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Chavie Weisberger grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community in Monsey, New York, where she raised her three children after her 2008 divorce. But as she began questioning her faith and her sexuality, her neighbors told the religious authorities there that she was allowing secular behavior in her home.
Her estranged husband sued for custody and won, in a secular Brooklyn court — it upheld a religious court document she signed at the time of her divorce. Weisberger didn’t realize that in it she’d agreed to raise her children Hasidic.
Ultimately, another court overturned that decision and restored full custody to Weisberger.
Here & Now‘s Robin Young talks with Weisberger (@iamchavie) about the issues faced by Hasidic men and women who leave the community, and is also joined by Lani Santo(@notinabox_ls), executive director of Footsteps, a social services organization that provides social and financial services for those transitioning to a secular lifestyle.
Part 1: Some Americans may not realize that Hasidic Jews shun many common secular practices widely accepted across cultural and national borders, including the basics of education. For example, there are several yeshivas, or Hasidic Jewish schools, in the New York area that only teach subjects in Yiddish. Previous yeshiva students share the impact of these practices in their lives.
First of three stories on the inherent tensions between the ultra-Orthodox communities and the legal and social norms in the NYC metro area. Be sure to watch the video above with Naftali Moster of Yaffed.
The questioning went on for days. Did she allow her children to watch a Christmas video? Did she include plastic Easter eggs as part of her celebration of the Jewish holiday of Purim? Did she use English nicknames for them, instead of their Hebrew names?
This grilling of Chavie Weisberger, 35, took place not in front of a rabbi or a religious court, but in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, during a custody battle with her ultra-Orthodox Jewish ex-husband after she came out as lesbian and decided to leave the ultra-Orthodox fold. The stakes could not have been higher. In fact, the judge, Eric I. Prus, eventually ruled that she should lose custody of her children, largely because she had lapsed in raising them according to Hasidic customs.
Ms. Weisberger’s case, which was reversed on appeal in August, is still reverberating through New York courts that handle divorce and custody matters for the state’s hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Some who have left the ultra-Orthodox say that in recent years, the community has become more organized in how it aids the religious parent and ostracizes the parent leaving the fold.
For the parent leaving, the trauma goes beyond the private dissolution of a marriage. “Their job gets in jeopardy, their home,” said Chani Getter, a program manager at Footsteps, an organization that offers support to formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews. “If they are renting from a religious landlord, surveillance goes up,” she said. Each child, she said, is considered by the community as a Jewish soul that cannot be lost.
In recent years, education activists, among them former Hasidic yeshiva graduates, have pushed aggressively to bring the yeshivas into compliance with the state’s education laws. Simcha Felder, the state senator from Brooklyn who represents the heavily ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Borough Park and Midwood, was on a mission to get legal permission for the state to turn a blind eye to the near-absence of secular instruction in many yeshivas. The upshot? Tens of thousands of children would continue to graduate without the most basic skills.
I know about the cost. I was one of those kids.
According to New York State law, nonpublic schools are required to offer a curriculum that is “substantially equivalent” to that of public schools. But when it comes to Hasidic yeshivas, this law has gone unenforced for decades. The result is a community crippled by poverty and a systemic reliance on government funding for virtually all aspects of life.
Chavie Weisberger was raised in a Hasidic family — an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect — and “was groomed for the ultimate level of success, which was marriage,” she tells PEOPLE.
But after she came out to her family, “all hell broke loose,” says the 35-year-old Brooklyn native who now works at Footsteps, an organization that helps people who want to leave or have left the ultra-Orthodox community. “I lost my job and the support of my family and friends.”
She also lost custody of her three children, but after a five-year battle in court, she won her appeal in August 2017. Since then, it’s been “a whirlwind of new experiences and beautiful family bonding time.”
There are layers, both literal and spiritual, to getting dressed as a Hasidic person or an ultra-Orthodox Jew. It’s like a math equation. For women, there is often a “shell”—a cap-sleeved shirt to cover the collarbone—and then another shirt, sometimes with a collar and typically of a solid hue, that must reach past the elbow. Depending on the sect, or the individual’s or family’s religious preference, there is thick opaque hosiery, sometimes in a peachy orange hue, branded with raised quarter-inch seams running down the back. There is, of course, a skirt that goes below the knee.
