Sandra Kahn Wasserman
Jewish Studies Center, Baruch College
Spring 2016 Conference

 

Off the Derech

The program called for an all-day conference, culminating with a keynote address by author Nathan Englander, but my calendar said that I could just squeeze in a noon panel on “The Body and Selfhood: Gender, Identity and Ultra-Orthodoxy.” The panel was moderated by Lani Santo, the Executive Director of Footsteps, the only organization in North America that assists people who wish to leave the ultra-Orthodox community. The panel especially interested me because I had wrestled with that subject for more than two decades and had not come up with any conclusive answers.

My own daughter, now a mother with a with a family of seven, had become Haredi when she was barely twenty, settling in a Haredi community some twenty minutes south of Jerusalem. I had spent years pondering how she got there, moving from her former life as an artsy, Stuyvesant High School young woman who wore two different color socks to a woman who covered her hair with a tichel and wore skirts that scraped the floor.

I sat in the audience awaiting enlightenment. Maybe I could learn something from folks who had moved in the opposite direction.

Ayala Fader, a professor of cultural and linguistic anthropology at Fordham University and the author of Mitzvah Girls, spoke about her new research on Off the Derech (OTD) girls who have lost their faith. Social media, Fader admitted, was playing a significant new challenge in this crisis of emunah (faith). Fader acknowledged that men who have doubts have an easier time than women. Why? Because they have greater mobility and they are better connected. They drive cars and they have smart phones. They go to shul. Women, who lead double lives and are consumed with doubt, have a much harder time. Many fear losing their children.

Fader described how authorities in the ultra-orthodox community were fighting the encroachments of the digital life by gendering smart phones. Beginning in 2014, she said, they developed kosher phones. “Smart phones in some communities have become objects of shame.”

Following Fader to the podium was Fraidy Reiss, dressed in a super short skirt and multi-colored, high-heeled sandals, looking like anything but a frum girl. “I guess you could title the personal story that I am about to tell, ‘My Life as a Dead Woman,’” she said. Reiss was raised in a home that had no television, no radio, and no newspapers. She wore long skirts to her all-girls school where she studied “cooking and sewing and learned a lot about God.” In high school, she had to sign a paper that said that she would not take Driver’s Ed and the SAT Exam.

Her basic understanding was that she would get married right out of high school which, in fact, she did. “I was terrified of turning twenty and being single in that community,” she said. Less than three months after her engagement, she was married. She discovered almost immediately that she had nothing in common with her husband. “One day, when he was frustrated about something, he punched his fist into the wall in our apartment, making a huge hole.” Over the years, his violence got worse. Despite Reiss going to her family and to her rabbi for help, she was told that she did not have the right to a divorce. By now she had two daughters and thought that she had no way out. She secretly started to save up money, which she hid in a cereal box, applied to Rutgers University, and stopped covering her head – a rebellion that resulted in her family completely cutting off all ties with her.

At the age of thirty-two, she graduated as valedictorian of her class of 10,000 and moved out of her home, filing for a civil divorce. Her life struggle inspired Reiss to found Unchained at Last, a non-profit whose mission is to help women leave or avoid arranged or forced marriages and rebuild their lives.

A woman sitting to my left dabbed her eyes several times as Reiss spoke. Afterwards, she told me that she has just finished an undergraduate degree in sociology at Baruch College. Like Reiss, she said, she had been raised in a super frum community. She had married a Jew but they were not observant. Still, she was tolerated. But when her son married a Christian, her family completely cut her off. The pain was unbearable. “When I found Footsteps, it really saved my life,” she said.

 

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Roslyn Bernsteinis a journalist and critic based in New York. Her arts journalism has appeared in Guernica, Huffington Post, and Tablet. She is the author ofBoardwalk StoriesandIllegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo.She is currently working on a new novel, set in Jerusalem in 1961 during the Adolf Eichmann trial.

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