Guest Post by Allison Josephs
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!