This is How Difficult Leaving is

Around 2000 Jewish ultraorthodox people live in Zurich. They have to obey many prohibitions and commandments. They marry early and are not allowed to watch TV or surf the Internet.

Rebecca Wyss, reporter SonntagsBlick
Published on: 01.04.2019, 10:00

Anyone who wants to leave the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Zurich has a difficult road ahead of them. A small group of formerly religious talk about their departure – and are now helping others.


Sam Friedman (36) was a prayer leader (chazan) in the ultraorthodox Jewish community in Zurich.

Sam Friedman, 36, has left the Jewish Orthodox community. He belongs to a small group of alumni who founded the platform to help others.

Friedman as an ultraorthodox. When he was 12, he cut off his temple curls, when he was 30, he got out completely.

Friedman’s parents have now accepted his exit, as he tells us during a walk through Zurich’s Kreis 3 – the habitat of many ultra-Orthodox Jews. His father still hopes to return to the community. Friedman’s parents have now accepted his withdrawal, as he tells us during a walk through Zurich’s Kreis 3 – the habitat of many ultra-Orthodox Jews. His father still hopes he will return to the community.

Sam Friedman’s cell phone has been ringing more often than usual lately. Sometimes a man’s voice calls and inquires whether there is a Mr. So-and-so. And then quickly disappears again. Friedman knows the voices, they belong to members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Zurich. He grew up with these men. The ominous calls have only one purpose, he says: “That’s their way of finding out who we are. Nobody would ask us directly.”

“We” is Friedman and a small group of former ultra-Orthodox Jews. They have just set up the derachim.ch platform to help people who want to quit. They want to support them psychologically and legally. They do not advertise this in the Jewish newspaper “Tachles”, only a few stickers with Friedman’s number bear witness to it in Zurich District 3 – in the heart of the Jewish Orthodox community. So far, there have been shy inquiries over the telephone, and no one has yet really met up with them in person.

They pay a high price for freedom

Friedman is brave. What he and the Derachim people are doing is a scandal. A betrayal. There has never been anything like it in the history of ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Switzerland. The approximately 2,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews in Zurich live in an isolated world with their own schools, grocery stores, retirement homes, cemeteries, a rescue service, a butcher’s shop and a bakery, most of which are separated by sex. Everything within walking distance of the synagogue. One wants to stay among oneself. Everyone knows everyone, everyone knows everything.

Whoever grows up that way and dares to get out suddenly stands alone. And he is in search of a new identity. The stories of Sam Friedman and a like-minded friend show how difficult this path is. And the fact that a third person withdrew his statements shortly before the editorial deadline – for fear of being recognized.

Two men, two different ways

Sam Friedman (36) is the head of Derachim. At the age of twelve he cut off his temple curls, at 30 he put his hat and kippa aside forever. He used to be a prayer leader in the ultraorthodox synagogue Agudas Achim in Zurich-Wiedikon. Today he is the managing director of a sushi restaurant, parks his Renault right in front of the synagogue and gives us an interview.

The pious men who pass by look at him stealthily. “They’ll spread the word that I’m standing here with you,” he says, lighting a cigarette and grinning broadly. “Let them!”

Eli, in his mid forties, doesn’t see it so loosely. He wants to stay in the background with Derachim. When he leaves the house in the morning, he wears a kippa, when he arrives at the office, he takes it off. At home he eats only kosher, not outside. His wife is religious, covers her hair, wears only skirts and prays regularly, his children attend a Jewish school.

Eli has lost faith, “I am an agnostic atheist,” he says. This is difficult for his wife to bear. “She is ashamed of me. And she is afraid of the consequences within the community. For example, that on Saturday no one will come for a Shabbat meal anymore. That is why Eli does not out himset. “Not yet,” he says. His real name must remain secret.

The community hasn’t always been so rigid.

