The story of Passover, and the Exodus from Egypt, involves the oppressor (Pharaoh and the Egyptians) and the oppressed and enslaved (the Jews). At seders around the world, Pharaoh is the symbol from figures ranging from literal modern day slave-owners and dictators to metaphorical oppressors, such as depression and cancer. The common thread: they are destructive, and all too prevalent.
However, when people ask me what I am doing for Passover, I answer with a one-liner that only serves to stun the person I’m talking with (and always makes me feel like I just said that flowers are hideous or something): To me, Passover is the day when I celebrate the freedom I have to not observe Passover.
As someone who was raised ultra-orthodox, it is not a freedom I take for granted.
However, it leads me to wonder why I have a hard time celebrating freedom from tyranny, slavery and other similar forces. This year, I realized what is missing for me. It is an understanding that we are in a world where my freedom may be linked to another’s oppression—particularly when it comes to the freedoms associated with Jewish life.
Passover epitomizes this for me. We hear about the experiences of Jews who had to overcome adversity in order to celebrate Passover. The idea that Jews around the world can observe Passover freely is a story of triumph and a cause for celebration. But, what is missing for me is an exploration of how the freedom to celebrate Passover can be oppressive to others. It can be oppressive because it is not a choice and is, in fact, a sort of “Egypt” for some who are seeking to survive or escape their ultra-orthodox communities of origin.
I have similar feelings about other Jewish practices like the mikvah (ritual bath). There is a growing trend of Jewish communities building beautiful spa-like mikvahs for women who want to partake in the set of laws that are known as Taharas Hamishpacha (family purity). The experience of going to a mikvah changed the status of a woman who had her period from being impure to pure. I’m glad women today have found a way to create a magical experience of going to the mikvah. Mikvah goers oftentimes enjoy the experience of being pampered, relaxing and tuning into their bodies. (I, too, enjoy going to a spa.) But, it troubles me when I see a disconnect between that beautiful experience and the experience of my high school peers, some of whom dreaded the experience of going to the mikvah, but didn’t have the freedom to skip a month, or opt-out altogether.
Freedom does not just mean the freedom to do things; it means the freedom to not do them, or to do them in our own way.
My hope this Passover is that we recognize that freedom is precious and worthy of celebration and safe-guarding. We must be sure that our freedom does not enable the freedom of others to be trampled. May we all appreciate the freedoms that we do have, and continue advocating for others’ freedom as well.
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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.
You’d think that Michaelson’s voice would be one of many, as he is speaking out against systems of fear, oppression and injustice in our Jewish backyard. He calls attention to a reality that we must all face and address head-on: corruption masquerading as “religious Judaism.”
This is an issue of social justice, and it is my belief that any and every Jewish group that engages in social justice work has a duty to investigate and learn about injustices that exist in our own community. But we’re not. Not as much as we should be.
Here is one excerpt from Michaelson’s piece:
Imagine you’re an 18-year-old woman in a Hasidic enclave. You’re married, with two or three kids already, and you’ve been told that “outside” everyone is evil, depraved and miserable. You barely read English. And you know that when your cousin left, she was destitute, disowned and disgraced. There is no one to help you if you leave. You’re on your own. So of course you stay. We are abandoning thousands of our fellow Jews to this hierarchy of power and abuse.
I encourage you to read the rest of the article, and make a commitment to fight the good fight. As someone who has experienced the challenges of leaving the ultra-orthodox world, this is an issue I care about deeply.
I have seen this struggle firsthand. Additionally, as the founder and former Executive Director of the nonprofit organization Footsteps, I met many brave men and women who, like the hypothetical Haredi woman Jay describes, were prepared to start anew as native-born immigrants in a foreign world.
Footsteps remains the only organization in North America that helps people seeking to leave the ultra-orthodox community. Though I am no longer on the staff of Footsteps, and have been pursuing community engagement efforts in Mississippi for the past few years with the ISJL, this mission remains important to me. I urge you to learn more, and to support both the work of Footsteps and those individuals who choose to leave their communities.
Do not stand idly by.
To learn more about Footsteps, visit www.footstepsorg.org