Sent from a regular reader and commentor…
(Haaretz) Recent Suicides Among Ex-Haredim In Israel Shock, Trouble Friends, Professionals Alike : “The young people who gathered Sunday at Jerusalem’s Funeral Home were unfortunately no strangers to the place. Only Thursday they had been there for the funeral of M., a friend who had committed suicide, and now they were there for A., who had also taken her own life.
Both of the dead had been in their 20s and grown up religious, but had chosen to leave the observant way of life. According to those working with Haredi young people who decide to leave their communities, seven such young adults have committed suicide over the past 18 months.…” So begins a new report on suicide among ex-haredim.
It seems there is even a bigger problem with these poor neshomas (souls) struggling to find a way to live, which often ends in suicide. This is why I think a totally radical and different approach to this crisis is urgent. Why can't these neshomas be treated as one would treat their child if s/he had a disability, such as Downs or Sclerosis or ___________. The family all together would be involved in rehabilitation/treatment ......... Instead of ostracizing, disowning, and condemning.
Throwing a child out on the street, defenseless and abandoned is cruel and anti-Torah principles. However, in some cases supporting the child living not with the family (as this could deepen the conflict and recovery) while they work thru their issues (is appropriate). A child is not a tissue!
I have not experienced this first hand with a child as you have, but MY childhood was not the usual, and experienced many difficulties, hardly ever happy, out on my own early. B"H because of my special neshoma I was able (guided by HaShem) to weather many a challenge and was drawn to Frum observance. I can say I was truly "guided" from Shomayim.
So, there is some comparison here from which to speak with regard to this devastating crisis.
Reb Akiva responds: Doubtless in many of these cases the children have mental health issues, or learning disabilities, or simply a personality type that is a poor match for their parents or family. The more narrow confines of Jewish orthodox religious life provide less room to be wild or weird, or troubled, without social impact. Further, religious school systems are rarely sufficiently funded to offer a wide range of special ed. classes and in school therapy. And parents with large families have less overall resources to throw at their child’s problems.
Yet even so, as any parent of a special needs child will tell you, a point can be reached where the needs exceed the family’s capabilities. The failing in this case may not be giving up on the child, but rather in not turning to government resources to assist and/or hand off the problem.
This is understandable, if not desirable in this situation. The orthodox Jewish communities operate “a bit apart” and “a bit isolated”, so they both try to solve their community problems within the community (resulting in a large number of charitable organizations to help in an amazingly large number of wonderful ways) and are not integrated with or well familiar with government resources.
When the problem becomes apparent enough, some of those community charity organizations as well as rabbonim will begin to coordinate government resources for the community and begin to educate the community on better measures to take – as well as coordinating community resources. But it takes time, often a generation – and many lives are hurting in the meantime.
The Haaretz article does not delve into why so many ex-haredim kill themselves (I’m not sure reports of 10 qualify as “so many”, and Haaretz is a source to pick up on anything that sounds bad in orthodox religious circles) – although the report does mention that many had been disowned by their families – (and does not mention ) if that number is greater statistically than current haredim or for all Israelis. (It does appear to be an exceedingly high number, but the sample size is also exceedingly small, which skews he numbers’ meaning.)
The reality is that change is almost always hard. Change that involves losing all or most of your friends and family is even harder. To wake up one morning and suddenly have no one to talk to, no one to confide in, no one who cares about you can be devastating – and that is in part why haredim often shun their children who stray religiously. The fear of what might happen keeps some from leaving and the actual loneliness of leaving causes others to return.
Reb Akiva responds: I disagree. While it may be used as a verbal threat, the “shunning” you refer to is all about separating from the ongoing damage to the family. It’s not “shunning”, it’s divorce. This family member (the child) is taking actions that are increasingly seen as personally destructive, and damage to other family members is an all too real concern.
Let me be straightforward: These children don’t just “stop being religious”, they…
- Get involved with heavy drinking and smoking.
- Using illegal drugs.
- Get involved with members of the opposite sex, often with extreme casualness and frequency.
- Get involved in crime.
- Sometimes actively exhibit mental health symptoms such as cutting, extreme dieting, etc.
- Loudly show off who they are with loud inappropriate music shared with the home and neighborhood, crazy hair cuts and colorings, piercings, tattoos, body modification, etc.
Besides wanting to protect the family and the innocence of younger siblings, such activities result in calls from hospitals (your child is here with xxxxx, you have to consent to xxxxx procedure), calls from local establishments (your child is banned from our establishment for stealing / vandalism, etc), and visits from the police (we have a search warrant for your child’s room for drugs / stolen property, etc).
Certainly this is not every case. But if a child decides they simply don’t want to be Jewish orthodox religious anymore and therefore they stop attending synagogue, stop praying and stop making blessings over their food – certainly the parents are going to be disappointed. But they’re not going to be seriously worried about the family impact or throwing the child out.
Some of these people (former off the derech children) were probably depressed before they left and some were probably victims of child sex abuse and/or neglect, as well.
The story notes that Hillel (not the same group as the North American campus organization), an Israeli organization that helps haredim who leave (similar to what Footsteps does in America), is underfunded. By the way, what it does not mention is that, in Israel, nonprofits like Hillel fill the roles that government really should be filling, and the government – in part due to haredi pressure – barely funds Hillel. So ex-haredim are hurt because haredi politicians and rabbis don’t want their transition to secular life to be successful. And some of those ex-haredim die as a result.
Reb Akiva responds: I think this is a ridiculous statement. EVERY “purpose” organization says it’s underfunded – especially when they’re begging for prioritization in government funding. Given that State taxes in Israel are EXTREMELY high, you can certainly say that they haven’t presented their case well and/or are considered by the political class as not critical. As you are going to point out in the numbers below, this organization is servicing 0.00006% of the population. Hard to argue that’s a significant need – even if it’s very important to those in that situation.
Many people leave haredi communities and do not suffer from extreme depression or other mental illness in the process or afterward. But some do. Hillel says it has 450 currently registered members, with 20 more people each month asking for help to leave the haredi community leave the haredi community. Three of the seven ex-haredim who killed themselves were reportedly Hillel members. Hillel’s director Yair Hass says his goal now is to stop these suicides from becoming a wave. (The most recent suicide appears to have been part of a suicide pact between friends.)
The government’s goal should be to immediately on an emergency basis grant the funding to help make that goal a reality.
Reb Akiva responds: I completely disagree. If the government is going to throw money at the problem, let it set up special offices to provide free or discount youth mental health counseling within the charedi community, to help parents solve these children’s problems BEFORE they grow into nightmares.
By the way, don’t think this problem doesn’t happen in reverse. What happens when a child from a non-observant Jewish family or chiloni Israeli family decides to become observantly Jewish religious? The same alienation from friends and family. The difference is the orthodox religious community steps in and helps the child acclimate to their new environment, often times even acting as surrogate family.
Why doesn’t the (Israeli) government provide funding for these people, those becoming religiously observant Jews, to adjust?