By Daniel Gordon
6th June 2017
Maya tells me she’s getting butterflies in her tummy as we walk through the doors of the library in Stoke Newington, north London. It’s a well-preserved Victorian building, but it looks drab next to the chic cafés and boutiques that line the main road in this heavily gentrified part of town. She’s one of very few who appear to notice it. “For me, it’s more than just a library,” she explains. “Even now I can feel the excitement of just learning new things, seeing new things,” she adds, her eyes lighting up behind her designer glasses.
She is fashionably dressed – which belies her upbringing in the Hasidic Jewish area of Stamford Hill, around a mile away. The top she’s wearing has a logo written across the front, and her skirt doesn’t fully cover her knees: both details that flout the rules in the community she comes from, where women are expected to dress “modestly”. Maya’s interest in non-religious books goes against the grain too. In a society which disparages secular education, the library is off limits. “We were told that non-Jewish libraries had dirty stuff in them, and things that are not kosher to read and can contaminate your mind,” Maya tells me.
But, as a teenager, she had another agenda – and an alibi. “I always say it’s lucky that I had trouble with my teeth,” she says, “so nobody would question me when I said I had to go to the dentist. It turned out to be an amazing thing because I’d tell my parents I was going to the dentist and I’d go to the library instead. But I’d keep looking up all the time I was here, just in case someone I knew came in.”
Her fear was justified. For those who’ve grown up within the ultra-orthodox community, getting caught breaking the rules is to risk being cast out of society. When she did get found out, Maya, who’s now in her early 20s, remembers her parents threatening to say prayers for the dead for her. But while she had to find her way, alone and undercover, into the secular world, there’s now a charity that exists to make the transition easier for people like her.
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Mavar (the name means “crossings” in Hebrew) often uses public libraries to meet ultra-orthodox Jews who ask for help. “We look for somewhere that’s public but quiet,” says the organisation’s director Linda, who asked for her full name not to be published. “So somewhere discreet, like a library, or a hotel lobby, or the foyer of a theatre, where they’re not going to bump into someone else from their community.”
Typically, such assignations will follow a series of phone calls to Mavar’s helpline: tentative at first, sometimes with a long break in between as the caller vanishes, wrestling with their conscience, or the social pressures they’re up against. “Some people have no intention of leaving, but nevertheless they have aspirations which are out of sync with the community,” says Linda. She cites the example of a young woman whose reason for calling had a very specific focus. “She wanted to find out how to become a short-haul pilot. All she wanted was to find the route into that particular profession. That was a very unusual one.”
For those who choose to go further and meet face to face, the first session with Mavar is only the first step on the long road to a new life. “It’s hugely challenging to make that sort of change unsupported. So if we can lighten that load, we’ll do that. However an individual decides they want to explore the wider world, our mentors are there to hold their hand along the way,” says Linda.
Mavar offers a range of services such as links to housing and education, as well as legal advice for those seeking divorce from spouses they’ve fled. “Education is the first thing people who get in touch with us look at,” says Linda. That’s understandable, given that many of the Hasidim cannot even read or speak English, as they grow up speaking Yiddish and learning to read ancient Hebrew and Aramaic, the languages of the Old Testament. There’s also a team of therapists on hand to help deal with the psychological trauma of leaving behind everything you recognise. Mavar has learned to cater for each individual’s needs – and every case they’ve dealt with has thrown up new requirements. “We’re not a dating agency, and I’ve definitely had some calls from people who think we are, and had to explain that’s not what we’re about,” Linda tells me. “But there has been a case where we had to help somebody write a dating agency profile because the type of profile he was writing was not at all appropriate.”
Mavar is one branch of a global phenomenon, with similar groups emerging in other cities around the world with large Hasidic communities. Based on older counterparts like Hillel in Israel and Footsteps in the US, Mavar, founded in 2015, is a relative newcomer.
While Footsteps was set up by a woman who grew up ultra-orthodox and chose to become secular to further her education, Linda has no direct connection with the Hasidic world. A non-practising Jew, she was moved to act after hearing a talk by two former Hasidim who’d left the community. “They talked about how trapped they felt. That really resonated with me. If people feel trapped, that bothers us as an organisation. We don’t want people to feel they can’t make choices in their lives,” she says.
