From the Yeshiva to High-tech Glory: Ex-Haredi Jews Tell the Tale

A Haaretz correspondent and two friends have become business successes despite their youths where such mundane matters were frowned on.

A little treasure was stashed under my pillow at the high school yeshiva I attended: a small transistor radio. Such a gadget was long a commonplace by the 1990s, but for me it was solid grounds for expulsion.

During afternoon breaks and at lights-out I would crawl into bed and, at the lowest audible volume, take in the news and music we weren’t supposed to listen to. Now and then we managed to smuggle in a secular newspaper, which was quickly concealed under a mattress or on top of a closet.

Actually, the danger was probably part of the thrill, just as any adolescent might test the boundaries. At secular schools the boundary was drugs. At my yeshiva it was radios and newspapers.

Ohr Yisrael Yeshiva in Petah Tikva, for boys between 13 and 17, is known in the ultra-Orthodox community for its rigorous regimen. No student would dare skip a prayer service or study session, or not pay full attention in class. The dress code was strict, too – a white shirt and dark pants, and of course a suit and hat for prayers and when leaving the yeshiva's confines.

Every day at precisely 3:30 P.M. the headmaster stood at the entrance watching over the dozens of schoolboys filing in. Anyone late for the afternoon study session would receive a severe reprimand. No excuse was acceptable.

Once I was late because the bus hadn’t arrived. “You should have come by helicopter,” the headmaster replied, but there was no humor in his voice. If a student repeatedly came late, his parents would be summoned. And if that didn’t work he would be sent home on a three-day suspension.

The day revolved around religion and highly intricate Talmud study. There were prayers, study sessions in pairs, lessons from the rabbi – over and over from 7 A.M. to 9:30 P.M. In such a rigid daily schedule there was no time for leisure or sports. General subjects like English or math were certainly out of bounds.

I wasn’t the only delinquent listening to the radio; a small group of rebels shared the dark secret. With our books and newspapers, we enjoyed peeking at the outside world from inside the yeshiva’s solid walls.

One of my co-conspirators was Tzvika Beck, a strange bird at the yeshiva. Unlike most of us, he wasn’t from a Haredi home. His parents were religious Zionists, and his father wore a knitted kippa until slowly, over the years, he became more observant and turned Haredi. Together Tzvika and I watched hours and hours of television and movies at his grandmother’s, who lived nearby. Nobody was the wiser, not even our parents.

It’s not that we didn’t like studying. We attended lessons and some of us were good students. Beck was a particularly quick study. While everyone was trying to unravel a Talmudic intricacy, he was several steps ahead. We all loved to quibble over the issues, write our original perspectives and show off our knowledge. But for the members of our group, the lure of the outside world was overwhelming.

Torah learning’s social world

“You keep kosher?” asked Beck, 34, when we met nearly 20 years later for me to write this article. “Of course,” I replied, thinking that I wouldn’t recognize him today if I passed him on the street. He’s now completely secular, his head shaved. He lives in Tel Aviv and works as consultancy Giza Singer Even's analytical research manager.

Over a bowl of kosher salad we tried to figure out how the paths laid out by our parents and the community affected our lives and careers. After all, how did he become a secular economist and me a self-described Haredi working at a secular financial newspaper, while dozens of our classmates have married, have had at least five children and are still studying religion?

Torah studies at a Haredi high-school yeshiva are of utmost importance from a social standpoint, too. If you quickly grasp complex Talmudic issues, you’re admired. If you plug away at your studies during breaks and meals you’re considered a model student. Involvement in other matters is a sin dearly paid for – on a social level too.

My friendship with Beck was one of the most wonderful things a sinner like me could wish for. For Beck, all our radio listening is now ancient history. When we met he was impeccably dressed: black shirt, dark pants, elegant shoes. Clothes were always important to him.

Beck says the changes he experienced began when he was 4 or 5, when his parents became even more observant and got rid of their television. They stopped going to mixed-gender beaches and began keeping kosher on a more stringent level. Beck and his older sister were sent to Haredi schools but refused to forget their past.

“We continued listening to the radio, reading books and watching TV at my grandmother’s house nearby,” says Beck. “After all, we lived in Petah Tikva, a secular city, so we were exposed to everything. Our parents didn’t object to some of the things we did, but if we brought home secular newspapers they would get annoyed.”

My family was also more open to the outside world when I was young. My father grew up in the United States, where Haredi life is less insular. My mother is an educated woman who made us read books when we were small.

But even ultra-Orthodox families who try to set their own religious standards are forced to toe the line, especially when it comes to school. Pressure from neighbors and the synagogue helps force everyone to be loyal to practices handed down by the rabbis and their aides.

