I remember when I was first introduced to the beis hatavshil (food kitchen) in Williamsburg. I thought it was such a special place, serving free delicious meals to Jews from all over: Chasidic, non-chasidic, modern, Jews from Israel, etc., all eating and socializing together in one of the most insular and ultra-frum communities in the world. Having had my conversion a few years earlier in Philadelphia, Chasidim were still kind of a mystery to me. Sure, I had my experiences with Chabad, but Williamsburg was like a whole other world entirely. Everyone looked and dressed the same, and only Yiddish was spoken everywhere. So, when a friend from the only modern-Orthodox shul in the area brought me for the first time, I was truly intimidated. All the chasidim there were friendly – but also they stared at me and I at them – neither of us really seemed to know what to expect next of each other.
Still, having gotten employment in the area, I made it a habit to eat every morning at the beis hatavshil after davening and eventually met two other convert friends there as well. At the time I still dressed modern, didn’t know any Yiddish, while they already had embraced chasidic dressing and were pretty handy with the Yiddish. Also, while I am Black, they were both White, so I felt they had the advantage. Still, we all found joy dwelling within this insular community, and much to our pleasure the community seemed to enjoy that we were there as well.
Years later I am still living in Williamsburg. I daven regularly at an assortment of shuls in which I am known, including the big Satmar shul on Rodney, where I sometimes get a passing-by greeting from the Rebbe himself. I dress chasidishe, and even though I am a Black Jew, I feel and get treated as if I am part of the community, fully embraced. On any given day I will be stopped by several people wanting to say hello, and extend a blessing and wish me the best. Though I’m not married yet, I know there are those in the community who are working on it on my behalf.
Of my two convert friends, they are now both married – one lived in Williamsburg for a year before moving to Boro Park where they now have two beautiful children. The other just recently married to a young lady who converted and also came to Williamsburg by choice. Both were given big beautiful weddings by the Satmar-dominated community – and my latter friend may have seen up to a 1000 community well-wishers stream into the wedding throughout the night.
I am also blessed to have wonderful family-like relationships in the modern/litvish communities I work in everyday, but it’s important to acknowledge acceptance in an insular community as many believe it simply isn’t possible. There are many high-profile movies and documentaries that have come out recently on the subject of going OTD that fail to point out that not everyone is unhappy being in an ultra-frum community, with its very strict and sometimes archaic-seeming customs. Obviously, however, many chasidim are completely happy with their lifestyle, and a walk around Williamsburg will exhibit smiles of joy on the faces of men, women and children. That said, it’s important for frum Jews to realize there are those who are not happy, even if they grew up in the community their entire lives. And thankfully, there are organizations like Makom who encourage the disenfranchised to stay the course of yiddishkeit while making the changes necessary to address their needs.
“I joined the staff at Makom in 2017 as a volunteer,” Ben Madsen, Makom member services coordinator told The Jewish Press. “I saw this movie called One Of Us on Netflix and I remember thinking, ‘boy, these people are in a tough spot, there was a women discussing losing her kids…. and I just thought there must also be all this psychological trauma and it would be helpful for Makom to have on staff someone in the area of psychology.”
Makom, a branch of the organization Jew In The City (JITC), was founded in 2014 by Allison Josephs, to help Jews who feel they no longer want to stay in their community of birth find a new community of choice – instead of leaving Judaism altogether in frustration. Madsen said about 80% of those who seek services are chasidim, and about 300 people use Makom services a year. Ages range between 18-40 consisting of about 50% men and 50% women. Many first-time members already have young kids and have expressed anxiety about them growing up in an environment they find restrictive or judgmental.
“What we offer at Makom is a view of Torah that tries to simplify your experiences into four parts: d’oraisa, d’rabbonim, minhagim, and social customs – which may or may not come from Torah or a minhag and may be entirely based on some form of intergenerational trauma,” he said. Many of the insular ultra-frum communities were directly impacted by the advent of the Holocaust, and the psychological impact can cause a community to be even more vigilant and intolerant to anything perceived different or threatening. Or, an individual may have come to be hurt by a traumatic event they experienced on a personal level. “For example, even though the Mishna says to judge people favorably, people might be coming from a community where they always felt judged harshly; so, in helping a person find their way there can be all these different pieces.”
“For us the most important thing to do is go back to the basics, “Madsen said.
Makom also provides Torah classes, access to higher education assistance, jobs skills training, Shabbatons and social events.
While other groups focus on helping those who have officially decided to leave Judaism, Makom’s desire is to keep as many as possible involved in yiddishkeit. “Our goal is to help people find their place within Torah and Judaism,” Madsen said. “Oftentimes people will come to us from a group like Footsteps and say ‘they told me to come to you because I still want to have some level of observance.”
Nishma Research highlighted a portion of its OTD Study findings on the continued relationship of its participants with their families, and, thankfully the results leaned positive in several areas. According to its studies, the majority of its participants have a “challenging yet positive relationship” with their families – 57% with their fathers, 62% with their mothers and 67% with their siblings. Also, just over half say their families have come to accept them for their newfound choice of life (52%).
Unfortunately, the study found the rate of men being accepting by their families was much higher than for women (fathers: 65% vs. 49%), (mothers: 70% vs. 55%) and (siblings: 67% vs. 64%). For the most part, participants were able to enjoy strong relationships of acceptance with their children (fathers 93%, mothers 91%).
And while there is a gap between family members of different sects as to ‘understanding why the participant goes OTD’ (modern 40% vs. chasidim 19%), understanding and acceptance by both groups show signs of growth over time.
Madsen said while he has thankfully not had the experience of a child going OTD, he can sympathize with the feelings of parents and family members who have.
“It’s such a challenge to think about,” Madsen said. “My children are three and one, and I have big dreams for them and their ability to connect with yiddishkeit. I perceive myself as someone who is setting them up on a good path. That said, you can never know – you can daven your best effort. So, I hear what parents are going through and how painful it is.” Madsen said the main thing that people that are OTD need to know is they are in a safe supportive space; they need to hear their families say “look, we don’t care what happens, you’re with us. You’re in our family you’re never going to be kicked out or uninvited.”
Madsen said despite how painful it is for families, those who go OTD also need their family’s honest hope and belief they are truly going to find something that works for them. “It’s the best I can hope for – to give my child the best chance I can and at the end of the day have to at some point let them go and live their lives and trust that that which I gave them is going to carry them through.”
Next Issue: “Off The Derech (Part III) – Returning Home”