Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Imbibing in the Culture and Remaining Observant

Chasidim in New Square
Oh, what the religious world lost when Shulem Deen opted out. In yet another insightful article he explains one of the little understood problems felt by those who change their lives from living culturally isolated lives to trying to integrate into the culture.

For Deen and many others who opted out of their religious upbringing, going from being a Charedi or Chasidic Jew to being a secular one was a lot more than just about dropping observance. It was about fitting in.

Fitting in for them did not just mean being able to socialize with their new peer group. It meant the difference between getting a job and not getting one. Shulem Deen learned this after being rejected for a job he was well qualified for: 
A workplace is more than just a professional environment; there’s a social aspect to it as well, and that’s where I knew I would find myself challenged. 
I think his contention is well founded. Given equal competence at a job, candidates will be selected as much for social reasons as they are their job skills.  I would not surprised if a slightly more qualified job applicant would lose out to a slightly less qualified applicant because of a social bond between employee and employer.   

The social skills Deen is talking about are what most of us in Modern Orthodoxy (MO) acquire growing up in a both an observant and secular environment. We become assimilated enough to understand and even appreciate some of the cultural values of our secular surroundings. So we can talk about the Cubs or the Mets; Elton John or even Lady Gaga. Someone that grew up where Shulem Deen did, has mostly no clue about those things.  For Chasidim in particular the differences are even greater. Their manner of dress, their long beards and Peyos separate them even more. A Chasid from New Square may not even know how to tie a knot for a necktie.

I am not saying this is always true. Many Chasidim can and do get work in such environments. And it is also true, that most MO men wear Kipot when applying for jobs. That is certainly something that sets them apart from their potential employers.

But generally speaking I think Deen is right about the total lack of any cultural commonalities with the people who inhabit the world they seek to live in. That makes life exceedingly difficult. Depressing even.

As I’ve said in the past, a lot of Orthodox Jews drop observance for a variety of different reasons. Some emotional and some intellectual. And they stem from across the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy. Those that leave for intellectual reasons may not be able to be convinced to try a more liberal form of Orthodoxy that will get them much of what they seek.

But as it pertains to the Charedi world, my gut feeling has always been that in most cases it is as much about strictures that exist in their world that they want to escape, and not necessarily observance. Strictures that do not exist in Modern Orhtodxy. Added to that is the fact that in the more isolated and extreme versions of the Charedi world – like New Square – Modern Orthodoxy is seen treated almost the same as being secular. So when they leave the Charedi world, they leave it all.

Shulem Deen shows us that fitting in is the real obstacle.  Those who have tried to join Modern Orthodox communities have never felt welcome in them. Not because of any prejudices. At least I hope not. But because they simply have not been assimilated into the general culture the way most Modern Orhtodox Jews have.   So for example going to a Billy Joel Concert is a very normal thing to do for a Modern Orthodox  Jew.  For the Charedi Jew (and especially a Chasidic Jew) that is considered a negative activity. They only involve themselves in the culture when they have to, like for business, a job or for medical treatment. They do only what’s necessary and reject everything else as foreign to Judaism and to be avoided.

There are some exceptions in some circles like maybe attending a sporting event . But even that is not looked upon favorably and is discouraged by most Charedi leaders. The more isolated the community, the more that is the case. And the less likely it will be for someone leaving that culture to fit in to a modern Orthodox enclave. That makes a transition from ‘Ultra’ to ‘modern’ not seem like a real option for them.

The thing is, though, fitting into a secular culture would seem to be just as hard. The same obstacles exist there.  I think this is what Deen is actually saying.

This is where Footsteps comes in. They try and acculturate you to your new secular environment and teach you how to navigate that world. 

Footsteps has been criticized as being hostile to religion. I have been told by those that have studied this orgainzation that they are more than hostile to it. Others say they are agnostic about it. Either way this is not the option I would reccommend to those that have even the slightest chance of retaining their observance.

While I doubt that all those who dropped out of observance for intellectual reasons can be convinced to stay or return observance in the modern orthodox world. On the other hand, I think those who drop out for other reasons can.

There is an organization that is trying to do just that. It was founded by Allison Josephs and described here in the past. It will teach you how to navigate the secular world. But it also tries to show you that you can just about have it all. You can imbibe in the general culture and still remain observant – a Jew in good standing within an observant framework.

So I guess my message to those who may feel stifled in a world isolated from things they desire, and feel that the only way they can do it is by leaving it all - to please consider not leaving it all… and having what you want while remaining observant. Modern Orthodoxy is not as unfriendly as you might think… once you get the hang of it.