Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Place For Ex-Charedim

Guest Post by Allison Josephs

A couple of years ago, after a speaking engagement of mine in Monsey, a couple approached me. They had been raised, as they described it "ultra-Chasidish," but did not feel that they could live such a strict life any more. Unfortunately, their families had rejected them when they expressed their desire to lead a more moderate observant Jewish life. “We still want to be frum," they told me, "we just don’t know who to follow.”

I was troubled by how lost they were and told them I wanted to help them. "You'll come for Shabbos," I said. "I'll introduce you to our rav." But then someone interrupted us, and when I looked up, they were gone. I tried to find them after the talk to no avail, so I started reaching out to people at major Jewish organizations, asking if anyone wanted to help create a program to help people in this situation. Nobody was ready to do anything about it.

As the months passed, every so often I'd remember that this couple was still out there and feel guilty, but it wasn't until last year that something finally pushed me to act: I read an account online of an ex-Satmar woman who wanted to stay observant after she left her Satmar community, but every non-Chasidic school she checked out didn’t want her kid. Her new non-Chasidic neighbors never really welcomed her and her son had no one to play with on Shabbos until she started paying a neighbor to do so. After enough rejections, she got fed up and just left altogether. Today she is no longer observant.

The moment I read this, I knew that something had to be done even if I didn't know what that thing was. And so I posted an article on JewintheCity.com asking our readers to speak up if they were willing to help people in this situation. We heard from 200 people from around the world (including the couple who I lost! And we did have them for Shabbos and introduce them to our rav!) Apparently many people like me had been wanting to help but didn't know how. We even had two women volunteer to spearhead our effort (Mindy Schaper and Gavriella Lerner, who are now our co-directors), which we've named "Project Makom." Its mission is: helping former and questioning Charedi Jews find their place in Orthodox Judaism.

We put out a survey to find out what former Charedim would want if someone was willing to help them. Based on that info, our directors developed a survey for people who want to volunteer to learn with a participant (either Jewish or secular studies), have them for Shabbos, be a friend, etc. If you are a former or questioning Charedi looking for help, you can sign up here. In the last several months, our co-directors have interviewed one hundred volunteers. We have already begun matching up participants with them.

We are planning a Shabbaton in couple of months in the Five Towns, which we'll be posting about in our Facebook group. We have thankfully received positive feedback both from leaders in the Charedi community and from the formerly observant community. The Jerusalem Post also just featured our initiative this week so we're hearing from people in Israel. Please help spread the word, so that anyone who needs help can access this service. And if you can help us out in any way, we recently received up to $5000 in matched funds to help us build a website and get programming started. Thank you for your help!

41 comments:

  1. I was very pleased to see this post as this topic is on my mind. I too had a missed opportunity a few years back to help a young women from Beitar who wanted to remain frum, but not Charedi. It has been plaguing me ever since. Unfortunately, the article from the Jerusalem Post is only accessible to premium paying members. I live in Israel, and would appreciate info as to how to help.

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  2. Two weeks ago Makor Rishon had a short article about a similar organization here in Israel called "Uvaharta". (full disclosure: I have scheduled an interview with them tomorrow to see what I can do for them.) Maybe you can coordinate with them.

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    1. Thank you, Alan, for that recommendation. We will look them up.

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    2. Thank you, Alan, for the recommendation. We will look them up.

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  3. This effort by Allison Josephs and associates is needed and I wish them much success. However, the article doesn't provide any clue as to what criteria are used in selecting volunteer hosts/study partners. Is an interview involved or simply a questionnaire? Is there an attempt to guide former Hareidim to a particular type of Orthodoxy? How do you eliminate those capable of much harm such as egotists and controlling personalities?

    Y. Aharon

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    1. Hi, Y. Aharon,

      I'm Mindy Schaper, director of programming for Project Makom. The people who sign up as volunteers and participants complete a questionnaire, and then one of us interviews them. We would like to expose them to a broad range of Orthodox possibilities, not just one, and hopefully our interview process will weed out negative personalities. SI far the people I have interviewed have been kind and caring individuals.

