Our First Project Makom Shabbaton (For Former Hasidim)

Screen Shot 2014-07-18 at 11.05.30 AMAs I write these words, our brothers in Israel have entered Gaza to weed out terrorists. This mission is occurring during the Three Weeks – a time of mourning over the destruction of our Temple which begins on the 17th of Tammuz and ends on Tisha B’Av. We are told that the Second Temple was destroyed due to baseless hatred. I hope with our new initiative (Project Makom) that we are adding a good measure of love into the world.

This past Shabbos was our first Project Makom event: an inaugural shabbaton held in Airmont, New York. This community was started by the musician Lipa Schmeltzer (who joined us for lunch!) as a haven for former Hasidim who no longer fit into the world from which they came. It was hosted by the former Hasidic couple who I met, then lost, then found again (after I wrote this). This program was put together in just a couple weeks due to the beautiful hospitality of this family and their community.

I frankly didn’t know what to expect since this is not my area of expertise. I have focused, for the last seventeen years (since I became observant myself) on the people who come from my background – those with little exposure to Jewish observance and Torah study. My message all along has been very clear: learn what this is about, then make an educated decision with that knowledge. (My sense was and is that the same principle holds true for those who were raised observant but don’t know where they belong.)

As we drove to the shabbaton I wondered how people who speak more Yiddish than I will ever comprehend would take to a person who grew up eating bacon cheeseburgers and watching Saturday morning cartoons. As it turns out, many of the people who attended this program (about fifteen families) have been fans of Jew in the City for years. I admitted to them, when I started talking over dinner, that we do not know exactly what Makom will be yet. We are approaching this endeavor like the Jewish people accepted the Torah – “naaseh v’nishma” – first we will do – we will try, we will reach out – we will let those who are struggling know that there are many people out there who care. THEN we will learn as we go how to get better at what we’re doing. Our co-directors Mindy Schaper and Gavriella Lerner put out a survey a few weeks ago asking people who left the Haredi world what they might have wanted an organization like ours to offer. Several noted that they might still be observant today had we been around when they were on their way out.

(I should remind our readers that Makom was not started to, God forbid, attack the Haredi world; there are pluses and minuses within every Orthodox Jewish community and just as there are ultra-Orthodox Jews who move to the left, there are Modern Orthodox Jews who move to the right. We started this initiative because we heard from former Haredim that they wanted to remain observant but didn’t know how to access other non-Haredi observant communities due to lack of education, culture gaps, and a sense of feeling un-welcomed.)

Shabbos was very much a learning experience. I heard from one woman that of course she believes in God, but to her Hashem is the bogeyman – a Being who is waiting to hurt her and punish her for every misdeed. I explained that in many Orthodox communities while we believe that Hashem has goals for us wants us to excel, like any parent does, we believe in a loving God who will never abandon His children. We believe that there is reward and punishment, but that God is a fair Judge who knows the challenges we are up against. Many people from the group grew up with a focus on fear of God instead of love of God. This is not to say that all Hasidim have such a focus or even that such a focus doesn’t represent a strain within Judaism. But for this group, this approach clearly didn’t work.

The topic of disappointed families came up a lot over Shabbos. Some of the families accept and are OK with the fact that their kid or sibling is no longer Hasidic. Many are not. I explained that in the ba’al teshuva world where I come from, where the non-religious relatives are supposedly “open-minded” you have many, many cases where the families of newly Orthodox Jews feel disappointed that their child or sibling “flipped out.” I tried to give them some hope when I explained that although my family judged me for becoming Orthodox at first, I convinced them to learn about the world I had entered. Not only did they come to respect it, they even joined me on the journey. I told them that perhaps, if they expose their families to the new path that they choose, some might be able to appreciate it from afar.

What everyone had in common at the shabbaton is that they define themselves by that which they are no longer. They have all detached themselves from their former communities but have not reattached themselves to something new. Most seemed to agree faith and tradition are good things because they anchors them to Something Bigger and connect them to our people. But I encouraged them to start attending the classes, discussion groups and future shabbatonim we plan to offer so that they can hopefully find a new path within Torah observance that suits them better, so that they’ll have something to actively believe in as opposed to only having something to actively reject.

I have always been so passionate about publicizing my spiritual journey because I feel like I ended up getting the best of both worlds: I enjoy much of the physical world and live a self-actualized existence, but at the same time, my life has meaning and purpose and I have faith to cling to when the challenges of life come my way. This group, unfortunately, seemed to have gotten stuck with the worst of both worlds. Not much enjoyment of the physical, no self-actualization, and to top it off, no feeling of meaning or purpose in their observance.

