An ex-Haredi finds his way with the help of Hillel – The Right to Choose, a new grantee of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation.
by Merav Barr Grindlinger
At first glance, with earbuds snuggly in place and sunglasses perched atop his head, Ido Lev, a 34-year-old software engineer, looks like a typical Tel Avivian. But Ido has had anything but a typical life. In fact, he wasn’t born Ido Lev. He was born with a different name, into a Hasidic stream of ultra-Orthodox Judaism deep in the heart of Bnei Brak, only four miles away from liberal Tel Aviv, and almost exclusively inhabited by Haredi Jews.
“Mine was among the more fanatical of ultra-orthodox streams,” Ido explains, “not overtly anti-zionist but passively so… We didn’t vote in elections, we spoke Yiddish at home, and we obviously didn’t go to the army.”
Ido notes that Haredi life has rigors not unlike aspects of military life. “In the ultra-Orthodox life that I led, religion dictated every minute detail of life, even which shoe must be laced first in the morning, and in which direction. In some ways, I was a kind of a soldier.”
At age 22, as a husband and father of two boys, Ido began questioning the ways of his world, a world he describes as “a tight-knit community where no one went hungry, where you are always cared for and everyone relies on each other for support.”
“I wasn’t scared to question at all,” says Ido. “We were always taught that Judaism invites questioning, and that the answers are always to be found within our religion.” Unwittingly, Ido arrived at the question few in his community ever feel the need to ask: “Do I believe?” The moment he arrived at his personal truth, he no longer belonged. “From that very moment onward, everything collapsed, like a house of cards.”
Ido fled from his safe, familial world at great personal cost and slept next to the homeless on the floors of the Dizengoff Center mall in Tel Aviv. Alone, banished from his family and community, without any usable social or employment skills, and with the math skills of an 11-year-old, Ido was in dire straits. His story resonates with the many hundreds of Yotzim Leshe’elah Jews (meaning “those who have left to question”) in Israeli society, referring to Haredim who no longer maintain absolute theological certainties and choose to live a secular life. While no official data exists, surveys from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics indicate that this number is increasing significantly every year. The decision to leave their close-knit communities without any support on the “other side” is life-changing, and can sometimes be life-threatening. In the past 18 months alone, seven Yotzim have committed suicide in Israel, unable to reconcile the hardships.
But Ido wasn’t aware that he did have a place to turn. Founded in 1992 and now funded by the SF Federation, Hillel – The Right to Choose is the only organization in Israel committed to embracing Haredim who have decided to leave their world for one that extols the freedom of choice, and furnishing them with the instant support needed to survive and eventually become productive members of the Israeli mainstream.
A chance visit to a kiosk one year after his departure from the Haredi world would change Ido’s fate, as he lived on the brink of homelessness while struggling to make ends meet on his meager McDonald’s salary. He happened upon Hillel after seeing the phone number on the back page of a local newspaper.
“Hillel rescued me,” Ido plainly states. “I called the number and immediately met a Hillel volunteer. After a year of trying to survive alone, it was the first time I could tell my story to someone who understood and could offer some real help.”
Ido took shelter with others like him in one of Hillel’s four subsidized apartments, an immediate alternative to sleeping in public parks and shopping malls those first nights after breaking away. Hillel’s communal apartments are located in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and are extended to Yotzim for an initial 2-3 months upon their final exit from their communities.
Once off the streets, each Yotze is paired with a trained Hillel volunteer who assists him or her for years, acting as a mentor and confidant in a foreign world. The mentor provides a supportive relationship to deal with the loneliness of someone who has lost all contact with his or her family, and must deal with the guilt of leaving behind loved ones who pay the price of their defection with less attractive marriage arrangements, among other repercussions.
Hillel Executive Director, and former Haredi, Yair Hass explains, “We are looking at people who choose, from a young age, to pave their way independently, despite the steep price imposed by the society they were raised in. They are strong, with a huge potential and have definite characteristics of leadership. We meet them at a vulnerable and critical point in their lives, during which it will be determined if their potential can be realized.”
The trained mentors are there to advise and support on issues as important as employment, and as mundane as how to write a check. But, most importantly, the mentor is a person who cares about the general well-being of the Yotze, who also calls just to reach out and ask, “How are you feeling today?”
“Once they are off the streets, the next step is to focus on the future,” Hass explains, “assisting with drafting to the army when appropriate, and with bridging the educational gaps, which is mandatory.”