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  4. This sounds like a great project, but I wonder if I could be a bit broader. What if someone wants to leave the particular group of extreme charedim in which they grew up, but they still want to remain charedi -- just left-wing yeshivish or "frum but not yeshivish" perhaps? Or "chabad lite"? For some people, such options could be attractive as a way to significantly change their worldview, lifestyle and community, without radically changing their appearance and identity. Of course, many others leaving charedi communities may want to become full-fledged MO/dati and that's great too.

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    1. Boaz, I completely agree with you. The goal of Project Makom is not to create Modern Orthodox transplants, but to help people gain exposure to a variety of Orthodox worldviews and communities. I think it wi'll be helpful for many not to make too drastic of a change.

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  5. Have you guys talked to Rabbi's Portnoy and Turk of The Jewish Heritage Center of Queens and Long Island? I think they're doing some work in this area as well.

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    1. Hi, Miriam,

      We haven't, but I will look into them. Thank you for the referral.

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    2. Mindy, how do we get in touch with you if we want to help? Also: Is this only for the NY/NJ community?

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    3. Hi, Etti,

      You can fill out the Google form here: http://jewinthecity.com/project-makom/

      and we will contact you. It's for people everywhere. The volunteers are from all over the world, but so far the participants have been in the NY area.

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  6. There is an organization in Israel called Hillel (not to be confused with the Jewish students' campus group in the US)-האגודה ליוצאים לשאלה, which is expressly for charedi men and women who want to leave religious Judaism entirely, offering them education and employment opportunities that were unavailable to them while still in a charedi community. [I've heard though that Hillel is perhaps too zealous in trying to convince people that they're somehow "better off" not frum.]

    I'm glad to see that there are organizations such as Project Makom that try to allow such young men and women maintaining religious observance.

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  7. The problem when dealing with individuals that are trying to break free from the charedi quagmire, but are to afraid, is the psychological hold that 'God is not on their side.' This by far is the number 1 hindrance to a successful transition for a more meaningful Torah life.

    Let us not be fooled. The charedi society is destructive to the Jewish nation and detrimental to the Jewish soul. It even effects outside Jewish communities, e.g. when secular Jews observe their conduct against the hand that feeds and protects them, interests in Zionism fade away.
    Many more are saying "we are no longer interested in a Jewish State" All due to a handful of egotistical and power hungry individuals. Whom can only feel existence when dominating and dictating their demands on others.

    The best candidates to solicit in this endeavor, I believe, are ex-charedim and nothing less then to expose the truth of the charedi culture is most imperative.
    o

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  8. This organization (i.e., Allison Josephs) is misguided. As an initial matter, people who leave close knot societies, like orthodoxy, are invariably the independent type. They're not recovering alcoholics who need a support group. I know many - MANY - guys who grew up in yeshivah-lane environments, or chassidishe backgrounds, who are today regular ballebattim, who managed to do it all by themselves, if you can imagine such a thing.

    More importantly, this organization, like every organization, must eventually move beyond its stated goals. Basic human factors, like the desire for growth, creative energy, the need to produce results for people funding it, all combine to cause this result. This is the immutable rule of organizational life. (So much so that there once had to be law to prevent business organizations from moving ultra vires.) So while ostensibly their goal is to "help" those already questioning their religious heritage, it is inevitable, ifs it succeeds, that it will soon move to initiating contact to charedim and proselytizing to them. No, not door to door - but in the same mold as well-funded kiruv organizations. When that happens, it is no longer the independent thinkers that leave the fold. To the contrary, once the free parties and shabbatonim start, eventually the more vulnerable and less mainstream charedim will glom on.

    I suppose turnabout is fair play. The orthodox are mikarev reform & conservative, the yeshivah world is mikarev modern orthodox - so why shouldn't the modern orthodox be mikarev charedim? No one seems to worry about meddling in another's way of life. The excuse is always "we're not proselytizing, we're just exposing them to another viewpoint", as though those other people were too stoopid to notice those other viewpoints all around them, before the professional organization moves in. I guess in that sense this group is no different than any other. Let the witnessing begin.

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    1. DF,

      I appreciate your feedback. It's true that many who want to change their life and community are the independent sort, but we'd like to help those who would like a support system. All the people who have signed up so far apparently did so because they would like some help along the way.

