26 Nov 2010

Israel's ultra-Orthodox cults indoctrinate and intellectually abuse children, and shun those who manage to escape

SPIEGEL ONLINE - February 18, 2010

Escape from Israel's Ultra-Orthodox

By Ulrike Putz in Tel Aviv

Part 1: The High Price of Religious Defection

The community of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel is half a million strong and growing. They live in a parallel universe cut off from the modern world in tight-knit communities where everything revolves around religion. Only a few dare to abandon this life -- and the price for doing so is high.

When she left, she left everything behind -- even her name. She no longer wanted to be known as Sarah, the name her parents had given her. She'd felt imprisoned by that name for too long; it made her feel different and subject to laws that others imposed upon her. So, she started her new life with a new name, Mayan, the Hebrew word for "source."

It's been seven years since Mayan "landed on planet Earth," as she puts it. But the 27-year-old doesn't feel completely at home here yet. She's a young, modern Israeli woman. Still, despite the dragon tattoo on her shoulder and the loose top offering occasional glimpses of her bra, there are always some moments that betray her past. For example, when her friends talk about old TV series, classic pop music or their first schoolyard crushes, Mayan can't join in. Until she was 17 years old, Mayan lived in another world, a world where those things simply didn't exist.

A Life Completely Focused on Religion

The "parallel universe" Mayan used to live in has around 550,000 inhabitants. It is the world of the Orthodox Jews in Israel, whose adherents live in tight-knit communities where everything revolves around religion. They radically shield themselves from modern life. Television is frowned upon, as is non-religious music, telephones and the Internet. News that is important to the community is disseminated via notices posted on walls. Boys and girls go to school, but their education is primarily focused on religion.

"Everyone can read and write, but math was over after simple multiplication," Mayan says. "When I left school, I didn't even know what New York was, and I had never even seen a dog because nobody kept any pets."

According to Irit Paneth, it is this lack of education, in particular, that makes it almost impossible for doubters in these communities to break out of the inflexible corset of their belief. Paneth is a member of Hillel - The Right To Choose, an organization that helps those leaving the Orthodox faith start a normal life. "We are not against the religion," Paneth explains. "But Ultra-Orthodoxy is more like a cult that intellectually cripples children in the name of religion." For most young people who break away from the Orthodox life, she explains, it's like leaping off a cliff into the unknown. "They come without money, without education in the classical sense, without any chance of employment," Paneth says.

One of the Fastest Growing Groups in Israel

According to government estimates, ultra-Orthodox Jews make up one of the fastest-growing groups in Israeli society. By 2025, the government forecasts that roughly 22 percent of school-age Israeli children will come from one of the groups with strong religious beliefs.

Over the 19 years it has been operating, only around 2,000 defectors have turned to Hillel. "There are tens of thousands who have doubts and want out," Paneth says. But only a small number are ready and willing to make the sacrifices that defection demands. For example, most families completely break off contact with defectors. "Some even hold wakes," Paneth says, "as if the daughter or son has actually died."

Mayan grew up in Beitar Illit, an Orthodox settlement just south of Jerusalem in the Judean Mountains of the West Bank. There, men wear black suits and wide-brimmed hats. The women -- whose style of clothing is intended solely to denote chastity -- wear high-necked blouses, long skirts and often a head scarf. Likewise, the men don't hold jobs but, instead, devote their lives to studying the Bible. The women feed their families and often raise up to 12 children.

Mayan's childhood finished when she was seven, when her widowed mother remarried. From then on, she had to wear socks and long pants to bed under her nightgown -- even in the summer -- lest the bed cover slip off and expose here bare skin to her stepfather. And since her stepfather was not a blood relation, he was not allowed to touch her. In fact, he barely spoke with her, either.

Part 2: No Preparation for Puberty

Puberty was a time of great anxiety for Mayan. As her breasts began to grow, Mayan thought she had cancer. The taboo about anything physical was so great that she snuck off to the doctor rather than having to ask her mother what was happening. Her first period brought renewed panic and shame. Mayan hid her dirty undergarments. And when her mother found them, she was scolded rather than given an explanation. What if her stepfather had found her dirty panties?

