In a way, Bina Broit says, she left the Haredi world because of her hair.
The fifth of eight children, she grew up in Immanuel, an ultra-Orthodox settlement in the West Bank. For this interview in her small, carefully tended apartment in Ma’aleh Shomron – where she lives with her husband and two huge, friendly dogs – the 30-year-old wears a tight cropped top and yoga pants. Her long, thick black curls hang loose down her back.
“Growing up, I tried so hard to be a tzadeket – a righteous, modest, God-fearing Jewish girl. But because my hair was so hard to control, teachers called me mufra’at [badly behaved]. I was athletic and loved sports, but that isn’t modest either. I thought of myself as tma’a [impure], and I hated myself and my body.”
Today, Broit is a fitness and nutrition trainer, and bodybuilder. In the past two years she’s won Israel’s Miss Fitness and Miss Bikini competitions, and competes internationally.
“Learning to love my hair and body has been a way to learn to love myself,” she reflects. “But the path out of Haredi life is long and hard.”
Going off the path
According to the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, in 2017 the ultra-Orthodox community made up some 12 percent of Israel’s population (over 1 million, for the first time in the country’s history), and about 6 percent of Haredi adults had chosen to leave the community.
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Hillel Executive Director Yair Hass – whose nonprofit is the only one in Israel that provides comprehensive services for those leaving the community – tells Haaretz that between 2010 and 2019, the number of people who turned to Hillel had been growing annually by approximately 20 percent. By the end of 2020, he predicts, Hillel will have seen a 50 percent growth over the previous year, with some 700 to 800 individuals needing its services. Hillel does not receive any public funding, he notes.
About three-quarters of those who leave the community – known as “yotzim” or “yotzot” in Hebrew, while the Haredi community itself talks of leavers going “off the derech” (path) – are young adults between the ages of 18-25.
According to Hass, the proportion of women among them is growing: Less than a decade ago, women comprised 25 percent of the leavers Hillel assisted; today, they make up more than 35 percent.
He attributes this to the fact that women, who are often the sole breadwinners for their families as their husbands study full time, are increasingly exposed to the outside world and, especially, the internet.
Leaving the ultra-Orthodox world, Hass observes, is extremely difficult. Children are socialized into every aspect of their lives from infancy: how to dress; what and when to eat; how to interact with others, especially those of the opposite sex; how to conduct themselves in public; and what their roles are within the family and the world. They are forbidden from watching TV, using the internet or smartphones, visiting secular libraries, or otherwise exposing themselves to any form of secular culture.
In many Haredi sects, the children are taught Yiddish as their first language and speak Hebrew poorly, if at all. As a result, young adults leaving the ultra-Orthodox world are educationally, culturally and emotionally unprepared for the society outside their insular Haredi enclaves in cities like Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Modi’in Ilit, Ashdod and Beit Shemesh.
The Hillel Center, located in downtown West Jerusalem, acts as a drop-in center for leavers, offering social activities, training in social mores and behavior in the general community. The center even maintains a large supply of free clothing, bedding, etc. For many, it’s a sort of social home, a place to hang out with peers, provide and give social support, and learn how to navigate their way around the new world.
The situation is particularly difficult during holidays, Hass notes – even more so this year due to the restrictions caused by the coronavirus. “Frequently, the leavers’ families and communities have cut them off, and now, in a time of family togetherness and social distancing, some of them have nowhere to go,” he says. “Usually, we provide a holiday meal and togetherness, but we won’t be able to do so this year.”
The transition is particularly difficult for young women. If the woman is married with children, the community will make every effort to ensure she will never see them again. Single women, meanwhile, must completely redefine their lives and build a future they cannot even imagine.
‘Courage and perseverance’
“I had always known that the purpose of my life was to marry a man who would study all his life,” Broit tells Haaretz. “I would raise children, have grandchildren and die happy. But when I left the Haredi world, I had no purpose in life anymore. I was 20 years old and asked myself: What am I alive for?”
Broit admits that were it not for the loving, supportive relationship with her husband and the help of Hillel, she probably would have killed herself. Although specific data is unavailable, there are invariably reports of several suicides a year among former Haredim. At least five have already been reported this year, suggesting the problem could be getting even worse.
“Most leave the ultra-Orthodox world because they no longer believe in religion and have lost faith in its principles,” says Avi Neuman, Hillel’s chief development officer. “When we consider how difficult that process is, it’s astounding to think of the courage and perseverance that they must have, and the sacrifices they must make to be true to themselves. They’re very strong, inspirational people,” he adds.
Broit, for her part, says she “tried very hard to be a modest girl, to earn approval in my community, and to be a good girl in the eyes of God. But my teachers said that my hair ‘attracts men’s looks,’ and I believed I was bad because my very existence could cause a man to have impure thoughts.”
Growing up, she rarely left her community in Immanuel. “Until I went to seminar [a post-high school institute for Haredi girls] in Jerusalem, I didn’t even know that cities were alive at night; I didn’t know that things like pubs and restaurants and movie theaters even existed,” she recalls.
A woman she met at the seminar who was already planning to leave the ultra-Orthodox community exposed her to this forbidden world. “I began to live a double life,” Broit recounts. “I lived with my aunt and during the day I attended seminar, studying, and was still a pious young woman. At night, I would tell my aunt I was going to my friend’s to study, but actually we were going out.”