Right now we are actively seeking volunteers for this new project. Mindy and Gavriella have created this enrollment form for anyone anywhere in the world who can help. We are looking for tutors (for Jewish and secular subjects), Shabbos hosts, friends and more. If a person rejects and observant Jewish life due to theology, that is his or her prerogative. But let us not let anyone else leave a Torah life because we weren’t willing to help them find a place to belong.

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Project Makom: A Place for ex-Haredim Within Orthodoxy

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Allison Josephs About Allison Josephs

Allison is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City. Please find her full bio here.

Comments

  1. Rebecca says:

    Wow….it sounds like your first event worked out beautifully! Hashem should help you go from strength to strength!

    It’s interesting to note, from a chinuch perspective, the comments the people made to you about what went “wrong” from them. As parents, we should learn from them the consequences of teaching yiras Hashem without ahavas Hashem and awareness of all the love and chessed He gives us daily. I think this is one of the most important reasons that people who currently affiliate Orthodox (of whatever kind) should listen to those who formerly did, because some of them have valid critiques of the way they were brought up (at least in their specific family, if not always of the community as a whole) that we can really learn from.

  2. I think this should exist for disenchanted modern orthodox Jews as well.

    • Renee, it seems to me that the baal teshuva institutions in Israel and the US are a good fit for that sort of person. The BT seminary I went to in Israel (although I am not a BT), Neve Yerushalayim, had a good share of women who had grown up MO.

  3. pninabaim says:

    Way to go Alison! I already signed up, hope you can use my services:)

  4. I disagree Mindy, I went to Neve to study on their summer programme twice. It is a Charedi institution so it’s only good for modern Orthodox Jews who want to follow that particular route not for those who wanted to remain modern but be more observant again. If you grew up modern Orthodox and had lapsed but wanted to reconnect, you’d still fit in most modern Orthodox communities in a way a former Charedi person wouldn’t.

  5. Chamie Orbach-Haber says:

    Please don';t limit your "inspirers" to centrist and modern orthodox. There are many, many yeshivish or chariedi (even chasidish) people who are very active and successful in kiruv. How wonderful if those who are trying to find their makom in yiddishkeit could have the full spectrum to chose from.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

      thanks for your comment, Chamie. this is no judgment on how many wonderful yeshivish, charedi and chassidishe people that are out there. as i noted, there are some more modern Orthodox people who choose to move to the right. the reason we’re looking for centrist and modern volunteers is because the people we are dealing with were raised in a more chareidi environment but are looking for something more in the world.

      • I get that, but there are so many of us who are “in the world” who identify as yeshivish, or just “no-label”. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s just out -of- town, but I didn’t feel welcome to join this initiative, even though I’d love to and I think I might even be able to help. Also, considering how sheltered and closed off their originating communities are, it’s not very hard to be more worldly. I just feel that you might be lumping everyone to the right of center together, when that is simply not the case.

        • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

          We don’t want potential mentors to feel unwelcome either! We just want to collect the types of people who will be the right fit for the crowd who we see needs help. If you look at many discussions online of the OTD crowd, they’ll say “people asked us why we didn’t just become MO” and the response they give is that they felt unwelcomed in the MO world.

          The last thing we want to do is tell these people how they should end up. So if they’re looking for MO, we’re trying to collect various shades and colors of centrist and MO. Perhaps out of town LW yeshivish is like centrist in NY. Labels are not always perfect. You can certainly fill out the survey and we can see if there’s a fit somewhere. Again – the idea isn’t to refuse help from people who want to give, it’s to find the right matches for the people who are in need.

          • You are right, maybe I’m just “centrist Orthodox”. I’m a pretty clueless out-of-towner when it comes to labels. I once took an online quiz that was supposed to tell me what kind of Orthodox I am and the result was ” Huh? I give up, What are you?” Pretty accurate! LOL

  6. I’m not sure a right-wing i.e. Satmar-background person is going to be comfortable in a typical MO i.e. Teaneck-type situation. It might actually be very discouraging for them and cause them to be further alienated from Judaism. The chasm is cultural, not just religious. I think a better match for that person IS a “heimish” person who is out in the world, i.e. in business, went to college, not extreme levush, reads books, newspapers, etc, because culturally it is a better match, at least as an initial step. There are people out there who have made this transition and they would make great mentors and possible bridges to a more MO lifestyle, if the person eventually wants that…

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

      Thanks for your comment, Debbie. Our plan is to show them a range of communities, rabbis, and schools and let each family see what fits best.