      By the way, I'm not certain that what you say about people being able to find other communities on their own is true. I think one's ability to discover alternate viewpoints is dependent on things such as exposure, age, access to Internet, etc. I don't think it's always easy to find new communities and make connections. Feedback we've been getting is that it is difficult for people who grew up in the chareidi/chassidish culture to fit into the MO communities. That's one area we would be liasons.

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    2. who are today regular ballebattim, who managed to do it all by themselves, if you can imagine such a thing......DF how do you know that they managed to do it all by themselves and didn't have a mentor or older individual to guide them????

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  9. Mindy, Thanks for the information and further best wishes for a successful outreach program. Are you aware of a similar program with a website called that is run by 2 Orthodox Rabbis, Ysoscher Katz and Levi Brackman, who, themselves, were former Hasidim (Satmar and Chabad, respectively) who left the Hareidi camp (but not Orthodoxy). They have first-hand experience of the trauma of leaving a comfortable environment with many attachments because of ideological disenchantment. As such, they may be in a position to offer guidance and perspective.

    Y. Aharon

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    1. Yes, we are aware of them, and are in communication with them. Thank you!

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  10. Instead of fretting about what Project Makom might or might not morph into some day, I say kol hakavod -- there is absolutely a need for just such organizations to provide an address for people who would otherwise ditch Orthodoxy altogether, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Read personal accounts of ex-Hasidim like Shulem Deen: many such people have sound reasons for leaving their former way of life, but apparently have never been given a clue about other, possibly more satisfying ways to stay shomer Torah umitzvos.

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    1. So Shulem Deen, or others like him, thought that there were only two choices: Remain the same, or become irreligious. That's what you're saying? It never occurred to Shulem Deen that maybe there was a different option, or a hundred different options? Is Shulem Deen a moron?

      That's the point. This is not about showing people other alternatives, because people can figure that out on their own. It's not that complicated. Remember, we're talking about guys inquisitive and intellectually curious enough to move beyond their own circle. They're very aware of the other choices.

      If this was about nothing more than hooking up such people with MO people for Shabbos meals or business lunches, great. But either its not, or it wont be.

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  11. This organization (i.e., Allison Josephs) is misguided. As an initial matter, people who leave close knot societies, like orthodoxy, are invariably the independent type. They're not recovering alcoholics who need a support group. I know many - MANY - guys who grew up in yeshivah-lane environments, or chassidishe backgrounds, who are today regular ballebattim, who managed to do it all by themselves, if you can imagine such a thing.

    I know many people who do their own taxes. Therefore, tax accountants are not needed.
    I know many people who fix their own cars. Therefore, mechanics are not needed.

    [BTW, did your friends know how to read and write in English or other host country language?]

    More importantly, this organization, like every organization, must eventually move beyond its stated goals.

    Organizations have shortcomings by nature. You are establishing an organization. Therefore, your organization is misguided. QED

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    1. It's a matter of proportion, David. 5-10% of people can fix their own cars; but the overwhelming majority cannot. By contrast, when it comes to those leaving the fold to go out on their own, the overwhelming majority - if not actually everyone - do just fine on their own.

      I'm not sure what your last sentence is talking about.

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    2. It's a matter of proportion, David. 5-10% of people can fix their own cars; but the overwhelming majority cannot. By contrast, when it comes to those leaving the fold to go out on their own, the overwhelming majority - if not actually everyone - do just fine on their own.

      The problem with this is that you are using anecdote and your personal experience (non-random sampling) to try to predict a statistic over a larger population. There are lots of potential biases here including survivorship: if they left would you still be as likely to be familiar with them?

      Also, I gather that it depends on where you are departing from and what tools you bring with you. That is why I asked if your friends know English. My son who knows no Yiddish visited New Square and was not able to communicate with younger family members of the family he stayed with because they could not speak English. He could only communicate with the mother. (Obviously in Israel things will be a bit different, but even there the lack of secular education is a big problem).

      Anyhow, maybe the 10% need help.

      I'm not sure what your last sentence is talking about.

      You made a criticism which would apply to any organization: they tend to expand (and then you speculated on the expansion). By that logic, every organization is doomed.

