According to Yaakov Solomon, a haredi smoking cessation instructor from Beitar Illit, becoming addicted to cigarettes is very easy in the haredi society.
"Haredi women don't smoke at all, but with men it's a different story. A haredi child won't smoke at the Talmud Torah (elementary school age) of course, except maybe on Purim. Also in the ages of the small yeshiva (the equivalent of high school), smoking cases are rare. There is very tight supervision, and it's not seen favorably. But the moment one moves on to a big yeshiva – it's a different story.
"In general, haredi adolescents don’t have many rebellion options. The clothes are black and white, mitzvot are mitzvot, offenses are offenses. Cigarettes are still in the gray area in which youth can go against the flow, without violating religious and social rules. It's a small expression of independence that is still available to them," Salomon says.
Every year, an increasing number of young haredim join the circle of smokers, while the older generation finds it difficult to quit. A new program initiated by Meuhedet Health Services aims to combat the phenomenon by training smoking cessation instructors within the sector.
Salomon, who has a bachelor's degree in psychology, is one of the new training graduates.
First cigarette at age 13
He was never a smoker himself. "I'm one of those who didn’t become addicted. Although I arrived with a very positive approach and tried to smoke several times, in my case it just didn't catch on," he says.
Salomon studied in the Lithuanian haredi sector's flagship yeshiva, Ponevezh, and remembers the yeshiva's corridors and dining halls filled with smoke. "There were clear rules prohibiting smoking during studies inside the big hall, although it wasn't for medical reasons but rather out of respect for the place. In the hours after studies and at night, one could smoke freely."
Itzik, until recently a rabbi in the Mir Yeshiva who is currently studying for a master's degree in psychology, took up smoking regularly when he began his studies at the "big yeshiva." His first cigarette, like many of the sector members, was smoked at the age of 13 as part of the Purim holiday experience.
"We went to a kiosk, a group of kids, bought a pack and sat down to smoke. I think grownups saw us, but they didn't say a word. Obviously if my mother had seen us, it would have ended differently, but those days the awareness of the risks of smoking was much lower," he says.
Itzik bought his second cigarette at the age of 17. "The first year in a 'big yeshiva,' it was a completely social thing. A group going out to buy cigarettes in a kiosk, especially when the yeshiva head banned smoking.
"The common approach was that whoever smokes is a weak student and is not serious, and there was definitely a desire to prove the opposite. Not to mention the fact that most smokers were the 'popular' guys. The more people spoke against it, the stronger was the urge to smoke."
The fact that smoking was a common family habit in Itzik's home encouraged him to regularly join the circle of smokers. "My father smoked, my brothers smoked, it was customary at home. Each of us explained to himself why it wouldn’t affect his health. There was no shortage of excuses.
"My father suffered a heart attack and went on smoking. He couldn't stop. Cigarettes were a sort of relief, a break between one matter and another, a way to refresh," he says.
The cigarettes accompanied him as a newlywed and young father. The soaring prices of cigarettes, the damage to his physical fitness, and the birth of his children which forced him to move out to the balcony, were not enough to stop the addiction.
"It's not that I didn't try," Itzik says. "There were times when I would buy just a few cigarettes, for NIS 1-1.5 (about $0.28-0.42), but after several days I would burst and run to buy a pack. It definitely bothered my wife, but she said, 'Quit whenever you feel the need to quit.' She didn't pressure me, and I think that's what helped me in the end. Pressure only hinders."
What eventually made you to give up smoking?
"It was a combination of two factors. As I went out for a routine smoke on the balcony, I saw the pile of cigarette butts on the roof below. That was the first blow. The second was news about a relative who had been diagnosed with laryngeal cancer after years of smoking. The moment I heard about his disease – it was all over. I haven’t touched cigarettes since then and have been clean for more than two years."
No external criticism
Itzik managed to quit smoking on his own, and even began leading smoking cessation workshops, but many in the haredi sector are finding it difficult to overcome the hurdle without group and medical help. He says there is a clear advantage for haredi instructors in cessation workshops for the ultra-Orthodox.
"My best example is actually from a preventive driving course. I took the course twice, once in a regular group with a secular instructor and once in a haredi group with a haredi instructor," Itzik says.
"In the haredi group, the haredi instructor told a story of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, about a wagon driver who accidentally killed his daughter, and that his atonement was giving to charity all the money it would have cost him to raise her. To me personally, as a haredi, it meant much more than the dry figure of what happens to a car driving 100 kilometers per hour, which is definitely important too.
"In addition, there's a basic issue of solidarity here. It seems that with most people, differences in appearance, in culture, cause a mental distance, and in group guidance the interaction within the group is very important, as well as with the instructor, relations, the trust. Belonging to a homogenous group helps and increases the chances for success. In addition, in my humble opinion, there is less of a feeling of external criticism and patronage," says Itzik.
"Clearly the haredi workshops are built like any other workshop, but the emphasis is different," says Salomon. "With a haredi man, for example, there's no point in discussing aesthetic damage. I won't begin an argument like 'you should stop smoking because it causes wrinkles or leaves yellow stains on your teeth or hands.' It simply doesn’t mean anything to him. On the other hand, telling him what his lungs look like is much more effective."
'Watch yourselves very carefully'
The rabbis are trying to eradicate the smoking phenomenon as well, but are finding it difficult to define it as a prohibition.
"Yeshiva heads speak out against smoking in class. There is not a single haredi rabbi today who will say you're allowed to smoke. As far as they're concerned, it’s a halachic prohibition of 'watch yourselves very carefully,'" says Baruch, another haredi smoking cessation instructor.
"But they won't declare it an absolute prohibition in public, mainly because they understand that addicts will not be able to endure it technically. If the options for smoking cessation become more accessible within the haredi sector, there's a chance it might still happen."
Can smoking affect a haredi guy's shidduch (matchmaking) options?
"There are women who will reject a guy for smoking, that’s very possible. But there are few of those. I smoked, for example, but my wife didn't know about it because during our meetings I avoided taking out a cigarette. But I find it hard to believe that those who do know will reject someone just because of cigarettes."
"Eventually, the circumstances which bring a haredi man to a workshop are not different from those of his secular colleague," Salomon clarifies. "The woman pressures him, the doctor recommends. It's not really about saving money. No one has cleared their overdraft by quitting smoking.
"What brings them to therapy is knowing that it harms your health and the health of passive smokers around you. That and the fact that it's possible now and that they can do it inside the community, under the guidance of people who understand them and their difficulties more than anyone."