The Winding Path: Leaving Ultra-Orthodoxy Without Losing 'Community'

In a famous scene of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevya's daughter Chava, who has married a non-Jew, runs into her father and pleads with him not to ignore her. "Tradition!" he bellows after a passionate display of deliberations. He eventually conveys that she has defied the Jewish Tradition and that is why she has been shunned by her family. Outside of theater, the ultra-orthodox are attuned to lesser offenses. How individuals within the community deal with "unorthodox" members has recently come under intense scrutiny following the July suicide of ex- Hasid Faigy Mayer, who was depressed, estranged from her family and trying to find solace in a secular world.

While responses to those resisting orthodox conventions vary, tales of excommunication abound. Some of this is in light of a genre of memoirs by those who refer to themselves as Off The Derech (OTD. "Derech" is Hebrew for "path.")

Shulem Deen, author of the heartbreaking memoir All Who Go Do Not Return, knows about intense psychological pain after fall out from one's insular community. His book is seen by readers of OTD accounts as unique, as possessing more of a balanced -- rather than a polemical -- reflection on religion. He details what he misses from a community that he personally did not choose to severe ties with, and the unpredictable casualties of estrangement.

Mayer reportedly suffered from clinical depression, but as Deen explains, he consulted a psychologist who said one need not have that baseline (diagnosis) to be devastated by familial shunning.

Dr. Michael Salamon, a psychologist in Hewlett, NY, echoes what Deen says. He has written books and articles about issues that orthodox Jews face. Based on his counseling experiences, he says that kids need more flexibility rather than an incomprehensible rigidity that even parents seem unable to back up. He gives the example of a boy who wanted to go to a baseball game and the father saying it's unacceptable, that there are things one shouldn't see at these events. Salamon advised the father to take his son with the approach of showing that one can enjoy himself in a proper way. He explains the concept of Pluralistic ignorance, when members of a community go along with norms but privately lack conviction themselves.

"First, one has to understand that there are several reasons why kids go 'off the derech'" says Salamon, "In some cases there is real trauma. In others, a lack of willingness to be part of a system one doesn't understand. There are also instances of sexual abuse in communities that are not addressed properly and kids act out in need of suitable intervention. They may be ignored, told something is wrong with them, or are further abused. It worsens when they are sent to therapists within the community who don't know what they are doing."

There are a few organizations worldwide -- Footsteps and Makom (Hebrew for "place") in New York -- that provide ex Hasidim and formerly ultra-orthodox with a safe, accepting haven. Deen is a board member of Footsteps.

While Makom is a newer group focused on showing that there are welcoming alternatives (and people) within observant Judaism, Footsteps is ideology-free and encourages support for finding one's own way (Misconceptions have formed that Footsteps is an atheist organization based on vocal atheist members, but it has numerous modern orthodox and other practicing Jewish members).
Lani Santo, Executive Director, explains that Footsteps provides opportunity for peer discussions, to get connected to resources for support (whether it is a referral to mental health professionals, setting up vocational assistance or helping to advocate in tough divorces and custody battles). They have also provided members with opportunities for higher education which they would never have received in a Hasidic community.

Santo expresses that the Footsteps community is deeply mourning the loss of its member Faigy Mayer, that although she was a New Yorker, the problem of parents shunning children for leaving orthodoxy is a universal one.

"Grieving is going towards action," says Santo. "One of the things that's being started is the OTD Manual, meant to be an open source for ex Hasidim and those from these religious communities needing direction. We also have 'The Caring Circle,' which is meant to be a network for people in all sort of ways. We provide Bikkur Cholim (a network to provide those in the hospital with visitors) and we are starting something called OTD Shabbos so we can connect people who miss the experience and warmth of a Shabbos meal to hosts. Faigy was developing an app that connects ex Hasidim with resources and we have people working on carrying out Faigy's vision. We are also adding a new social worker to our team in the wake of this tragedy, beefing up our programs in terms of support groups, beefing up our referrals and have had many generous volunteers come forward." Santo is the primary fundraiser for Footsteps which is supported by foundations within the Jewish community, secular New York City social justice organizations and Footsteps members (Its top donor is a member).

Footsteps' board has privately expressed support for the newer Makom, but some members say they are wary of an "orthodox agenda." Whereas, critiques of the "angry ex orthodox memoirs" express the need for an organization that details options within religious observance.

Makom's founder Allison Josephs, who also founded Jew in the City, says: "The options we're showing are orthodox. We are upfront about who we are. In my own religious journey towards orthodoxy, I was shown more options -- which is my objective with Makom. We offer Shabbat weekends, classes, help with GEDs and college applications. We address conflict resolution. This might not work for everyone but for someone who was Hasidic and wants to remain religious yet be part of the modern world, this is the place... We want to break down the stereotypes that orthodox Jews are rock throwing extremists. If you missed the message about loving kindness, you missed the entire Torah. "

Josephs, as well as Santo, aims to show despairing Jews a more openhearted, tolerant world. Most importantly, they want to give them a sense of community and belonging. If Shulem Deen hadn't had Footsteps when he left orthodoxy, he relates, he's not sure where he would be today. At his lowest point, he too struggled with suicidal thoughts. The hope felt by all is that the orthodox world reflects on Mayer's death the way organizations and psychologists have. Ultimately, that will prevent future tragedies.