  7. Trust me you don’t have to be raised hasidic to feel uncomfortable in a modern orthodox world. I speak from experience. If they are interested in being modern orthodox you better tell them to try being rich first. Unless they enjoy paying tens of thousands of dollars for schools not to mention the cost of living in places like Teaneck.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

      Thanks for your comment, Shimon. I’m sorry you’ve felt uncomfortable in the MO world. There are other options besides Teaneck for MO Jews (places like Linden, NJ) and well as out of town. And there are many Orthodox organizations working day and night on the tuition crisis. In the meantime, there are many MO schools which offer scholarships. And, Israel is a place where you can be MO and not have high tuition costs.

      • Please don’t misinform people about scholarships to schools . Anything a school provides in the form of a scholarship is not nearly enough to help. And there is a lot of baggage that comes with a scholarship. The truth really is that in order to be part of modern orthodoxy one has to be very wealthy as the wealthy have set the unrealistic bar for everyone else. Look, for example at the cost of going to a dinner for an organization that is admittedly wonderful. It costs five, six or seven hundred dollars. For one evening. There are many lovely, smart and talented middle class modern orthodox people who might as well be invisible. People go to shiurim where Rabbis say money is meaningless but this is an untruth. It’s an untruth in the larger world as well, but Rabbis need to stop saying it as it is truly misinformation. Sorry for being so down on Modern Orthodoxy but I feel I’ve been lied to. It’s a nice community if you can keep up with all it demands of you financially

        • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

          Thanks for your comment, Susan. I wasn’t trying to imply that there are no challenges to be faced with high tuitions, but that’s something we hope to helpi with at Project Makom. We don’t have the answer to every question but if there is someone who comes to us and wants to send their kid to a Jewish school but can’t afford it, we will look for ways to make it possible. It sounds like you are struggling. Please email mindy@projectmakom.org and let us know how we can help you and we will try our best.

  8. I am someone who left the Haredi world 25 years ago. Debbie (above) is 100% right. I do in fact feel much more comfortable with a Yiddish-speaking formerly orthodox person or even with a Yiddish-speaking person who has never been observant than I do in a Modern Orthodox environment. There is more than just the Yiddish language. It’s a whole world-view. Having left the “ghetto”, I have yet (after a quarter century) to find my niche; still I know I could not go back. That’s from MY point of view, by the way – whenever I have interacted with people from my old community I have been treated with great friendliness, cordiality, and acceptance. I feel much less comfortable in Teaneck (or Riverdale or Queens or Staten Island etc)

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

      Thanks for your comment, Eliezer. I take it you are no longer observant? Is Debbie correct that seeing “heimishe” people who are worldly would be a good fit for a formerly Haredi person who wants to still be frum? There are many friendly centrist and MO people but I think we’d need to make introductions and let participants choose what fits best. We will try to offer as many perspectives as possible.

  9. Fruma Sara says:

    I think a large part of the problem for Chareidim who no longer want to be a part of their communities is the same as the problem with MO who no longer want to be a part of their communities: empty observance. There are people on all strata who observe mechanically and there are those who observe in a deeply personal and feeling way (and all shades in between). Empty ritual brings no satisfaction and I think the answer doesn’t necessarily lie in moving to another “branch” but in becoming inspired. Kiruv is not necessarily only for the unaffiliated (“Inreach”, not just “Outreach”). I think that’s what Debbie’s comment (above) was about: not leaving out potential mentors within the same “branch” to show that even within Charedi circles there is another way. Although it may literally look black and white to those outside the Chareidi circle, I can assure you that there are many shades within. I understand that perhaps moving to MO might be the most suitable option for some, but jumping circles and moving laterally within “Chareidi” might be a less obvious but much less strenuous transition for others. Feel free to contact me privately: I’d be happy to join your volunteer list for lateral-movers or those looking to become Chassidish from MO, etc.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

      Thanks for your comment, Fruma Sara. There are for sure people in all communities who observe without feeling or emotion, but I do not believe that is the problem here. For those who have been raised “ultra Charedi,” many of them did not get access to secular education or media. Many were raised very closed-minded and to observe out of fear. So for the people who have contacted us, they are looking for a different approach to Torah. It does exists in more open parts of the Charedi world and we are letting them know that, but some are just looking for a new community.

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