ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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Inside Story

Religion has outsized role in Israel, yet most of its Jews aren’t really observant

Over three-quarters of country’s Jews define themselves as secular or traditional; ultra-Orthodox birthrate is 6.5; some 4,000 Haredim leave their communities each year

Ilan Ben Zion

Ilan Ben Zion is an AFP reporter and a former news editor at The Times of Israel.

Religious and secular women take refuge from a summer heat wave at a public beach on one of three days in the week designated for women in Tel Aviv, Israel on July 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)
Religious and secular women take refuge from a summer heat wave at a public beach on one of three days in the week designated for women in Tel Aviv, Israel on July 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)

AP — Israel is a nation perennially swept up in religious fervor and conflict. And yet, strikingly, a large portion of its population is secular, and even its insular ultra-Orthodox community loses a steady stream of members who tire of its strict religious rules.

The country is home to about 7 million Jews, almost half of the global Jewish population. But Jewish identity is a complex blend of religious and ethnonational identity; most Israeli Jews are not diligent observers of Judaism.

An Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics survey published in 2021 found that among Israeli Jews over the age of 20, about 45 percent identified as secular or not religious, while 33% said they practiced “traditional” religious worship. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as Haredim in Hebrew, made up 10%.

For Naor Narkis and many other secular Israelis, their Jewish identity is cultural — defined by the Hebrew tongue and historical experience — rather than governed by traditional religious worship.

Narkis, a Tel Aviv native, founded Enlightened Israel after last year’s parliamentary elections when ultra-Orthodox and religious ultranationalists helped bring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back into office. Narkis says the organization aims to champion liberal values and educate ultra-Orthodox Israelis about them, and advocates for a clear separation of religion and state, including allowing public transit on the Sabbath.

“I don’t think there’s a big difference between a secular Jew living in Tel Aviv and a person living in New York whose parents are Christian but isn’t religious,” Narkis said. “What defines us is our language, and our heritage, but doesn’t involve faith in a god.”

He cited Ahad Ha’am, a pioneer of modern Hebrew literature in the late 19th century, who depicted Jewish identity as a cultural heritage rather than religion.

Narkis’ group gives out free smartphones to Haredim who want them — since January, it’s distributed 3,000 smartphones.

Haredi Jews walk past a sign calling on women to dress modestly in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem on June 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg, File)

The ultra-Orthodox adhere to a strict interpretation of Jewish law and a code of conduct that governs everything from what to eat to which socks to wear. The community often eschews smartphones and the internet, which they see as a gateway to inappropriate ideas.

Yet each year, around 4,000 people in Israel — one of every seven students graduating from the Haredi education system — leave the ultra-Orthodox community, according to Out for Change, an organization that helps former Haredi Israelis integrate into society and the workforce. That figure is growing each year, even as the ultra-Orthodox birthrate is 6.5 children per woman.

Among those who chose to leave is Tamar Shabtai.

For the first two decades of her life, she followed the rules. She kept the Sabbath, ate kosher food and dressed strictly modest, as her ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem expected.

But in the past eight years, Shabtai, 29, has left that behind.

Although she only lives three miles from her ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, she likened the experience of leaving the community to “immigrating to another country.”

“Community life is really the most important element there,” Shabtai said of the ultra-Orthodox world. “Anyone who doesn’t fit this framework won’t do well really. Either one feels all the time that they don’t belong and has to fight for their place. Or one chooses to leave — and then there are other prices for leaving the familiar community and starting all over again.”

Tamar Shabtai holds a Jewish prayer book at her home in Mevaseret Zion near Jerusalem, August 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Those who exit the ultra-Orthodox community face major challenges. Families and communities often shun those who chart a different course. Many Haredi schools don’t teach subjects such as English or mathematics, making joining the modern workforce a challenge. Haredi men and women who qualified for government-subsidized training programs for tech jobs suddenly find themselves ineligible once they leave the community.

Jerusalem is about a third ultra-Orthodox. Dotted around downtown are several groups that offer social networking events for ex-Haredim. Out for Change provides that, as well as resources, classes, workshops and counseling to help people navigate their brave new world.

“Until now the state looked at them from the Haredi narrative — dropouts, weaklings — and that even if we try to help them, it’s through the welfare prism,” said Nadav Rosenblatt, Out for Change’s director. “They could have stayed Haredim but chose to leave. They come with motivation, they have aspirations to integrate in the workforce and higher education.”

Shabtai’s departure was a gradual process. It began when she started post-secondary education outside the ultra-Orthodox community, where she encountered Israelis of many varieties.

She is the sixth of eight siblings; two others are no longer ultra-Orthodox. Shabtai said she lost childhood friendships when she chose to leave, and that decision has strained relations with her parents.

Visiting her parents’ home in pants, rather than a long skirt as is customary among Orthodox women, does not bother them, she said, “but Shabbat is something that is painful to them.”

“If I come it’s only once in a while, and then I go home with a car — I park it outside the neighborhood,” she said. “It hurts, both for them and for me.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men of the Kiryat Sanz Hasidic sect pray on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea as they participate in a Tashlich ceremony in Netanya, September 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File)

Some ex-Haredim maintain religious lifestyles outside the strictures of the community, some preserve some traditional practices common among many Israeli Jews, while others adopt a secular outlook.

Among the handfuls of former Haredi Jews, most still maintain some kind of religious lifestyle, according to an Out for Change poll. Only 21% of those surveyed identified as secular; 45% said they are still religiously observant — just not ultra-Orthodox.

“The reasons for leaving, contrary to what many people think, are in most cases social and not theological,” said Gilad Malach, a researcher focusing on the ultra-Orthodox community at the Israel Democracy Institute. Many of those giving up Haredi life cite social pressure that doesn’t allow individual expression, he said.

On the inside of Shabtai’s right wrist, she has a small tattoo with the Hebrew words for “I don’t know.” Not only are tattoos taboo according to Jewish custom, but the uncertainty contained in that phrase would be discouraged as well.

“What isn’t there to know?” she said. “There is God, there are rules, there’s nothing not to know.”

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