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.
For more than a year, I’ve been working with Dr. Ron Wolfson to plan a ten-day lecture tour to visit communities across the South. Every detail imaginable had been checked and double checked to ensure that each of the twelve partner congregations on the tour would have their expectations not only met, but exceeded!
But no matter how much you plan, you can’t plan everything.
Two weeks before the start of the tour, Dr. Wolfson mentioned something that I should have thought of myself: his beloved father, Alan Wolfson, had passed away a couple of months earlier, and Ron wanted a minyan each day in order to say Kaddish. My answer was to assure him we could make that happen – but honestly, my heart began to pound because in the mostly smaller Southern communities we were heading towards, a daily minyan is not always the easiest of things to find or create on short notice.
There needn’t have been any worry, because one by one, each host congregation stepped up with true Southern Jewish hospitality to make it happen. Many of the people who showed up to enable Dr. Wolfson to say Kaddish are quite familiar with the process and frequently participate in such rituals; However, many, like myself, have never been called upon or volunteered to be counted for this beautiful mitzvah. Each of us received more than we gave in performing this mitzvah. Dr. Wolfson thanked everyone with genuine appreciation, but the response was almost universally “My pleasure!”
And it was. It was our pleasure to participate in this process in each of the 10 communities – creating a “minyan of minyans” across the South.
Have you ever stepped up to be counted for a Kaddish minyan? How did you feel about the experience?
Along with the nation, we mourn for the loss of life at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. We mourn, too, for the shattered sense of security and community. We pray for peace and healing, not only with sympathy but also with deep empathy.
For so many of us, living as minorities in America, stories like these are particularly heart-wrenching. As a Jewish organization in the Deep South, we feel a kinship with the Wisconsin Sikh community. We know what is to be a minority, one that is both a part of,and yet often seen as apart-from, the surrounding society. Our heritage is central to our being, and we are also proud Americans. Neither of these identities should be compromised.
When Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson, Mississippi, was bombed in 1967, the Greater Jackson Clergy Alliance “expressed their sorrow and support for the Jewish community” by organizing a “Walk of Penance.” They took a stand to say that the actions of a few angry individuals did not reflect the views of the entire community.
At a time like this, we must strive to remain a part of and not apart from. We must educate ourselves about our neighbors, so we can be advocates for them as well as for ourselves. We must continue to work for peaceful progress.
May the Sikh community of Wisconsin find similar support and peace in the wake of their tragedy. And may we all renew our commitment to be good neighbors, and good friends, to all of our fellow Americans.
L’shalom – to peace.