Other groups have come along since Mavar launched – one in Montréal, Canada and another in Melbourne, Australia. To a greater or lesser extent, all have been propelled by the growing availability of mobile internet access. “Somebody once said it was like the barn doors opening. When the internet came along that made it impossible for the community to stop their youngsters from finding out about the wider world,” says Linda. “Until then they could say no television, no radio.”
Mavar deals with around 15 “rebels” at any one time. In New York, where the 600,000-strong Hasidic community dwarfs its London equivalent, 1,250 people have made use of Footsteps, which has been around since 2003. Footsteps’ director Lani Santo says the group now welcomes around 150 new members every year. She, too, says the internet plays a role. “There are a huge number of underground forums that exist – secret, private Facebook groups – international ones – used by [Hasidic] people with aliases,” she says. “Even people who do not have access to Facebook have email addresses that they can access at public libraries.” Having connected online, “doubters” then go on to meet up face to face, and it’s at that point that awareness of Footsteps spreads, through word of mouth.
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Members of the London Hasidic community have described a similar pattern here. Like Maya, 22-year-old Izzy grew up in a Hasidic family in Stamford Hill. In his early teens, he’d dared to ask whether non-Jews were really all evil, as he’d been told; and whether it was strictly necessary to communicate only in Yiddish rather than English, or wear the men’s outfit of black frock coat and broad-brimmed hat all year round.
That earned Izzy the nickname Oifgeklehrte or “the enlightened one”. “In the secular world, obviously this is a compliment,” Izzy says. “If someone’s enlightened it means that they are a thinking person, they are advanced. But back when the Jewish religion went through its own enlightenment, people stopped practising this strict form of religion, so in the community, ‘enlightened’ has very, very negative connotations.”
Looking back, it’s ironic to think that Hasidic Judaism began in the 18th century as a reaction to what its founders saw as the austerity of contemporary Jewish practice in eastern Europe. Their response was to introduce mysticism into their religion. Early Hasidic leaders were known for their charisma, and were often believed to perform miracles. They saw God in everything and gained a reputation for the vitality with which they prayed, sang and danced.
The movement spread throughout the vast Jewish population of the region. The founders of this version of Judaism – the charismatic rebbes as they became known – established dynasties in places where it took hold. It became customary for the leadership of each community to be bequeathed to a male descendant of its founder, who would become the next rebbe.
When the Holocaust all but wiped out the Jewish population of occupied Europe, the survivors transplanted the individual dynasties elsewhere – to northern Europe, the US and Israel. Today, Hasidic Jews belong to different sects based on those dynasties, such as Satmar, Ger and Lubavitch. Followers of the “Ger” tradition, for instance, which originated in a place in Poland known in Yiddish as Ger, all look to the Gerer rebbe – a descendant of the original rebbe of Ger – as their leader. People marry young and have large families (a household of six children or more is perfectly normal) so the sects have grown massively in size. The level of religious observance expected of members is partly due to the belief that the Lord loves humans in direct proportion to the devotion they demonstrate, and partly a reflex impulse to protect the community from any secular influence in a globalised society.
Before long, the insults thrown at Izzy got worse and “enlightened” became “heretic”. He stopped confiding his doubts to his friends, but that didn’t make them any less real. He couldn’t see a way out. “I couldn’t speak English, I’d never encountered the world, never used public transport, never had a bank account, an email address or even a phone,” he recalls. Like virtually all young Hasidic men, Izzy was sent to yeshiva, seminary school. His was in Gateshead. While for Izzy this meant even greater exposure to a belief system that by now he no longer shared, it at least meant he was living away from his parents. So for the first time, he had unfettered access to the internet.
The Hasidic authorities say it’s their duty to protect the community from exposure to pornography, and they’ve duly tried everything they can think of to keep online transactions to a minimum. For instance, Izzy describes how, back home in Stamford Hill, anyone wanting to use the internet would be marshalled into a room containing computers connected to the web, which they were allowed to surf for as long as they wanted. But filters were applied to all the machines there which blocked sites like YouTube and Facebook, and a community elder would invigilate to make sure the filters stayed in place.
