Taking a different 'derech’

A new generation of Orthodoxy among Jews seeks to find a community that supports religious observance and secular ideals of individualism and education.

Jerusalem (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Stories about youth going “off the derech” – literally, off the path, but referring to young Jews from religiously observant homes who leave the world of Torah – are common in Jewish communities across the globe. Indeed, several groups and individuals have been assisting young adults from ultra-Orthodox homes who have decided to change their way of life but who have neither the resources nor the knowledge of the secular world to make the move independently.
What is less acknowledged is that many young Jews are desperate for help in leaving their sheltered world while remaining loyal to Orthodoxy. Their emotional trauma and difficulty adjusting are often no less intense than the experiences of those who make a 180-degree change, such as people who choose to abandon religion completely – or, conversely, secular Jews who choose to become ba’alei teshuva (newly religious).
Enter Project Makom, a US-based organization that was created specifically to fill this void.
Its founder, Allison Josephs, recognized a need, seeing that the Jewish future of innumerable individuals and families was at stake if men and women philosophically at odds with the values of their religious communities failed to find a comfort zone within the Torah world.
Josephs, 35, is also founder and director of the Jew in the City blog, whose stated mission is “to break down stereotypes about religious Jews and offer a humorous, meaningful outlook into Orthodox Judaism.”
She often speaks publicly about her personal journey to religious observance. In a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post, she explains the impetus for creating Makom – Hebrew for “place.”
Following a talk she delivered in March 2013 in Monsey, New York, a couple approached her, saying, “We’re such fans of yours.” The man was wearing a kippa, the woman a wig.
“They used to be ‘ultra-hassidic’ – there are different groups among the Orthodox – and they left it,” says Josephs. “They grew up in that community. They still want to be religious but don’t know how to go about it or with whom to connect. They asked for help. Another person interrupted the conversation, and when I turned back, they were gone. I was devastated, but went home thinking about it.”
Their perspective, she says, “was really news to me.
Usually, you hear about people going off the derech.
Sometimes, but not always, they had a difficult upbringing, and there are bad feelings. But these people are still interested in observance.”
A married career woman with four children, Josephs did not immediately take on the challenge. More than a year later, though, “in June 2014, I happened to read a blog by an ex-Satmar [Hassidic] woman who spent three years trying to acclimatize herself to the mainstream Orthodox community, and for three years, nobody would accept her son into yeshiva. They didn’t want ‘someone on their way down.’ For three years she wasn’t accepted, no Shabbat invitations. She was divorced. Finally she paid a neighbor to play with her five-year-old son on Shabbat afternoon. Eventually she picked up and was done with it and is now one of the most outspoken ‘off the derech’ voices out there.”
Josephs adds, however, that the particular community this woman “had trouble fitting into is known for being hospitable. So I wonder if there needs to be a certain amount of awareness created – that people in this position are feeling especially excluded – so that communities can make an extra effort to fill the gap.”
On hearing that sad story, she recalls, “I reached out in a blog post in Jew in the City, asking people how we could help. Two hundred people around the world responded that they wanted to participate.”
Thus Project Makom came into being, with a “soft launch” in the summer.
“We’re pushing forward now,” she says.
The icing on the cake: “That ex-hassidic couple that I lost saw the blog. I found them.”
TWO WOMEN volunteered to spearhead Makom: Mindy Schaper handles programming, and Gavriella Lerner, a teacher, is in charge of education. There are already more than 100 volunteers – people inviting others for Shabbat meals or reaching out to help in difficult situations – “primarily in the New York and Tri-state area [New York, New Jersey and Connecticut], but elsewhere as well,” Josephs says.
“One couple told us they have a whole community of these lost people who aren’t hassidic anymore but haven’t figured out where they belong,” she adds.
Makom hosted Shabbat weekends over the past summer, with a turnout of approximately 20 families; the average age was mid-20s. The attendees were a varied group. Some had left religion completely but then started to observe Shabbat and keep kosher.
Plans for future Shabbatot have the goal of “showing them a different community, with college-educated professionals, and letting them explore different possibilities,” Josephs says.
Schaper interviews potential volunteers and reaches out to rabbis, therapists and others who could lead support groups and workshops and who would be willing to meet on an individual basis with those seeking help.
The 25-year-old Schaper has her own story. She describes the “constant pain, having moved from a hassidic environment to what one might describe as modern Orthodox” – although, she adds, “I’m not a fan of labels.”
She recalls being “one very, very miserable young woman.” However, she says, “even when I was confused, I never felt that religion was negative or restrictive. It was precisely because religion was so important to me that it bothered me so much. I didn’t know the right way to live.”
As such, she views Project Makom as “essential, because there are a lot of people who either left Orthodoxy completely or who remained in the Orthodox world in a state of bitterness and confusion, who had never been exposed to an alternate form of Judaism other than the restrictive and/or non-intellectually appealing version with which they were raised.”
Such people “either struggle with guilt or feelings of inadequacy because they feel they are no longer ‘as religious’ as their family and community, or they have questions about Judaism to which they think there are no answers,” she continues. “I think that is a shame, because there is a whole world of communities out there where they can find both a lifestyle that suits their needs [and] an understanding of Judaism which appeals to their minds.”
Lerner, explaining her decision to become involved, says that “mainstream American media covered crazy stories about people who had left the community and had only unsavory things to say.”
However, the people with whom Project Makom works, she stresses, are “people who are leaving their communities because they want to leave, not because they want to become assimilated. While there will always be people who just aren’t interested in religion and will choose to drop it entirely, there are so many who just want to be religious, but in a different way. They are fine with God. They love Shabbat and keeping kosher, but they also want to read Shakespeare. They want to dress modestly, but with more room for creativity. Some aren’t aware of the range of options for keeping an observant lifestyle, because they were told that anything other than one specific path is wrong and off the derech.”
The organization’s focus at this early stage is to “reach out to people, both those in need and volunteers, and try to match people up for Shabbat and mentoring and such,” Lerner continues.“I am helping to put together interesting Jewish lectures – on the development of Halacha, on Jewish philosophy, in-depth study, learning opportunities for women – as well as resources for secular education, such as the college admissions process and career planning. I hope to help people find intellectual and practical fulfillment in both the Jewish and secular realms.”
Although Makom is active mainly in the US for the time being, Josephs hopes that the movement will expand to Israel, where youth facing challenges conforming to the norms of their communities will have an opportunity to find their rightful place without abandoning their faith.