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Last Updated: Friday, 2 March 2007, 13:55 GMT
Young Jews walk out on religious life
By Martin Patience
BBC News, Kiryat Tivon

As a member of the Jewish ultra-Orthodox community, David wore a long black coat and a black hat covering his Jewish skullcap.

He spent 10 hours a day studying the Torah, the Jewish holy book, and the Talmud, rabbinical discussions on Jewish law, ethics and customs.

David says that he used to want to be a rabbi - but that was then.

Young ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. File photo
Ultra-orthodox Jews represent some 8% of Israel's population

Now, David, 24, wears blue jeans and loose-fitting T-shirts. He no longer believes in religion, saying that he is completely secular.

He is currently at university and hopes to become an engineer.

David - who does not want use his full name - is one of hundreds of young Israelis who leave their ultra-orthodox communities to join the secular world, according to Daat Emet, an organisation that works on the issue.

People who leave the ultra-orthodox community are considered unbelievers who have lost their way in life. The community is very closed and senior religious officials rarely comment on this phenomenon.

For many who do choose to leave, the journey is one mired with difficulties and full of pain.

I see the ultra-orthodox as fundamentalists... and now I'm leading an enlightened life

But it also symbolises the division between Israel's ultra-religious communities and its secular population.

The ultra-orthodox community represents about 8% of the population. Its members adhere to strict interpretation of Jewish law and are shut off from mainstream society.

David grew up as the second eldest in a family of eight in an ultra-Orthodox community located in Jerusalem.

His education was exclusively religious studies from the age of 13 onwards. He was bright, but had only a basic knowledge of maths and other subjects.

Military service

"It was like a wall blocking us from the rest of the world," he says.

But one evening he attended a lecture that questioned the beliefs of the ultra-Orthodox community.

"I wanted to prove that they were wrong," says David, explaining why he attended the lecture.

"I was angry that they would say such things. But I left that night thinking they might be right."

For the next four months, he wrestled with his beliefs - particularly with Talmudic law.

He asked his rabbis a series of questions about biology and the natural world but they went unanswered.

From this point on, his whole faith started quickly unravelling.

David then decided to perform Israeli military service. The ultra-Orthodox community are exempt from this service.

Family separation

"It was a hard step," he says. "But I knew that I couldn't continue living in the community when I didn't believe in the religion. I would be cheating myself."

When David's mother saw a letter from the army she instantly knew that her son had lost his faith.

His family moved quickly to ostracise him.

"My mother told me that I had to leave the family because I would be a bad influence on my brothers and sisters," he says, recalling the incident five years ago.

His father has not spoken to him since that day. And David has only sporadic contact with his mother and his siblings.

He joined the army and served the obligatory three years.

But during leave, he had nowhere to go. An organisation which supports young people leaving religious communities provided David with a surrogate family.

It was difficult. "I left the community without any tools to start my new life," he says.

But David appears happy with his new life and says he has no regrets.

"I see the ultra-Orthodox as fundamentalists," he says. "And now I'm leading an enlightened life."

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