'I Fast Out of Respect for the Congregants. But I Would Feel Great Eating Shrimp on Yom Kippur'

What do ultra-Orthodox people do if they cease to believe but are fearful of losing all they hold dear? Answer: They lead a double life

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Illustration by Nino Biniashvili.
Illustration by Nino Biniashvili.
Shira Elk
Shira Elk

“When I stopped believing, I was sure I was the only one in the world,” says D., an ultra-Orthodox woman of 35. “I didn’t know the term ‘anusim’ [the Hebrew term for “forced” converts in Inquisition-era Spain and Portugal, many of whom continued to practice Judaism in secret], I didn’t know there might be other people in my situation – apostates on the inside and Haredim on the outside.”

Indeed, D. is not alone. It’s difficult to gauge the scale of the phenomenon, but it’s clear that the number of latter-day crypto-apostates in Haredi society is increasing, both in Israel and abroad. These are Haredim who have lost their faith but are fearful of leaving the ultra-Orthodox world or of causing a rift in their families.

The Hillel organization, one of the groups that assists people who leave ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel, reports a steep rise in the number of people turning to them for help in recent months. Another indication of the undercurrents roiling this community can be seen in a survey conducted by Bezeq Telecommunications, which found that during the period of the coronavirus pandemic, requests for an internet connection soared by 45 percent in the Haredi community, as compared to normal times.

“The buds of the crypto-apostate phenomenon began appearing in 2007, around the time that the internet forum ‘Haredim against their will’ was created,” says Benny Naveh, who was a volunteer in the Hillel organization and in recent years has been working with the so-called new Marranos.

“Over the past three years, I’ve been in contact with nearly 70 apostates with families, the vast majority of them men. Fewer than 10 of them have openly left the faith. What characterizes the majority is that they remain alone in the process, and their wives either guess or repress – or know everything.”

“It’s important to note that ‘apostate’ is a broad term and that there are two main subgroups, which differ in their essence,” explains Nadav Rosenblatt, CEO of Out for Change, a nonprofit organization that helps former Haredim integrate into the secular world. “The first group consists of Haredim in the pre-departure stage. They are waiting for the right and sensible moment for them to migrate outside. The second group consists of Haredim who are living with a double identity, without any intention of ‘coming out’ in the future. Of course, there is overlap between the two groups, but in general we’re talking about different ages, different needs, different responses – and a completely different future.”

D., 30, a father of four, is one of those who has lived a double life for some time.

“I am a well-known cantor, people pay me a lot to be the cantor in their synagogue,” he says. “Last Yom Kippur I faced a dilemma about whether to eat. In the end, my integrity won out and I fasted, out of respect for the people for whom I was serving as prayer leader. In terms of belief? I would feel great eating butter-fried shrimp on Yom Kippur.”

D.’s transition to heresy began when he was teaching non-Haredi immigrant children in a remote Israeli community. “There, far from my familiar landscape, I had a little more time to think, to examine axiomatic beliefs, to shatter old paradigms. Until then I had been very conformist in my thinking. When I was far away, the thoughts and questions started to surface more consciously and clearly.”

When he returned with his family to the center of the country, he looked at the page of a Facebook group where he discovered more people who thought as he did. “I tried to share the process I was undergoing with my wife,” he recalls. “But even though in my mind my thoughts were clear and orderly, I was completely ‘green’ when it came to making them accessible to my wife. I saw that my talking about it really upset her, she became depressed. I tried to show her a funny video clip that ridiculed the idea of religious belief, but that only was more alienating to her.”

'I didn’t want more children. I carried around a lot of baggage about the idea that I would be mutilating myself with a vasectomy. It took another few years – and two more children – before I took the step.'

Since then, the conflict has hovering over his household.

D.: “On Shabbat and festivals I go to the synagogue, mainly because of the opportunity I get to serve as prayer leader. Secretly, I don’t really observe Shabbat, but my wife doesn’t know or ignores it. In the community I come from, men don’t usually touch their beards, but I shortened and groomed mine, and we argue over that all the time. There are some things she’s accepted, such as the fact that I have completely stopped praying and putting on tefillin. We tried going to therapy and mediation on the issue [of apostasy]. It only helped a little. We arrived at an unwritten agreement by which she demanded several things from me, including ‘the show must go on.’”

