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“My Unorthodox Life” Begs The Question Why Some People Leave Observance

There are problems in the Orthodox Jewish community and there are challenging Jewish laws and sections of the Torah. Episode 1 of Netflix’s My Unorthodox Life basically lays out all of the major issues in Orthodoxy in the first 5 minutes of the show, just to make sure no one misses them!

In this article, we address these topics one by one, as systemic issues need to be faced and fixed (which is what we do in our Tikun branch) and challenging laws need to be understood with the complexity they deserve. Certainly not all families, schools or communities approach difficult texts with nuance or difficult mitzvos with understanding or allow room for varied opinions. And these things can certainly make Judaism unappealing to some. But extremism does not seem to be the impetus for Julia Haart’s unorthodox life.

Haart does not come from an ultra-religious family or community. Numerous people who know her personally have written in to make sure we understand this. If you look closely at her past pictures in the show, she is dressed in modern clothing, makeup, and heels in every one. She taught at a modern Orthodox school in Atlanta and her students have told us that she regularly carried around Vogue. Her ex-husband is an Ivy League grad who is the CEO of a tech company, despite Haart telling the New York Times that she had no radio or magazines in her house (do journalists fact check any more??). Yet something pushed Haart out of her community, and many people are wondering what that is.

While I do not know this woman or her family personally, for the last six years through Jew in the City’s Makom branch, we have worked with hundreds of former and questioning haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jews), and their stories have given me tremendous insight into the phenomenon. When I launched Makom in 2015, I assumed it was the strictness of the community that was pushing people out, and while that is certainly a big issue, that alone does not seem to be the case. There are plenty of happy people living strict lives who have no desire to leave or change, and others who want something a bit less strict and find a more moderate, but still Orthodox, communities.

So what is most common cause for leaving (at least according to the people we’ve dealt with)? What we have discovered is that nearly every person who comes to Makom has experienced trauma coupled with lack of secure attachment. Trauma we hear about all the time – emotional abuse, physical abuse, sex abuse, neglect, religious trauma.

But lack of secure attachment is talked about less and occurs due to childhood emotional neglect. Not enough is known about this topic, but I encourage everyone to learn more. At Makom, we are reading an incredible book on this subject called  “The Emotionally Absent Mother,” and numerous members have told us this book is so on point that they had to stop reading it or throw it against the wall because seeing their story in the book was too painful and overwhelming.

People who were emotionally neglected were missing crucial foundational pieces of their development which stay with them the rest of their lives, even if they have loving parents. Parents who try to do right and good by their children can fail in serious ways without realizing it. Emotionally neglected children may not have had: a safe space to voice their true opinions and feelings, a sounding board to help them process their emotions, the sense that they are unconditionally loved, the knowledge that someone in the home will always be there for them, enough physical and emotional affection, the sense that they are cherished and delighted in.

The talk of “my way or the highway” that Haart references in episode 1 is a message to a kid that she is not unconditionally loved unless she follows the rules. Questions being silenced is another problem Haart references in episode 4, which can lead to lack of secure attachment because a child feels like she can’t speak her mind. Then there is the helping with younger siblings and being the surrogate mother to her siblings, which Haart references in episode 6. If Haart experienced having to be the mother to her siblings, wiping their noses, it’s likely because she did not feel like there was enough of a parenting presence in the house. Interestingly, when Haart got divorced, she chose not to go back to her maiden name Leibov, but rather came up with a new name – Haart – another possible sign of insecure attachment. And finally, when a person experiences childhood emotional neglect, she carries a hurting inner child with her everywhere she goes unless she does inner child work. Julia told the LA Times in an interview, “I’m like 50 and 8 at the same time.” Perhaps this is a recognition of her inner child which never had its needs met.

Children who experiences trauma, but have no secure attachment will likely not have a parent emotionally available to help them process the pain they went through, compounding the trauma. Lack of secure attachment leaves a person feeling adrift his whole life, feeling as if he doesn’t belong where he is from. How fitting is it that we named our branch “Makom,” which means “place” for these drifting souls who come to us? Jasmin Lee Cori, author of “The Emotionally Absent Mother” writes that according to one study, 38% of people in the U.S. lack secure attachment. In secular families, this might manifest in carrying around lifelong sadness, acts of self-harm, eating-disorders, suicidal thoughts, all sorts of identity changes, and a host of other mental health issues. In religious ones, it would be all of those things, plus leaving the religious identity.

