Apr 28, 2016

Inside NYC's Social Club For The Formerly Devout

April 27, 2016

Video by Jessica Leibowitz

Last Christmas, a 51-year-old woman from the Upper West Side walked into a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan and introduced herself to twelve strangers.

A victim of a highly-publicized rabbinical scandal, she'd recently shed the daily routines of Modern Orthodox Judaism for good. There to greet her was a group of former Mormons, Hasidic Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Muslims. "There's a bazillion different appetizers and there are 12 people at the table, so I go around the table and say, 'Who eats treif? Who eats vegetarian? Who eats meat but not treif?'" she recalled. "Because when you leave, your what-kind-of-Chinese-appetizer cues are no longer defined by the system."

For the members of Formerly Fundamentalist NYC, a meetup group for New Yorkers who have left strict religious communities, perusing a menu is an exercise in post-religious decision making.

"I don't want to go to a dinner party that's a therapy session. I have a therapist," the woman explained. "But I want to meet like-minded people, and that's exactly the point of the group. You can say nothing, or you can hang out and talk about the presidential race, or you can spill your guts."

Todd Kadish and Isaac Carmignani came up with the idea for Formerly Fundamentalist in November 2013, over coffee at the Starlight Diner on 34th Street.

Carmignani, a 47-year-old ex-Jehovah's witness from Queens, was nervous that his social circle would always be limited to ex-Jehovah's Witnesses. Kadish, a 42-year-old ex-Modern Orthodox Jew from Connecticut, had watched his private Facebook group, Formerly Religious, balloon to more than 1,000 members, and become more of a repository for memes than a substantive sounding board.

The name Formerly Religious felt too exclusive for their joint project—while most members of the group identify as atheist, there are also many agnostics and believers. So the men settled on Formerly Fundamentalist instead.

Kadish applies the word fundamentalism broadly. "To me it's any group that defines itself on whether you believe in certain fundamentals of the faith," he said. The definition is even applicable to "less extreme" religions, like the Modern Orthodox community that he left behind, because "you're still supposed to believe in certain things, otherwise your beliefs are heretical."

For Carmignani and Kadish, the goal is to not simply be an exile among fellow exiles—an ex-Jehovah's Witness seeking out the company of other ex-Jehovah's Witnesses—but to be part of a group of New Yorkers who can relate to each other, and also have unique tastes and interests.

We spoke with more than a dozen members of the group for this story, offering various levels of anonymity to respect the boundaries they maintain with their coworkers and families.

A 32-year-old ex-Pentecostal woman learned about the group from an OKCupid date who had left ultra-Orthodox Judaism. She was intrigued by the chance to socialize with people who understood what she had gone through, but who weren't all raised under the same religion.

"Growing up you're taught that you're so special, your [religion] is so different, yours is the truth, and you have all this personal responsibility to God," she said. "Realizing that all these other people were also controlled with the exact same mind games, yet with a different truth, that's really validating."

She added, "If [the group] was just Pentecostals—what are we going to do, compare pastors?"

The group's earliest meetings were in food courts—DUMBO Kitchen on York Street in Brooklyn, and Whole Foods in Tribeca. Members turned off their phones and spent hours on introductions and discussing a wide range of topics, including dietary restrictions, dating and sex, and what it's like to wear pants for the first time.

Kadish brought up an obscure Orthodox rabbinic ruling at one meeting, stipulating that people should not celebrate birthdays because the Pharaoh celebrates his in Genesis 40:20. "I remember Isaac explaining that the Jehovah's cite the same verse," he said. "Similarities like that come up all the time."

While the group includes ex-Pentecostals, ex-Mormons, and ex-Muslims, the majority of its members have left the Jehovah's Witnesses or an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect. The reason for this is partly geographic—the Jehovah's Witnesses have been based in Brooklyn for more than a century; Chabad-Lubavitch, one of the largest Hasidic groups in the world, has its international headquarters in Crown Heights.

A few years ago Kadish reached out to Ibrahim Abdallah, who runs a meetup group for ex-Muslims called Muslimish. Together, they decided to host a Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant, which has since become the group's most popular annual event.

Abdallah grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, where Islam is the dominant religion and speaking against it is an imprisonable offense.