‘Your stomach churns’

Some of the crypto-apostates talk about meeting others like themselves in independent support groups. These encounters can generate tremendous anxiety for participants.

“Before the first meeting your stomach churns terribly,” says B., who is 28 and a father of four. “I was so scared I got stomach cramps. One woman came in and immediately ran out again; she sat in her car for half an hour trying to compose herself. But after the first meeting, when you see there is no secret police stalking you, everything calms down.”

Participants in such gatherings talk about religion or politics but mostly about life, sharing their difficulties and getting reinforcement and support from others. Sometimes there are refreshments, sometimes not even that.

Individual groups have coalesced over the years. There are always the “veterans” who already know each other, and newer members who are feeling their way into the group. Newcomers are usually fearful; the veterans try to reassure them. Meetings usually consist of between five and 10 people, though 200 secret apostates attended the largest such meeting held to date, in the Ben Shemen forest, near Modi’in.

B. talks about the deep frustration he felt after viewing a scene in the 2019 Israeli television series “Matir Agunot” (“Unchained”) – about cases in the Haredi community where the husband refuses to grant the wife a divorce – which depicted meetings of the crypto-apostates as being rife with drugs and spouse swapping.

“Our meetings are purely social events,” B. says. “People talk, support one another. The series did us a disservice. Apostate men [in our group] who had arrived at an understanding with their wives had to fight to restore their faith in the meetings.”

T., a mother of five from the Haredi city of Elad, has attended such events in the past.

Illustration by Nino Biniashvili.

“After I got married I started to develop opinions of my own,” she relates. “I thought homosexuality was natural, even though religion looks at it differently. I thought that women should be equal to men; I didn’t want to have to come to terms with the concept that religion sees women as inferior to men. The more I read and developed independent thinking – the less my views matched the path of Torah. I had a hard time living with the dichotomy between my way of life and my free thoughts. In addition, after the wedding, a great many religious practices and commandments were suddenly added on. I had ongoing wars with myself in the face of a reality that was like a wall and with prohibitions that conflicted with human nature. I was suffocating.”

So you stopped observing the mitzvot?

“I started looking at religion from a remove; heretical things suddenly didn’t shake the foundations from my point of view. I remember that one day I stood in front of the mirror and said to myself, ‘I’m not religious!’ I didn’t tell anyone in the world about it, but that awareness resonated within me. I gave myself imaginary tests. Would I have the courage to turn on the light on Shabbat? The thought didn’t knock me for a loop. I understood that something was happening to me. Outwardly I went on as before, observing the commandments. I went through several years of feeling quite lonely before encountering the Haredim Be’al Korham [Haredim Against Their Will] internet forum. That’s when I discovered that I was not alone, that there were many more Haredim in my situation.”

What did you think about the meetings with the secret apostates?

“At first I didn’t go because I was afraid – that someone would see, hear. I was even afraid of other secret apostates. After some time I plucked up courage and went to a meeting or two, but I didn’t connect with them. I was reserved. I’ve been in this situation for 10 years, I’m not at the initial flash point like other apostates. I am filled with envy when I look from disillusioned young people from the side. The process I went through took years, which is why when I got to the place I did, I had five children.”

Living the lie

Why do these crypto-apostates continue to live a lie?

“To leave the faith and abandon my children wasn’t an option for me,” explains Y., 36, a father of six. “On top of which, no one was waiting for me on the outside. I am uneducated, I don’t know basic concepts, I didn’t know even a single individual who wasn’t ultra-Orthodox. I didn’t know anyone else in my situation – people who don’t believe but are trapped in the community. I decided that at the very least I didn’t want more children.”

That decision, too, wasn’t easy to implement while ostensibly living an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle: “Use of contraceptives was impossible. I knew my wife would refuse, because of religious belief and social pressure. Condoms are totally prohibited by the halakha [Jewish religious law]. The only way to do it was by a vasectomy. I set a date for the operation, but I couldn’t bring myself go to the hospital.

“I was carrying around a lot of baggage about the idea that I would be mutilating myself, deforming myself because of something that wasn’t my fault, which meant putting an end to the ability to father children. And there was fear, too – fear that my wife would find out; the thought that by not informing her I wasn’t being fair to her. It took another few years – and two more children – before I took the step.”