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    3. That only 5-10% of people can fix their own cars is not anecdote; it is fact. Maybe the percentages are a little higher or lower, but the point is the same.

      As for organizations, yes, they all tend to expand. The point of inquiry is the natural direction of expansion. An organization created to help pay for the wedding of a poor bride and groom will naturally expand, and can be expected to so expand, to pay for basic living expenses. But its unlikely that such an organization will expand into, say, lobbying for higher minimum wage, which is too attenuated from its stated goal. But the organization at issue here can naturally be expected to head in the direction I described.

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    4. @DF

      An ounce of evidence is worth a pound of logic. The post begins with a story of real people looking for this kind of help, and later talks about a survey done with real people also looking for this and how they were paired with volunteers. The many many guys you know who did it themselves—good for them. They’re the ones who successfully integrated into your circles. You didn’t meet those who became irreligious or are currently struggling.

      I have no idea what “regular” ballebatim are.

      If “eventually the more vulnerable and less mainstream charedim will glom on”, will that be a loss? Or is your point that when this happens the chareidi leadership will fight it?

      “The excuse is always "we're not proselytizing, we're just exposing them to another viewpoint", as though those other people were too stoopid to notice those other viewpoints all around them, before the professional organization moves in.”

      The anecdotal evidence is overwhelmingly that people were indeed unaware of other paths. One well-known American Kiruv person, a baal tshuva, says that when he met his Rebi he was asked how many people do you think there are like this in the US? He answered, you mean with the big hat and coat? Maybe three in the entire US(!).


      As an aside, I wonder what percent of these people were/are Hasidim. Many Hasidim have little feel for what's going on outside their enclaves. Also Hasidim are very community minded and might have an especially hard time being without community.

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    5. The type of person who is interested in exploring other paths does not need an organization to expose him to them. He will find them himself.
      As for your example - I don't believe it. Even if it were true, a Jew who does not even know of the mere existence of "Hassidim" is a total ignoramus. ( Even goyim are well aware of this community, from countless tv shows, movies, spoofs, videos, etc.) A guy so cloistered, or who was once so cloistered, probably shouldn't be working in kiruv.

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    6. That only 5-10% of people can fix their own cars is not anecdote; it is fact. Maybe the percentages are a little higher or lower, but the point is the same.

      At this point, I think that you must be pulling my leg.

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    7. No, but at this point I'm not interested in debating it.

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    8. Well, if you were serious, I'll make a serious response. My remarks about using anecdote and statistical bias were directed toward your estimate of the percentage of people who might need some help. They were not directed toward your estimate of people who can fix their own cars.

      Also, you didn't answer as to whether the people in your universe speak/read/write English. If so, then you are missing a large pool.

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  12. "to lead a more moderate observant Jewish life"

    Unfortunately, such language perpetuates the disastrous viewpoint that MO/Dati Leumi Judaism either is or should be a watered down version of Haredut.

    Haredi Judaism is not wrong because it is "extreme" it is extreme in being wrong. Where it is correct, it is correct in being extreme, "Moderate" versions of Haredut are still wrong, only more moderately so.

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    1. "to lead a more moderate observant Jewish life"

      Unfortunately, such language perpetuates the disastrous viewpoint that MO/Dati Leumi Judaism either is or should be a watered down version of Haredut.

      Haredi Judaism is not wrong because it is "extreme" it is extreme in being wrong. Where it is correct, it is correct in being extreme, "Moderate" versions of Haredut are still wrong, only more moderately so.


      I think that the flaw in this logic is as follows: The reason that people can become "extreme" in anything actually false is that they are overestimating their understanding and underestimating their ignorance. If we can admit that we could be wrong about pretty much anything (at varying levels of probability), then we can still dedicate a lot of resources to what is most important, but we can also be open to the fact that what others think might be right and we are wrong. Thus we can both respect others and enable correcting our own errors.

      That is not "watering down" unless you consider the entire modern scientific enterprise to be "watered down".

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    2. I agree and I would even go further and say that the decisive advantage that MO has over Hareduth, one that cancels everything else out, is the ability of its members to admit, in principle, that they may, as a group, be wrong and need to mend their ways.