A rabbi I spoke to – Shmuel Lew of the Lubavitch movement, one of the smaller north London sects – told me that he disapproves of filters, and instead uses a system called haver (“friend”). His internet “friend” – in his case, his wife – is allowed periodic access to his electronic devices to check all the sites he’s visited. Another member of the community described how his phone was inspected when he applied for a place for his child at a Stamford Hill school run by the Hasidic authorities. Only when they were satisfied the phone wasn’t internet enabled was the place granted. “What they fear is that people like me will read up on things and discover things which are not exactly the way they want it to be, and that will lead to dissolving the fabric of our society,” he told me.
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For Izzy, living away from his parents spelled the end of online censorship. One of the yeshiva’s toilet cubicles had 3G data reception – for those prepared to queue, that is. “Let me say this, I wasn’t the only boy in yeshiva to have a phone,” he says, wryly.
Maya tells me that in any case the efforts to keep the internet at bay have long since lost their effectiveness. “The school that I went to, if the parents had internet, then the kid gets kicked out,” she says. “What people would do is have two phones, one phone that they use outside, when people see them, and then they have a second phone that has internet that they only use at home, or in private. Their kids still stay at school because they have a kosher phone, but then when they go back home, they can use the internet, and having it in private means that nobody knows that you have it, nobody knows what you’re looking at or researching, or what you’re doing.”
The result is that anyone can find their way on to the internet. Just as in the States, the “rebels” then find each other online, and gradually build up social networks. I’ve even heard of a group of men who, having got to know each other over the internet, now gather in safe houses whenever they can. On one occasion they even managed to organise a lecture on the “banned” subject of quantum physics and mechanics. From that point, organisations such as Footsteps and Mavar are just a few clicks away.
In 2015 Izzy contacted Mavar, which provided him with a temporary host family in London. One of his first acts was to get his traditional side curls cut off. “As I sat in the chair, the barber asked me, ‘Is your rabbi OK with this?’” he recalls, laughing. Soon, Mavar had lined him up with more permanent accommodation, temporary work and an education adviser. After a year at adult college and one term on an access course, he now has A* grade GCSEs in maths and science and a B in English and has been offered places on degree courses by two respected universities. “If not for Mavar, I wouldn’t have been able to do it on my own, it probably would have been impossible, and I’d have been stuck there,” he says.
Mavar’s profile remains relatively low. That’s partly because the organisation is at pains not to appear to proselytise, Linda explains, so awareness can only grow slowly. “It’s tricky because it’s really important to us that we don’t appear to be trying to convert anyone, or tell people that this way of life is better than that way of life. So we can’t advertise in the most obvious way, and also, we don’t want to incur the wrath of the community. So mostly people hear about us through word of mouth.”
There are also those whom Mavar is unable to help. Traditionally, Hasidic Jews enter arranged marriages and start families very young, often in their late teens. Izzy and Maya got out before they’d reached that stage. But others can feel they’ve missed the boat. Another member of the community confided in me that he’d like to leave – but by now had a reasonable standard of living and couldn’t face starting from scratch all over again.
It’s a problem Linda recognises. “If you’ve got eight or 10 kids it’s so much harder to make these kind of enormous changes.” Not everyone is able to make the transition successfully. “You can get all the practical things in place, but some people still find it difficult to reconcile one identity with another, and after a long time, still miss that part of the world which they grew up in, which was comfortable, and which had many aspects that they enjoyed.”
Overall, the reaction from the community has been surprisingly positive, she claims. “They’re never going to love us but it’s reached us that some parents, and even some rabbis, have said that they would rather that if their kids are going to leave, they leave in a supported way so they don’t end up homeless, on the streets and on drugs.” Rabbi Shmuel Lew appeared to confirm this view, acknowledging Mavar’s effort to help others as a positive sentiment.
In the US, where Footsteps has a network of 5,000 people in the New York area, Lani Santo says she’s starting to perceive a very definite change in attitude. “Families are saying, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t be kicking out our kids if they’re not exactly like us. If somebody just wants a college education, we should let them. Otherwise they’ll leave.’ It’s not happening everywhere, but there are pockets where it is and it’s a real step forward.”
Daniel Gordon’s radio documentary about Hasidic Jews, “Off the Derech”, is available on BBC iPlayer
This article was brought to you by New Humanist, a quarterly journal of ideas, science and culture.