Before I watched My Unorthodox Life, my guess was that Haart was missing secure attachment and had experienced trauma somewhere along the way, and in one interview, she explains that before she left she was suicidal and was starving herself, possible responses to trauma. Haart’s inappropriate sexual conversations with her children and pretty much everyone else she meets could certainly be another sign of trauma. Then at the end of the first episode, her oldest daughter Batsheva tells Miriam, “We did not grow up in a house where we saw a loving relationship.” When you meet their father, he seems like a very loving and reasonable guy.

A person suffering from lack of secure attachment and trauma might not be able to give or receive love. And anyone in a loveless marriage would feel trapped, despondent, and eager to escape. Stories of lack of secure attachment and trauma are deeply painful. This is not about assigning blame because none of us actually know what happened, but rather understanding that stories like these (in our experience) are almost always rooted in a psychological component.

Dysfunctional patterns in families are hard to break out of and hurt that occurs in early life stages will lead to hurt in later stages if it’s not bravely faced and dealt with. But it is a shame that rather than acknowledge that Haart suffered from difficult experiences, and perhaps harmful relationships at the hands of unhealthy people, that are found in every community, the Orthodox Jewish community is being dragged through the mud in this ordeal. I wish these hurting people healing. And I hope that enough viewers will take to Google after they watch the episodes and have the savviness to unpack what they are watching.

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  • Udel Bergman says on July 13, 2021

    Let’s not forget Deborah Feldman aka Estie and how she grew up

    Reply
    • Michi lishi says on July 20, 2021

      The same reason for those who “hozrim betshuva”..

      Reply
      • Allison Josephs says on July 20, 2021

        A lot of baalei teshuva are running from something and kiruv organizations should make sure people are healthy before they make such big changes.

        Reply
        • Gitty Cikk says on August 2, 2021

          It’s extremely limportan to recognize that every person who makes a change in his/ her lifestyle has his/her own personal reason or reasons for doing so. In my experience, there are plenty of other reasons why people leave the path of Torah, and I am talking about people with functional, strong and supportive families who remain strong, loving and supportive of the person who chose to leave the Torah lifestyle. Some of these reasons include 1. emotional difficulties which are organic/chemical that simply don’t leave them room to continue living a Torah lifestyle, because it is just too hard for them. 2. A lack of consistency between what they learn in school and what they see in life 3. Passing, silly comments by educators and leaders who didn’t mean any harm but caused it anyway 4. Being answered dishonestly or not at all by well meaning educators.
          It is not fair to generalize. There are as many reasons as there are people. I urge you to check out the book Off the Derech for more about this phenomenon.

          Reply
          • Allison Josephs says on August 3, 2021

            Thanks for your comment. I read “Off the Derech”. She finds that some form of trauma (which you by the way give examples of above) is usually the underlying cause. We found that plus lack of secure attachment is the cause for nearly every case we see. As I said – we haven’t met every person, so we can’t speak for every person. But there are some major patterns we’ve seen that should be known.

  • Dovid says on July 13, 2021

    And here she says that had she not left, her youngest daughter would right now be — rather than a bi-sexual math student at Stanford – “sitting in a kitchen on Monsey, NY, with baby # 2 on the way.”

    https://youtu.be/b66QtZ5kVoQ

    Presumably, a forced marriage — had her mother not left, for her daughter’s sake.

    Elsewhere she says that when part of that Monsey community, married to her CEO husband and sending her children to Modern Orthodox schools, she had to be “completely covered” and all she was allowed to show was “her hands and her face.”

    Why, indeed, would the NYT, Netflix, and Penguin Books not have done some basic fact-checking before getting mixed up in this narcissistic fantasy that slanders the only ethnic community that one is still permitted — perhaps encouraged? — to slander?