She met her future husband on a bus back to Immanuel for Shabbat. “I saw a man, he seemed about my age. By his clothes I could tell he wasn’t Haredi. I did something I’d never done before: I sat next to him. We talked. His name was Meir,” Broit says.
Gender segregation in her community had been so strict that it was only when they both alighted at the same bus stop that she learned he not only lived in Immanuel, but that he was a friend of her brothers’ and had often been in her home.
Meir, now 31, had been thrown out of yeshiva because he had left ultra-Orthodoxy and was studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Their relationship developed, though her parents demanded that she stop seeing him as he was no longer Haredi. However, they continued to meet in secret.
Around this time, she violated the rules of Shabbat for the first time in her life. “And that’s when I fell into a crisis,” she says. “I lost my faith – and when I lost my faith in God, I lost my faith in people too.”
She became suicidal and was hospitalized in a secure psychiatric ward. Her father got her released – but refused to speak with her and wouldn’t let her return home. One of her sisters took her in.
“I had Meir and my sister, but I no longer had my faith. I was so alone,” Broit says. Meir suggested that she turn to Hillel. “When I first talked to a woman on the Hillel hotline, I began to cry. I cried for a very long time, and the woman listened and understood me,” she says. Hillel in effect became her new community: “I made friends there. People accepted me and what I had to offer.”
With the aid of a scholarship from Hillel, Broit studied physical education and fitness training. That’s how she became attracted to bodybuilding. “It was very difficult to show my body to others, to learn to pose in a way that showed off my physicalness,” she explains. “But it was healing for me. I don’t think of myself as impure, and I’m learning to think of myself as a whole human being.”
‘Strictest religious codes’
Like Broit, Rocheleh considered suicide after leaving the community, until she too found her way in the secular world. Unlike Broit, she offers few details of her life and doesn’t want to be identified by her full name.
“Having a sister who left the ultra-Orthodox world will damage my many brothers’ and sisters’ chances for a good shidduch [arranged marriage],” she explains.
We meet in a coffee shop in Tel Aviv; Rocheleh, 32, is dressed in a simple, short skirt and sleeveless white blouse. She grew up speaking Yiddish, she says, and her Hebrew is still somewhat stilted with a slight accent.
“I grew up in the Satmar Hasidic sect,” she relays. “For the Satmar, the Holocaust was punishment because the Jews in Europe had assimilated and because the State of Israel was established before the Messiah came. To make up for this and prevent another punishment, we had to live according to the strictest religious codes.”
For Hasidic women, this means dressing and acting modestly, marrying early and having many children. “I was married off through a matchmaker before I was 17. Before the wedding, I had met my husband only twice for less than half an hour,” Rocheleh says.
“I knew nothing about sex, so when he hurt me, I just thought that was the way it was supposed to be,” she adds. “But about a month after we were married, he began to hit me. I had shaved and covered my hair, as women are supposed to, but he hit me because I wasn’t modest enough. He beat me because I didn’t become pregnant immediately. He hit me all the time, for any reason.
“I tried to talk to my family and the rabbis,” she continues. “But everyone just told me that once I had a baby, everything would work out. I hurt all the time, inside and out. I stopped believing in God. Why would God create women to make them into nothing, to make them suffer?”
She ran away from her home to Hillel, where she stayed in a shelter for a few months and then, like Broit, received a scholarship – in her case, to study fashion design.
Rocheleh recounts that met her husband while waiting for a routine appointment at a medical clinic. “He saw I was practicing Hebrew. In the kindest, most natural way, he just sat down beside me and helped me. I could talk to him. Even though he came from a secular family, he understood me better than anyone else.”
Today, they live as secular Jews in a community in the Galilee, with two toddler children. “If not for the time in the Hillel hostel,” Rocheleh says, “I probably would have killed myself – or gone back to my husband. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Learning basic skills
Hillel’s main hostel in West Jerusalem is staffed by three behavioral professionals and a “house mother,” Ruti Lahav, who says she knows what the leavers are going through. “I was born in Mea She’arim; until I was 18 I spoke only Yiddish,” she says. “Some of the residents want to speak Yiddish with me because they miss their mother tongue. They understand that we aren’t expecting them to wipe out their previous lives, only to learn to live in peace with who they were and who they want to be.”
The hostel, she adds, provides these young adults with an interim space where they can “learn about themselves and learn some of the basic skills they’ll need in this world – from computer and basic financial skills, to basic feminine hygiene to contraception. We have clothes here so they can learn how to dress for different events, how to go for a job interview, how to go out with friends.” After four months in the hostel, many of the residents continue on to apartments provided by Hillel and some, like Broit and Rocheleh, receive scholarships to study so they can become financially independent.
Rocheleh concludes by saying that though she’s happy now, the High Holy Days are still a difficult time. “For me, the Haredi world was the wrong world, but it’s a satisfying life for many – including my parents. But they’ve rejected me, they don’t even know their grandchildren. They will sit together for a yontif [holiday] meal, and I will miss them.”
Anyone who feels that they need information or support from Hillel should contact the organization on 1-700-70-70-73 (hotline) or 03-5101401, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org