Growing up as one of 12 siblings in the remote ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Tifrach in Israel, Bar Mayer never touched a boy, went to the movies, or revealed the skin below her collarbones. When she was 17 years old, she removed her socks while scrubbing the floor at home one hot night. Her mother sent her to her room for exposing her feet.
A few weeks after this incident, Bar showed up on her brother's doorstep in Jerusalem. He'd already broken with the community. She announced to him, "This is it. I'm not going back." Fifteen years later, she still lives in Jerusalem. But sharing beers with me, she now wears skin-tight pants and lights a cigarette.
"You don't go around with a sign: 'I am ex-ultra-Orthodox,'" laughs Bar when I comment on her metamorphosis. But despite her outward appearance, she still carries her past life with her. Since leaving, she's joined another group—the XO (ex-ultra-Orthodox) community.
The XOs are a movement of Jews in Israel and the United States united in their rejection of the ultra-Orthodox world. According to Hillel, an organization which supports people through the transition, around 1,000 people between the ages of 18 and 35 leave their communities each year. They estimate that 60 percent adopt a less stringent Jewish framework while 40 percent abandon religion altogether. With the number of XOs rising, many families ostracize those who have left. Some even "sit shiva," which is the seven-day Jewish mourning ritual for death.
"Leaving the orthodox world basically means cutting all ties to your former world," explains Yair Panet, a volunteer with Hillel. "Most families don't allow any form of contact with 'leavers.'" Bar is not dead to her parents, they speak only when necessary, a few times a year at most. The severance was painful, but Bar says she "understood that the ultra-Orthodox path was one of getting married, having kids, and staying in the community for the rest of [her] life, there was no other option."
Many XOs are raised in total isolation from modern culture. As a result, they've never used the internet, watched TV, read a newspaper, or worn regular clothes. At schools in these insular communities, religious studies take precedence over basic education like math, languages, and science. Facts like evolution are denied in favor of creationism (before leaving Bar says she had not heard of a dinosaur) with up to eight hours a day spent on Jewish teachings and just two to four on secular subjects.
Bar and 63 other XOs are currently taking legal action against the state of Israel for depriving them of a basic secular education. The group's members, aged between 18 and 25, are suing the government on the grounds that it failed its duty to educate every child in Israel by providing 75 percent of funding to seminaries without supervising what they taught their 400,000 students.
"We hope for the state to firstly recognize the wrongdoing and secondly give us funds to go through completing our school, or even open a school specially for ex-Orthodox," explains Yossi Klar, an XO and spokesperson for Out for Change, the organization that filed the lawsuit last month.
"At the end, it hurts the state when people don't have a good education and work in low income jobs," he adds. According to a 2013 report from the National Insurance Institute, 66 percent of ultra-Orthodox Jews live below the poverty line and receive state allowances.
Mea Sharim in Jerusalem is the epicenter of the ultra-Orthodox world. In its seven block radius, shops mainly sell religious books and paraphernalia, strictly kosher food, and black and white garb. Posters ask visitors not to enter in "immodest clothing." The suburb has become something of a tourist attraction. A village in the heart of the most disputed city on Earth, Mea Sharim is just a minutes' walk from the outside world, but aside from the occasional excursion to a shoe store or the Arab market, residents rarely leave.
While Mea Sharim and fundamentalist communities like it in the diaspora allow only "kosher" cellphones (which are internet-free), the otherwise ubiquitous use of technology is making it increasingly challenging to prevent outside influence. Where Bar and her teenage girlfriends snuck magazines into their bedrooms, today, young ultra-Orthodox discover the forbidden and godless internet.
"I met Yossi on Facebook," explains Racheli*, an XO who abandoned one of the most-extreme Jewish sects, the Neturei Karta, because of what she believed was her inability to conceive. "I started asking him, 'How do you leave?' 'How does it work?' He gave me the courage."
Married at 17, Racheli had little understanding of reproductive anatomy. "On our wedding night, we realized neither of us had a clue," she says. "My teacher had told me that he would know, but he didn't... According to Jewish law, you must have sex in the missionary position, unless you get special permission from the Rabbi. There's a rule that you're supposed to kiss at the end, so we did, once. After the first time you have sex, you are 'unholy,' so the man can't be with you, or touch you. He must leave the bed immediately."
The fact that Racheli's partner had only ejaculated inside her twice didn't stop her from starting fertility treatment. "My womb was my family's measure of me," she adds. The bible states that procreation is the ultimate act of God. Masturbation and contraception are forbidden and women are expected to bear and raise children till their bodies' give out. As a woman who could not fall pregnant, Racheli felt like the ultimate failure.
Groups like Hillel and It Gets Besser and Footsteps in the United States provide online support for those looking to leave, as well as an emergency hotline, legal assistance, counseling, and help with education, employment, and housing. Hillel estimates that approximately one in 30 people who come through their doors have a diagnosed psychiatric condition, while many more require counseling to adapt to the expectations and norms of modern life.
"The journey away from Ultra-Orthodoxy is so fraught that some simply don't make it," wrote XO author Shulem Deen following the suicide of another leaver, Faigy Mayer, in New York in July.
"Faigy dreaded homelessness. I have known many ex-Haredim like her, who over the years, as they tried to build their lives, felt in their isolation the ground beneath them shaking, felt the vertigo inherent in the transition from a restriction-filled life to one of self-determination," he wrote.
Other XOs, like Anne*, are haunted by past experiences in their communities—reporting drug use and emotional and physical trauma.
"It seemed like a normal religious environment," she says, "but there is a dark side in Mea Sharim—I would come home to see people who had overdosed, dying in the yard. This was normal..."
"As a child, many religious people molested me on the way to school—people with families, and children. I felt that they could smell my fear, that it attracted them... At school, we learnt about modesty, not to draw men to our 'forbidden areas.' They put it in your head that if you're not modest, they will become immodest," says the 21-year-old. "I was sure God would come soon. I was sure there would be salvation."
Racheli admits similar feelings of shame. "As a child, I closed my eyes every time I was naked. I never looked down at my own body. I was disgusted by it. I felt it was a sin."
Today, the 24-year-old and her now partner, Yossi* partake regularly in group sex and nudist gatherings. "In my mind, whether I wear a T-shirt, or go naked in the street, there is no difference." she says. "Once it's broken, it's broken."
"I never thought I'd end up in a place like that," adds Yossi. "But comparing it to the world I come from, it's all forbidden."
*Last names omitted to protect privacy.
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