“With us it had nothing to do with social pressure,” says Beck. “It was the choice my parents made. Even today you can tell them apart .... My father served in the army and is still Zionist. If someone goes into the army he doesn’t view it as a tragedy like an extreme Haredi does. There was also no feeling at home that the children needed to be Torah scholars.”

The experience of a boy at a yeshiva like Ohr Yisrael runs deep. Even if his heart and mind sometimes lead him astray, he’s convinced that Torah study is the only important thing in the world. If you don’t study you’re an ignoramus who belongs to a lower order of humanity.

During your yeshiva years you’re constantly trying to join the flow, make yourself heard in the raging debates and pray at length with devotion. You try to transcend, but you fall back.

“At high-school yeshiva I reached the highest spiritual levels I could attain,” admits Beck, but without a trace of wistfulness. “For the first two years I wanted to be 100% perfect from a religious perspective. I aspired to be a moral person, to keep as many mitzvahs as I could and avoid sinning.

"I aspired for perfection, but I knew deep down it wouldn’t work, that I wasn’t capable of cutting myself off from the things considered sins in the Haredi community. I knew I’d end up far from there, and it was discouraging. They don’t explain to you that nothing’s perfect in the world and that you need to try taking one step after another.”

Every few weeks the headmaster would give us an inspirational talk. He would preach to us how occupying ourselves with worldly nonsense was a sin and how our entire purpose in life was to study more and more.

Beck recalls him saying: “You should know that if you won’t be Haredi you’ll always be torn between two worlds because you’ll always know you’re missing the spiritual part of life. You’ll never be truly secular – you’ll always be different.”

Of course, today Beck disagrees. “I feel completely comfortable where I am,” he says. “The yeshiva undoubtedly gave me a lot from an intellectual perspective. What other high-school boy can read texts and analyze them this way? It gave me a great deal to carry on in life.”

Shedding one's beliefs

Beck still had a long way to go before removing his kippa and entering the Tel Aviv business world. After three years of high-school yeshiva we continued on to higher yeshivas. I went to Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon and Beck to Yeshiva Ateres Yisrael, both in Jerusalem. The routine is more relaxed there, and far away from your parents you can take things easier.

“I continued studying at yeshiva, but there we’d barely get up to pray and weren’t scrupulous in attending study sessions,” says Beck. “It’s a much more permissive atmosphere. I also started working Thursdays distributing newspapers to earn a little pocket money to spend on clothes. You don’t really plan your life ahead but just think about having a good time.”

After two years the yeshiva heads got fed up with Beck and expelled him. “The last straw wasn’t that I failed to show up for prayers or lessons, but the way I dressed,” he says.

So while I continued at a Haredi yeshiva, Beck returned to his religious-Zionist roots. He transferred to a hesder yeshiva to serve in the army while completing his high-school matriculation exams.

“I could have promised the yeshiva heads that I’d behave myself but I decided to leave,” says Beck. “Had I not been thrown out, I’d certainly be a modern Haredi today. I’d meet a cool Haredi girl and start a family, and go to work. I’d surely have studied business administration or law.”

But Beck didn’t even remain religious-Zionist. After his army service he underwent what he calls “another decline in religion” and became marginally observant.

“In the army you suddenly find yourself with girls, female fitness instructors and the like. You get to know girls on a personal level,” he says. “I can understand the Haredi insistence on serving in separate units. But there are still thousands or tens of thousands who don’t study at all, or maybe an hour a day, and they need to serve .... They can be given three-year programs of national service to perform.”

Several years passed, Beck married and studied economics. He lived in a settlement and was religious on the surface, but inwardly he began shedding his beliefs. “If I didn’t feel like going to synagogue on Saturday morning I wouldn’t,” he says. “If I didn’t feel like keeping kosher abroad I wouldn’t. Keeping mitzvahs needs to come from either fear or love.”

While Beck was sliding away from religion in the early 2000s, I concluded that my place wasn’t in the yeshiva world. I embarked on an independent course of life and completed my education. I remained committed to the community in which I grew up despite my criticism of it, and continued wearing a kippa and fringes, but I decided to cross the street and join the secular media.

It’s not always easy. There’s an enormous social polarization between the two cultures in Israel. My initial meetings with secular people often begin with “Ah, I didn’t know you were Haredi.” You’re repeatedly asked to explain why rabbis indulge in sexual harassment and why Haredim insist on slaughtering chickens before Yom Kippur for atonement.

Beck, in any case, experienced major changes in 2006. He separated from his wife, finished university, started working as an analyst in Tel Aviv, moved to the city and removed his kippa for good. “The first few months I found it strange going around without a kippa,” he says. “For a long time my parents didn’t even know.”

Beck started out on a completely new life, burying himself in his career. He also discovered the city. “Until then I had never gone to a bar. I didn’t know the secular world. Now my approach is to tell myself that I don’t know if there’s a God but that it’s simply not relevant to my life,” he says. 