As for those who leave their lives as Orthodox Jews—the ones deemed as “off the derech” (meaning “off the path,” OTD for short)—they are faced, in the secular world, with both finding themselves and, eventually, their style. “You have to admire that kind of courage,” says the project’s photographer Gillian Laub. “Risking the loss of everything you’ve known to live an authentic life.” So, what does a post-Hasidic wardrobe look like? In one case, there is Abby Stein, a transgender woman who meets me at a coffee shop near Columbia University, where she is currently studying public policy and gender studies. Now a trans activist, she was once a rabbi who hailed from a high-ranking Hasidic dynasty, a mishmash of two of the most extreme sects, Bobov and Satmar. She is a direct descendant of the founder of Hasidic Judaism, the Baal Shem Tov, and compares her early life to something like being born into European royalty. Stein eventually left the sect with the help of Footsteps, a nonprofit New York–based organization that provides support to the ultra-Orthodox looking to leave the community.
(Abby) Stein knew from a young age that didn’t fit neatly into the gender-segregated roles outlined by her Hasidic community, a sect of Judaism that chooses to live in isolation from the secular world. In 2012, Stein secretly used the Internet for the first time to research what she was feeling and found a Wikipedia page explaining the term “transgender.” That’s when everything started making sense. Soon after, her son was born, a joyful moment but also one that made her think, “What if my kid is going to be like me?” That was the catalyst for what she calls her two transitions: first, leaving Hasidism and distancing herself from its rigid interpretation of Judaism, and second, presenting as the woman she’d long suspected she was.
A small number of other organizations exist that engage with the problems in the Haredi world, but their issues are far from the broader Jewish agenda. Footsteps, an organization that helps those who wish to explore the world outside their Haredi enclaves, with which I’ve worked closely, is a small organization that operates largely outside the mainstream Jewish organizational network. Unchained At Last, founded by a former Haredi woman who, as a teenager, was pressured into an arranged marriage that turned violently abusive, seeks to help women get out of similar situations, but it also operates largely unknown to the broader Jewish world. These — and others — are small organizations with big missions, missions that should be the purview of all Jews, but aren’t.
Chavie Weisberger married a man she’d barely met and suffered for years until she realized she was a lesbian. But her greatest battle was yet to come.
Read the full article and watch a WPIX interview with Chavie.
Growing up in a highly insular Hasidic community in Borough Park, Brooklyn, I had little knowledge of secular culture. I had no access to popular music and movies, or even to classic works of secular literature. I was expected to be a modest Jewish girl, which meant not asking questions. I knew my purpose in life was to follow the community’s pre-scripted life of marriage by 18, homemaking, and, most importantly, producing as many children as possible.
A few months ago, the documentary “One of Us” came out on Netflix, and shook the orthodox world along with its release. The movie detailed the stories of three young Jews who had made the decision to leave their Hasidic communities, and the aftermath of their choices.
One of those subjects was Ari Hershkowitz. In the movie, we see young Ari not just struggling with his own beliefs and place in the world, but also addiction and the trauma of sexual assault.
In this episode, Ari discusses what his life has been like since the movie followed his life, the effect it had on his life, why he thinks many choose to leave their Hasidic lives, and much more.
Our Jewish guest is Lani Santo, the executive director of Footsteps, a New York-based organization dedicated to helping formerly Orthodox Jews establish new lives outside the insular communities in which they were raised. Three Footsteppers were recently featured in the acclaimed Netflix documentary One of Us, and Santo gives us further insight into the kind of the emotional, educational, and vocational support members need to flourish on their chosen paths.
Listen below to a dynamic interview with Footsteps Executive Director, Lani Santo, starting at 21:50 or here.
The directors of ‘Jesus Camp’ explore the high price of freedom for three Hasidic Jews who left the fold.
