “They’re very understanding of me,” he said. “Of course there are difficulties and challenges, but they still include and understand me.”