Monday, August 21, 2017

Footsteps, Chabad, and Moishe House

Some formerly religious Jews at Mosihe House (The Jewish Week)
One of the things I talk about often here is the fact that there are so many Jews that go ‘Off the Derech’ (OTD).  This is when a religious Jew decides he no longer wants to be religious. As noted here many times, there are a variety of reasons this happens. Sometimes it is an intellectual decision as was the case with Shulem Deen

Other times it might be because of a dysfunctional religious family situation that ‘teaches’ a child that being religious leads to dysfunction. Still other times it might be because a child was sexually abused and treated miserably by his or her community that disbelieves them - vilifying them as outcasts who lied about the ‘respectable’ person they accused of the abuse.  

Modern Orthodox (MO) Jews  that go OTD  have additional reasons for doing so. That there may be a large number of MO Jews that go OTD is a problem beyond the scope of this post - the solutions for which are more complex. Ironically though, the Modern Orthodox lifestyle may be part of the solution for the Charedi OTD problem.

One of the more prevalent reasons is that some young people in the world of the right go OTD is that they just don’t fit the mold that their community requires of them. In some cases that means not being able to compete at the increasingly oppressive and  competitive levels of religious education at the schools they attend. In other cases it might just be that they cannot live up to the strictures imposed upon them by the particular sect or group they belong to. Or a combination of both. Especially since they see what  the so-called outside world has to offer them and can’t quite understand why they are so completely shielded from it. (Obviously this reason does not apply to Modern Orthodox OTDs)

This problem is most acute in the Chasidic world where their rabbinic leaders go to great lengths to isolate their people from the outside world. And to a lesser extent this applies to the more Yeshivishe world too. But the more isolated, the more it applies. Living in isolation from the rest of the world is the definitive state of Chasidic lifestyle. 

But that technique doesn’t work that well anymore. The internet and smart-phones have changed everything! Be that as it may, I believe that this rather large group of OTD young people are the ones that can be convinced to voluntarily return to religious observance.

The strictures that causes these people to go OTD can be corrected by offering them an alternative lifestyle that still enables them to get what they are looking for while remaining observant. The obvious lifestyle I am referring to is a Modern Orthodox lifestyle. While that would seem like a logical first step  for a Charedi youth affected negatively by the strictures of his own community, that ‘step’ is almost always skipped. 

Unfortunately the reason for that is in part because the Chasidic lifestyle in which they were raised is so unlike modern Orthdodxy - they feel like aliens from another planet in such an environment. The feeling might be reciprocal from the MO community to them. It is also true that Chasidim are indoctrinated to believe that being MO is tantamount to not being religious at all. It is therefore not surprising that modern Orthodoxy  has not been considered a realistic option for them. So they just go completely OTD.

While the secular world is equally not compatible for them, they have no place else to go. Which is  perhaps why there is so much depression, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and even suicide  among these young OTD people. They have rejected their former religious community - and have been rejected by them.

Along came an organization called Footsteps that has helped them make the transition from being Orthodox to being secular – with a goal of mainstreaming them into the secular world.

This organization may have saved many lives. But they have been accused of being an anti religious organization that deliberately disabuses their ‘clients’ of any thoughts about returning to religious observance. Leaders of Footsteps deny that and say that they are not anti religious. They claim to not deal at all with religious observance at all and could not care less about it one way or another. They simply want to help people transition into a productive and positive lifestyle in the secular world that they have now chosen to live in. That the vast majority of their clients choose not to be observant is irrelevant to Footsteps. 

I had in the past lamented why there was no ‘religious ‘Footsteps’ that could convince these young people that there is another way where they could  ‘have it all’. They could be observant and participate in much of the culture legitimately - without violating Halacha (unlike what they have been indoctrinated to believe by their former communities). One such organization was founded by one of my heroes, Allison Josephs. It is called ‘Makom’ and is designed to do exactly what I just described: offer an alternative lifestyle that will give them much of what they desired but were denied in the past.

Now there is another initiative that isgeared toward Chabad and is located near Crown Heights. Moishe House, once geared toward reaching out to secular Jews has been re-tooled to reach out to OTDs. And as if to corroborate Footsteps own narrative about not being anti religious, they have partnered up with them. From the Jewish Week
“We have always appreciated and admired Footsteps. This felt like the perfect opportunity to specifically engage more folks from that community,” (says Moishe House founder and CEO David Cygielman)...
Moishe House, one of the fastest-growing outreach initiatives for Jews in their 20s, announced its newest house last week in the hip Brooklyn neighborhood, but this time with a twist: the house is staffed by four young Jews who recently broke with their ultra-Orthodox pasts.
“Most of our members live in Brooklyn, as well as most of our potential members — we expect that this house will not only serve official Footsteps’ members, but others who have left the ultra-Orthodox community for whom this space might be more resonant,” said Rachel Berger, director of community engagement for Footsteps, a nonprofit that helps Jews who have chosen to leave their chasidic or black-hat communities.
The pluralistic organization, previously geared primarily towards the unaffiliated, now aims to serve the growing “off the derech” community — a self-identified and growing group of Jews who have split with Orthodox pasts. 
I could not be more pleased. There are now 104 Houses in 26 countries. Although most of these residences are geared towards expatriate Lubavitchers they are open to OTD Jews from all kinds of Charedi backgrounds. And apparently they embrace  modernity as a means to show their ‘clients’ that they can indeed have it all.

How successful are they? I don’t know. But it is interesting that Chabad now has a Kiruv organization working on their OTDs. One that seems to use to use Modern Orthodoxy as a means toward that end. Will they will they be successful? I don’t know. It will be interesting to see how this develops.