Mar 29, 2015

Life after conservative faith: the defectors who leave ultra-Orthodox communities

The Guardian
March 27, 2015

Followers of ultra-Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum of the Satmar Hassidim pack the Congregation Yetev Lev D’Satmar. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters
Shulem Deen swipes through photos of his eldest daughter’s wedding with a look of pride on his face. He points to a modestly-dressed bride sitting stiffly next to her husband. “I know how nervous they felt,” he says.

Deen is only guessing; he wasn’t invited to his daughter’s wedding. These are not official photos – they were taken clandestinely by people he asked to infiltrate the ceremony.

Deen, 40, left the cloistered ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave of New Square, a village in Rockland County, New York, seven years ago. He is one of a minority that has stepped off the derech, the devout and religious path.

Like others who have turned their back on the Hasidic way of life, Deen has lost contact with his five children and has been ostracized from the community for being a heretic. At the same time, he has found it difficult to assimilate to non-Hasidic culture and worries he comes across as strange to New Yorkers.

“It was an incredibly bad night for me,” Deen says in a tired voice, sitting in the modest apartment he shares with roommates. “I was weeping.” He hadn’t seen his daughter for four years, so the photos taken by four friends at the ceremony came as a shock. His eyes lingered on the image of his 20-year-old daughter wearing a high-collared, long-sleeved white dress.

It’s a feeling that is familiar for the defectors who decide to leave the ultra-Orthodox way of life. A growing number of men and women are breaking away from their insular lives because of a frustration with their gender-defined roles, the lack of access to wider education or out of unhappiness with how serious issues, such as abuse or divorce, are handled by their leaders.

Yet in the last two decades, the number of Orthodox Jews dotted across towns in America has boomed unexpectedly, particularly within the Hasidic sects, who have the highest birthrate of all. In fact, more than one-quarter of American Jews younger than 18 live in Orthodox households, a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center found, with this number expected to grow.

Many Hasidim, in the face of pressure from the rise of communism in the Soviet Union and the tragedies of the Holocaust, were intent on preserving their original way of life in the US. Yiddish is the common language in schools and at home, while the dress, modest and simple for both men and women, is strict. Women wear wigs, unless they are of the highly insular Satmar congregation, in which women shave their heads and cover them with scarves. Men wear beards, broad-brimmed felt or round fur hats, and long side curls called payos that are sometimes gelled with a popular wax called Dippity-Do.

For many, the Hasidic way of life and its all-encompassing support net are a source of comfort. Not only do Hasidim have their own volunteer ambulance service, called a Hatzalah, but they run their own police and control insurance brokers, real estate companies and retail stores that run the length of the main streets in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Williamsburg, a central home for the Satmar sect.

Yet stories of poverty-stricken homes, where incomes barely touch $30,000 for a family of eight, as well as circles of abuse shine a light on the fractures within these cloistered communities and those who are not welcome.

The rabbis made it clear there was no room for 32-year-old Leah, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. “At first it was just this thing that didn’t have a name, ‘I don’t like my husband’. Then I learned the name of it: I was a lesbian,” she tells me.

In the hopes of a sympathetic ear, she met a rabbi “who seemed cool and liberal”, believing he would be more accepting than someone from the right wing of Orthodoxy – but it made no difference. “He told me I can identify as a lesbian but not actually act on it. He wanted me to be celibate for the rest of my life,” she said. Leah now has trouble trusting people after experiencing what she described as “rape by the community” after her husband forced himself on her because his rabbis told him “that was the right thing to do”.

The Torah does not forbid homosexuality, but it bans any homosexual acts. Although the role of sex is emphasized to strengthen marital bonds and growing families, many young Hasidic Jews are not well educated when it comes to sexuality.

Leah is now in the middle of a bruising two-year battle against her husband to get the custody of her three children. Her husband is fighting on religious grounds, claiming she is an unfit mother because of her sexual orientation. These cases are often difficult to litigate because the ultra-Orthodox community has access to financial resources, money for attorney fees and witnesses who are willing to testify.

Footsteps, an organization whose name is uttered only in whispers, is at the heart of the former ultra-Orthodox community and has partnered with the New York Legal Assistance Group to take on family cases like Leah’s. Founded by Malkie Schwartz, who left the Chabad Lubavitch sect in 2000, Footsteps has grown from holding impromptu meetings with 20 people huddled round a bare room to more than 1,000 members today.

The location, which is secret to protect its members and has recently moved to larger premises, is not signposted and is bare, aside from Footsteps members’ artwork. “Freedom to Selfie”, announces one collage, while a pair of knitted baby socks hang on the opposite wall with a caption that reads: “Baby footsteps are for freedom one step at a time.”

It takes time for defectors to find their feet on the other side. Children from divorced families are often in limbo, confused by the mixed messages of a sudden exposure to the secular world.

Frieda Vizel’s son, Seth, has forgotten all his Yiddish since leaving the upstate New York town of Kiryas Joel with his mother five years ago. He struggles to fit in between his father’s conservative household and his mother’s secular life, often filled with the toys and technology children have no access to in traditional Orthodoxy.

Vizel, 30, who anglicized her name from the Yiddish Freidy, still considers herself very much Jewish. She wears a silver Star of David necklace and sends her son to a religious school; she gives tours of Hasidic Williamsburg to tourists every week. She also struggles with living a secular life, where the emphasis is on material gain. “I would love to preserve some of the innocence and the reverence found in the Hasidic community,” she said. “You don’t live through this hunger for everything. It’s insatiable.” In place of flashy cars or technology, an ultra-Orthodox Jew may prize family silver or an illustrated religious text, carried in a child’s pram wherever the family goes.

On Lee Avenue, the main thoroughfare for Williamsburg’s Satmar community, preparations for the Jewish festival of Passover are underway, and the road is buzzing with activity. Special temporary food courts have been set up in metal containers to avoid unwanted crumbs dirtying the homes that are being cleaned from top to bottom in observance of the holiday.

But there are also stark reminders of a place that doesn’t allow much room for individuality outside of the confines of religion. Posters written in Yiddish denounce the occurrence of theatrical plays put on by locals that are a “place of mockery” and are forbidden.

The Satmar is considered one of the most insular of the approximately 30 sects, but generally, Orthodoxy is “not a clash of east versus west”, says Rabbi Levi Shmotkin, a Chabad Jew. “It’s about how to harness religion and the relationship with God and reconcile it with the world.” People often decide to leave because of a “negative personal interaction of experience, and not due to a theological conflict”, he said.

On this day in Williamsburg, Vizel, who is giving a tour, is also being surreptitiously followed by a Hasidic man, who pretends to be on the phone, except he doesn’t speak into the phone at any time. “He follows me around sometimes,” she said. “He emails me after, saying it sounded interesting.” She first met him many years ago, before she left. He had been thinking of leaving as well, she says, but he has a family, and once you’re married with children, it is a huge responsibility to abandon this life.

It is one that Deen, who has just released a memoir about his life, All Who Go Do Not Return, knows too well. He holds an unopened, undelivered letter he tried to send to one of his children three times. “The mailman needed a signature, so they [his family] couldn’t trash it.”

He says he will try to send it again, but he looks defeated after years of trying to make contact with his estranged children. “If I knew I was going to lose them, I would not have left. It’s like saying you would be prepared to take a step to cause a death in the family; there’s no way you’d do that.”