Yeshiva dropouts walk on the wild side

jerusalem | Saturday night in Zion Square. Hundreds of teenagers mill around, chatting, laughing, playing guitar, eyeing the opposite sex. There is a hodgepodge of vibrant young Jerusalemites: religious and secular, prissy schoolkids and hippie wannabes, locals and Americans. Good kids from good homes.

Six gruff teenagers in black kippot elbow their way through the happy crowd. They are

shababnik, yeshiva dropouts who live on the edges of fervently religious society.

“A shababnik is a kid from a haredi family who thinks secular but wears a black kippah,” says religious teenager Shmuel Baluka, who’s sitting on a low wall in Kikar Zion, spitting sunflower seeds onto the sidewalk.

As a provocatively dressed punkess no more than 16 years old saunters past, Baluka and his friends launch a series of sexual taunts in a clumsy attempt to arouse her youthful hormones. “You think religious people don’t have impulses too?” he asks.

“Times have changed — haredim aren’t what they used to be. We’re more open to secular influences,” says Baluka, a grocery store delivery boy from Neveh Ya’acov.

Most shababniks (the name derives from the Arabic term for Mandate-era Muslims who deserted their religion) are religious teenagers who could not handle the demands of full-time yeshiva study. No longer welcome in their own homes, some wind up living on the street or in government-run youth hostels.

Fervently religious society has been slow in recognizing the phenomenon. A public letter sent in May 1998 by a group of haredi educators to several leading rabbis stressed the dimensions of the problem:

“Thousands of former yeshiva students have crossed the line, leaving the yeshiva to wander the streets, movie theaters, city squares and anywhere that a yeshiva boy should not be … We are not speaking about the marginal types; even those from the best homes, the most promising students. In recent times these youths have tarnished our name.”

Bands of roaming shababniks have reportedly turned some sections of Bnei Brak into violent crime zones where honest citizens are afraid to walk the streets. In Jerusalem, shababniks have been reported harassing women, intimidating shopkeepers and passers-by, and being involved in petty theft.

Several have gone beyond delinquency into serious crimes including extortion, fraud, armed robbery, male prostitution and even murder — as in the August 1997 killing of an Arab gas-station attendant in the capital’s Sheikh Jarah neighborhood.

One haredi gang leader nicknamed “Chupchik” was recently convicted on 21 counts of auto theft, fraud and disturbing the peace, all committed within a year of quitting the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Two shababniks were arrested Feb. 3 after turning up at the offices of the Christian Friends of Israel charity organization heavily bandaged, claiming that they were injured in the previous week’s suicide bus bombing in Rehavia, and asking for money. Alleged scam ringleader David Deri, 22, and Avshalom Nagar, 21, remain under house arrest pending their trial.

“Haredi society doesn’t know how to deal with them,” says Yakir Englander, 27,

a former Vizhnitz Yeshiva student, who dropped his haredi lifestyle six years ago to become a Hebrew University student. “There’s no supervision in the yeshivot. They wake up late, and hang around all day. Nobody tells them to go to work, or the army. It’s a comfortable alternative.

“Most of the shababniks are children of newly religious Sephardim — Shas voters. Their parents came from the same world that’s now attracting them,” observes Englander.

As a field worker for Hillel, Englander has gotten to know the shababniks well.

“Second-generation haredim encounter a particular set of hardships. They have problems with their sexuality. In some neighborhoods, there’s a drug problem,” he explains.

“It’s getting worse as the poverty factor grows. Many youths don’t find their role in haredi society, while the secular world winks at them. Some live with their parents, as they can’t find anywhere else. Many parents won’t admit they have a shababnik child.”

Yet very few desert their Orthodox lifestyle.

“They stay religious because of peer pressure. To leave means a conceptual internal change — to be honest with yourself that you’re not part of the community. They have no theological argument,” says Englander.