“The fact that there is no contact in everyday life is not so bad, because we’re adults. But suddenly the holidays arrive and the day-to-day routine is broken,” Azoulay explains. “The students’ dorms empty out, because everyone goes home. I won’t forget Yom Kippur, when I was completely alone there. A day that is such a family day. And Rosh Hashana before that, and then Sukkot and Passover, and even just on weekends, when you have no contact with anyone.”
In this complete solitude, he found an adoptive family thanks to Hillel, a non-profit organization that helps young adults who left the Haredi world. Hillel, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary these days, will open its third branch next month, in Haifa’s Hadar neighborhood.
“To this very day, I can’t stand the holidays,” Azoulay admits. “As far as I’m concerned, a holiday is a terrible day. And there were also those small days, like your birthday, that you don’t celebrate because there is no one to celebrate with.”
The ‘cultural immigrant’s’ feeling of solitude
Azoulay was raised in a Haredi Sephardic family in Jerusalem “that seeks to be Ashkenazi.” He studied in yeshivot, but at the age of 18 he start going through a process that made him leave the religious world and Jerusalem behind. He moved to central Israel and then to the north, where he completed a bachelor’s degree. He recently returned to Jerusalem to study for a master’s degree at the Hebrew University.
“My dream was to create a group that would meet on Fridays for a Shabbat meal. Hillel’s branches in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv held such meetings, but I was in the north, and coming to the center from the north on Friday evening is impossible," he says.
“It went on like that until Hillel helped me find an adoptive family. They come bearing gifts on every birthday and every holiday, show an interest in me when I’m ill, when I move, when I go abroad. It’s an amazing family that is now accompanying me in everything that goes on in my life.”
Loneliness, Azoulay adds, is only one of the symptoms of the crisis people who have left religion experience. “The second thing Hillel helps with very much is the scholarship issue. It’s not just the money. You see your friends; even if they don’t get money, they return to the dorms with their mother’s food, with clean laundry. There is someone who cares for them. There are hardly any students who are completely alone in the world. So Hillel hands out scholarships, and there is someone to guide you on what happens before you start school and where to go after you graduate.”
Azoulay needed guidance on the most basic things: How to write a resume and what are matriculation exams. “It doesn’t cross your mind. You never think about it. I was sure that I would become a doctor, because I never realized what it takes to be admitted into medical school.”
“Every person who has left religion is a ‘cultural immigrant,’ and he has to learn everything from the beginning," he said. "There was someone who fired me because I spoke in an Ashkenazi accent, and I would sometimes speak Yiddish. So he told me that it was inappropriate. My body language was different too. He told me that I don’t stand up ‘like a man.’ I was shocked, and I realized that I had a lot to learn—and didn’t really have who to ask. You fall and get up, fall and get up, hundreds of times.”
‘The joy of life won’
Galit Rosenblatt, the manager of the new Hillel branch in northern Israel, has worked with weakened populations in the past on behalf of the Welfare Ministry. “I find it very interesting working now with strong populations, of people who have chosen to make a change and are looking for someone to lend them a hand,” she says. “Whoever goes through this process is a strong person, who is making quite a difficult choice.”
Rosenblatt says she is already hearing from people in northern communities ahead of the branch’s inauguration, and stresses that the main problem faced by people who have left the religious world is “making secularism accessible”—from opening a bank account to opening a Facebook page.
Another obstacle is education. “Most of them need basic education. Even those who are strong students at the Technion today had to do all the core studies first, take a pre-preparatory course and then a preparatory course, before being able to begin their studies.”
One of these students is 24-year-old Hanni from the Krayot, who not so long ago was a Chabad follower and is currently studying landscape architecture at the Technion. She began the process of leaving religion several years ago. “It started as an internal process, a conflict between the internal beliefs and the values I really believed in, and the joy of life. The joy of life won," she says.
“I deliberated for a long time, and I also wanted to be financially independent. So first of all, I found a job so I could stand on my two feet, and then I bought five pairs of trousers at once. That was the physical move.”
She defines her relationship with her family as “a loose connection.” She turned to Hillel about three months. “Chabad used to refer to Hillel as a missionary organization that makes people leave religion. That’s far from the truth. At first, they didn’t even want to take me in, because I was undecided. They demanded that I make the decision myself.”