As the virus has rampaged through Israel in recent months, it has shaken the assumptions of some in the insular ultra-Orthodox world, swelling the numbers of those who decide they want out.
Organizations that help ultra-Orthodox who have left the fold navigate their transition from the highly structured, rules-based lifestyle into modern Israeli society have noted a rise in demand for their services.
Experts attribute the departures to a breakdown of supervision and routine, a rise in internet use during the pandemic and generally more time for questioning and self-discovery.
For many, breaking away means being cut off by their families and leaving a tight-knit support system for an unfamiliar culture. In extreme cases, parents of offspring who leave sit shiva, observing the traditional mourning rituals as if they were dead.
These exits were just what the ultra-Orthodox rabbis had feared and why some were so insistent on keeping their religious education institutions open in violation of lockdown regulations. In a letter calling for girls’ schools to reopen, Leah Kolodetzki, the daughter of one leading rabbi, said that in her father’s opinion “boredom leads to sin” and puts girls in “severe spiritual danger.”
Israel Cohen, a prominent ultra-Orthodox political commentator, played down concerns about the increasing flight from the ultra-Orthodox, known as Haredi in Hebrew. But he acknowledged that the Haredi leadership was afraid of losing control.
“There was a sense that the coronavirus caused not only physical harm, in terms of sickness and death, but also spiritual harm,” he said.
The pandemic has only accelerated a growing trend.
Even before the coronavirus crisis, the number of young adults leaving ultra-Orthodox communities had reached about 3,000 a year, according to a study by the Israel Democracy Institute, based on data up to 2018.
The desertions do not threaten the Haredi demographic clout. The more than one million Haredim account for over 12 percent of the population, and their high birthrate more than makes up for the numbers who are leaving.
Studies show that many leavers do not abandon Judaism altogether but are seeking more individualism and the ability to make their own choices about their lives.
But deserters often find themselves in a netherworld, estranged from their families, community and the only way of life they knew and, lacking a secular education, ill equipped to deal with the outside world.