    Reply
    • Lauren says on July 14, 2021

      MODERN orthodoxy people are out and about in bikinis..Women don’t cover their hair and wear pants! ORTHODOX- PLAIN … REGULAR, all covered. No bikinis. My kids are at a Modern Orthodox Yeshiva. Probably a quarter to half, don’t even keep kosher outside.

      Reply
      • Ariela says on July 14, 2021

        This is not a true statement, just FYI. I belong to a “modern Orthodox Shul”. My son goes to a “modern Orthodox Yeshiva”. I dress very tsnius (shirt past my elbows, above my collarbones, skirts past my knees when I sit, etc), I cover my hair with a Sheitel or a tcheil (but completely cover), I keep a very high level of kashrus. Yes there are people who are “modern orthodox liberal” but there are also those who are very machmir in their following. These labels are often quite pointless, please remember that we are all individuals in the end.

        Reply
      • sarit says on July 14, 2021

        why does the world have to see Judaism the way one person who had a bad life experience remembers it? and Julia says this: “When I left, I wore the lowest-cut tops I could find, the shortest shorts. Because that, to me, was freedom.” why, why does she feel like that? why is that her freedom? all this hurts me so much im not understanding any of it. can someone please explain why the world is like this?

        Reply
        • MARCI RAPP says on July 21, 2021

          I dont really have a response directly to you – but as Julia H claims shes an advocate for women – what BS – she’s promoting that women should dress to yell “look at me” and “im sexy” – she has a large attention seeking personality – she so cheapens herself by the way she flaunts her “freedom”. Had she dressed somewhat modestly and achieved what she has the focus would be on her achievements not her body. She pushes everything that is anti-modesty rather than choosing a modestly modest path which is still an option even if halachikally not acceptable. To walk into that frum grocery store dressed like a ……… – sooo disrespectful. She was hoping to cause a stir. She is the definition of lack of modesty inside and out. I’m in the modest swimwear business and I respect the fact that women and girls have different ideas of modesty and I design to sell accordingly. I dont push a halachic agenda or force women to be fully covered if they dont want to – especially if they’re going to an all womens beach and feel comfortable with a less modest swim outfit. I acknowledge that some teens just want to cover their bikini with a tank top. I offer the basics of choice – to cover for religious reasons or for other reasons. Julia H – who doesnt want to be silenced – silences her son in law and her sons all teh time if they a little bit want to respect modesty laws or shomer negia – she wants them to experience the outside world to the fullest.

          On a separate note – was Julia H table kosher? did she keep a kosher home? at one table when aaron was there he asked what was kosher adn she said everything except “that” . what does that mean? did the cook have two separate kitchen & dishes?

          Reply
      • Alex guttman says on July 14, 2021

        Hart is not an entirely new name. It’s actually the partial translation of leibvov in english

        Reply
        • Allison Josephs says on July 14, 2021

          I understand. But it’s also not her name. She was looking for a fresh start.

          Reply
          • Mark says on July 26, 2021

            I don’t think it’s fair to blame mom and dad, especially when we have no idea who these people are nor do we have any details about her true upbringing.

            Aside I’m wanting her name to be recognized worldwide and sell some more clothing, I believe that Julia is angry as she protest so much. I don’t like to give out confidential information but since she has decided to take her story public I think it’s worth noting that she did suffered a major trauma one that would make a lot of people angry with God. I won’t disclose that here but I believe to just throw the parents under the bus without knowing what really happened is not fair either. She chose not to share that trauma and tragedy with us but it’s obviously part of a story, and more likely to be the reason rather than speculating about her parents

          • Allison Josephs says on August 3, 2021

            Thanks for your comment, but I’m not throwing anyone under the bus. Lack of secure attachment happens in families with loving and hard working parents. When we speak about this more, more people will be helped. When we say that discussing it is shaming and blaming, people won’t get the help they need.

  • Yenta Vegan says on July 14, 2021

    The article in the New York Times states that Ms. Haart grew up in a community that shunned fashion. I assumed she lived in a heretofore unknown isolated sect.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Meltzer says on July 14, 2021

      Your comment made me giggle because it reminded me of one time when my daughter was a little girl we were walking on 13th Avenue in Boro Park. We live OOT, known to Brooklynites as anyplace outside of Brooklyn. A group of women were sitting at a table near a window in a restaurant. My daughter stopped and pointing at them asked me “how come that lady is wearing her Shabbos clothes on a Sunday?” Sure enough, one woman was wearing an outfit that I also had, only to me it was a Yom Tov outfit, not hanging out with my friends attire. Boro Park women are known for being very fashionable.