He balks at the term "fundamentalist," because Islam for him was grounded in his personal interpretation of the Koran, rather than the followings of a religious leader. "I was never a fundamentalist," Abdallah says.

Still, growing up in Alexandria, his experience fit Kadish's definition of fundamentalism. "The idea that you can say whatever you want doesn't exist," he says. "That's why I cherish it in America so much."

Carmignani didn't have to worry about going to prison when he began to question his faith, but the consequences were still dire. The last time he saw his oldest daughter was in December 2014, over pizza at Uno's in Astoria after a trip to Night At The Museum II.

"Clear out of the blue she said, 'I'll always be there for you if there's an emergency,'" he recalled. "That's a script I'm very familiar with." Though they both live in Queens—he lives in Corona and she lives in Woodside—Carmignani hasn't heard from his 19-year-old daughter since she decided to be baptized in the faith he abandoned.

"I know absolutely nothing about her life," he said. "Nothing whatsoever."

Carmignani left the Jehovah's Witnesses in 2009, when he was 40 years old, 23 years after his first teenage inklings of doubt. He was raised to believe that the apocalypse was imminent and that the secular world was steeped in sin, but that world was difficult to ignore growing up in Bushwick in the 1970s.

On summer Saturdays, proselytizing door-to-door near his Putnam Avenue home, he'd pass by block parties and daydream about being a DJ. "That was the two turntable era," he recalled. "Disco was forbidden by the Witnesses, but I wasn't seeing all the bad stuff that was supposed to be happening."

It wasn't until the mid '90s, when he was appointed an Elder, that Carmignani began questioning his religion in earnest. At first he "lurked" on an online discussion forum for ex-Jehovah's Witnesses.

"After maybe a year I began posting under an assumed name," he said. "The first time was from an anonymous computer at a hotel in Oklahoma that I was at for some job training. I was very reserved, hoping never to have my identity or even my IP address traced. That's how scared I was."

Carmignani believes he was outed by someone on that forum in 2006. "When you have a position of authority [in the Jehovah's Witness community] and you also start to speak out a little bit, they're going to force you to leave," he said. "The best way to put it is that you lose your entire network."

Many of the group members we spoke to for this story considered their former religious community a "cult."

Meir Rotbard, 42, a former Hasid who works as an artist and home organizer, defines a "cult" as a group that treats everyone outside the religion as an "other."

"When I was an Orthodox Jew I was very judgmental of anyone who wasn't as Orthodox as me," he told us recently. "I would almost...value that other person's life as less-than."

He calls the early stages of his doubt "torturous." As a teenager living in Rockland County, he had no obvious escape route. "I actually tried to force my mind to have faith in God," he said. "I tried to study an immense amount of Talmud. By the time I was 21 I had developed these symptoms where my hands were shaking a little bit and my left shoulder was pinching and I could not study one more word without an immense amount of pain."

Rotbard eventually spent all of his money on a car, and drove to California. He started playing guitar and gawked at partiers on Venice Beach. Free of his own faith, he became increasingly curious about others.

"As a matter of fact, I find religion fun," he said. "I love the stories of all the different faiths. I never thought I would ever interact with anything that wasn't a Rabbi, a book of Talmud, and maybe a prayer book."

Formerly Fundamentalist has about 170 members, about a third of whom are women.

Tanya Johnson, a mental health counselor and former Mormon, says women tend to have a harder time leaving their religions than men.

"Fundamentalist communities are patriarchal and work well for men,” she said. "For men, it's shedding some rules. For women, their identity is no longer defined by the organization. It's like, do I have to be subservient to a husband? What if I want a career now?"

The ex-Modern Orthodox woman from the Upper West Side argued that the Modern Orthodox community's patriarchal structure also facilitates sexual abuse against women and children.

Rabbi Barry Freundel was her spiritual role model, and prayed over her father's deathbed. She visited his mikvah, a bathhouse for ritual purity that women traditionally visit before their weddings, and later learned that he had bugged it with hidden cameras to watch women bathing. Freundel is currently serving a six-and-a-half year prison sentence for voyeurism.

"Fundamentalism is a system controlled by men," she said. "It's crimes committed by men and covered up by men."

Celia, 19, grew up in three predominantly-Hasidic communities—Borough Park in Brooklyn, and later the villages of Kiryas Joel in Monroe, New York, and New Square in Rockland County.

