Tamar Rotem, Israel's top reporter on the haredi community, used to write regularly for Ha'aretz. But then she stopped. Now, after a long hiatus, Rotem returns with a long, detailed report on people who, often in the dead of night, flee the haredi community.
Above: The Heller family one year ago, while they were still haredi
Give Ha'aretz lots of credit for publishing this new piece by Rotem. It's more than 5,300 words long – about three times longer the length of a normal Ha'aretz report. And that's a lot of space to give any single article. But Rotem's reporting is generally so good, the space allocation is well worth it:
Evening was beginning to fall on the playground that one sees from the balcony of the Heller family home in Beit Shemesh. Six-year-old Pini entered the house excited, his cheeks flushed. “Mom, I played with the ball,” he declared, speaking in Yiddish. There was an unmistakably triumphant tone in his words.
Yisrael Heller and his wife, Rachel “Cheli” Heller, exchanged a quick look. They were sitting at a table on the balcony, their 1-year-old baby cavorting between them. It looked like another ordinary day, as though a boy coming into the house holding a ball was an everyday event. In fact, it was one more sign of the revolution the family is undergoing.
In the closed Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community in which the Hellers lived until not long ago, children only came home from school at this time of the day, playing with a ball was beyond the pale and Hebrew was the language of the “Zionist heretics”: To speak it was strictly forbidden (other than as the holy tongue).
A few months ago, the Hellers and their four children left Ramat Beit Shemesh, a Haredi neighborhood within Beit Shemesh, a city between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They stole out from their apartment late at night, without telling family or friends. Their move had been preceded by an ugly wave of rumors, accompanied by pressure that pushed them into a corner and made their lives intolerable, until they were forced to leave ignominiously.
The target of the firestorm was Yisrael, head of the household and a man of power in the community. He had trimmed his beard and had gradually started to deviate from the community’s stringent dress code, referred to as the Yerushalmer [that is, "Jerusalemite," which is also the name of the sect] style. The members of the community are quick to spot the slightest change in shirt style or hat size; such behavior is considered a gross infringement of the rules and traditions to which it adheres.
“Within a single day, rumors spread that I was becoming a ‘questioner’ [giving up the religious life],” Heller relates now. “That I was studying ‘The Guide for the Perplexed’ [a forbidden text even though it is by Maimonides, the 12th-century Torah scholar] in Jerusalem every Sabbath eve, that men and women attended the tisch [a gathering of Hasidim around their rebbe] I went to, where I was playing a musical instrument. I started to receive threats, questions from functionaries. I realized that I was under surveillance.”
In their former small, insular community, identified with the most extreme sects of Haredi society, the disappearance of the Heller family is perceived as desertion, the crossing of a red line. Still, everyone expected them to return. Within hours, all 12 employees of his consulting firm resigned. Heller was not surprised: The move was intended to signal him that his livelihood would be harmed if he didn’t return to the straight-and-narrow. But he did not yield, nor did he beg for mercy.
“There is a great deal of fear. But after you contend with it, you feel good,” he says, a thin smile on his lips.…
Read it all here.