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December 29, 2005 - Image 37

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2005-12-29

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Chasidic Dropouts

Unscheduled Layover

Group helps those who leave
observant world.

An intercepted message and a
miscommunication grab headlines.

I Sue Fishkoff
Jewish Telegraphic Agency

New York
haim breezes into a diner on the
Upper West Side of Manhattan
clutching two huge shopping bags.
'I got- some clothes, this plaid shirt, two
for $5, this leather jacket, just $20',' says
Chaim, 19. .
Chaim is — or was — a Skver Chasid,
born and raised in the fervently Orthodox
enclave of New Square, N.Y. His world
until recently was Torah, family and a
close-knit community. But now he's enter-
ing the secular world.
In September, he shaved his beard, left
his parent's home and took a bus to
Brooklyn, where he now goes to college
and shares an apartment.
His new life comes with help from
Footsteps, a 2-year-old Manhattan-based
nonprofit group that helps dropouts from
the Charedi world transition into secular
society. No one knows how many
American Jews have left the fervently
Orthodox fold, although most are believed
to have come from the New York area.
There are no statistics, and, until
Footsteps was created, no organization to
help them learn how to make it on the
outside. While the organized Jewish world
doesn't usually think of Chasidic dropouts
as "Jews in need',' outsiders can't begin to
imagine how frightening and complicated
the everyday World can seem to a person
who only knows the carefully controlled
cocoon of Satmar, Skver or Bobov.
Particularly for a young person, whose
departure can be hasty and unplanned,
the road out of the Brooklyn neighbor-
hoods of Williamsburg or Crown Heights
is fraught with confusion and loneliness
— and sometimes drug abuse.
"People who have decided to make this •
transition don't have a place to go',' says
Hella Winston, the author of Unchosen:
The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels.
A year and a half ago, Chaim "heard
there was such a place as a public library','
where he could find a computer and
Internet access. "I didn't know how to use
the mouse. I started tapping on the
screen',' he says. •
He began reading about the world out-
side New Square, and soon realized "it's


not all drug dealers and crazy, like they say
in our community."
Slowly, he felt more and more alienated
from his Chasidic world. Although he lived
at home until this fall, last year he was
already sneaking into Manhattan after
work to walk the streets and look at people.
He let his hair grow longer under his yar-
mulke, and bought black jeans, sneakers
and a baseball cap to wear on his urban
"I'd changed in my mind a long time
ago:' he says. "Something pushed me away, I
don't know what."
He planned his departure carefully. His
first step was to get his GED, or high school
equivalency, so he could apply for a loan to
go to college. But Chasidic boys receive very
little secular education, and he didn't know
how to begin studying for the test.
In late February, he met the founding
director of Footsteps, 24-year-old Malkie
Schwartz, an ex-Lubavitcher. She intro-
duced him to the few dozen other ex-
Chasidim in her organization, and he
enrolled in the GED class.
This summer, Chaim passed his exam.
He's in a liberal arts program, but hopes to
major in math or science. He hasn't gone on
a date yet — "Socially, I'm very awkward':
he admits — but says he's looking forward
to that, too.
"Without Footsteps, I don't know what I
would have done',' he says. "I wouldn't have
my GED, I wouldn't be in college."
The transition can be difficult. Winston
recently heard from a young man who
spent six months sleeping in New York City
parks and subways after he left his Chasidic
community. "He had nowhere to go,"
Winston says. "America is a very individu-
alistic society, and for people leaving a
community, it's important to have one to
move into. Otherwise, they run the risk of
becoming lost."
Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociolo-
gy and Jewish studies at the City University
of New York, agrees. Missing their families
is a Major problem, says Heilman, the
author of "Defenders of the Faith: Inside
Ultra-Orthodox Jewry"
"For most people in the charedi world,
the single biggest part of their lives, and the
part that outsiders are often envious of, is
connection to family and community." ❑

Shelli Liebman Dorfman
Staff Writer

something shocking.
According to the Internet article,
Ma'ariv "had published a story from the
Lebanese press about a carrier pigeon
sent to Lebanon by an Israeli girl thank-
ing her Lebanese boyfriend for the won-
derful night they shared. At first,
Lebanese police thought the note was an
intelligence code and tried to decipher it.
They then concluded that it was a love
letter from an Arab Israeli girl ...to her

ast month, Marla and Michael
Greenbaum of Southfield opened
a Jerusalem Post story on the
Internet to see their daughter Rachel's
face. Then they read of an adventure that
surely will be among the most memo-
rable experiences of Rachel's studies in
Jerusalem this school year.
Rachel, 18, was on a
trip to Northern Israel
with a group of stu-
dents from their semi-
nary, Michlelet
Yerushalayim (MMY).
An educational
activity re-creating
ancient Jewish life
became "an incident
that attracted the
attention of media out-
lets around the world,"
according to an e-mail
sent to parents by
MMY director Rabbi
David Katz.
Rachel Greenbaum with the far-flying
During the activity,
homing pigeon in Israel.
the students rode don-
keys; made pita, ate in a
Lebanese lover."
- tent and dressed in garb of the time. As
To complicate matters, the Lebanese
they left the activity center, they were to
man who found the pigeon on his roof,
take a homing pigeon to keep overnight.
feared it may have been carrying bird flu,
The next day, they were to write a mes-
and reports were printed in the Lebanese
sage, attach it to the bird's leg, then send
press of a bird flu scare in southern
it off. The pigeon should fly back to its
home base within two hours.
The Internet story said the investiga-
Rachel and her friend Stacey Gertz, 17,
tionlater was dropped.
of Chicago, volunteered to take care of
"Rachel has always been a hands-on
the pigeon until the girls could write
and caring type of person," Marla
their note. The pair named the bird Uga,
Hebrew word for "cake," because they car- Greenbaum said of her daughter. "It fits
that she would be the person to take care
ried it in a cake box.
of Uga. But it bothered her that the
Rachel's message, according to the
Lebanese thought Uga was carrying bird
Internet article, said, `We love you, Uga.
flu." •
Thanks for last night. We had a wonder-
The pigeon also brought Rachel some
ful experience." Everything was in
unwanted notoriety.
English except for Uga's name.
"She was embarrassed by the atten-
When Uga had not returned back to its
tion," her mother said. "People recognize
base after a few days, the girls feared the
her as `the girl with the bird' in stores and
bird had died. Then they opened the
on the streets of Jerusalem." 0
Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv and read



December 29 2005


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