Y. says he “had to plan the surgery in great detail, like a military operation. How to pay so that it would not be seen on the credit card or bank statements. How to get to the hospital and back. After the operation, no sexual intercourse is permitted for six weeks, how was I going to not observe the commandment without my wife asking questions? I waited until after my wife gave birth [sexual relations are forbidden during the postpartum period, until the woman is free of any bleeding], and only then did I go to the hospital. I went alone. The hospital told me to bring someone with me, but there was no one close that I could share with.

'I didn’t leave because I had nowhere to go. Leaving means going into the world at the level of a third grader, with no skills.'

“For half a year after the operation I was so anxious that I couldn’t sleep at night. What if my wife were to press me to do a test and discover that I had a sperm count of zero? What if I had to undergo another medical procedure, where I would have to admit that I’d had the operation? Sometimes I feel like I’m making her miserable, she is so busy trying to have more children, and I’m not able to tell her that it’s not going to happen.”

R., in his late 30s, with seven children, also saw no way to walk away from the ultra-Orthodox world.

“I didn’t leave,” he explains, “because I had nowhere to go. Leaving means going into the world at the level of a third grader, with no skills. Today I see people doing it, but back then I didn’t know any other apostates, I was alone, so where would I go? Into what world? After I discovered the existence of the world of leavers on Facebook, a feeling of having missed a great opportunity came over me, but I don’t see that I have a way to change that.”

Already as a yeshiva student, R. desecrated the Sabbath, he says. “I went to Lithuanian [non-Hasidic Haredi] schools, but my family is considered Hasidic. That situation, between Lithuanians and Hasidim, gave me a unique perspective. I saw how every group is certain that it is the elite entity that is righteous and that carries the flag of truth. Every group mocks and ridicules all the others. I asked myself whether the one and only truth could be possessed by everyone. And if so, why shouldn’t it be in Islam, for that matter? That led me to go out, to explore and to look for answers.”

And what did you find?

“I understood that I didn’t want to get married, didn’t want to have children. I tried to avoid it as much as I could and got to the age of 23 – by which time I was one of the elders of my group. As a young Haredi man, marriage is a passive reality, whereas avoiding it is an active choice. I couldn’t fight it indefinitely. I managed to get them to drop the first girl, with various excuses, but with the second one I failed miserably. She was a righteous, God-fearing woman in absolute terms. I did all I could to get her to say no. But she was too obedient. Having met her father, I understand there was no chance she would say no.

“We got engaged. I did not experience one iota of enjoyment or happiness. After the wedding, I went on desecrating the Sabbath, but in more minor matters. I cut corners. I would get up early in the morning and turn on the radio so she couldn’t hear it. The radio was my window to the outside world. I have seven children. Seven too many.”

S., a mother of three, belongs to a relatively liberal Hasidic stream. “To a secular eye, I dress like a Haredi, but to a Haredi eye I am immodestly dressed,” she says. “I wear a full, modest head covering, but without stockings. I try to cover cleavage, knees and ankles less. There are certain clothes I won’t wear to the neighborhood grocery, and there are special clothes, even more modest, for meetings concerning the children’s education.”

After the birth of her third child, S. says, she underwent a very significant crisis, as there was a suspicion that the children were suffering from a hereditary disease.

S.: “When we started the round of tests, I thought that it would be easier for children with disabilities to realize their potential in secular society. I left my job in the Haredi community, and went to work in [modern-]Orthodox society and then in the secular world. Two things happened in that period: The more secular people I met, the more I discovered how many values and how much goodness there were in general society. On top of which, I started to hear ugly stories about [ultra-Orthodox] rabbis I had admired. The exposure to that knowledge was a hard blow. The foundation of my whole life was that our society is more moral and principled.”

So today you are religiously observant?

“In terms of myself, I do not observe the commandments. But to the children and the family – I am a perfect Haredi. I hide the truth from everyone. No one can know that I eat unkosher food, desecrate the Sabbath and don’t observe Yom Kippur. What’s hardest for me in this situation – a life with no correlation between my inner and outer worlds – is the boys’ education. I send the children to after-school groups to learn English and buy them books by important writers. I show them Disney movies in order to develop their curiosity and thinking ability.

