Opinion

The Biggest Upheaval for the Jewish People This Century Is Starting Now, and We're Not Ready

The walls of the ghetto are falling down, triggering the exodus of hundreds of thousands of young ultra-Orthodox Jews from their insular communities. But has anyone noticed? Does anyone care?

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and youths protest the detention of members of their community who failed to report to a military recruiting office, near Modiin, Israel. October 19, 2017
AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

Around 15 years ago, a new position was created in the Israeli film and television industry: religion advisors.

Directors had finally realized that the depiction of Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox and settler characters by secular actors, and the script put in their mouths, were simply too ludicrous.

As the volume of productions revolving around Haredi life continued to increase, the role has become vital in achieving any semblance of authenticity. In some cases, when the script demands, productions have taken also to hiring Yiddish experts to coach actors, ignorant of the language, to pronounce entire scenes as accurately as if they'd grown up in a shtetl.

The new prime-time season on Israeli television has two Haredi-themed shows – one based on the lives of the shababnikim, the delinquent dropouts of the ultra-Orthodox community, and another on the lives of a company of Haredi IDF soldiers.

I watched an episode of Kippat Barzel (Iron Dome [Yarmulke], it works in Hebrew anyway) last week and found it rather unconvincing. It’s not that the religion and Yiddish advisors had done a bad job, there were nearly no slip-ups that I could discern in the script, but after all these years of watching secular men and women dress up and act as Haredim I’ve become convinced that as good as the coaching may be, there are mannerisms that you acquire in a lifetime of devotion that can never be duplicated.

In this show’s case it’s not just the Haredisms. The show’s bigger failing is its depiction of life in an IDF infantry battalion – combat service being as foreign to the typical Israeli actor as religion. I couldn’t continue watching after a live hand-grenade-throwing exercise was depicted with an unthinkable series of extreme safety breaches.

I had higher expectations of Netflix’s new documentary, "One Of Us", the stories of two young men and one woman facing the challenges of leaving the American ultra-Orthodox community.

You should watch One Of Us. It is far from perfect. Visually, the documentarians have a fetishistic obsession with the hair of their subjects, which leads to repeated cliches of side-locks being shaved and coverings shed. Conceptually, their attitude to Hassidism is extremely simplistic – there are of course hundreds of Hassidic sects in the U.S. (and hundreds more in Israel and elsewhere), but they are all tarred with the same brush.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men of the Vizhnitz Hassidic sect pray on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea as they participate in a Tashlich ceremony, in Herzliya, Israel. Sept. 28, 2017
Ariel Schalit/AP

And unlike the explanation offered, the reasons for Haredi insularity are not just a desire to make up for those murdered in the Holocaust – the roots of the ultra-Orthodox ghetto mentality are much more complex and go back long before the Holocaust.

But One Of Us is important for the way it portrays the challenges facing the three – Ari’s substance addiction, Luzer’s faltering acting career and most poignantly, Etti’s legal battle for custody of her children, as almost insurmountable uphill efforts for those who have lost all the family and communal support that gave meaning to their lives and crucial resources.

Men and women leaving the Haredi community are cast into a foreign and alien world, with which they have no educational, vocational and social tools to contend. With only a few small and underfunded groups to help them face the implications and baggage resulting from their breaking with their old lives, in which conforming to the standards of family and community was everything, they have to build a sense of identity and scrape a living.

For anyone who was born in modern society, where individualism and independence are the norm, the sacrifice these young men and women have made is unimaginable and One Of Us, helps to begin to understand it.

Undermined by the pervasiveness of the Internet and social media, the walls of the ghetto are falling down. The Haredi center cannot hold against an entire generation of young people, determined to deal with their faith and the entire world on their own terms.

An Ultra Orthodox Jew looks on at a protest in front of the main army recruitment office in Jerusalem. May 2013.
AFP

The exodus of hundreds of thousands of young Haredim over the next couple of decades will be the biggest upheaval for the Jewish people in this century.

Jewish sociologists and demographers have yet to cotton on to the fact that we are living in a third wave of mass departure from organized Jewish communities – the first came in the 19th century, as enlightenment and emancipation in Europe and new freedoms and opportunities in America allowed Jews for the first time to define their own existence.

The second wave was in the first half of the last century when Zionism, Communism and capitalism opened up new alternatives to a stifling communal life. Mainstream Jewish organizations fail to realize that we are facing another upheaval.

The Jewish People Policy Institute published a survey this week revealing that Jews around the world are more concerned with the fact that the Haredim are taking over Jerusalem than the growth of the Arab communities in the city. It just proves how detached the establishment is from the new realities – the demographic trends of Haredi growth are not holding, birth-rate is already down and the growing numbers of "modern Haredim" and those who are ditching ultra-Orthodoxy altogether have yet to appear on their radar.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish youth reflected in window as female Jewish worshippers pray next to the Western Wall on Tisha B'Av in Jerusalem's Old City. August 1, 2017
AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

The discourse of how to accommodate the growing number of Haredim will be replaced sooner or later by how to help the wave of ex-Haredim, but meanwhile, those who are leaving, are not getting that crucial help.

This is not a wave of individuals leaving the Jewish people and becoming assimilated. The ex-Haredim all carry with them a heavy load of Jewish literacy and identity. In many places where mainstream communities have lost their vitality and are dwindling, they have the power to rejuvenate Jewish life, but first they will need immense resources to support them.

A global Jewish community (and Israeli government) that spends hundreds of millions on dollars on frivolous things like ten-day Birthright vacations in Israel for Jewish youngsters has those resources. But it lacks the sense of urgency.

The story of those who are bravely striking out from the Haredi community and building new lives for themselves will be told over the next years and decades most accurately by the ex-Haredim themselves, just as former Haredim, like Israel's national poet Haim Nahman Bialik and countless others in the previous wave did so eloquently. But, right now, they are too busy summoning up the courage - or simply surviving.