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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.”
Winter 2017- Contact: The Journal of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life
“Part of this journey is an inclination toward creativity and self-actualization,” says Phin Reisz, a 31-year-old entrepreneur who sits on the board of Footsteps, a New York City-based community of those who’ve left the ultra-Orthodox world. “With the journeys they’ve undertaken, those who’ve left have also shown a significant amount of chutzpah and conviction and persistence and definitely a whole lot of resourcefulness.” That, Reisz believes, is vital for success.
In the mid-1940s, Joel Teitelbaum, an eminent and charismatic rabbi, immigrated to the United States, colonizing a section of Williamsburg in Brooklyn for his Hasidic sect, the Satmar, its name taken from the Hungarian town of Szatmar, where Rabbi Teitelbaum had fought to resist the encroachments of a modernizing society.
A reliance on public assistance is remarkably common among the Hasidim, explained Lani Santo, the executive director of Footsteps, an organization begun in 2003 to help those who decide to leave the ultra-Orthodox world. “Even if you want to be able to have a community that is maintaining its own traditions,” she told me, “you still need to be able to have the tools and skills to support your family.”
“Of course, I’m a worthy human being. I don’t have to do anything to deserve it. I exist and, therefore, I’m good enough.”
Growing up a “perfect” straight-A student in her Lubavitch (a branch of Hasidism) community, Deena Chanowitz had to basically conceal every part of her body (from her ankles to her elbows) least a man catch a glimpse of her bare skin and be lead to “sin.” As Deena tells it, “There is so much fear of inappropriate sexuality that it breeds all kinds of other forms of sexuality.”
Mark Trencher, the director of Nishma Research, noted that there was an inverse relationship between level of observance while still a part of Orthodox Judaism and level of observance after leaving.
The study was a joint effort with Footsteps, an organization that helps facilitate the transition out of Modern and ultra-Orthodox communities for those wishing to leave. It may be difficult to leave Orthodox Judaism, or simply leave a specific community, if an individual does not know people outside the community, does not have the material means to leave, or does not have sufficient English skills to live on their own.
“The only surprising thing to us was how many people filled it out in a week and a half,” says Lani Santo, the executive director of Footsteps. “It’s great to have quantitative data on things that we as an organization have known qualitatively for some time.”
Read the full article here. Review the full survey results here.
“Ken Thompson should be on the front line supporting this bill,” Levin said of the Brooklyn district attorney, who was elected to the post in part because he promised to be tougher on sex abuse in the Orthodox community than his predecessor, Charles Hynes. “He should be telling the Republicans in Albany, ‘We can’t do our job without this bill.’”
Levin’s inspiring survivor story and uncompromising activism are drawing attention. The Jewish Week community newspaper named him one of its “36 Under 36” last week, and he will be honored this week by Footsteps, an organization that provides support to those who wish to leave the Orthodox community.
When Abby Stein began her transition from male to female at the age of 23, she could have chosen to stay under the radar. Instead, she came out on her blog, and when reporters started calling she responded, because she wanted to let other chasidic transgender Jews know they are not alone.
“I wanted to be a voice,” she said. “If someone would have told me then that there were other people like me, it just would have been so helpful.”
From the time Chaim Levin was 6, a cousin six years his senior sexually abused him. The violent assaults continued weekly until he was 10 — in his father’s shul, their houses and their Catskill bungalows. At 14 he told his rabbi, who advised his parents to preserve family unity by “pretending nothing happened” — a “systematic cover-up,” he says, “that still haunts me.”
But it didn’t silence him. Levin, who came out at 15 to a friend and endured homophobic yeshivas here and in Israel, eventually found a way to be a strong voice and champion for LGBTQ Orthodox Jews.
“Chaim and Benjy grew up in Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn, but they didn’t meet until they signed up for a therapy program then called JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. Chaim was 18, and Benjy was 20. Both were attracted to men, and they sought out the program hoping to become straight.”
Somehow, in the midst of this Caribbean decadence, a very different community also thrived. Just a few blocks from the scantily dressed beachgoers and the drug lords in Armani silk were men in ill-fitting black suits and heavy beards, and women in thick wigs and long woolen skirts all year long, even as the wet heat of the Atlantic swept across the peninsula. The ranks of Miami’s ultra-Orthodox Jews, Hasidim, were swelling. They were insular and defiantly anti-secular, clinging to traditions that may have protected their community in a medieval world but in modern America would lead to tragic consequences for many of their youngest, most vulnerable members.
There are many terms for people who have left Orthodox Judaism: apikores (an ancient Hebrew term for “apostate”); chozer b’she’elah (a decorous Israeli term, which translates roughly to “one who returns with questions”); frei (Yiddish for “free,” usually used in a derogatory fashion); and “O.T.D.,” or “off the derech” (“derech” is Hebrew for “path”). The last term, once a dismissive way to describe Orthodox youth who sought to explore drugs and sex, has been reclaimed by some ex-Orthodox Jews. Using this term says: Yes, I have left your path—and now I must find my own way.
In September 2013, I gathered with a group of friends to share feelings and reflections on the suicide death of one our friends, Deb Tambor, who had been struggling with a variety of issues related to leaving the insular Hasidic Jewish world. Next to me sat Faigy Mayer, a friend and fellow ex-Hasid.
Faigy and I talked for a bit, about Deb, and about our own lives. She told me she was doing well. I told her I was writing an essay about Deb’s death for an online magazine, and she offered me some helpful thoughts.
This week, nearly two years later, Faigy jumped to her own death from a 20-story building in Manhattan.
The news, when I heard it, shook me, as it did many in our community of ex-haredi Orthodox Jews. But it didn’t shock me. It’s almost as if we’ve come to expect another suicide in our ranks every so often.
Shulem Deen’s first steps away from Hasidic Judaism were in the direction of a radio. Defying his community’s express prohibitions against secular media, Deen waited until his wife and children were sleeping. Then he leaned in close to the small tape player in his home — the one whose radio he hadn’t had the heart to disable. He turned it on and began to listen.
“I switched the dial from one station to another, commercials for medical malpractice attorneys, car dealerships and department store blowout sales filling me with forbidden pleasure,” Deen wrote in his recently released memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return. “I was like a visitor from a different era encountering our modern one, captivated by its very mundaneness.”