As 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.