Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Frum Footsteps

Guest Post by Allison Josephs

Allison Josephs (right) seen with her 'partner in Torah', actress Mayim Bialik
One of the most troubling issues for Orthodox Jewry in our day is the fact that there are so many young Jews from Chasidic and non Chasidic strict Lithuanian styleYeshiva backgrounds that are dropping out of observant Judaism. This is often referred to as going off the Derech (OTD). So severe is this problem that the Charedi world is paying serious attention to it – as article after article about it appears in Charedi publications.  (Nor has it gone unnoticed in the secular Jewish media.) What success the Charedi world has had in turning the tide is unknown to me. But I’m sure that the problem is far from being solved.

As has been made clear time and again, there are a multitude of reasons why someone might go OTD. I’m not going to go through them now as I have in the past. I do however want to focus on one aspect of this that is particularly disturbing to me. It is the fact that when someone can’t handle the strictures of of their Chasidic or Yeshivish lifestyle - instead of trying out different versions of Orthodoxy, they drop out completely.

Having written about this in the past, I quickly found out that Modern Orthodoxy (MO) is not an option for a someone raised in isolation from the rest of the world. The irony is that many of the strictures that a they might want to break away from do not exist in MO. Just to take one example, the internet which is forbidden in the Chasidic world is completely permitted in the MO world. If they were able to make the transition many of their issues would go away and they would remain observant.

But that just isn’t happening. Not only is a ‘trip to Teaneck’ like a trip to Mars for them, I’m sorry to say that the MO community has not been all that warm and welcoming to them either. Add to that the Chasidic and Yeshivish world treats Modern Orthodoxy to be as unacceptable as going completely OTD… and you have these troubled young Jews dropping out of observance completely with virtually no chance to find an alternative Orthodoxy.

There is an organization that helps these people make the transition from religious to secular society called Footsteps. They are a group that has no religious agenda – for or against. They simply help you make your way into a secular world without regard to religion. Chasidim that drop out find this organization eminently helpful. For the most part these former Chasidim become secular and non observant.

I have in the past lamented the fact that there was no religious version of Footsteps that could help these expatriate Chasidim transition into a more modern but observant lifestyle that would give them want they want. Well now there is one. Allison Josephs has risen to the task. This is not the first time she has risen to the task. Her program Jew in the City was created to break the stereotype of the Orthodox Jew as depicted in the media and entertainment industry. Her new project can be described a Frum Footsteps. What is that? I’ll let her tell you. Her words follow.

A year and a half ago I spoke at Rockland County Community college. After my talk, a couple approached me; they had been raised in one of the strictest Hasidic sects in Monsey, but did not feel that they could remain in it anymore. Unfortunately, their families had rejected them when they expressed their desire to lead a more moderate observant Jewish life. “We still want to be frum," they told me, "we just don’t know who to follow.”

I was troubled by how lost they were and told them I wanted to help them find a place to belong, but then someone interrupted us, and when I looked up, they were gone. I tried to find them after the talk to no avail, so I started reaching out to people at major Jewish organizations, asking if anyone wanted to help create a program to help people in this situation. Nobody was ready to do anything about it.

As the months passed I'd remember every so often that these people were still out there, needing help, but then several weeks ago, something pushed me to finally act: I read an account online of an ex-Satmar woman who wanted to stay observant after she left her Satmar community, but every non-Hasidic school she checked out didn’t want her kid. Her new non-Hasidic neighbors never really welcomed her and her son had no one to play with until she started paying a neighbor to do so. After enough rejections, she got fed up and just left all together. Today she is no longer observant.

The moment I read this I knew that something had to be done even if I didn't know what that thing was, so I posted an article on asking our readers to speak up now if they were willing to help people in this situation. We heard from 200 people from around the world. We even had two woman volunteer to spearhead our effort which we've named "Project Makom." Its mission is: helping former and questioning Haredi Jews find their place in Orthodox Judaism.

We put out a survey to find out what former Haredim would want if people cared to help. Based on that info, our directors developed the following survey which we'd love for you to fill out. You need not be an expert. Just someone who cares and who can offer your friendship, your home, etc.

Ha'emtza readers are the perfect group to helping these wandering Jews as you represent steadfast commitment to Torah yet do so in a moderate way. We have no funding for this initiative and will only be able to help out those who are searching if each of us can help out just a bit. Thank you for being there!