“I do what I can within the limits. But I still feel that I’m not being fair to them. I am sending them into the world without core studies and with limited employment possibilities. That defective education conflicts with my credo as a mother, but if I were to leave I would probably lose my husband, my family and financial comforts – quite a high price.”

‘Formative moment’

At least R., a 20-year-old woman from Modi’in Ilit who has one young child, has the support of her husband.

“When the series ‘Unorthodox’ [a drama about a woman who flees the ultra-Orthodox world] was broadcast, my husband and I watched it separately and then a second time, together,” says R. “That was a formative moment, when we understood that this [life] wasn’t for us. Until then each of us proceeded on their own path. I am positive that if we hadn’t been synchronized in terms of the timing, things would have ended badly. As we watched the series we started to talk and understood that we thought alike.”

What’s your situation today?

“Today, even though outwardly we look like Haredim, we do not observe anything. I remember the first time we desecrated the Sabbath in public. We were taking a long walk from my parents’ home to my mother-in-law, and my husband wanted to smoke. He was wearing a shtreimel and a shiny kapote [respectively, the fur hat and long black coat worn by Hasidim on Shabbat] and I was in my Shabbat attire with a head covering. When he lit the cigarette I trembled with fear that someone would pass by and discover us.

“Another time, my brother-in-law visited us over Shabbat. We observed the day properly, including festive meals and prayers in the synagogue. It was only in our room that we did whatever we pleased. At midday on Shabbat my husband was on the phone, using earphones. His brother went in to look for something and saw him. We had no choice: We came out of the closet. Fortunately for us, he’s a good man and our secret is safe.”

So you’re continuing to keep things secret?

“We have to be careful for the sake of our families. If we cast off religion immediately, we will making them ‘flawed’ families. I have a nephew and a niece who will soon be starting the matchmaking process, and if people were to hear about us they wouldn’t get any marriage offers. Beyond that, I am afraid of the long arm of my father. He comes from a prestigious family and has a great deal of power and control. If he hears that I have left, I am liable to suffer serious consequences.”

One reason the crypto-apostates find it difficult to embark on a new path is that they generally have large families at a very young age.

“By the time I was 30, I was already the father of three children,” says M., from Jerusalem. At the same time, the stability in his life provoked a host of questions. “As a person for whom erudition was an integral element of life from boyhood, I started to delve into religious laws and customs that my close milieu followed obsessively. Gradually they started to seem to me false and they began to bother me in the everyday.”

What, for example?

'If we cast off religion, we will make our families ‘flawed.’ I have a nephew and a niece who will soon be starting the matchmaking process, and if people were to hear about us they wouldn’t get any marriage offers.'

“As a Haredi, I might spend a total of an hour and a half every day praying in a minyan [prayer quorum]. I would watch an unending flow of people entering and leaving in astonishment – dozens of men mumbling bits of prayers while preoccupied by other things, wandering between the different minyanim, grabbing a prayer from here and a reading from there. As a spiritual person, I definitely relate to the concept of prayer as the essence of meditation, a link to my deeper self. But in the sad reality of the ‘prayer industry,’ none of that is given expression.

“With my exposure to a diversity of literature, which made me quite critical, I started to notice the falsifications everywhere. The connection between the ‘essence’ of the mitzvot and the ‘actions’ was pretty feeble. The laws became boring judgments, courts for trivial matters and petty engagement with long outdated things, to the point of illogical obsession.”

How did that affect your behavior?

“The journey I was on took more than one day – consciousness has its own pace – and after the thoughts the talk started, and even that was only after I found a small group of friends with similar views and dared to share my thoughts and turn them into declarations. Suddenly it became obvious to me that we were all pawns in one common game, playing according to certain rules, and that many of us did not believe at all, but are trapped and are compelled to continue. Today my circle of friends exists in the virtual media. I’m a member of several groups in which we discuss every subject, everything is questionable and refutable, and that’s where we are free to present our thoughts without risking ostracism.”

The virtual world that exposes Haredim to content that flies in the face of their culture is also what frequently lends them support as they take their first steps outside.