      Reply
  • Michael Sedley says on July 14, 2021

    Kol Hakavod on your project Makom, a badly needed service in the Jewish world.

    You say that in your experience, a majority of people who leave or question the Haredi world were victims of neglect, abuse, or trauma.

    Do you also encounter many people who leave for ideological reasons? For example, they can no longer believe that G-d exists, or that He wrote the Torah as we have it today, or have trouble accepting the concept of Daas Torah, or that the Haredi approach to is wrong or immoral?

    Reply
    • Allison Josephs says on July 14, 2021

      Our Makom members are also deep thinkers. And sensitive souls. So all those issues I mentioned are also coupled with intellectual challenges and nausea at hypocrisy. But – until the foundational work is done. Until the emotional issues are dealt with, the other issues don’t matter. And I’ve never seen anyone get stuck on the intellectual side once the emotional piece is dealt with because it’s ok to live with questions. Every thinking frum person does.

      Reply
    • Rella says on July 18, 2021

      Did anyone catch the glaring lie in Episode one or two; women who flaunt tznius guidelines in frum. Immunities have acid poured in their clothes so as to feel a burning sensation..?

      You make some excellent points, Allison; indeed, it’s a shame to have the Orthodox community dragged through the mud once more by a pained woman with an axe to grind.

      Reply
      • Allison Josephs says on July 18, 2021

        Thanks for your comment. She’s discussing gehenom. And tragically in the most extreme and unhealthy schools, this is how Tznius is taught.

        Reply
  • Steven Brizel says on July 14, 2021

    This show is ;part of the cottage industry of such books and media by such individuals , all of whom blame their communities for their subsequent behavior, as opposed to what may very well be a lack of “secure attachment”, and physical trauma. One should not engage in the logic of throwing out the baby with the bathwater or judging real people and real communities with a commitment to Torah,.Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim by the fantasyland of Hollywood, and especially so called “reality shows”, which cannot depict the reality of the striving for Kedusha in so many ways within both the MO and Charedi world in the realms of Torah Avodah and Gmilas Chasadim

    Ironically, one of Netflix’s biggest hits was Shtisel which portrayed four generations of a Charedi family dealing with a wide variety of daily issues and with noone going off the derech.

    Reply
  • Chaim says on July 14, 2021

    Thanks Allison this so resonated, I discovered in therapy that this was exactly what I lacked growing up and still struggle with, proper emotional attachment. I wish instead of encouraging what is essentially running away from your problems the Media would normalize going for help and dealing with your life without looking for an escape.

    Reply
  • Sarah says on July 14, 2021

    Yes, I agree with this completely. The common thread amongst the number of “off the derech” people I know is abuse, neglect or trauma in their upbringing. The escape from their “old life” actually has little to do with Orthodox Judaism itself. There are so many healthy and positive Orthodox families whose children stay frum knowing that they had a healthy upbringing.

    Reply
  • Allison says on July 14, 2021

    But doesn’t the insular nature of many haredi communities provide a “safe spot’ for abuse and neglect? I’m curious how or if this is addressed by orthodox leaders or scholars if a victim feels there is no way out and no outside law enforcement or social services personnel have an “in” to monitor things.

    Reply
    • Allison Josephs says on July 14, 2021

      38% of Americans have childhood emotional neglect. So it’s a huge number. And yes, insularity can hold in crimes but so can prep schools and gymnastics organizations. So we have to do better. That’s what our tikun branch is working to build.

