Sunday, March 07, 2021

Leaving Satmar Need Not Mean Going OTD

R' Aharon Teitelbaum, one of 2 brothers feuding over Satmar  leadership
There’s a lot of buzz about the latest post on Rationalist Judaism. Rabbi Natan Slifkin tells about his Shabbos guest, Nisi Goldstein. Ms. Goldstein is a medical school student that was raised in Satmar. 

The likelihood of a Satmar Chasid becoming a doctor is extremely slim. Although it is possible, the hurdles they face are immense. Starting with the lack of any secular studies curriculum. Not to mention the belief that speaking the English language is Chukas HaGoy – to be spoken only when absolutely necessary. 

To that end, their first language is Yiddish. English is taught much later - at the most rudimentary level. Satmar Chasidim have made a virtue out of avoiding contact with the outside world. They see virtually all of it as the moral antithesis of Judaism. As such their rabbinic leadership has built many fences in order to minimize that contact. They see most non Jews at best as unsympathetic to Jews and at worst closet (if not overt) antisemites. 

In short Satmar Chasdidm are among the most insular Jews of the observant world and among the most ignorant of the kind of education most of the western world takes for granted. I say this with no rancor. Just stating a fact about which they are mostly proud! Seeing those measures fostering  a culture untainted by the negative influences of the outside world. 

Bearing all this mind it is easy to see why becoming a doctor is very uncommon in the ranks of Satmar. And if one is a woman in Satmar it is even more unlikely. Satmar women are indoctrinated to be homemakers, raise children, and have as many of them as they can. While many Satmar women do find jobs outside the home, most of those jobs are limited by their level of education. And should in any case not interfere with their aforementioned primary duties. 

Enter Ms. Goldstein. Having been raised in Satmar makes her voyage about as unlikely as my becoming a fighter pilot for the Israeli Airforce at age 74. Making her journey even more incredible is that she remains observant, has warm feelings about her old community, and maintains contact with them. 

Although there are more than a few women from the Chasidic world who have achieved great success as professionals (Judge Ruchie Freier comes to mind), I do not believe any of them are from Satmar. 

Rabbi Slifkin has shown us that leaving Satmar does not automatically mean going OTD (no longer being observant).  It is possible for someone to reject Satmar's strictures and stay fully observant. This is something I have been saying for many years. Despite so much evidence to the contrary. 

The reason for that in my view is the nature of the culture in which they have been raised. It is very different from that of most Orthodox Jews. So that transitioning to a less restrictive (but still completely observant) lifestyle is as radical a departure as is going completely OTD.  A Satmar Chasid  will not feel comfortable in an Orthodoxy that is more permissive and integrated into the modern world. 

It is also a sad fact that the modern Orthodox world has not done a good job in welcoming people like that. They are so different in appearance... so limited in their knowledge of the modern Orthodox culture that they end up being treated with a sort of benign neglect. 

Feeling unwelcomed, many  of them will end up going completely OTD. And then try to find a community - any community - that will accept and help them transition.

This was demonstrated in the Netflix series, Unorthodox. Which was loosely based on the experiences of Deborah Feldman. Ms. Feldman was raised in Satmar albeit under unusual circumstances.

Her mother left her at a very young age having gone completely OTD and outing herself as a lesbian. Deborah was raised by her devout grandmother. Long story short, she was very uncomfortable with the path of life chosen for her. Which included being forced (psychologically) into a marriage at age 20 knowing little about her own female biology. And after having a difficult relationship with her husband. (who was portrayed rather sympathetically in the miniseries) she left her home and traveled to Germany where her mother had by then lived. 

Unorthodox was heavily criticized for its negative portrayal of Chasidic life. But honestly, I found it to be the most accurate portrayal of Satmar Chasidim ever made by the entertainment industry. By far. Except for main character that went OTD (and an unsavory Chasidic character that does not represent the mainstream) - for the most part it accurately presented Satmar Chasidim living happy, fulfilled lives within their given circumstances. Which they fully accept as the best way a Jew can live. But as the series also made obvious, this is not a lifestyle that anyone outside of their insular community would likely choose. 

To be fair Unorthodox portrayed the main character as having a very ‘unorthodox’ upbringing because of the abovementioned personal circumstances. So that under normal circumstances going OTD even according to the series was not something most Satmar Chasdim would choose to do.  

Be that as it may, I believe it happens a lot more than most people realize. However, being unhappy with the Satmar lifestyle need not result in going OTD. Deborah Feldman’s story is by far not be every Satmar Chasid’s story. Ms. Goldstein has proven that. And I salute her courage to be choose a lifestyle that is more in concert with who she really is while remaining fully observant. 

The problem is, how do we transmit that message to a community that chooses to cut themselves off from the outside world? A world that rejects what Ms. Goldstein did – even if they might accept it after the fact. 

There is an organization that can help. It was founded by Allison Josephs and called Makom, . It caters to exactly the type of person who simply wants the chains of Satmar removed so that they can participate in the world while remaining observant. While Makom  might be considered off limits to Satmar leadership, that does not mean it should be off limits to their Chasidim at risk. Makom allows the kind of transition Ms. Goldstein has made. 

If Satmar leadership is really concerned about any of their members going OTD, they should embrace Makom and not hide it. Even if they do not consider it an ideal form of Judaism, it surely better than going OTD. If they detect any of their people being at risk because of a desire to access the outside world, they should send them to Makom.  And not abandon them - leaving them to their own devices. 

Will they? Who knows!