Switzerland is home to 18,000 people of the Jewish faith. Only about 15 percent belong to the Jewish Orthodox community, most of whom live in Zurich-Wiedikon. It is one of the strictest outside Israel. This has not always been the case, as Daniel Gerson from the Institute of Jewish Studies at the University of Bern says. Orthodox Jews also used to visit cinemas and theatres. Boys and girls went to public grammar schools or studied at the University of Zurich.

This changed after the Second World War, and from the 1960s onwards most Jews opened up to Swiss society as a whole. The number of mixed marriages between Christians and Jews increased. However, a minority rejected this development. “The ultra-Orthodox community became more and more isolated and rigid,” says Gerson.

248 commandments and 365 prohibitions – that is their world. The food must be kosher: The meat must not come from pigs, rabbits or horses, must not come into contact with milk and should only be from animals that have been slaughtered.

Married women must cover their hair with a wig or scarf and dress modestly. Girls marry around 20, boys a little later. If they are older, they are considered as second choice, in the “Schidech”, the usual marriage agency, as difficult to place.

Television is strictly forbidden for everyone. Mobile phones are mainly used for telephoning, and Internet access is limited.

The Internet as a great danger

In and of itself, the Internet is the devil. A few months ago, ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Zurich wrote a letter calling to keep the children away from it. “They are afraid that someone will begin to question everything because of Wikipedia and Co.,” says Sam Friedman. This also explains why a stranger recently tore a derachim sticker to pieces in front of a Jewish shop and threw it on the floor. And rumors make the rounds, he continues. “They say we’re trying to lure people away.”

The many rules, the isolation and the black-and-white thinking in faith – all these are reasons for leaving. Friedman remembers: “When I began to question beliefs, my teachers said I should go to Israel.” Already at the age of 13 he had to brood over religious scriptures in an Israeli Talmud school behind a barbed wire fence.

In his twenties, he was again on the faithful path; he returned to Switzerland, got married, became father of a daughter. In the end everything was of no use. “At some point I could no longer swallow my doubts.” At 30 he divorced, stopped going to the synagogue and looked for a job in gastronomy.

Dependency as a Reason for Exit

Sam’s background is exemplary. The men are the bearers of the religious Jewish heritage in the community. This is why most ultra-Orthodox boys in Zurich spend their teenage years at a strictly religious school. They neither do an apprenticeship nor do they go to the gymnasium – there is no emphasis on secular education in the community. Later, they are therefore financially dependent on their parents or the social welfare office. This is shown by a National Fund study on Judaism in Switzerland.

Some no longer want to accept this dependence. A friend of Friedman and Eli wanted to live his faith self-determinedly, but also earn his own money. After he left, he searched in vain for a year. Only an ultra-Orthodox company was finally willing to give him a job.

The prospects for women are even worse. They are prepared early on for their role in the household – studying, whether secular or religious, is not an issue. Even before they can even question their lives, they are mothers x-times. They have all this to lose, which prevents them from leaving the community.

The cases of Friedmann and Co. confirm: For most, the exit is a long process. Because of one’s own doubts, but also because one does not know how the family reacts. A friend of Friedman’s stands alone, his parents have turned their backs on him. From Israel and the USA there are even cases known in which relatives threaten dropouts with death. The best known is that of US author Deborah Feldman. Her tale of suffering ended up on the bestseller lists in book form, and a film is currently in the works.

Not all of them turn their backs completely on religion

Sam Friedman’s parents didn’t accept his coming out at first. Therefore he had no contact with his father for one year. “Today I regularly pass by again,” he says, “but my father is still hoping for a change of heart.” He believes that his son will return to the community as a great rabbi. This is unthinkable for Friedman. “I have achieved so much professionally that there is no turning back.” He has concluded with the community, also with faith.

With others it is not so clear. They have indeed moved far away so that they can invite a woman home without everyone immediately knowing. Or they tried pork. Nevertheless it could be that one day he will go back to the synagogue, one says. “But then at least it’s my decision.”

With Eli it is still open how it will go on. He hopes to find a way to come out in the community without breaking up his family. “I don’t want to hide anymore, I’m tired of it.”

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