As Haredi schools are exempt from teaching the state-mandated core curriculum in math, science, history, geography, and English studies, the Yotzim are burdened with the need to makeup for years of rigorous exclusive Torah study, and must prepare at least two years to complete their matriculation tests (Bagrut), without which it is nearly impossible to find employment in Israel.
Rakee’a of the Nettiot network, another Federation grantee, works within Haredi communities to revolutionize academic studies for young students by weaving Torah studies into math and science textbooks in order to improve graduates’ capacity to attain full employment. Unfortunately, Rakee’a textbooks did not make it into Ido’s yeshiva.
“It’s tough to cram in two years what everyone else has learned in six, while working and without any family support,” Ido adds. Ido is grateful for the opportunity provided by Hillel, which also grants scholarships to bridge these educational gaps, and for the chance to continue his studies. One hundred such scholarships were allocated last year by the organization. “Before I found Hillel as a new Yotze, I never thought about education. I was working so hard for so little that I didn’t think that working and getting an education at the same time was even an option.”
Hillel introduces ex-Haredim to the wide spectrum of employment choices to be found in the secular world, opportunities a Yotze has never before been exposed to. “I was totally motivated to succeed, but I had no practical know-how of how to do it.” Together they build a career path. “Hillel’s vocational counseling and guidance was crucial, in many ways even more than the financial help they gave me,” Ido said.
The employment arm of Hillel is the focus of the Federation’s funding. Today, 80% of clients served by Hillel have found steady employment and are self-sufficient; Ido has been working at a bank as a software engineer for the past three years. “If it wasn’t for Hillel, it’s possible I’d still be a waiter.” Today, the majority of Hillel members choose to enlist in the army, recognizing it as a melting pot of Israeli society that provides the Yotze with a crash course on what it means to be non-Haredi and Israeli.
Undeniably, the social network that Hillel provides is one of the most important aspects of the organization. “Suddenly, I realized I wasn’t alone,” Ido says. The sharp contrast between the supportive community they came from, in which no one goes unnoticed, to the secular world of anonymity can make for harrowing loneliness. “Hillel gave me a sense of family, a home, a community and helped to somewhat fill the void that my leaving had created.”
Through social programming that includes Friday night dinners and the occasional day trip, the Yotzim find the crucial social support they crave.
“Even a simple call from my mentor asking me how I was doing meant a lot,” Ido recalls. “I felt someone actually cared about me and my well-being. It made a huge difference.”
Ido didn’t know of Hillel or its hotline when he needed it most – prior to leaving Bnei Brak. Open every evening and staffed by trained volunteers, the hotline is usually the questioning Haredi’s first point of contact with the organization. Hillel receives approximately 1,000 calls a year from Haredim who ask questions, sometimes in whispers, about secular life.
Hillel in no way encourages Haredim to abandon their way of life, and only assists persons who make their own decision to enter the secular world.
Today, Ido is on the other end of the line responding to Haredim who call, and laments not knowing of the hotline at that crucial time just before he left his religious life.“ If I only had someone to speak to before I left, I may have received the advice I give today to fathers and mothers on how to leave and possibly salvage a relationship with their children.” Tragically, Ido hasn’t seen his boys in over eight years, and chooses not to involve the police to force visitation.
After 11 years of hard work, today Ido is able to give back to the organization that rescued him.
“The first thing I wanted to do once I felt like I was firmly standing on my own was to give back to Hillel.” Ido is not alone. With a network of 250 volunteers, the organization is mainly volunteer-run with over 30% of Yotzim who receive help from Hillel compelled to give back to the organization once they are able. This ensures that the bulk of money donated to the organization can be transferred directly to the Yotzim by way of rent assistance, scholarships, and employment placement.
Like all Haredim who choose to leave their world, Ido’s four mile journey was at times impossibly difficult and incredibly lonely. No one who leaves the Haredi world for a secular life is spared this heavy price.
“Anyone attempting this transition without the backing of an organization like Hillel, which provides immediate assistance and long-term support, has little-to-no-chance of surviving,” states Ido.
Luckily, Ido and hundreds of others did find Hillel and can now work to better the plight of others whose questioning will result in a painful decision to leave their insular world for one of choice.
As for Ido, today he doesn’t consider whether or not he believes in a higher being. “I no longer need to answer this question in order to live a happy life.”
Merav Barr Grindlinger is a Marketing Associate at the SF-based Jewish Community Federation.