Mayan first began to doubt her lifestyle when she switched to a school in central Jerusalem. She saw fashionably dressed young people and noticed that the boys "from the other world" looked at her with interest. At 14, she hatched a plan together with some other curious school friends. They told their mothers that there was a study-group meeting. But then the girls used money they had earned babysitting to take the bus to Luna Park, an amusement park in Tel Aviv. Even today, Mayan beams when she talks about the lights and the music. "I felt like Cinderella," she says, "like I was in a dream."

No More Contact with Family or Friends

Still, the second expedition Mayan organized with her girlfriends ended in disaster. They took a trip to the beach, but their fresh tans gave them away once they arrived home. The result -- for Mayan, at least -- was a three-year odyssey through various ultra-Orthodox reformatories and foster families. Her insubordination had to be driven out of her -- if need be, by lies. "We were contantly told that the secular world was only waiting to turn us into prostitutes or slaves," Mayan explains, "that there was nothing but drug addiction waiting for us out in the modern world."

With help from Hillel, Mayan eventually managed to make the leap out of her religious life. The organization helped her financially so she could go to a boarding school and get her high school diploma. Mayan then completed the obligatory military service that all Israeli women must perform and, today, she is studying special education in college. She no longer has any contact with her family, and she suspects that her sisters have paid a high price for her defection. "When my sisters' marriages are arranged," Mayan says, "they won't get the men they deserve."

'Staying Would Have Meant Death'

Every week, 25-year-old Shimy Levy gets to re-pay the price for abandoning his religion. The rabbies in the ultra-Orthodox divorce court granted him two hours a week with his two children. And whenever they are up, Levy realizes once more the price of his freedom. "But leaving was still the right thing to do," Levy says. "Staying would have meant death -- and I couldn't kill myself for the sake of my children."

Levy grew up in the Orthodox faith, and -- like Mayan -- he began to have doubts when he reached puberty. The rules of the religious school he was supposed to spend the rest of his life in were increasingly getting on his nerves. "With the help of the Bible," he says, "they manage to control every small detail of everyday life." Then he begins to count the ways: In the morning, you have to put the right shoe on before the left shoe. Then the shoes had to be laced up the opposite way -- left shoe first, then right. On the Sabbath, you could only eat fish if you managed not to touch any bones. At most, a young man was only allowed to meet his potential bride in an arranged marriage twice -- and then only for an hour during a chaperoned conversation. After that he had to decide whether he would marry her.

Eventually, Levy bought a small radio with earphones. At night, under the covers in the communal sleeping hall of the yeshiva -- the male-only religious institution where he studied -- he would eavesdrop on the outside world. But, like Mayan, he was caught and spent time in reformatories. At 20, he was married -- in another attempt to tame his desire for freedom. For four years, he played the role of the strictly religious husband and father before coming to the decision that he couldn't live like that any longer. He confessed to his wife that he had lost his faith, and he asked for a divorce.

'If God Exists, He Wouldn't Want This'

Then, without any particular regrets, he cut off the long, traditional sidelocks he had worn his whole life. "It was already clear to me that all of these rituals were just empty gestures," he says.

For Levy, the last year has been one long attempt to catch up on what he's missed. At breakneck speed, he has developed his taste in music -- everything from Abba to techno -- and he's gone from a being a television novice to owning an iPhone. His first sneakers, his first movie, his first pork chop. "Every day I tick off another thing that was previously withheld from me," Levy says. He is already concerned about the indoctrination that his children will be exposed to. "Every time I see them," he says, "they tell me that the whole family is praying for my return to the faith."

Irit Paneth of Hillel hears stories like those told by Mayan and Levy with mixed emotions. Of course, she says, she is as proud "as any mother" when her charges find their way in the modern world. "But what about the many others," she asks, "the ones not strong enough to tear themselves away?" They have to adapt to a life of pretending to be pious, she explains, and of following the rules of a religion they don't believe in. "If God exists," Paneth says, "he wouldn't want this."

