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.
Today’s guest post comes from Rabbi Hank Bamberger of Utica, New York, who spent some time traveling in the South this summer as part of the ISJL’s Rabbis on the Road program. A version of this piece first appeared in the newsletter of the National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis, and is shared here with permission.
“You’re going WHERE in July?”
We couldn’t blame people for reacting that way. The answer was that my wife Sheila and I would be visiting four small congregations in four southern states – Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas – with a side trip to the URJ’s Jacobs Camp in Utica, MS, all this under the auspices of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life – and all during the summer.
My friend and colleague Rabbi David Klein, who had served as the rabbi in Monroe, LA, sent us an email assuring us that it would only be hot outside. No one else was that encouraging.
In spite of the heat concerns, we headed South – and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Wherever we went, we were welcomed with true Southern hospitality. Each of the two Erev Shabbat services I conducted drew about a dozen and a half people. That may not sound like many, but percentage wise, it’s a lot. Consider this: Congregation Meir Chaim in McGehee, AR, has only seven families on its membership list!
Adult education in three congregations produced slightly lower numbers (!) but great enthusiasm. Talk at meals ranged from dealing with congregational matters to local and regional Jewish history to, inevitably, mutual acquaintances.
We even made some time to be tourists. The Clinton Library in Little Rock is worth a trip in itself, and if you go, the Little Rock Zoo is very nice as well. Of course, we saw lots of countryside. In nine days, we logged just over 1,500 miles of driving.
To top everything else off, the weather was mild (for summer in the South). Since our trip occurred during the terrible heat wave in the Northeast, it was hotter in Utica, NY than in Utica, MS. Go figure!
In short, we felt that we had made a contribution to those small congregations which work so hard to survive. A great way to spend our summer vacation, and I encourage other clergy interested in the Rabbis on the Road program to contact Rabbi Marshal Klaven at the ISJL.
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?