She recently spent a year living with her only non-religious uncle and attending the Brooklyn High School of the Arts. Their apartment lost heat that winter, and she says the cold months solidified what she was willing to put up with for the freedom to make her own decisions.

"It is pretty rare to find women who have left the community for intellectual purposes," she said. "Women get engaged very young. At any given point, they could have two children and be pregnant with the next and they're busy with house chores and cooking. They don't have time for thinking about what they want and who they are as people."

Katie, a 22-year-old former Jehovah's Witness from New Jersey, first Googled "ex-Jehovah's Witness" two years ago.

"I learned that the flood didn't happen, the 10 plagues didn't happen, that the Israelites didn't wander into the wilderness for 40 years, and that just blew my mind," she recalled. Katie realized she was gay around the same time, and started spending hours on Reddit and a Google hangout group for ex-Jehovah's Witnesses.

"I started looking into how there's nothing scientifically or medically wrong about being gay, or being a woman and having sexual desires," she said. "My mom would go on rants about how disgusting gay people are so it was just...I can't live like this."

One weekend morning, while her mom and sister were out proselytizing, she stuffed her belongings into trash bags and left. Katie shaved her head, and now lives about 20 minutes from her family in northern New Jersey. For her and many other group members born and raised in the New York area, it's been a matter of distancing oneself mentally from religion, if not physically.

"I'm not in the community, but geographically speaking [I am]," Celia said in a recent phone conversation. She currently lives with her mom, who is very religious, in a primarily Hasidic section of Borough Park.

"There are no Internet cafes near me, so I have to pay ridiculous amounts for data," she added. One day recently, her Hasidic landlord saw her wearing pants and threatened to terminate her family's sublet. Her mom, meanwhile, "is in complete denial," still discussing Celia's eventual marriage to a Hasidic man.

Kadish notified the group beforehand that I would be attending one of their meetings. It fell on a Sunday after a historic blizzard in January, and turnout was low: a small handful of members, all formerly Modern or ultra-Orthodox Jews who had been able to dig out of their apartments and were comfortable meeting with a reporter. The group was mostly women, and conversation quickly turned to the unreasonable expectations of ex-Ultra Orthodox men experimenting with dating for the first time.

"They try to treat women like these vending machines where you press these buttons and sex comes out," said Celia, eliciting vigorous nods. She was curled up on a deep couch in baggy jeans, eating pumpkin-flavored pita chips and drinking red wine out of a plastic cup. "I want to be with someone who values me for me entirely." Someone started clapping.

We ate cholent, a traditional Shabbat stew with beef, barley and whole eggs hardboiled in the shell, and joked about the "shitty Manischewitz" that nobody touched. One of the group members had left the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta sect—"They're like the Jewish version of the Westboro Baptists, since they're always protesting gay rights and Israel"—and that prompted an argument about whether Israel was a Jewish state. When the conversation turned to the opaque tights that Hasidic girls and women wear, everyone started talking at once. "A five-year-old wearing thick-ass tights." Celia shook her head. "That's basically child abuse as far as I'm concerned."

Still in its infancy, Formerly Fundamentalist doesn't have a budget, much less a website. The screening process for new members is tedious, and the group is trying to be more racially and religiously diverse.

But while Formerly Fundamentalist doesn't have the resources of other established ex-religious groups in the city—Footsteps, for ex-Orthodox Jews, offers job training and psychological services—it's still the only meetup group for New Yorkers who have left many different faiths.

"Online can be a bit of a rabbit hole," the Upper West Side woman said. "In the best of all possible worlds, whatever you are facing, I'm hoping there's an in-real-life person for you."

Which is why Kadish and Carmignani want to keep up the momentum: They recently screened Truth Be Told, a documentary about leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses, and invited the director to host. There was a picnic in Prospect Park last summer, and group member David Tuchman just invited the group to his next live recording of OMGWTFBIBLE, a podcast that "translates" the Old Testament into a serialized comedy.

"It's easy to get religious people to go somewhere. 'Oh, God says we've got to be there? Okay.' And they just got there," Abdallah, the former Muslim said. "Working with non-religious people is like herding cats."

To get involved, email formerlyfundamentalistnyc@gmail.com


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