      However, I took this to mean that people leaving the Haredi world can expect to lead a more moderate *lifestyle*. In a certain sense this is also true since Haredim spend their day on burdensome tomfoolery that has zero to do with the Torah and which they should be encouraged to stop when they leave the community. However, they also need to recognize that if they wish to start following the Torah there are many things that they are not presently doing that they must start to do (e.g. wearing tekhelet) and many things that they are currently doing which they are not permitted to do (e.g. wearing sheitels, using segulot etc.).

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  13. We're in Israel and would like to be a part of this - for instance, if you are reaching people who are in the Chareidi post-h.s. programs, but are looking to see what other Torah lifestyles there are. Should we fill out the form, or not yet?

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    1. Hi, Kira,

      You can fill out the form. We are working to get in touch with orgs over there. We may just end up sending you to a place over there, but fill out the form and we'll be in touch!

      Mindy

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  14. a healthy community that believes in their way of life, should have both a welcome and support for newcomers organization as well as an outreach organization to bring new members in the door.
    the reason that the modox community is lacking these organization's and is very timid and apologetic when someone tries make one speaks volumes about their sociological psych

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  15. At the risky of being "cheeky"...the comment they made to you: “We still want to be frum," they told me, "we just don’t know who to follow.”. Why do they have to follow any person? When I came into being religious, I looked up to a couple of Rabbi"s in the community and asked for advice and or to answer a question I had and could not find the answer...but I never followed them. I thought about their advice/answer and either acted or not acted on it. Rabbi's are the Pope nor God, they are men and can make mistakes. I did understand then nor now, why people think they need to follow someone...it smacks of being in a cult.

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    1. Brooklyn Refugee SheygitzApril 26, 2015 at 6:59 PM

      unfortunately the charedi world has loaded up on many cult like beliefs and practices. In a sense, younger people who leave the charedi world today need some sort of professional help to guide them into a normal society. They need to develop an understanding of normative Judaism unfiltered through charedi ideology, censorship, historical revisionism and other charedi "educational" practices. This is not simple at all. also many charedi youth today do not have immediate close relatives who are not charedi. In "my day" there were always close relatives to reach out to in making a shift away from charedism. Today this is very diificult, leaving young charedim who want to explore other possibilities without an anchor that existed in the past. The flip side of this is that most younger people in the national religious or modern orthodox community are less likely to have first degree relatives who are charedi and less likely to have been around charedim. Unfortunately, these communities often place much emphasis on "dialogue" with the secular Jewish world - but ignore "dialogue" with the cheredi world, thus leaving the MO or DL shorthanded in being able to present an alternative to seeking charedim. Makor Rishon shabbat section recently feature an article on a rabbi in Ramat Beit Shemesh who is leading a a "post charedi" community. Hopefully together with people like this, much progress can be made

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  16. Just want to clarify some points about Makom. Yes - there ARE people who can figure out how to make the transition on their own, but we started this for the people who cannot.

    We have heard from SEVERAL of the people in the Footsteps crowd that this in an invaluable resource and some told us they might still be religious today if we had been around when they were on their way out. No, we are not here to proselytize and in terms of the issue of "how will we grow our numbers to get more funding?" My response is "are you kidding me?" We did not start this to have an organization. We started this to fill a need. If it got to a point where no one needed this service, we'd close up shop and move onto another problem which needs to be fixed.

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  17. Kol hakavod Allison for this incredible initiative, and Mindy for directing programming. I especially appreciate your reasoned and patient responses to criticism. Don't be deterred by those opposed to your holy work. May Hashem bless you with much continued hatzlacha to inspire Jews and keep us all connected to Torah.

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  18. Your initiative seems to be a great idea. My wife and I are long-time BT DL on a yishuv in Israel with kids who range from neo-hareidi to moderately OTD but all are on good terms with each other. We would love to have people for Shabbos in Kochav Hashachar, a community with a lot of Torah and a range of attitudes from hardal to easy-going modern. You should talk to people from Beis Midrash HaGra in J'M such as Rav Uria Inbal. They are "open hareidi" types who talk to other kinds of people and listen to various ideas.

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