a bridge between two groups
a conversation with Adi Goral
Adi Goral is an Israeli director and playwright, based in Tel Aviv. For three years now she has been working with Out For Change, a Jerusalem based organisation that helps people who have left the ultra orthodox community. Signal House Editor Melissa Chambers caught up with her this summer to talk about her show 'My Way'.
Melissa Chambers: So, how did this all begin?
Adi Goral: I started working for this organisation called Out For Change three years ago, they’re an NPO that works with ex-orthodox people. I started as a volunteer leading a community theatre group and we created a show based on original stories that we collected through the process. COVID came, and we couldn't do that show on stage but it was a very meaningful experience for me. Since then, I’ve started to work for the organisation as a community and culture coordinator, which I still do now.
MC: Is Out for Change an organisation for just women who've left the Orthodox community?
AG: Men and women. It’s not a requirement that you’re ex-religious either. You can also be a believer and still have a conservative way of living. The main thing is that you left one community, an orthodox one, and are looking to integrate in the secular community in Israel. Aside from the religious aspect, the differences between these two ways of life are huge. In the ultra orthodox communities you don't get to study maths, history, English, what we call the core studies in Israel. They don't study them at all. In terms of your sexual life, you don't get to touch a woman or man until you get married. And the dress code is black and white. So when you leave this community, and you want to be part of the general community in Israel, aside from studying math and English from scratch, you need to study how to speak with a woman or man, how to touch a woman or man, what to wear, how to behave. Sometimes the language is different, and the cultural references are very different, you don’t know who any famous figures are for instance. You don't have any of the foundations of Western culture, because you grew up on the Bible and Gemara, it's called the Talmud, and that's it. This organisation also helps them to integrate in terms of finding a job or an academic path. We have a community centre that you can come to study at and also we have lots of courses here, some of which I produced. The courses can be Art, Theatre, English philosophy, yoga, it's very diverse, the purpose is to get exposure to everything and then you can decide what you want to learn. And also to just meet more people who are the same way as you.
MC: Is it the only organisation of its kind?
AG: There is one more in Israel, but it's very different in a few ways. One is that you have to declare that you are secular, here we don't really care if you believe in God or not, we don't get into that. You can still keep Shabbat and do everything. The second thing is that the other organisation gives help with money, and psychological help. They can also give a place to live. Things that are related to the very basic, first steps out in the first year. Here, people come after say one, two, three, even 10 years after they left, so by this time they’re not in survival mode.
MC: How many people were involved in the first community show that you made?
AG: In the first show, I think we were 13. It was a big group.
Members of Out for Change
MC: What drew you to this world to begin with? Why did you get involved with these guys?
AG: At first, a theatre friend - Cnaan Levkoviz suggested that I join this group with him. But then I found I had a really interesting connection with these people. I think I was always really curious about religion, about this kind of Judaism. And I never really had the chance to learn about it without seemingly running the risk that I would ‘become Orthodox’, you know. My family were really afraid that I would become super religious because I went to some study groups and some lessons. So I think that with Out for Change I found a safe space where I can find a connection to different kinds of Judaism without having that risk.
MC: Your parents were from a kibbutz right?
AG: Yes. They actually built a Kibbutz back in the 70’s. They're super secular.
MC: Is a kibbutz always secular?
AG: Usually, I guess you could say, in a very simplistic way, that when we built the country, Israel, well when my ancestors built the country, it was divided into two groups. One was the secular or Zionist people who believed in hard work, working in the fields and so on, and the other the religious people who believed in the way of the Torah, and I think it was really divided. So my parents grew up in very secular houses, there was something almost anti-religious in my family.
MC: What do you think was behind that?
AG: Well, actually, I can say that the political situation now in Israel is a very good example. The differences between the orthodox and secular worlds are so extreme that it means these two groups can't speak to each other. Because it can be so radical, the religious position in Israel, I mean, again, the Haredi, the ultra orthodox are very closed communities, some of them think that Israel is not supposed to even exist. They are so far away from secular Jewish life that very little can be known about them from the outside. At Out for Change I found these people who were like a bridge, not just representing the bridge, they are the bridge between these two groups, especially because their families are still there.
MC: And what's the attitude of the ultra orthodox communities towards this organisation? Do they feel a sense of threat?
AG: The organisation tries to keep a good relationship with them and to be very delicate with our services. They’re like immigrants. We are here to be the first place they can be in, and be welcome. So for them they know it's a good thing. We're not trying at all, to pull people out.
MC: So you made one show originally, when you first joined this organisation. And now there is a professional show that you tour. Tell us about that.
AG: It’s called My Way. I directed it and it’s performed by two actors, a man and a woman, Avi Ofir and Tess Meir, both of whom grew up in the orthodox culture in communities in Jerusalem. They both are professional actors. They studied in Nisan Nativ, which is a very good acting school in Israel. I did a lot of research before I started writing. I tried to collect stories that could represent different groups inside the Orthodox community, because there's a lot of different groups or as we call it, strains, they have different laws and different ways of living, different dress codes. So I tried to find the common stuff for all of them. And also I wanted to interview different people from different ages, so I could have different perspectives. After collecting this material, also the organisation who funded the show asked me to build a show that dealt with service in the army, the connection with the parents, romantic relationships, the cultural gaps, and the difficulties with studies and so on. So I made a synopsis of that as well as collecting stories.
