Lives of the Ex-Haredim

By Joshua Halberstam
Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Wherefore art thou Romeo?" Juliet calls out in pristine Yiddish from the heights of her fire escape.  Melissa (Malky) Weisz, who plays Juliet in the recent film Romeo & Juliet in Yiddish, probably asked the same question in a more vernacular Yiddish—and with very different expectations—when, in her earlier life, she scoped possible mates from the heights of the women's section in the back of her Satmar synagogue.  

Nearly all of the actors in this unpolished but charming film are dropouts from the Hasidic world.  Few had heard of Shakespeare, none had read any of his plays, and such was the cultural gap that for the life of them, they couldn't understand why derailed romantic love would drive one to suicide.  The personal lives of these actors are integrated into the film's narrative, and it's these back-stories that most intrigued critics and audiences.  But looming behind the back-story is a still larger and important future-story. 

With few exceptions, the men and women who now leave their Haredi communities (the term "Haredi" encompasses both Hasidic and non-Hasidic "Yeshivish" Jews), leave the Jewish world entirely.  As a result, that world is losing an invaluable resource that, with its own numbers falling, it can hardly afford to squander.   

The figures are startling but critical.  Demographers predict that by 2050, the majority of Jews in the United States will be Haredim.  Lest this seem implausible, the fact is that in the U.S., outside the Orthodox world, Jews have the lowest population growth of any ethnic group, while  Haredim, who number around 500,000, have the largest families in the country, typically with seven or more children.  The phenomenon is a worldwide one: in the UK, three of every four Jewish children are now born to Haredi parents.  In Israel, the proportionate explosion of Haredim and its political and social ramifications have given rise to intense discussion and disquiet.  Of course, all demographic forecasts begin with the usual caveat: "if present trends continue."  But in any likely scenario, the future of American Jewry (our present concern) must take into account the growing number of Haredi Jews—as well as, for different reasons, the attendant number of those leaving the fold. 

How many ex-Haredim are there?  Numbers are hard to come by, and no one knows for sure.  Some suggest that, what with the phenomenon of baalei tshuvah (Jews voluntarily adopting Orthodox practice), as many enter as exit the religious community—thus a demographic wash.  In any case, though their ranks do seem to be expanding fairly quickly, the number of recent Haredi dropouts is not huge: a ballpark figure would be in the hundreds, maybe a couple of thousand over the past decade—not in the tens of thousands.  Ex-Haredim are mostly men, in their late teens and early twenties, though increasingly women are joining their ranks, as are older adults with children and former spouses still in their religious environs.  While some are gay, or have abusive parents they are escaping, psychological problems, or learning disabilities, most are intelligent, stable, marriageable, and would have managed in their traditional world.  

What is true for nearly all of these defectors is that they want no part of established Jewish life, and the place you're least likely to find them is an American synagogue. For one thing, ex-Haredim, however alienated, usually see their past religious life as far richer than the more liberal versions of Judaism on offer, and are put off by the surprising (to them) Jewish illiteracy of congregants elsewhere.  They are baffled by (and justly cynical of) the ubiquitous mission statements of Jewish organizations proclaiming that "Jewish values" find their highest expression in "social justice."  There is no attraction here, either. 

But it turns out that becoming "just an ordinary unaffiliated person" is not as easy as many of these ex-Haredim imagine or hope.  Many possess only rudimentary secular knowledge and communication skills.  Further, coming as they do from extraordinarily sustaining communities, making it on one's own invariably proves an intimidating challenge.  And so we see the emergence of yet another new and distinctively American invention: the society of ex-Haredim.

In New York City, men and women, some with both feet still in the Haredi community, some with both feet out, and not a few with one foot on either side of the divide, meet every Thursday night at Chulent.  That organization offers a jamboree of lectures, discussion, and partying  (where the eponymous Sabbath stew is served).  Another organization, Footsteps, is more clearly designed for those transitioning out of the ultra-Orthodox world.  In addition to social opportunities, Footsteps offers a high-school equivalency program (many Hasidic boys can't read English beyond third-grade level), an art group, college scholarships and career counseling, a housing program, dating advice, and other services for those who've decided to leave their religious families. 

One of the most innovative settings in which ex-Haredim meet is cyberspace. On the Unpious website, ex-Haredim and potential ex-Haredim exchange their stories, aspirations, tribulations, and literary exercises, some under their own names and some under pseudonymous cover.  One fervid debate on the website is the very existence of ex-Haredi support groups. As a former Satmar Hasid, now a college sophomore, wrote, "the more we rebels grow as a community, the more we reinforce our own little echo chamber that stifles our progress as individuals . . . . When I look at those who successfully transitioned from Hasidic culture to the secular one, it is primarily those who never embraced the ex-Hasidic label and the identity that comes with it."  Others responded that without a coterie of like-minded Haredi expats to lean on, they'd never be able to succeed on their flight to the "outside world." 

Again, it is conspicuous how even in discussions of the voyage to the "outside world," Haredim skip over more liberal Jewish denominations and land immediately in secularism.  But the reticence of ex-Haredim to participate in the Jewish community is matched by the reticence of many Jews to make them feel at home there.  Haredim, whether present or ex-, make them nervous.  And Jews who seek to reinvigorate their own Judaism with traditional practice are discomfited by the presence of those who've rejected that very tradition.         

Some former Haredim are already making a valuable and distinct contribution to the Jewish enterprise, as scholars of Jewish studies, psychologists serving the Jewish community, writers, and professionals. Unfortunately, too many others are not.  By the same token, non-Haredi Jews are losing much by declining to invite ex-Haredim into their midst.  The loss may not be of Shakespearean dimensions, but it is significant nevertheless.

Joshua Halberstam teaches at Bronx Community College/CUNY and is the author of the novel A Seat at the Table. He's been awarded a 2010-2011 NEA grant to translate Hasidic tales from their original Yiddish.

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