One of Us
In November of 2017, my wife and I watched the movie “One of Us.” The Netflix documentary highlighted the stories of four people who were trying to leave the insular hasidic communities in the New York area and joined the Footsteps organization. The stories were touching, saddening, and confusing. The images I saw prompted me to want to help the members of the ex-hasidic/charedi community, which is why I started working with Project Makom. My experiences have been fulfilling, challenging, and provided me with a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance.
Entering the Fold
As a ba’al teshuva, I was brought into a community of welcoming Jews in the Orthodox community in Brighton, Massachusetts. The Rabbis that introduced me to the beauty of Shabbos were caring people who loved their families. I got to know them, their kids, and their friends who would come visit for meals. My campus outreach organization arranged trips to some of the major charedi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish communities in the Northeast. I spent six weeks living in Monsey and spent many Shabbosim in Lakewood. Every person I met was unique, and while there were certainly a few individuals who seemed slightly off or antisocial (no more than I met in the secular population), the vast majority of them were warm, kind people. Beyond that, they had something I wanted. They belonged to a close-knit community with a common spiritual purpose and drive.
College was a highly social atmosphere, but the specter of social isolation loomed large over my future. More than that, my friends didn’t seem aware of this issue, numbed to the isolation brought about by the hollow interactions provided through social media. While these are engaging ways to interact with others, they are famously flawed at conveying nuance and tone. In contrast, the conversations I had with people over Shabbos in Brighton were both sincere and authentic, unhindered by the constant distraction of phones or the concern of being taken out of context. I decided to go to yeshiva in Israel and learn more about my heritage from the source texts.
Arriving in Israel
Upon arriving, I saw further evidence of community cohesion. I saw such racial and ethnic diversity within the Jewish neighborhoods. Many of the fault lines I saw as challenges in American life were transcended by the fact that all observant Jews, black or white, rich or poor – kept Shabbos, kept Kosher, and loved living in a state of our own. I had heard rumors and whispers of issues of abuse, but I mostly focused on the community that I was engaged in – the English speaking community in Jerusalem, and more specifically, my yeshiva.
When I returned to the U.S. and moved to New Jersey for graduate school, it became clear that some of my assumptions about the observant community had been premature. While the vast majority of the Orthodox Jews that I interact with on a daily basis are good people who just want to make an honest living, there is a significant minority who are either guilty of or complicit in abuses perpetuated against members of their own community.
Ever since I began working with Project Makom, I have met an overwhelming number of people who were molested by a family member in their youth. Others were physically abused or neglected as an outgrowth of parents having more children than they were able to handle (despite Jewish law specifically allowing for contraception to be used in such instances). I hear from our members about the unbearable strictness of growing up in unhealthy families and schools. I hear about how our applicants had tried to petition their siblings, parents, extended family, their teachers, their community leaders, and G-d, to help them with the abuse or neglect that they were dealing with, and that in most cases, one of those gatekeepers was unable or unwilling to do anything.
I have experienced the heights of joy in my experience becoming observant. The beauty of my wedding, where I saw my friends from all different parts of my life come together to celebrate the excitement of union, or the mutual joy between my wife and I that the birth of our baby boy brought. In smaller moments, the quiet calm of Shabbos settling over our home on cold winter nights, the moments of discovery with my chevrusa after working over a piece of Torah for 45 minutes, and the smiling faces of Rutgers students who join us for a Friday night meal, happy to be out of the dorm and in a homey environment.
I am pained to think that all of these things that I find beautiful have been hell for others. For others, Shabbos may have meant a prison in time where they could not help but interact with people who they had a bad relationship with. A chevrusa or a Rebbe may have been a verbally abusive scold who did nothing but belittle them. The smiling faces of Shabbos guests may have meant less food, or no chicken, for the little kids who were now guests in their own home.
The Joy of Choice, The Pain of Coercion
The joy of my wedding was that we had chosen each other after dating and thinking it through. The pain of the communities I work with is that they were paired with someone, and while arranged marriages often do work out, when they do lead to an abusive relationship, the abused partner feels completely out of options to control their situation.
As a ba’al teshuva, living in a healthy community, I have the freedom to question. One look at my reading list on Goodreads will tell you that I have a skeptical and inquisitive sense about me. For some of our members, even learning The Guide to the Perplexed was seen as “concerning,” given Maimonides’ Aristotelian “goyish” philosophical influences.
How do I bridge the gap between my happy Judaism and the new abuses I learn about each week? On one hand, I was attracted to Orthodoxy because of the familial closeness I witnessed, the expansive in-real-life social network and the spiritual wisdom and depth of the Torah. I maintain my balance and my faith in the fact that this is the right system for me and a system that represents absolute truth by reminding myself that every person is fallible, and every system is fallible.
People often say “don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.” For a while, I thought that this was a somewhat unfair line. Should we not measure the Constitution by how Americans use it or abuse it? If there is only one objective set of documents that outline and guide Jewish behavior (the written and oral Torah), shouldn’t we wonder why it is that people don’t feel a larger sense of shame for acting out of line with it? How could the same parents who sexually abuse their children keep Shabbos? How could the principals of the schools live with themselves knowing that someone had been abused on their watch and that they hadn’t done enough to stop further abuses?
Now I would slightly alter the statement: “Judge Judaism by the helpers.” There will always be bad actors in any society. Every group of people will have people who may have started out as sincere proponents of positive values, but have now devolved into degenerate abusive behavior. Torah is not just here to improve our behavior, it is made by Hashem to revolutionize our behavior towards objective goodness. That is a tall order, and some people are so daunted by it that they indulge in their worst, most destructive tendencies instead of facing the darkness they harbor within. If, instead, I judge Judaism by the helpers, the view changes entirely.
Judging Judaism by the helpers reveals a world of kindness: I see people who have forfeited a high salary for years in order to engage in the beautiful act of teaching children about G-d’s Torah. I see volunteers who have given hundreds of hours a year to organizations whose sole purpose is to provide goods to new mothers. I see professionals hurrying home on Friday afternoon to be with their families for a sacred rest time. I see my Rabbis in college, who risked getting sick to come and pay me a visit when I wasn’t feeling well, sitting in my college dorm room and cracking jokes with me so I would feel better. I see my yeshiva, providing me with an organization where I could go get my first pair of tefillin for a greatly reduced cost. I see the wealthiest members of their community, making repeated and sizable contributions of their income to help organizations like ours in order to help the people who have been victims of the worst in our community hurting them. The sheer volume of people who got in touch when Project Makom first put out a call to find mentors nearly broke our server! Yes, there is brokenness, but this is a way of life worth saving. The helpers have a lot of work ahead, to not only repair those who got broken, but look for ways to fix the root cause of the problem. Before I reached out to Project Makom, I was afraid exposure to constant trauma would leave me jaded. But instead I am inspired to work harder to help.