A week ago, a woman named Deb took her life in New Jersey. I learned about her death in an email sent to me here in Jackson, Mississippi.
Over the past few days, I have been speaking with many people who share Deb’s background. Like Deb, I too am part of a tight community of people who have left ultra-orthodoxy–this news impacts us quite personally, but should impact all Jews.
That’s why I decided to write this post. At first, I wondered how I could directly connect its content with southern Jewish life. Then I realized that this story connects to all of us, and if all Jews are responsible for one another, well, then even if the only Southern connection here is me, I still thought it was important to raise awareness about the deep pain that one community of Jews is currently feeling.
I believe in the teaching from Jewish tradition that we cannot sit idly by when injustice is taking place. Particularly when lives are literally at risk, and being lost. A while back, I wrote a post regarding Jay Michaelson’s article about fundamentalism in the Jewish community. Fundamentalism in the Jewish community is real, and dangerous, and Deb’s story is an example of why.
The ultra-Orthodox Skverer community, with the help of expert witnesses and judges, not only failed to help Deb through what is ultimately a very difficult transition; but actually made Deb’s life even harder when she chose to leave their ranks. What is one to do, upon hearing about this tragedy? Learn! Do not sit idly by. Do not let communities that, under the guise of Judaism, cause tremendous pain to people who choose to live differently. As you learn, you will find out that there are too many people who, like Deb, are beaten down by their ultra-orthodox communities of origin. The Jewish community as a whole could do better to support individuals who are alienated by their Jewish communities.
Shulem Deen’s website Unpious provides a platform where he and others share his struggle as a parent leaving ultra-orthodoxy. I encourage you to read a recent article, published by Tablet, in which he shared his reflections on Deb’s death. There is one paragraph that is particularly hard to swallow: “In my case, I didn’t lose in court. I lost my children’s hearts and with them, very nearly, my sanity. I had been many things in adulthood—a husband, an entrepreneur, a computer programmer, a blogger—but for 14 years, fatherhood defined me most. When my children withdrew their affections, I no longer knew who I was.”
If the community that you had once is now against you, and the larger community is not actively taking your side, hope is hard to find. My hope is that a larger segment of the population, including the readership of this blog, will realize that reaching out and supporting those who leave fundamentalism is important and benefits not only the individuals to whom we lend our support, but also benefits us all. If welcomed into the larger society, those who leave their community of origin bring many gifts and talents to the world.
Lani Santo is the Executive Director of Footsteps, an organization that assists people who, like Deb, choose to leave their community of origin, and live a life that is consistent with their personal needs and beliefs. In an email to friends of the organization, in which she responded to this tragedy, she wrote, “It is our sincere intention to work for lasting change so that any individual who wishes to leave ultra-Orthodoxy and build a self-determined life can do so. It’s the one true way we can honor those who felt they could not live with the consequences of their brave decision.”
I echo Lani’s sentiment. My thoughts are with Deb’s loved ones, and with each person who has experienced struggles like hers. May all of our hearts be moved to action.
Sukkot offers some incredible starting points for discussion. The Sukkot holiday begins tonight and lasts for a week. Among other things, core to Sukkot is the sukkah itself: something that provides shelter, but is temporary.
One topic the ISJL’s curriculum focuses on is the concept of Ushpizin. This is the custom of inviting our ancestors into our Sukkah. While the traditional Ushpizin guests are biblical characters, it sets a precedent for inviting people who add value to our life into our personal dwelling, to allow them to help shape it and shape us.
This got me thinking. There are so many people who have been involved in social action and who have led various social justice campaigns, so… as someone committed to social justice, who would I want to invite into my temporary dwelling to sit and have some coffee and cake with and learn.Which also made me wonder – maybe even more importantly than the question of who would I invite in, is the question what would we talk about while we were in there?
I started Googling Sukkot and Jewish social activists, and what I came across is the group Jewish Women Watching and their 2007 Sukkot campaign, “Treyfing Sukkot.” I’d be curious to hear what you think. Jewish Women Watching had an interesting approach to Sukkot: “Sukkot is a time when we step outside of our comfort zones. We need to go beyond ʻsafe causesʼ and challenge the status quo.”
The campaign included sukkah decorations that highlighted causes that were, at the time, “kosher,” i.e. “safe causes”; while other decorations listed causes that were “treyf” – more polarizing, less “safe.” These decorations presented a real challenge to the Jewish community and Jewish individuals. From a quick glance at their website, it doesn’t look as though Jewish Women Watching is still an active group. However, one line quoted in the press release that announced this campaign stood out to me.
“The sukkah is a fragile dwelling, and for it to be kosher, it must be open.”
If our sukkah is truly open, who would we invite in? And would we only explore the safe, kosher questions or the challenging, treyf ones?
Who would you add to the Ushpizin guest list? What might you want to talk with them about?
August 28, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
The speech that immediately preceded Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech 50 years ago was delivered by Rabbi Joachim Prinz.
As Rabbi of Berlin, Rabbi Prinz was expelled from Nazi Germany. Since this speech, which you can read in its entirety here, will receive less attention I wanted to spread Rabbi Prinz’s message on that day. The entire address is inspiring, but this line, in particular, stands out for me:
“The time, I believe, has come to work together — for it is not enough to hope together, and it is not enough to pray together.”
Those who know me will not be surprised by my choice to discuss this quote.
It is a quote that articulates the importance of relationship building, and cooperation. This idea is repeated in some of my prior blog posts, after all: real social change is most often the result of the efforts of many who work in partnership. The members of different churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship may have different traditions or political perspectives, but there are almost always overlapping hopes, particularly for their children. Across religious differences, we want our youth to have access to a good education, to be healthy, to be safe, to have the opportunity to live peacefully and pursue their lives and passions. We can make assumptions based on these beliefs, and hope together – or even pray together.
But to work together, we can’t just make broad assumptions (even good, positive ones!) about our hopes and goals. To truly cooperate, we need to have a good understanding of what exactly is driving all of the parties involved. It is the only way to be certain that we are all, in fact, aiming for the same ultimate outcome. On a truly basic level, to work together we have to know each other. We have to know our neighbors’ names, and have their contact information, and not just talk about being a community – but do the work it takes to become a community.
Occasionally, I’ll hear from a synagogue that is skeptical about working with local churches. This is often fueled by a fear that the church members will try to proselytize. I wonder what Rabbi Prinz would say? I suggest that both congregations get together, and discuss what each group needs to feel respected and accepted. It is important to give cooperation a chance. There is too much work that has to get done. We cannot afford to only work with people who think like us. We are all better off when we work together.
May this line serve as a source of inspiration for all of us to commit to working with one another. Martin Luther King, Jr. provided a directive and a vision – and Rabbi Joachim Prinz reminded us of the work that goes into pushing that vision forward. 50 years after these great leaders, and their peers, rallied a crowd of thousands, we must hear the call today. We must be united by a shared dream, then roll up our sleeves and share in the work.
Photo credit: New Jersey Jewish Historical Society