      Reply
      • Allison says on July 14, 2021

        That’s great to know. Thank you so much for answering me. I’m a big believer that we can all do better too. 🙂

        Reply
        • Baila says on July 14, 2021

          I am working on trying to be less judgmental of other people’s lifestyle. I do not want to hate anyone for their choices that they made…
          I only watched the trailer of this show earlier this week when I heard about it. I was watching the characters drink alcohol, wear clothes that left them so exposed. Then I heard them say that this was freedom for them. I found it very interesting that this is what that family considers to be freedom. From the little bit that i know about alcohol, I know that it makes so much problems in people’s lives. For me personally just watching these people drink was a big huge trigger, reminding me of someone negative that happened in my life as a result of alcohol.
          I have a very different definition of freedom from the people in this Netflix show.
          Maybe this show is good for showing people what slavery to impulses is… I will never know the answer to that, because I do want to watch this show.

          Reply
          • Baila says on July 14, 2021

            I realized after I posted my previous comment that I made some mistakes. I left out a word in my last sentence. I meant to say that i will NOT be watching that show.
            I also wanted to say the alcohol reminded me of something negative
            By accident I wrote someone negative.

          • MARCI RAPP says on July 21, 2021

            re the alcohol – and in no way defending the show, they were chiliing with a glass of wine – not really so bad. hope it was kosher tho

    • Eli says on July 19, 2021

      I grew up yeshivish and am now an atheist and OTD. I had a perfectly happy frum childhood, loving parents and no major traumas in my life. I left religion because I realized that I simply didn’t believe in god; I read about the documentary hypothesis and realized that the Torah could not have been divinely written and learned that there is no archaeological evidence for much of Tanach. It seems disingenuous to me to claim that all people who go OTD have traumatic experiences or emotional issues. A 2017 Nishma survey found that frum Jews leave religion for many reasons, including intellectual doubts and loss of faith, communal hypocrisy, status of women in the community and treatment of LGBT.

      Reply
      • Allison Josephs says on July 19, 2021

        Thanks for your comment, Eli. First off, as I mentioned, I can’t speak for all people, so it’s possible that a person could leave without trauma or insecure attachment. And I’d agree that all of the issues you mention could be part of the problem. But we’ve seen a significant trend in our organization that includes the issues you raise, but the core start of movement away is lack of secure attachment. Lack of secure attachment is a really subtle and silent problem that many people aren’t even aware of, and loving and hardworking parents can inadvertently leave a kid with attachment wounds. I’d say the best way to measure if a person has attachment wounds is to read the Good Mother Messages and consider if your mother made you feel these things and if any of them make the reader emotional, because she didn’t:

        Ten Basic Good Mother Messages by Jasmin Lee Cori:

        1. I’m glad that you’re here

        2. I see you

        3. You are special to me

        4. I respect you

        5. I love you

        6. You needs are important to me. You can turn to me for help

        7. I am here for you. I’ll make time for you

        8. I’ll keep you safe

        9. You can rest in me

        10. I enjoy you. You brighten my heart

        Additionally, Faranak Maroglese also did a study in her book Off The Derech https://www.offthederech.com/eng.html and found that trauma was a unifying theory of most of the 600 respondents.

        Reply
        • Ian C says on July 30, 2021

          It seems rather convenient to label those who leave as disfunctional, but surely most if not all of those had Jewish parents.. So regardless of the reason, it still highlights a very real problem. It seems you are very keen to label those that leave as not right in the head rather than admitting it may just be the repression.

          Reply
          • Allison Josephs says on July 30, 2021

            Thanks for your comment. Dysfunction exists in every community and does not discriminate. There is no reason to believe the Jewish community has any more than any other community. Happy people quietly go about their lives. People who were hurt are the ones who tell stories about being hurt.

  • Debbi says on July 15, 2021

    that was a beautifully written article!! Every word so true. I have encountered people who left the community, and it was 100% because of their family situation.

    Reply
  • David says on July 15, 2021

    People don’t leave because they are having a bad life.
    It’s because they are attracted to the allure of personal freedom.
    The choice is fulfillment from internal values vs fulfillment from self gratification.

    I don’t judge either way. As long as you’re a good person.

    Reply
    • Allison Josephs says on July 15, 2021

      Thanks for your comment. Our experience has shown us otherwise.

      Reply
  • Sholom says on July 18, 2021

    I really enjoyed the article. My question is that can we really say that the person left because of lack of emotional attachement in childhood, if almost half of people experienced this?Does orrhodoxy not need to be suitable to this half of our population also?