“Still, there are advantages in the religious and Haredi worlds. There are very positive values that are imparted less to young people in the secular community such as helping others and making do with little. On the other hand, they tell their children that it’s all right to steal from the state, or that it’s good to be a conniver and shady operator, and that’s wrong.”

Beck doesn’t miss his yeshiva days. “At 15 I felt at the peak of spiritual purity,” he says. “I felt like a good person who upheld the entire Torah and commandments and tried to be moral and pure. All day you dealt with things linked to improving yourself and your character.”

Still, even if he remained Haredi, he thinks he would have reached the professional level he’s at now. “This was my ambition back then too," he says. "According to several studies, appearances have an influence on getting hired, and obviously a Haredi appearance has an effect. But such cases are the minority. Ultimately ... the employer wants someone who’ll give him a higher return.”

He might have been a super tech tycoon

I caught up with another Tzvika – Tzvika Cohen, a cofounder and partner at Call Me. The firm, believed to be worth over 80 million shekels ($23 million), provides services to hundreds of Israel’s leading companies. Cohen has a daughter and four sons whom he hopes will go on to head yeshivas.

Between 17 and 19, Cohen shared a room with me and two others at Ohr Elchonon. Late at night when the rest of us would chat incessantly and listen to music, he would be reading – not religious texts but books on technology, programming and computers.

Cohen, the good boy with the endearing smile, was tough when it came to self-discipline. He amassed immense knowledge and prepared himself for the business world. But he has remained completely loyal to the Haredi way of life.

At the higher yeshiva in Jerusalem you were much more your own boss. We’d sometimes disappear to shoot some hoops while the yeshiva heads turned a blind eye. Some of us even attended a jujitsu course, and when the yeshiva head, Rabbi Moshe Chadash, discovered this, all he said was: “Go wherever you want, but why should others know?”

Secular books and newspapers were forbidden, but that didn’t stop us from buying the weekend papers and sneaking them in. We would also listen to the radio. When Maccabi Tel Aviv played in a Euroleague basketball game, we’d flock to the kiosks and watch, or visit the homes of friends with a TV.

But Cohen was preparing for the future. “My father is the owner of a large advertising firm in the Haredi community and he dreamed I’d become a yeshiva head,” Cohen says. “But we had a computer at home and membership at a vocational library. My father certainly wanted me to read more religious books but saw that this was my hobby and didn’t object. I read loads of books on technology, management and marketing.”

After marrying, Cohen started a company for computing services and, along with his studies at a kollel, a yeshiva for married men, provided services for private customers and companies.

“I’d stay up nights and install computers,” he recalls. In 2010, after six or seven years at the kollel, he left and established Call Me, which helps companies communicate with customers.

A few weeks ago the company received a request from the office of Finance Minister Yair Lapid. They wanted to see Haredi high-tech up close. Cohen refused. Like many Haredim, Cohen considers Lapid repulsive after building up an image of hating the ultra-Orthodox community.

Cohen believes all yeshiva students should follow his path. I say there are many young Haredi men who don’t have the entrepreneurial touch and can’t join the labor market without formal education.

“There’s no problem, after the wedding, to sit and study and find a job,” he says, faithful to the official Haredi stance. “In his foolish teens a boy doesn’t know what he wants from himself, and anyone gifted in Talmud studies should stick to the Talmud. After getting married he can work for a living.”

Cohen has 11 employees, most of them Haredim. He started the company only after a Haredi investor gave him $200,000; a young Haredi man and his female Haredi partner wouldn’t have found it easy meeting secular investors.

Recently, when trying to raise capital to expand abroad, he discovered that it isn’t easy for a Haredi man to win the trust of secular people.

“We met many businessmen. After all, it’s not easy to raise capital. We also met with some of the best-known venture capital funds. Some said they couldn’t see any business outlook, and I understood this. Others agreed to invest, but in a way that wasn’t suitable to us,” Cohen says.

“But some said the fact we were Haredi was an additional investment risk because they didn’t know our way of life. They didn’t know what insanity might strike us.”

If Cohen weren’t Haredi, would he be somewhere else today? Cohen admits that the kippa is a kind of glass ceiling. “Most high-tech workers come from [the army’s] Unit 8200 or know each other from Ramat Aviv,” he says, referring to a Tel Aviv suburb. “If I came from there maybe I’d have completed my third or fourth exit.”

Cohen hopes that people like him will change this situation. “I strongly hope that the high-tech industry will realize that there’s potential and high-quality human capital in Haredi society,” he says.

“I’ve hired many talented people and they’re making a difference. The polarization in the political world hinders the ability of Haredi entrepreneurs to join hands and do business with the secular sector.”

AP
Eyal Toueg