“After the wedding, I bought a computer and a cellular modem that my wife didn’t know about,” says G., a 40-year-old father of eight. “The exposure to the vast expanses of knowledge on the web left me in culture shock. I was a guy who was sure he had the whole truth, and suddenly I met a whole range of theologies, communities and cultures, each of them claiming that it was in possession of the truth, just like me. I underwent a long process that began with the feeling that I was the lord of Creation, the summit of the world, that I am a rabbi’s son, the most successful there is, one who knows everything – and ending with the understanding that I am nothing special, and that my knowledge was actually limited and esoteric.

“We secret apostates like to joke between us that God put porn on the internet in order to keep us from looking at Wikipedia. I read articles, discussions and debates endlessly, I became familiar with new concepts. The questions piled up inside me, but I didn’t connect them to a different story. I was still learning in the kollel [yeshiva for married men] and still observing mitzvot. My point of departure was that being religious was good for me. I was educated to believe that religion means true happiness in life. I was the father of four children; I didn’t want to leave home. I went on like that for five years. I accepted it: I knew I didn’t believe in anything, but I also knew that there was no way that I could change my situation.”

How did you cope with that?

“For a short time there was an organization that helped crypto-apostates. The organization divided them into groups of 15 to 20 people and set up meetings – which took place in an atmosphere of great deal of tension and misgivings. We all trembled with fear. There was always the possibility that someone would infiltrate our ranks and expose us, which would mean the loss of everything. But despite the fears we managed to get together a few times. I expanded the boundaries of my acquaintances, I saw people who were going through a process and succeeding in changing the reality they lived in.”

Illustration by Nino Biniashvili.

When the earth trembles

This story has another side as well, that of the other part of the couple, who has to cope with the new situation. What does a wife feel, for example, when her husband loses his faith, when things fall apart and the familiar ground shakes beneath their feet?

“Four years ago, when my husband shared with me that he was no longer a believer, my world fell apart,” says T. “I was very much alone in this crisis. I couldn’t share with anyone. While he was finding broad social circles, Facebook groups, WhatsApp groups, meetings with apostate friends or people leaving the community, I stayed in the house with dreams that were shattered to bits.”

You didn’t have any support?

“My husband tried suggesting that I should meet with other women in my situation, but the fear that someone would find out, that the rumor would reach the family, was too great. Finally he gave me the email address of the wife of another crypto-apostate man. We corresponded for a whole year; she didn’t want to meet out of fear. It wasn’t until after a year of correspondence that we met, with a great deal of foreboding. At that stage we understood that we wanted to meet more women in our situation – both so we would have company and also so that the other women would have support.

“We started a WhatsApp group, which slowly expanded. Today we are 15 women, all of us believers, hard-core Haredim, graduates of Beit Yaakov [a network of Haredi girls schools] who send their children to Talmud Torah schools. The idea is mainly support, sharing and plenty of solidarity.”

Haredi society usually turns a blind eye to secret apostates, as part of its effort to keep the children on the path and to preserve the community. There is a covenant of silence, with the tacit message being, “As long as you don’t voice your opinions or declare your deeds publicly, as long as you don’t endanger the integrity of the community – we agree to accommodate you. As long as you do not put your children’s education at risk, we will not do anything to harm you.”

Rabbis will do battle against a believer who voices aloud controversial opinions, but will let a Haredi atheist continue along their path as long as they keep their deeds private.

“A leading rabbi told me, of course without knowing about me, ‘I know 10 crypto-apostates whom I am keeping close to me, so at least the children will remain Haredim,’” says one of the interviewees. “As long as a person is ready to keep playing the game, doesn’t expose his children to the internet and doesn’t come out publicly, ultra-Orthodox society agrees to accommodate him and will even draw him close.”

He continues: “I have a very close friend who hasn’t prayed or put on tefillin for years, but if he has a business meeting with a Haredi man at 7 or 8 A.M., he puts on tefillin for a few minutes beforehand, so the marks [of the straps] will remain on his arm. Everyone has marks until 9 o’clock. But all that will change if he does something publicly. The person will be accommodated as long as a Haredi exterior is maintained. The excuse is that this is the way to keep the children Haredi, but we can say that what’s really important is the community, not the private individual.”

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