This article was found at:



Children in London's ultra-Orthodox community have no personal, intellectual or religious freedom

Child protection policies improving in some Orthodox Jewish communities, but not in ultra-Orthodox ones

Israel's ultra-Orthodox cults indoctrinate and intellectually abuse children, and shun those who manage to escape

An abuse of belief

Isolated from the rest of the world, and proud to be so

European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg: Orthodox Jewish Movement Fanatical, Dangerous and Radical

Ban of Orthodox blog by rabbis could change views on handling sex abuse

Brooklyn rabbinical court orders sect members to report crimes to community council not to outsiders 


  1. I Escaped Hasidic Judaism and Went From Living on the Streets to Being a Hollywood Actor

    By Luzer Twersky, Actor, 'Felix and Meira,' 'Transparent'

    Huffington Post June 15, 2015

    In June 2008, exactly three years after I got married, I decided to get a divorce. I didn't fall out of love with my wife. In fact, I never fell in love with her in the first place. I simply no longer wanted to have the life I had with her and everyone surrounding her.

    My wife was a Hasidic Jew, and when I married her, so was I. But that was no longer the case. I was a 22-year-old man with a long beard and side curls (payes) and all the other markings of a Hasid, but I was an atheist. An atheist surrounded by Orthodox Hasidic Jews. Surrounded by their certainty, their food, their self-righteousness and their minivans.

    I hated all of it, so I left and entered a world full of uncertainty and a broad spectrum of ideas about right and wrong.

    I had no idea what I was going to do. I had no education beyond Jewish Talmudic studies. I had no friends outside of the Hasidic world beyond a few I met at Footsteps, an organization that supports Orthodox Jews attempting to escape. I had no marketable skill beyond being able to charm your pants off. I had never been on a date. I had never heard of The Beatles. And I thought, "May the Force be with you" meant "May God be with you."

    After leaving the Hasidic world, I spent seven years in various stages of decay. I slept in a tent in Bushwick for several months, lived in a rented Volkswagen Jetta for as long as my credit card limit allowed and crashed with friends. I starved in the harsh street of New York City. When I used my last subway fare to make my way to my sister's (one of eleven siblings) house for leftovers from Shabbat meals, she wouldn't let me in the house because I was wearing jeans.

    When I went on dates, I had nothing in common with the women. I knew nothing about their culture, and they knew nothing about mine. I thought all shiksas were prostitutes, and they thought all Hasidim were landlords and diamond dealers.

    Let me answer some revealing questions about Hasidic Judaism. Does it withhold a broad education from their children in order to keep the children narrow-minded and uneducated? Yes. Does it vilify the outside world in order to keep its members from joining it? Definitely. Does it have a fear and/or doomsday element to it? Of course. Is there ex-communication for those who dare to leave? Oh yeah.

    I still have not received anything past a 5th grade education. In fact, since I never attended a regular school, I don't actually know what a 5th grade education is -- I just picked a grade that seemed right. I don't know what algebra is; I know I can Google it but I wasn't made to care enough to do so.

    continued below

  2. For most of my life I believed that all non Jews hate us and want to kill us. I believed that all goyim are murderers, rapists, degenerates and dirty second-class citizens. Of course, they/we aren't but I was taught that in order to make the secular lifestyle less appealing. I was told horrible things would happen to me in this world and the "next world" if I leave. I was told I would end up a criminal or drug addict. Many members of my family refuse to speak to me to this day.

    I have had to transition both out of Hasidism and transition into mainstream culture. I have had to find a replacement for the void left by the lack of community and warmth. I had to replace my family, my friends and my moral compass. It was hard leaving everything behind but it was even harder to find something to replace it all with.

    Thankfully, as an actor, my professional community is very friendly and inclusive (albeit competitive). I've replaced my biological family with actors and Footsteps members. I have managed to date, to have my heart broken, to have broken some hearts and to grow because of all of it.

    I get asked all the time: "Are you happy now?" The answer is an unequivocal, "Yes!" I have friends who love me for who I am, for who I was and for who I am trying to become.

    Career-wise, it seems I have sought the path of most resistance, deciding to work in a field full of multi-talented human specimens with high cheekbones and jaguar physiques. I'm five foot seven inches, unathletic and have a heavy Yiddish accent. And yet, I've been getting work. My latest film, "Felix and Meira," just beat David Cronenberg at the Toronto International Film Festival for "Best Canadian Feature Film," and I won "Best Actor" at the Torino Film Festival. Next, I will appear in a recurring role in the upcoming season of "Transparent" on Amazon Prime.

