Over the years I've met some unusual and impressive people, but our guest this past Shabbos really took the cake. She's a medical student who, in scrubs and jeans, looks no different than any other medical student. But Nisi Goldstein is the only female medical student in the history of the world to have grown up in Satmar.
Most people's image of girls who break away from Satmar comes from the immensely popular Netflix series Unorthodox. And yet Nisi's story could not be more different. There's a very orthodox view of what unorthodox means, and it's not Nisi.
The seventh child of thirteen (now that's what I call a "middle child"), Nisi grew up in Williamsburg, which was a different world. She didn't speak English until she was taught it in school. The biggest cultural transition in her life was from Satmar to Beis Yaakov in Israel - bigger than her subsequent transition from Beis Yaakov student to medical student! When she tells people in Satmar that she is studying to become a doctor, they assume that she is misspeaking and means nurse; they are not accustomed to the idea that women can become doctors.
What caused her to break away? Nisi told us that the very first thing which shook her, as a young girl, was when Satmar had its Great War between the Rebbe's sons, Aharon and Zalman, over who should succeed the Rebbe. All of a sudden, everything broke in two - her community and even her school. All of a sudden she wasn't allowed to socialize with half of her friends. This made her realize that something wasn't right.
As she grew up, she was curious about the world beyond the extremely narrow confines of Satmar. Watching any videos in Satmar was, for the most part, banned while she was growing up. For special school events, there were slideshows of photos accompanied by narration. She loved these (and says that they displayed great artistic creativity), but she wanted more. Surreptitiously, she was able to watch DVDs of musical performances by frum (but non-Satmar) women. Nisi was thrilled when, over Shabbos, we were visited by our friend and neighbor Dr. Kerry Bar-Cohn, who, under the stage name "Rebbetzin Tap," has produced amazing musical videos. We were laughing about how notwithstanding how far Nisi has come since then, she was star-struck to see her childhood superstar! Kerry herself served as a role-model for Nisi in showing that "you can be anything."
As she progressed through high school, Nisi was clearly not fitting in to the Satmar mold. Here's the point at which you'd expect to hear that everyone was attempting to force her to accept that she has to toe the line and live her life in full obedience to the Satmar way. But that is not what happened. To be sure, she had her stresses and difficulties with people in that community. But they encouraged her to try a new path and go to Beis Yaakov in Israel. I know that Beis Yaakov sounds extremely frum to many of us, but coming from Satmar, as I mentioned earlier, it was an absolutely radical move. Satmar views Beis Yaakov as being a severely inferior form of Judaism, so it was incredible that they supported her transition.
Here's something else intriguing. While Satmar looks down on all other branches of Orthodoxy, Satmar itself is very different from Litvishe Orthodoxy in that the men do not go to kollel. They all work, while their wives raise the children, in a much more traditional lifestyle. At one point, when Nisi was in a rebellious stage in Beis Yaakov, she threatened her parents that she wanted to marry a guy in kollel!
Eventually Nisi ended up training as a social worker at Wurzweiler in New York. But as she was completing her studies, her interest was suddenly triggered in the biological sciences - which she had never learned about in Satmar. (Ironic aside - although I'm the director of a natural history museum and I have a PhD, I too have never in my life taken a formal class in biology, since the grammar school that I attended in Manchester was too frum to teach it.) And so she enrolled in medical school, taking classes in Israel, but she will be returning to the US for residency. She would like to serve in the chassidic community in New York and implement positive change in this way. At the moment, aside from her medical studies, she is a madricha at a home for girls at risk.
Unlike what you might expect, Nisi does not hate Satmar. She is very critical of the leadership and many aspects of the lifestyle, but she maintains that the people there in general are just as nice as everyone else, and the community engages in tremendous chesed. She has a positive relationship with her family - her mother is immensely proud of her becoming a doctor - and she goes back regularly to visit.
Over the years, Nisi drifted a long way from her roots, and she traveled extensively around the world. But she says that in the various exotic locations that she visited, Chabad houses were incredible. They made her realize that she does want to be Jewishly connected. She is not yet sure what form she wants that to take, but she is young and still figuring things out. Meanwhile, she sent me the following lovely text after Shabbos:
Thank you so much for having me. It truly was a wonderful Shabbat. It inspired me to see if I can go to more Jewish families in the future to experience healthy Judaism.
When I sent her this post for her approval, she also asked me to tone down parts that were too critical of Satmar!
Meanwhile, Nisi has a GoFundMe page to help support her through medical school. Helping create a doctor - and not just any doctor, but the world's first Satmar-raised female doctor - is an excellent way to invest in making a difference to the world. You can support Nisi's education at this link.
(If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.)