Dear Dr. Yael,
I am writing to you because I don’t know where to turn. I belong to a chassidishe community and am married with children. However, I don’t want to live this life anymore. I don’t want the stringencies and lack of choices. Yet, I am not ready to say that I don’t want to be religious. My wife and children do not know how I feel, but I don’t know how much longer I can keep this all bottled up. Can you help me?
Confused and lost
Dear Confused and Lost,
Let me begin by saying that you are not alone. Unfortunately, there are many in our community who feel stifled by customs their families have lived with for years, but don’t know how to make changes.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Allison Josephs, the founder of an organization called Project Makom.
Ten years ago, Josephs founded Jew in the City, a non-profit that creates social media content to break down stereotypes about the Orthodox community and show the beauty and relevance of a frum life.
Although initially the target audience was non-Orthodox Jews, three years ago she was contacted by a group of former chassidim who loved the way Jew in the City explained Orthodoxy and presented Yiddishkeit. They asked for help in finding a frum community that was a good fit for them.
As Josephs recalled, “We were getting people from chassidish and charedi communities who were thinking of leaving and people who had already left. We were a year and a half into programming and in our first year we had almost 200 people come out to our events. In year two we developed an intake process, created a database, hired a social worker and a follow-up coordinator. We have 90 full members since January who we are doing case management for.
“While we believe that there are numerous valid paths within Orthodox Judaism, not all observant Jews are born into a community that fits them. There are some Modern Orthodox Jews who choose to move to the right, but charedi Jews who want to transition to less insular observant communities often face hurdles that prevent them from doing so (whether cultural, educational, or simply feeling unwelcome). Some of these people end up leaving religious life altogether. Project Makom strives to give these individuals another option.”
Allison shares that after many members of the OTD (off the derech) community she has spoken to over the last few years told her they did not want to leave observance completely. They were just looking for some more space in their observance. Many of the people in the ex-charedi world have experienced some sort of trauma. Project Makom responds with love and understanding.
“We are building our services for what people are missing. We help people who are looking for secular educational services, a Shabbos placement, monthly events, mentor matching, shabbatons, support groups, and different rabbonim with whom they can connect. The Bostoner Rebbe from Israel gave us a haskama. Rabbi Weinberger from Aish Kodesh has spoken at our events, Rav Yaakov Horowitz from Monsey has given us advice.
“Project Makom is committed to presenting a range of communities and teachers to its members who share these values (which can be found across the spectrum of Orthodoxy):
Commitment to halacha in order to build a sincere relationship with Hashem.
Tolerance and respect of all people.
Not afraid of tough questions, and knowing sometimes the question is better than the answer.
Belief that faith is not provable, but that there are compelling reasons to choose faith.
Ahavas Yisrael, but also not being afraid to speak out against problems.
Belief that science, secular media, and higher education can have a place within Orthodoxy.
“Our members agree that the most valuable thing they gain from joining Project Makom is a deep sense of community. If you are feeling isolated and out of step, perhaps confronted with the rejection of your family, your friends, and/or your community, consider Project Makom. If you are wrestling with questions about where in the Orthodox world you belong, and what kinds of options are available to you, and how to get there, we are here for you, to help you figure this out. And always know that you are never alone.
“While there have been countless stories in the media of ex-chassidim who leave observance completely, we have had a hard time getting reporters to tell our members’ stories. They have had plenty of pain and trauma, but they are forward-looking and want to live a life connected to HKBH. This is obviously a less popular narrative for secular media. We have been accused by groups on both sides of the aisle of trying to “recruit,” but we are not the least bit interested in recruitment. We are proud and committed frum Jews who believe that living a Torah-observant life is a beautiful and meaningful life, but we don’t have an agenda that people should end up in any one community or even that we get to tell others how they should live. We consider ourselves a resource for people who are lost and want to explore. Our members are exploring a range of communities from modern chassidishe to halachic Modern Orthodox. We just want every Jew to know that she or he has a place.”
I so appreciated the information Allison Josephs shared and wish Project Makom hatzlacha in all it does for the community.