    But those achievements pale in comparison to the responses I get from people within the Hasidic community who have snuck out to go see the film. They have been yearning to break away but have been told that if they do, they will end up in jail or in rehab, and they believed it. But now, they can counter that with success stories like mine and those of others like me.

    The Hasidic community isn't what it used to be even five years ago. With the Internet, every person has access to every flavor of every forbidden fruit his or her heart desires, including my story. It won't be long before the Empire falls. It might not fall completely, but it certainly will be forced to adapt to the 21st century.

    The Empire won't go down easy. The Empire will strike back. For evidence, watch the comments section below.


  3. In Israel former ultraOrthodox Jews demand basic education


    BEERSHEBA, Israel (AP) — When Avihay Marciano completed his schooling, he didn't know how to use a computer or speak English and had only elementary math skills. Now, Marciano and 50 others who left the insular ultra-Orthodox community are suing the state, claiming they were denied a basic education and left lagging far behind secular Israelis.

    The case has shined a light on Israel's separate education system for the ultra-Orthodox, which experts say is keeping a sizeable chunk of Israelis from integrating into the workforce and is a ticking time bomb for the country's long-term economic health.

    "The state has abandoned us," said Marciano, 26. "I sat for years in a yeshiva, I studied day and night, and at the end of the day I left empty-handed."

    Israel's cloistered but politically powerful ultra-Orthodox community has for decades maintained a separate education system, where boys and girls study holy texts and secular studies take a distant back seat. Boys study secular subjects less than their non-Orthodox peers and only through seventh grade. Girls spend more time on secular studies, but aren't taught skills needed for work.

    The government, historically dependent on ultra-Orthodox kingmakers to form government coalitions, allowed the community to establish the separate, state-funded school system. It also gives generous welfare payments to thousands of ultra-Orthodox men who shun work, spending their days instead immersed in religious study.

    Steep unemployment, believed to hover around 50 percent, coupled with a high birthrate has fueled deep poverty among the ultra-Orthodox as well as bitterness among the secular Jewish majority. With families of eight to 10 children commonplace, more than a quarter of all Israeli first graders today are ultra-Orthodox.

    They make up about 10 percent of Israel's 8 million citizens and are among the country's fastest-growing populations. Their numbers are expected to swell to more than a quarter of the population by 2059, according to the Shoresh Institution, a think tank.

    The lawsuit includes 53 plaintiffs, all educated under the ultra-Orthodox system but who have since become secular and don't have the skills to earn a university degree or find a decent paying job. In the secular world, these young adults are often shunned by their parents and are forced to fend for themselves financially while studying.

    They are demanding that the state compensate them for their struggle to catch up to other Israelis. They also want the state to create and fund a program for Israelis who leave the Orthodox world, estimated to number between hundreds and tens of thousands, allowing them to fill in their educational gap. Such a program currently exists for ultra-Orthodox men and women who have remained in the community but want to beef up their educational credentials.

    continued below

  4. Marciano said he spent more than two years trying to brush up on his studies, one working full-time so he could finance his education and the other studying physics and math. At 26, Marciano is finally pursuing a university degree in computer science and communications.

    Yossi Klar, a spokesman for Out for Change, the group leading the lawsuit, said the state shirked its responsibility to provide a basic education to all.

    "If they want to go study and make a living, without math and English and basic subjects, it's very difficult. And the state is aware of this and chooses to ignore it because of political pressure," said the 23-year-old Klar, who is now completing courses so he can attend university.

    The ultra-Orthodox fiercely oppose attempts at reform. A law passed by the previous government to speed up ultra-Orthodox enlistment into Israel's military, from which many were exempt from compulsory service, is slowly being undone by the current government, which is propped up by two ultra-Orthodox parties. Greater participation in the military is seen by many as a way to fast track the ultra-Orthodox into the workforce.

    Experts have long warned that a separate education system and the absence of the ultra-Orthodox in the workforce threaten Israel's long-term economic prospects.

    "If we'll leave the situation as it is, when these people are not being educated, they are not contributing enough to Israeli security and to Israeli society, and to Israeli economy, we are facing quite a problem in the near future," said Yedidia Stern, an expert on religion and state at the Israel Democracy Institute think tank. He called the plight of the former ultra-Orthodox a "tragedy," saying they are forced to start their lives "not from zero but from minus."