    Reply
    • Allison Josephs says on July 18, 2021

      First off, we might be doing better than the general public. Second, lack of secure attachment may not be enough. It seems to be when it’s combined with trauma that people find staying unbearable.

      Reply
      • Sholom says on July 19, 2021

        Do you mean trauma at the time they start having a hard time staying or trauma back when they had a lack of secure attachment? Can you explain why this combination makes staying unbearable?

        Reply
        • Allison Josephs says on July 19, 2021

          Trauma could happen at any point along the way. The lack of secure attachment is something that happens in childhood. It’s understanding you don’t have room to speak or be heard. Or it could be a lack of affection – both physical and or emotional. It could be a sense that you’re on your own. Or that your parents haven’t shown you their true self so you won’t show them your true self. When the trauma comes, it is then compounded because there’s no attachment figure to go to to process what happened.

          Reply
  • Kerry Horwitz says on July 19, 2021

    I am not Jewish (it goes down the male line, not the female), so I hope you don’t mind me commenting. I know that Netflix is very hostile to religion, and last night I watched some of My Unorthodox Life. I was horrified at how a religious community was being portrayed without anyone having a right-to-reply. I was also shocked at how truly awful the woman was. I also realise she was making statements about the wider world that I know are false. She said men forced women to wear corsets until their ribs broke. Not true. Corset wearing and tight-lacing are two different things. The former was a comfortable, normal size garment, and the latter was dissaproved of. It is also true in the modern age that men do not force women to have toxins injected into their faces, and their breasts cut open with bags of questionable safety put in. Women choose to do this. I found this excellent blog because I wanted to know about women being prevented from reading books. It was claimed that women were not allowed to study Torah or Talmud, is this true? Thank you and G-d bless you.

    Reply
    • Allison Josephs says on July 19, 2021

      Thanks for your savviness, Kerry. At the top of this article you’ll see a link to a second post addressing the Jewish issues raised. But I didn’t discuss books. So I’ll add that. The short answer is that in previous generations, there were less literate Jews (men and women) and then in the 1800’s a woman named Sorah Schnirer started the Beis Yakov movement to create jewish schools for Jewish women. She was a powerhouse and started a revolution. Nowadays all Jewish women learn jewish texts but the more modern communities like where I’m from (and mind you, I wear a wig) the girls and women learn everything including Talmud). More to the right, they learn Torah and less Talmud and all the way to the right and most insular circles they learn the least but still learn Torah. There are a lot of exaggerations and lies in this series and zero nuance.

      Reply
  • Danny says on July 19, 2021

    She seems kind of histrionic from watching this, honestly. I read that 2-3% of people are histrionic. How do they survive in a frum, tznius world?

    Reply
  • Robin says on July 20, 2021

    It pains me just thinking about the pain the rest of her family; parents, siblings and her own children have endured. I did not and do not plan on watching this…but from what I read, she said she went to Barnes and Noble and began reading….it’s a shame she never got to their “self-help” section and found a good therapist to work with.

    Reply
  • Yisrael says on July 20, 2021

    In the highly regarded book, Off the Derech, by Faranak Margolese, a web poll indicated that in response to the question, Were you physically or verbally abused by someone observant? 51% answered YES and 4% answered, Somewhat. Very disturbing.

    Reply
  • MARCI RAPP says on July 21, 2021

    I’m commenting too many times I know.
    I’m wondering why the city of Monsey doesnt sue the producers / Julia H? its horrible how she portrays Monsey so negatively like she was from a cult.
    lets see where she (and her family and her current marriage) is in 10 years. Shes a passing thing.

    Reply
    • Elana says on August 2, 2021

      I am from Monsey. I would like to personally represent the community in suing her as soon as I pass my bar.

      Reply
  • Steven Brizel says on July 23, 2021

    Hollywood peddles fantasy, not reality. Pitches and producers will produce shows that describe adherents to any religious faith as misguided medieval sexist, etc. We need to develop a reality series that shows how a Torah committed family deals with the issues in its lifetime on a day to day basis and shows the beauty of Shabbos, Yom Tov and family simchas , Torah study, Chesed and showing how families deal with such issues as infertility, aging parents, end of life issues, and all aspects of R”L Aveilus

    Reply

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