Losing faith

When ultra-religious Hasidic women choose to lead secular lives, their freedom often comes at a price

Women who leave ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities often face isolation, loneliness, and a crisis of identity

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On a balmy evening in July of this year, a 29-year-old woman named Faigy Mayer rode an elevator up to 230 Fifth, a swanky rooftop bar that overlooks Manhattan’s Flatiron district. She asked the bartender to point her towards the East Deck, where a corporate party was underway. Then she ran through the crowd, stepped onto the ledge of the building, and fell down 20 stories to her death.

The future seemed to have good things in store for Mayer. She had a master’s degree in accounting. She was a budding entrepreneur who had founded an app development company called Appton. She had surrounded herself with a close-knit group of friends. But the flurry of news reports that surfaced in the wake of Mayer’s suicide suggest that she also grappled with deep sorrows. Mayer was raised in Borough Park Brooklyn in the insular Belz community, a devoutly religious Hasidic sect well represented in Europe, Israel and Canada, as well as New York. Five years ago, Mayer decided to leave the faith to pursue a secular life, creating a rift with her family that continued until her death.

“I’ve sort of lost all my family but I’ve made many amazing wonderful friends instead,” Mayer wrote in a Facebook post earlier that year. “I hope to be an inspiration for others who leave, although given my story, I’m not sure I recommend it for everyone.”

In the rough draft of an essay, which was published posthumously by the Jewish website Tablet, Mayer expounded upon the frustrations she experienced as a skeptical teen growing up in the Belz community. She described her disinterest in religious studies, and the sense of loneliness she experienced as a child because she could not share her affinity for pop culture with her peers. She wrote about her mother who, without professional qualifications, diagnosed Mayer as bi-polar, in part because she began to display a lack of conformity to the faith.

Photo of Faigy Mayer via Facebook

Photo of Faigy Mayer via Facebook

It remains unclear how—or even if—Mayer’s past contributed to her suicide. But her experience has intensified conversation around the immense difficulties that come with leaving extreme iterations of the Jewish faith—a process referred to as “going off the derech,” which means “path” in Hebrew. The rare men and women who leave the fold are, in many cases, shunned by their families and ostracized by their communities. Most of them lack a fully-formed education, making it difficult to go to college and get a job. Those who do leave the community have a great deal of difficulty getting by in a world that is not dictated by a set of obscure religious customs. These burdens are common to both genders, but women contend with a unique set of challenges.

There are dozens of “ultra-Orthodox” Jewish sects like Belz in existence across the world, each following a distinct body of customs and practices. To varying degrees, all of these communities dictate a strict segregation of the sexes and a well-defined allocation of roles for men and women. The restrictions placed on female members of ultra-Orthodox groups can be extreme; in certain Hasidic communities, for example, women are not permitted to drive. Some women undoubtedly find happiness and fulfillment living in such environments. For others, however, it is an untenable existence.

Shedding rigid perceptions of gender roles is one of the biggest hurdles for ultra-Orthodox women looking to transition to new lives. In many fundamentalist Jewish communities, girls are raised to become mothers and wives, while boys are brought up to be scholars.

At ultra-Orthodox private schools, girls receive a better secular education than boys, since Hasidic women are called upon to support their households while their husbands study. But women are discouraged from attending college, and the jobs they perform—often administrative and teaching work within the community—are meant to be a basic source of income rather than a career. In fact, many women do not work while their children are young, leading to high rates of welfare dependency in ultra-Orthodox communities.

While their wives maintain the household, most young men are expected to spend more than 12 hours a day studying religious texts like the Torah and Talmud, an exercise that encourages them to think analytically and ask questions. Girls do not receive such training.

“[Girls] are very much taught that their views and choices matter less than those of men,” says Lani Santos, Executive Director of Footsteps, a New York-based organization that helps formerly Orthodox men and women transition into new lives. “So from a young age, girls are raised to accept their roles as faithful supporters of their husbands’ aspirations … They’re taught that their mind is not as sharp as [that of] men.”

That mentality—coupled with a lack of advanced secular education—can be a tremendous setback in the wider world, particularly when it comes to building a career in a field that demands critical thinking.

Around seven years ago, Frimet Goldberger and her husband departed from Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic enclave in Orange County, New York. The couple had become estranged from the community after a modesty committee threatened to excommunicate them and their children because Goldberger had not been shaving the hair underneath her wig—a requirement for married women of some Hasidic sects. Now, Goldberger works as a freelance print and radio journalist, but she began her new life with few credentials and little professional know-how.

“I wasn’t told that I can be who I want to be, and I wasn’t really dreaming of a career,” she told Women in the World. “My career was going to be to raise children. So I never really had to face the reality of a world and a career, and deciding to be something. To find myself at the age of 24 with nothing to show for myself, not even a high school diploma, that was really tough.”

