Neturei Karta: Living in and leaving it
‘We had spent our entire lives being afraid of the Internet. But then when we were finally exposed to it, we realized how we’d been tricked,” explains Tamar Zeitlin, who together with her husband Tzachi, are former members of the infamous haredi sect Neturei Karta, which is often known for its anti-Zionist leanings.
“I felt so empty, frustrated and guilty in those first few days. We survived such an intense crisis and I realized that I’d spent my entire life up until then living a fake
life,” Tamar adds.
THEN AND now: Tzachi and Tamar Zeitlin. The couple makes a living via lectures and Tamar’s paintings
(photo credit: SHLOMI YOSEF)
“The process of us ceasing to live a religious lifestyle has been quite arduous. At times, I wasn’t sure we would succeed,” Tzachi adds. “In the Neturei Karta community, if you diverge from their way of life in any way, you are considered a failure, and are rejected. And so, all of a sudden, we didn’t know who we were anymore. We’d completely lost our identities and we needed to remake our lives and figure out who we wanted to be.”
“I felt like the rug had been yanked out from under my feet,” explains Tamar. “If I no longer believed in the ideals promoted by Neturei Karta, then who was I? Some of our kids followed us happily, but others were more cautious. Some people tried to tear Tzachi and me apart, saying that they were trying to save the children. Thank goodness we survived intact and are still together.”
Tamar, 33, and Tzachi, 35, have six children between the ages of 3 and 15. They currently live in Tzur Hadassah, in the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Tamar grew up in a large haredi family in Jerusalem. Both her parents and Tzachi’s parents, who were college-educated, became religious as adults. Tzachi grew up in Moshav Tifrach in the Negev until he was nine, and after that, his family moved to Jerusalem.
“I attended an anti-Zionist youth group in Mea She’arim when I was a kid, and we were spoken to only in Yiddish,” Tzachi recalls. “We were taught to separate ourselves from anything connected to the State of Israel. I joined the Mishmerot Hatzniyut. Tamar and I were introduced by shidduch [matchmaking] when I’d already become active in Neturei Karta. After we got married, we went to live in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet in a Neturei Karta neighborhood.”
Tamar was only 17 when she met Tzachi.
“I’d been taught that a wife obeys her husband in everything connected to religion. I, on the other hand, was in charge of the day-to-day things,” she explains.
What was it like being part of the Neturei Karta community?
“Well, we were expected to participate in anti-Zionist protests in the evenings,” describes Tzachi. “So every time our rabbis would tell us to go to the main roundabout of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, we’d go there and protest the digging up of graves, Egged for running mixed gender buses, the Internet, or the construction of swimming pools or malls – whatever the current issue was. I was arrested a few times. We hung up posters demanding that women dress modestly and tore down any posters featuring women. I truly believed this was God’s will and that bad things would happen to us if we didn’t follow the rabbi’s requests.”
Tamar supported Tzachi going to the protests.
“I believed it enabled me to earn credit that I would reap in the World-to-Come,” she explains. “I spent my time drawing children’s books that followed our extremist ideology. They promoted speaking in Yiddish and forbid speaking Hebrew. I made drawings depicting kibbutznikim cutting off the peyot (sidelocks) of haredi children, and of IDF soldiers forcing yeshiva students to serve in the army. I was paid for this work by Neturei Karta supporters in New York.”
What were your feelings about the State of Israel?
“Hatred and anger mostly,” says Tzachi. “I viewed the government as my enemy. I believed the Neturei Karta propaganda, which was that the State of Israel was trying to make the Jews stop being religious. And we viewed the more mainstream haredi community as collaborating with the Zionist entity.”
“I feared that the government was trying to make my children become secular,” recalls Tamar. “But then, about four years after we’d joined Neturei Karta, we joined a different community. After a while, it started feeling like our lives were becoming more and more extreme, and that there was no end in sight. It started feeling like we were living in a cult.”
In what way?
“Well, they made us give up all our possessions and give them all our savings, our home, and my jewelry,” recalls Tamar. “We were told that this was the only way that redemption could be achieved. In Neturei Karta, they taught us to hate everyone except for our own group. Now, we were being told to love everyone. Our new leader ordered us to leave Beit Shemesh and to move to Jerusalem. So that’s what we did. We lived in Jerusalem for five years.”
What were your lives like there?
“Our community was into New Age stuff,” continues Tamar. “We would meet up with all the others in classes and talk with them on the phone. Our main goal was to bring about redemption by spreading words of Torah. My job was to prepare drawings and brochures that would attract new believers. They didn’t pay me for this, but they did promise that I would be rewarded for my efforts in the World-to-Come.”
“From the outside we looked like regular haredim,” adds Tzachi. “Our beliefs might have been different, but from the outside we didn’t look any different.”
“We were forbidden to tell any friends or family members that we were part of this group,” explains Tamar. “But we were so poor and had nothing to eat. We lived with our kids in a two-bedroom apartment in Jerusalem and were supported by tzedaka organizations.”
Didn’t you feel like something was amiss?
“Things were hard, but we truly believed we were doing the right thing. We believed our rabbis with all our hearts. But in actuality they were manipulating us and relying on our fear the same way the Neturei Karta did. They would tell us that we would get sick or a tragedy would occur to us if we didn’t do what they told us to do.
“Our leader always made us feel like we were personally responsible for catastrophes. For example, when the war broke out in Gaza, he told me it was because I hadn’t drawn enough that day. And when Israel was victorious, he told me it was because we’d managed to publish an entire book,” Tamar recalls.
ONLY ONCE the Zeitlins found their way to the Internet did they begin to doubt their way of life.
“We started watching movies, reading the news and doing research on Wikipedia,” describes Tzachi. “We also began investigating cults, and that’s when we realized that we’d been brainwashed. A few years ago, I began studying education at Ono College, a haredi institution. In my social psychology course, we began learning about different types of communities, and how in cults they control every aspect of your life. I also began realizing that I didn’t want to be religious anymore.”
By February 2018, the Zeitlins had completely left the haredi world, and they currently make a living by giving talks about their experiences, as well as from Tamar’s paintings (tamarzeitlin.com).
“In our talk, we tell our personal story, describe the difficulties we experienced, and explain how we finally broke free from Neturei Karta and the cult we’d joined,” continues Tzachi. “We describe the hatred the Neturei Karta feel toward the State of Israel and also what it was like being part of these communities. We talk about the shidduch process and even our intimate life, which involves following stringencies that far surpass what’s acceptable in regular haredi communities.”
“I used to paint mostly famous rabbis,” says Tamar, “and I always thought that if I stopped being religious, who would ever buy my works? In my recent exposition, there were 30 paintings depicting life among Neturei Karta. For example, there’s a painting of a woman showing her underwear to a rabbi so he can rule whether she is considered niddah or not. And another painting of a young bride cutting off her long, braided hair.”
Oranit and Aryeh Bachar decided to host Tamar and Tzachi for a lecture one evening in their home, after which, “they became like our adopted family,” recalls Tamar.
“They introduced us to secular life in Israel. We didn’t know anything about the non-haredi world,” Tamar continues. “Oranit and Aryeh have been helping us find our way, and supporting us emotionally so that we don’t fall apart. Today, we finally feel like we’re standing on our own two feet and taking responsibility for our lives. We’re also better parents now, and are so happy that we can offer our
children the opportunity to live life freely.”
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