    Ultra-Orthodox leaders say any changes to the inward-looking education system would threaten a centuries-old way of life and disrupt a tradition that has served as the very bedrock of Judaism for thousands of years. Ultra-Orthodox legislators declined to comment.

    Shmuel Poppenheim, an ultra-Orthodox activist, said the case could force the community to ask itself tough questions about the way it educates its children.

    "We are saying that we are teaching values, a conservative way of life, tools that will bring a person to the heights of traditional Jewish morals and values. And all of a sudden there is a public, a large community of people that is saying that the values we are talking about don't help them," he said. "It's a dilemma."

    The Education Ministry was expected to file a response to the lawsuit in the coming weeks, likely sending it to court.

    Klar said he expects the lawsuit will face vehement opposition from ultra-Orthodox leaders. But he said helping ultra-Orthodox youth study secular subjects can only benefit Israeli society.

    "If it will teach English and basic studies to people who are interested to go out into the workforce, they could go out and earn a living respectably and become productive citizens," said Klar. "Give people the tools they need so they won't be poor."


  5. Haredim Use Internet as Much as Other Israelis Do

    Ultra-Orthodox Jews go online to gossip, share views and let down their hair, but usually under fake names, a recent study shows.

    by Ruth Schuster, Haaretz May 11, 2016

    Their rabbis don’t like it, but ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel surf the internet like mad, a recent study shows. Some use their home computers, but since Haredi schools prohibit internet connections in the households of their students – and most ultra-Orthodox families have children – the average Haredi accesses the web using a mobile device.

    Of Israel’s population of nearly 8.5 million, 74 percent are Jews, 20.8 percent are Arab and 5.2 percent are “other.”
    Haredim account for around 750,000 of Israel’s total Jewish population of 6.37 million. It’s the fastest-growing Jewish subgroup, increasing by about 5 percent a year, compared to 1.7 percent for the Jewish population as a whole.

    While ultra-Orthodox Jews surf the internet a lot, they don’t do it openly, the study done at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev shows – and a lot of their attention span is given to hiding their own identity while trying to guess who other surfers from their community might be.

    Internet had been broadly prohibited in the ultra-Orthodox world because of the potential for distraction from the holy life. But solutions like “kosher” smartphones were clearly unable to keep pace with innovation and the rabbis have all but given up on outright bans.

    The upshot has been the proliferation of sites and content for the Haredi surfer, which is now acknowledged not only to exist, but to be very active. The Ben-Gurion University study, which set out to characterize the Haredi surfer, shows that Israel’s ultra-Orthodox are online as much as their less religiously observant peers.

    However, when surfing and posting, the Haredi users almost always use a “nick” – short for nickname, really, a false identity, which is much less common in the general surfing population. That in turn has led to popular games in Haredi internet circles of trying to guess the identity of the person hiding behind a persona. (“Who’s behind that nick?”)

    Behind their masks, ultra-Orthodox internet users consult with one another, gossip madly and discuss a vast range of topics touching on their community, their thoughts and anguishes, emotions and needs, politics, halakha (Jewish religious law) and their experiences with peers in the online Haredi world.
    The internet for them is a place to be relatively free, to unleash themselves, doctoral student Sarit Okun found. The ultra-Orthodox surfers are also characterized by surfing at all hours, the study found.

    Even if they use the internet on the sly, the secret of Haredi surfing is so out that major Israeli companies, like the Bezeq telecommunications company, are creating ads that target the Haredi market. (A Bezeq ad that can be seen on YouTube shows charmingly how a housing development for the ultra-Orthodox community would have been ruined by a virus on the hard drive where the data was saved, had the data not been backed up in the Bezeq data cloud, ta da.)

    Observing the trend, last year Google Israel held the first conference of its kind for Haredi online advertisers, which it called “Friday night over cholent and digital.”

    As for the Haredi users themselves, they may hide behind aliases but they are using the medium to talk about their own real lives and opinions in clear terms that wouldn’t be accepted in their nonvirtual environment, the Ben-Gurion University study found.

    The conclusion is that the rabbis may have fought the internet revolution tooth and nail but it’s changing the way young ultra-Orthodox people live and opening them not only to new employment opportunities, but to new thoughts.