Frimet Goldberger with her daughter/Courtesy Frimet Goldberger

Frimet Goldberger with her daughter/Courtesy Frimet Goldberger

For Leah Vincent, lingering perceptions of gender hierarchies led to a path of desperation and self-destruction. Vincent, now 33, was raised in a Yeshivish community—another fundamentalist sect of ultra-Orthodox Judaism—in Pittsburgh, where her father was a prominent rabbi. When she was 17 years old, Vincent’s parents shunned her for what many would perceive as standard teenage behavior—passing notes to a boy, wearing a tight sweater—and for trying to assert her right to an education by asking if she could attend college. Overwhelmed, poor, and desperately lonely, Vincent sought out attention from men who used her and discarded her. She was raped by a man she loved. She turned to prostitution. She attempted suicide.

In her quietly heartbreaking memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood, Vincent explores the ways in which her upbringing rendered her completely unprepared for the world that lay beyond the Yeshivish bubble. “Ultimately, the people who harmed me are responsible for their choices,” she told Women in the World, but then added: “If there’s an authoritative male speaking, it’s like a heat-seeking missile kind of thing. The brain kind of clicks into place, and my instinct is to do whatever that person says, and to assume that their perspective and their desires are the most important thing. Because that’s how I’ve been taught.”

Leah Vincent/Courtesy N. Reisz

Leah Vincent/Courtesy N. Reisz

Vincent also attributed her former hardships to an ingrained preoccupation with tzniut, or modesty, a sweeping principle that can be applied to character and conduct, but often refers to women’s dress. The particulars of tzniut vary from community to community, but generally, women are required to dress in a way that deflects sexual attention. Their elbows, knees, and collarbones remain covered. Pants are forbidden. Married women are required to cover their hair after marriage, and in some Hasidic cultures, they shave it off completely.

Many Orthodox women have written about finding positive empowerment in the principles of tzniut.  But Vincent claims that being raised with such hyper-vigilant notions of modesty led to “toxic” results once she left the Yeshivish fold. “I think that [these laws] sexualize girls in very extreme ways, because you’re taught that the most important thing about you is your sexuality, and that you have to cover it up,” she said. “[I thought] that was the most valuable thing I had, the most important thing I could offer somebody. I presented myself in a way that I might have done very differently if I had a strong sense of self and a belief in other parts of who I was.”

Motherhood creates additional hurdles for women who dare to defect from the fold. “As a mother, the biggest challenge of transitioning was finding that balance: knowing what I wanted for my children, and how I want to raise them,” Goldberger says. “Because there are no guidelines. I can’t follow what my mother did, or what my sisters are doing. That’s no longer relevant, so I have to sort of pave my own path and decide how to raise them, both religious-wise and in terms of discipline. I’m sort of in the dark, but there’s Google, and Google helps.”

Goldberger left Hasidism with her husband and her young son and daughter, and they have managed to settle on a level of religious observance that works for their family. But when a mother opts to depart from ultra-Orthodoxy on her own, she risks losing access to her children. The same is true of formerly-Orthodox fathers who choose to leave the community. In cases of divorce and custody battles, Hasidic communities often band together to provide legal and financial support to the parent who stays. According to an article in the Jewish Week, the other parent can rarely compete with the funds and influence of the communities they left behind. In some cases, the results are devastating.

In 2013, an ex-Hasidic woman named Deb Tambor committed suicide in her New Jersey home. Already distraught over a sexual assault that occurred during her youth, Tambor had fallen into a deep depression after going through a divorce and losing custody of her three children. Her friends claimed that members of the Hasidic community had tried to turn Tambor’s children against her. During the custody trial, Tambor’s father testified in support of her ex-husband.

The risk of losing one’s children may explain why the majority of defectors from ultra-orthodox sects are men rather than women. By the age of 17 or 18, many Hasidic young women are wives, or even mothers. The men tend to get married slightly later—around 19 or 20—which gives them a little more time to ask questions and form a sense of self, unburdened by the obligations of a family.

“[Men] have those couple more years which are key adolescent, identity forming years,” says Santos. “And so, it’s a little easier for men to leave because they have a couple more years under their belt of not having kids. . .When there are kids involved, someone who’s considering leaving is risking the potential relationship with their child, let alone custody, so that’s really hard.”

Those women who decide to leave face a long and rough journey to self-determination, but they do not have to wade through it alone. So called “OTD”—or “off the derech”—Jews can connect through blogs and on social media.

Footsteps, the only organization in America that caters to ex-Orthodox Jews, offers a variety of services that appeal to women’s needs and interests: identity development programs, economic empowerment programs, sex and relationship workshops, women-only discussion groups, and family support for women who are going through a divorce as they transition into new lives.

But according to Vincent, more needs to be done to support women who find themselves alone in an unfamiliar world—women like Faigy Mayer, Deb Tambor, and Vincent herself. “I think the wider Jewish community, who probably has the most responsibility for this population—or maybe responsibility isn’t a fair word, but should have the most interest in it—[has] only begun to learn that it exists,” she says. “I hope with enough education, we’ll start to see a little more coordination and focus about changing things.”

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