Monday, February 06, 2012

Is Escape from Religion the Only Answer?

Whenever I read a story like this it saddens me. Deborah Feldman has written a book describing her break from the world of Chasidim in which she was raised. It was recently reviewed in the Forward by ‘Eishes Chayil’ the woman who published a landmark book entitled Hush (reviewed here) exposing how the Orthodox Jewish world – in particular her Chasidic world - deals with sexual abuse.

In Hush, Eishes Chayil relates her warm memories about that insular world. It was a childhood full of innocence and love. If not for the riveting sex abuse story which was the main theme of the book, one would get the feeling that the insular Chasidic lifestyle is a quite warm and welcoming alternative to the over-exposed way the rest of the civilized world lives.

Eishes Chayil noted however that Ms. Feldman’s description of her own experiences in that world was hardly complimentary. Perhaps that is why she made this ‘scandalous rejection’ of her Chasidic roots.

I don’t know whether Ms. Feldman is observant at any level. It’s hard to tell from the article. But from the angry title alone I would guess that she left observance entirely.

There are many reasons why people leave observance. But I can’t help thinking that in some cases it could be prevented if only they could be exposed go alternative religious lifestyles. This article reinforces that feeling. If as I suspect Ms. Feldman is no longer observant - I believe that it did not have to end this way. From the description in the article - her rebellion seems like it is mostly against her Chasidic roots. It seems like all she really wanted to be more involved in the general culture.

Modern Orthodoxy works quite well for people who want to take advantage of what general culture has to offer. And there are many areas where one can participate without violating Halacha. Things that are apparently verboten in the insular world she was raised. Just to mention some of the examples she lists:

* Chalav Yisroel. There are many Kosher products that contain milk which makes them is completely off limits to her.

* Secular books. Her community considers them all toxic and it is forbidden reading in her circles.

* The English language is considered spiritually unclean... to be used only when necessary in the outside world. Yiddish is the first language learned and it is the primary language spoken in the home. Most of the Chasidim in insular Chasidic communites like hers learn English as a second language - and speak it with a pronounced Yiddish accent even if they are born here!

I have dealt with this problem in the past. I had urged those who seek to leave their Chasidic or non Chasidic overly protected Charedi backgrounds to consider modern Orthodoxy. The response I received from some of those who went OTD from that world was eye opening.

They said that becoming Modern Orthodox was never really an option for them. First because of the way modern Orthodoxy was perceived by their insular world. It is disparaged almost as much as a non observant lifestyle is. I suppose they feel that by exaggerating the evils of modern Orthodoxy they will prevent it from becoming an attractive alternative.

Secondly - their Chasidic backgrounds are not really compatible with the lifestyle of a modern Orthodox Jew. It is hard to find commonality between the two worlds when one can barely speak the language and has little knowledge of secular culture and the other is college educated and has freely imbibed in it all of his life. A Chasid looking for change will feel very strange in the modern Orthodox world. So when one a Chasid decides to leave his heritage, his break will likely be complete. Modern Orthodoxy as a not a realistic alternative.

Which is why Footsteps seems to be the only option for a Chasidic Jew looking for a way out. What does Footsteps do? From their website:

Footsteps provides educational, vocational and social support to those seeking to enter or explore the world beyond the insular ultra-religious communities in which they were raised. People from the ultra-orthodox and Chasidic communities who choose to enter mainstream America currently do so as new immigrants in every sense. They face cultural disorientation and isolation coupled with a lack of practical and marketable skills. Founded in December 2003, Footsteps aims to assist individuals who choose to make this difficult transition.

On the surface this sounds like a wonderful organization. The problem is that they are not a religious organization and I have been told that they encourage complete assimilation into the general culture including those portions of it that are against Halacha. Of course since these expatriate Chasidim and Charedim are already OTD, they have no problem with that.

The question arises as to why there cannot be an organization like Footsteps that does the very same things but also shows how one can remain observant? There are so many organizations that reach out to secular Jews. But I don’t know of any that do outreach to OTD Jews from the Chasidic and ultra Charedi world.

Of course ideally an organization like this should not even be necessary – if only there could be more tolerance and less insularity. In those individual cases where there is, there are different results.

I know a few large Chasidic and Charedi parents who have unconventional views about Modern Orthodoxy and their educational institutions. And that attitude prevented their children from going OTD. They do not speak of modern Orthodoxy with disdain. While they definitely do not see it as their ideal - they do see them as legitimate.

All of their children were sent to Charedi or Chasidic schools. But in each of these families there was one child that didn’t quite fit in to the educational mold of those schools. Instead of fitting a square peg into a round hole they send that child to a religious high school of a more modern orientation. In some cases it was a coed religious high school. The result was that those children flourished. Today all these children are married and responsible members of the religious community.

But I also know parents who could not stomach their child going a more modern school. They forbade any change. Some of those children are now in rehab centers. And some are simply OTD. In one case I know of, a child was taken off drugs and is beginning to think about becoming observant again. The father asked the administrator when he thought his child would be ready to go back to the Charedi yeshiva he once attended! That is how blind some of these parents are. They do not have a clue what Chanoch L’Naar Al Pi Darko means.

The more isolated a community is the more pervasive this attitude is. And the more likely it will be that a child who does not quite fit in – will go completely OTD. And as long as this attitude prevails the more a Footsteps type program that is run by a religious based institution is needed. Had such an organization existed for Ms. Feldman, she may very well have remained observant… and ultimately even appreciated her Chasidic roots in the process.