Think what it would take for someone born into such a tightly guarded culture to pick up and leave.
That’s precisely the struggle that One of Us illuminates. Following three former Hasidim over a fraught and eventful three-year period, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have made their most powerful and complex film. Netflix plans to stream it worldwide in the fall, and its deeply personal insights into a shrouded subculture should generate a wide viewership.
While Etty, Luzer and Ari are among a minority, it’s a significant enough minority to keep the not-for-profit organization Footsteps busy, providing social and vocational guidance for people who have left ultra-Orthodox sects.
They’ve crafted compassionate, hard-hitting studies of works in progress — portraits that may disclose dark secrets of a circumscribed world, but which also tap into something regrettably universal.
For those who’ve grown up within the ultra-orthodox community, getting caught breaking the rules is to risk being cast out of society. When she did get found out, Maya, who’s now in her early 20s, remembers her parents threatening to say prayers for the dead for her. But while she had to find her way, alone and undercover, into the secular world, there’s now a charity that exists to make the transition easier for people like her.
Mavar (the name means “crossings” in Hebrew) often uses public libraries to meet ultra-orthodox Jews who ask for help. “
Mavar deals with around 15 “rebels” at any one time. In New York, where the 600,000-strong Hasidic community dwarfs its London equivalent, 1,250 people have made use of Footsteps, which has been around since 2003. Footsteps’ director Lani Santo says the group now welcomes around 150 new members every year. She, too, says the internet plays a role. “There are a huge number of underground forums that exist – secret, private Facebook groups – international ones – used by [Hasidic] people with aliases,” she says. “Even people who do not have access to Facebook have email addresses that they can access at public libraries.” Having connected online, “doubters” then go on to meet up face to face, and it’s at that point that awareness of Footsteps spreads, through word of mouth.
But in the deeply insular world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, few such advances are being made. Chani Getter, a program coordinator at Footsteps, a nonprofit that helps people transition away from the ultra-Orthodox community, said that “coming out” has a twinned meaning for the people she works with. Because of its strictly implemented gender roles, there is no room in the ultra-Orthodox world to be queer or trans. This means that coming out marks a person’s departure from the religion altogether, usually at the expense of family, friends, and one’s entire life as they previously knew it. “Coming out” as being non-religious is every bit as significant to a person’s life as coming out as gay or trans.
What it feels like to find Footsteps, a place where people at long last are accepted and seen: “I immediately burst out crying, and I just sat in her office, sobbing,” he said. “It was just so overwhelming. It was like, I made it. I’m safe. It was just the strangest feeling.”
Last year she [Melissa] and Malky Goldman, a fellow ex-chasidic Jew, founded an independent movie production company named MalkySquared. (Malky was Weisz’ original name; she took on “Melissa” when she left the chasidic community because she “wanted to be anonymous,” not readily identifiable by a Hebrew name.)
MalkySquared is working on productions — often with a female and Jewish perspective, often dealing with sexuality — that offer an accurate portrayal of charedi life, she said. “We’re showing a little of the underbelly of the community.”
Weisz said. “I feel a responsibility” to show the true side of that life. Particularly, women’s stories. The women she grew up around are “passionate,” she said. “We’re not meek little girls.”
Melissa Weisz, a working actress in Manhattan, did not exactly grow up a drama club kid.
Lately, she has found herself among other Hasidic exiles, speaking Yiddish and struggling with the strict rules of Orthodox Judaism.
They are part of the cast of “God of Vengeance,” Sholem Asch’s 1907 play, which is being revived by the New Yiddish Repertory Company. “God of Vengeance” is the professional stage debut for the five Hasidic exiles. Having grown up speaking primarily Yiddish, they were natural choices for the play, which offers projected English subtitles for the audience.
On a deeper level, their personal stories of shaking off the strong bonds of Hasidic life have helped them connect with the essence of their characters and the poignant themes of the play, said Ms. Weisz, who called her Hasidic upbringing “my background for my character.”
“There’s a depth that we bring to the show,” she said. “To have the complete break of losing your family, that loss. Nobody else can play it as intensely.”