To hear to the entire radio interview on “Jew in the City Speaks,” listen above or on NachumSegal.com
Last Shabbos was Project Makom‘s inaugural Shabbaton which took place in the Five Towns. (Project Makom is an initiative of Jew in the City which helps former and questioning Charedi Jews find their place in Orthodoxy. To read about why Project Makom was founded, click here.) The feedback we received from the event was exceptional. The buzz began on Shabbos with people literally stopping us on the street to tell us how excited they were that such a program had been started and continued with calls and emails from Jewish leaders in the days afterward. And our participants – which numbered above sixty (plus we had a wait list!) – were so thrilled to meet each other and spend time together, we had trouble getting them to leave each part of the event. (Case in point, I went to sleep at 3AM Friday night because no one want to go home after the oneg and on Saturday a Melave Malka (post-Shabbos dinner) was organized and lasted past midnight.
The programming consisted of a transition panel of people who had moved from Chasidic to modern yeshivish, centrist, and other points along the modern Orthodox spectrum, a lecture by Rabbi Pesach Sommer giving a historical and source based context on why integrating with the larger world is considered positive according to many opinions, a lecture by Dena Block exploring the differences between law, stringency, and tradition, and a lecture by Rav Moshe Weinberger who shared how he brings Chasidic practice and tradition into the modern world. The beauty of featuring such a diverse group of speakers was that everyone found something which spoke to them.
The weekend was life-changing for many of the participants. Several of them expressed the fact that they had finally found “family;” one gentleman said he was good for Shabbos, but asked what he would do tomorrow. We spoke to a couple of people who were at the Shabbaton about why they feel that Project Makom will offer them a way to be observant which will fit them better than the Chasidic life they left. (The experiences of these individuals do not speak to the experiences of all Chasidim or Chareidim. We have featured several stories on Jew in the City of Chasidic Jews living happy and meaningful lives.)
Esty comes from a large and loving home. Her earliest memory of not belonging was at five years old when she and her family were the most Chassidish people at a bungalow colony one summer, and she didn’t understand why she had to wear tights at such a young age when the other girls didn’t. Esty also struggled with the concept of a rebbe from a young age which is a central tenet of being a Chasid. It was these questions that alienated her from an otherwise positive upbring- ing. Esty said that having questions makes you more attuned to the negative and makes it harder to see the positive aspects of the community.
I asked Esty what she hoped to get out of the Shabbaton and what she thought of it. She went in not knowing what to expect due to the novelty of the organization. But she was looking forward to meeting the people she had connected with over social media before the Shabbaton. She also wanted to see if the negative things her siblings said about non-Charedi Orthodoxy were really true. She said her Shabbaton hosts were the most amazing people she had ever met: they loved and lived religion and spoke freely about Hashem. She was even struck by the simplicity of her host’s emunah (faith) when they were discussing financial stress. They truly affirmed for her that Orthodoxy in the modern world was not about finding loopholes and ‘doing whatever you want’. With Project Makom she discovered a place in Orthodoxy she can finally imagine herself fitting into.
We also spoke to Shloimie who was at the Shabbaton and grew up in a somewhat “modern” Belz family. When I asked why this lifestyle stopped working for him he explained that he realized one day that it wasn’t adding up and that he wasn’t getting his ROI (return on investment). He was doing many, many things simply because the system (not the Torah) demanded him to. He wasn’t happy. He wasn’t fulfilled. He wanted more. It shook him to the core when about a year ago when he was selected to be on the jury on a commercial liability case. The attorneys gave out their forms to learn more about their candidates. He filled his out and got to a section that asked him to list his hobbies. He thought and thought more. None. He couldn’t come up with a single thing that he was really passionate about, gets his attention, and keeps him engaged. He became so angry he actually wrote “None” on the form. That was a wake-up call for him to start living. To start paying attention to the hollowness inside him. With the help of some amazing people in his life, as well as top notch experts, he started doing it. He went through much pain, but it’s finally working. He can now list a long list of new hobbies and interests (which include cooking and the elements of chemistry), he lost weight (100 lbs!!) and hasn’t been this size since fifth grade, he now has real relationships with people. So the short answer on why it didn’t work: Paying a very high price without getting what he wanted in return.
But even with Shloimie’s tremendous self-growth, he is still clearly struggling: “I am lost. I don’t belong. I don’t have a community. I’m nowhere. I live on a totally different planet than almost everyone around me. It is the loneliest feeling ever. I’m always different. I’m always the third class citizen and am not one of them. The system will never allow my kids in. I’m subject to criticisms from people close to me on a regular basis….. It’s pretty messed up!”
Shloimie didn’t want to go to the Shabbaton – religion hadn’t appealed to him in years – but his wife convinced him to go. His wife has been the force powering his entire improvement and transformation over the past few years and she deserves much of the credit, he explains. She was the one that begged his to join this shabbaton. So he did and now he is so grateful to her because for the first time ever he felt comfortable. There were all types of people from all different places. The people were diverse too. Shloimie explains “There was an elderly frum couple sitting at the same table as a young modern couple with their two kids. Although so different, there was one thing that linked all of us together: we all are looking for something better. We wanna expand our horizons and spread our wings. For many participants, and certainly for me, this was the first time I felt part of a community. The first time we felt understood. The first time we were able to look into the eyes of the beautiful person sitting opposite you and say “I understand you. I feel the same exact way…. I feel you…” These feelings are humongous to people who have been emotionally deprived for many years.
“So, this shabbos was amazing and this is just the start of some beautiful relationships that will be formed over the next months. This is the seed for what will become some form of community. We were there when it happened! As the shabbos was rolling to a close, I kept on hearing the same thought from people. They were all trying to say that they’re not sure what but they can just feel that something amazing is about to get off the ground here. I look forward to the next move.”