MC: Do people in the Orthodox communities serve in the army?
AG: Well, they don’t, and the agenda is not to serve. But recently, the army opened a very specific unit only for Haredi. So if you want you can join them. But they don't encourage you to do it. I also wanted to include data in the show from research that the organisation has done. For instance 3,500 people are leaving the Orthodox communities each year, 64% of them are staying in a religious way of living. Almost 50% women and men are leaving each year, so almost half half. So, lots of interesting knowledge that I wanted to include so it wouldn't only be personal stories. And also I asked the actresses to write something that is from their own personal story. In the end, some of the scenes were me writing it. Some the actors wrote. And we worked on it together, editing and so on. There's one text that I think is very special that I took from a girl who posted it on Facebook, Hani Choen. I asked her permission to use it. She compares the exodus to the story of leaving the community.
MC: So where has this show gone? Tell me about how it went?
AG: We premiered one year ago, almost, we're going to celebrate one year next month. It's a very compact show because we wanted to perform everywhere, not just in theatre venues, but also in say, a living room. So once a month, we do it inside a theatre in Tel Aviv, but then we also do it in lots of private houses in Israel. And it's really cool. We also performed In the south of Israel in Beer Sheva, and in Jerusalem. Next week, we're going to Haifa in the north. And we just came back from Vienna. And now we’re planning to do a tour in the States.
MC: Who have you found is your main audience for the show? Is it secular people, ex Orthodox people? What's the mix do you think?
AG: All of them. I would say too that for everyone it's a very interesting experience, it's very touching, but for secular people it's like, mind blowing. They come out, and they're like, Oh, my God, I didn't know. I didn't know all this stuff. And it's crazy. Because it's like, one neighbourhood away from their house.
MC: Have any orthodox people come to the show?
AG: They have. There was an ultra orthodox man, in his 50s, who came and brought headphones, so when the actress sang, he could put on the headphones until she finished because it isn’t allowed for him to hear women singing. But I found it really nice. Because like, he came. He watched the show. Only for this moment he put headphones on, and then took them off.
MC: Did anyone speak to him afterwards about the show?
AG: He spoke to me and said it was really interesting. Like most of the Orthodox people who have come to the show, he thought it would be more ‘anti’. They expect it to be more against the Haredi community and have been surprised to see how gentle it is, how it sees the beauty in their lives as well as the difficulties. It brings a very complex picture I think, it isn’t something that is just against them. So they're surprised to see that. The most, I guess you could say, ‘radical’ thing in the play is a section about a bride and the groom before their wedding. There is guidance before weddings where they’re told about how they need to behave in the marriage, the life of being married, and also about having sex for the first time. The guidance on the last part is hardly anything. These people have never been talked to about their bodies or been allowed to talk about them so the first night of their marriage is a shock for most. At the last show we did, there was an ultra orthodox woman, she spoke to us and said that that was very traumatic when this happened to her. She seemed glad that we knew this, she was like, oh, you know. There are also plenty of audience members who are not Jewish at all. They have said that, for them, it is a story about braveness. About the courage to choose identity. To choose a community or to leave one. Back to your question about my connection with them. I really feel like this community deals with interesting questions that are international. Like how much do we want to live in a community or to embrace the individual life? How can this lead to loneliness, actually in both cases?
MC: What does your own Jewishness mean to you? Do you have a sense of that, and has working on this stuff changed that idea for you?
AG: It changed tremendously. First of all, during the process of this show I studied a lot of things that I didn't know. The songs of Shabbat for instance, and the differences in the melody and style between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic songs, I also took some lessons in the Talmud that was fascinating for me.
People say that In Israel even if you say you're secular, you're not because you're living in a Jewish country. The rituals are everywhere, you celebrate the holidays, my family has Shabbat dinner almost every week. So, there is a sense of Judaism inside of us, even if we don't light candles or do the ceremony of Shabbat. For me, I feel closer to Judaism now. I feel like I can see the complexity in it and the beauty.
ADI GORAL is a director and playwright who graduated with a bachelor's degree B.Ed F.A. at the Seminar HaKibbutzim College in Tel Aviv. Adi has directed independent productions and participated in various festivals. Her work includes: The Clean House by Sara Rhule, The Taming Of The Shrew by Wiliam Shaksphere, Flowers Don't Lie - an original Play she wrote and directed. Adi is currently taking part in the Series Lab run by Netflix and the Sam Spiegel Jerusalem of cinema, developing a new project for TV dealing with similar themes to My Way
For three years now she has been working in the Out For Change organisation, helping people who came out of the ultra Orthodox community. My Way, based on true stories of ex-Orthodox people, is currently performing in Israel and around the world. WEBSITE | OUT FOR CHANGE
MELISSA CHAMBERS is an editor and co-founder of The Signal House Edition.