New York - Op-Ed: A Vindication Of Chassidim With Conviction Of Eternal Judaism
New York - The Silent Majority has once again been caught off-guard and come under attack; we dare not remain silent in the face of our new challenger - Deborah Feldman, a formerly Chassidic, young woman who left Judaism and wrote her memoir “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots” (Simon and Schuster).
After reading recent newspaper articles and viewing televised interviews of her, I could not allow this tremendous Chillul Hashem to take place without attempting to take a stand against it. I confronted her at her book reading debut last week (2/15/2012, 6pm at the Corner Book Store, 1313 Madison Avenue, NYC) and in the presence of a reporter who recorded me, explained that while she undoubtedly suffered a traumatic childhood, adolescence, and marriage, her experience does not authorize her to disparage Torah and Mitzvohs, nor does she represent the entire gamut of Chassidim. After reading her book, with a heavy heart, I write this article—based on my experience counseling Chassidic youth at risk and my journey earning a law degree while remaining committed to Torah and Mitzvohs.
As I watched in disbelief, as Feldman disparaged Torah observance on the Barbara Walters Show, and observed her interact artificially with people at the bookstore, I was convinced that not only did she have literary aptitude but that she had theatrical skill as well. How else could she deceive so many people by distorting our values and making a mockery of us? In her book she writes of an incident when she feigned seeing a mouse in class, causing her classmates to shriek in horror. She writes “What an actress I am. A white face and trembling hands to go with my scream. To think what I can do with a skill such as this – the ability to convince others of emotions I don’t really feel! It is a thrilling thought.” (pg 23).
The vast majority of Chassidim are moral, religious, Torah observant Jews who traditionally and proudly raise children to be Torah observant and defer to altruistic and pious leaders in personal and communal matters. Chassidic children have classically been imbued with love and respect for G-D, their parents, and Rebbe. How and why could Feldman scandalously turn her back on her family, community and religion? We must comprehend why she attacks the fundamental principles of our faith with vengeance and thrill, rebut and counter her arguments with conviction, and pray that she finds her way back.
Since founding B’Derech in 2008, the organization advocating for Chassidic youth, I have counseled countless of challenged adolescents and adults struggling in their observance of Judaism. Children raised in dysfunctional homes typically misconstrue religion as the source of their pain; and in the case of a dysfunctional Chassidic family, the child will rebel and blame the Rebbe and Chassidism as the basis for his anguish. Feldman relates that she was “abandoned by a mother who left the faith, to become a Lesbian, and a father who was mentally disabled.” Her family was sadly dysfunctional, leaving her bereft of maternal love and devoid of paternal guidance – surely, the abuse and neglect left Feldman deeply hurt and scarred. She writes, “I feel unloved. By my parents, yes, and by the people who reject me for being their offspring, and by my aunts and cousins who look down at me because I’m evidence of a familial scandal, but mostly I feel unloved by G-D, who surely put me here and forgot about me. Without G-D’s love, what chance do I have at happiness?” (pg 97).
Faranak Margolese conducted extensive research on why people leave Judaism. In her book Off the Derech, she accurately concludes “Sadly, most formerly observant Jews today seem to have left, not because the outside world pulled them in, but rather because the observant one pushed them out. They experienced Judaism as a source of pain rather than joy… So they were not running to the outside world as much as they were running away from our own (Devora Publishing, 2005).
Using the theory of inductive reasoning, Feldman invokes her personal tragic childhood and failed marriage (which certainly deepened her pain) to disparage the fundamental principles of the Jewish religion observed by religious Jews for more than three thousand years. These Mitzvohs have been passed by Mesorah – our heritage of an unbroken chain which began at Mount Sinai and continued from generation to generation, and will outlive Feldman and her cohorts and supporters dedicated to leading challenged Chassidim astray.
Countless youth at risk within and without our community, who suffer similar abuse and neglect, and even those from stable homes, can empathize with Feldman. But empathy has its limitation – defaming the Satmar community in particular and Judaism in general cannot be condoned. It is incumbent upon the Torah observant community to proudly and defiantly stand up and refute these bogus claims and champion Torah and Mitzvohs with pride and conviction.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), the classic American author and lecturer better known for his pen name Mark Twain was inspired by the eternity of the Jews. In his essay Concerning the Jews, he wrote: “If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race … Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of …He has made a marvellous fight in the world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him … The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone …The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality? (Harper’s Magazine, Sept. 1899).
The Jewish Nation’s immortality is no secret; in fact, our eternity dates back to G-D’s promise to Avraham (Bereshis 17:7) “And I will establish my covenant (bris) between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations, an eternal covenant to be to you a G-D and to all your children after you.” What if the Jewish people become undeserving of G-D’s covenant? Will G-D still honor His promise? The Prophet Yirmeyahu assured us “But even in those days [when because of their sins punishments will be brought on the Jewish people], declares G-D, I will not make a complete destruction [of you].” (Yirmeyahu 5:18). If eternity is our covenant, why are Chassidic youth raised in religious, Torah observant homes experiencing Judaism as a source of pain and going off the derech?
Rabbi Dovid Sapirman, founder of the Ani Maamin Foundation who has been involved in chinuch and kiruv rechokim and kerovim for over forty years writes in his book Emunah at Home and in the Classroom, “Most of the kids who ‘go off’ were never really ‘on’ to begin with. If they aren’t convinced and inspired while they are still among us, don’t feel the sense of mission, and view Torah and Mitzvos as not more than a burden (at best), is it any surprise that they can be so easily enticed to leave it behind them. It’s not just that they’re running to the internet, etc. They are really running away from Judaism. They frantically seek somewhere to escape. The street is their haven, because it represents freedom from a system that they feel totally unconnected to.” (Torah Umesorah Publications, 2011)
The vast majority of Chassidim are benevolent, compassionate and caring people, who recently have been plagued and silenced by small pockets of fanatic extremists. These extremists are constantly vying for power and quest reigning control over the masses by promulgating radical decrees often enforced by manipulation and coercion. Feldman’s statement in her interview with the New York Post (February 7, 2012) “Over the past 10 or 20 years [the Hasidic community] has gone from being extreme to being ultra-extreme” is true and her traumatic defection appears to be a result of such extremism. The invasion of extremism and internal strife created by a small number of power greedy individuals has unfortunately infiltrated many Chassidic communities around the world.
We need to heed Moshe’s warning of Lo Sosefu—You shall not add to the words that I command you, nor shall you subtract from it to observe the commandments of Hashem (Devarim 4:2). Let the silent majority of Chassidim stand up to the fanatics who promulgate excessively restrictive decrees and bans on our society by invoking in children fear of a vengeful G-D. We need to wrest control of our community from these extremists, who in the guise of Torah, arbitrarily set standards not based on halacha, for example, to reject or expel children from yeshiva, based on minutiae such as the length of a boy’s overcoat. These practices are alien to Judaism and emulate the fundamentalist beliefs of other religions invariably resulting in the defiance exhibited by Feldman and others who rebel.
In transmitting the Mitzvohs, our mantra should be VeAhavta es Hashem Elokecha—You shall love Hashem, your G-D, with all your heart, with all your soul … (Devarim 6:5). It is our duty to impress upon our children that love is a condition precedent to observing Mitzvohs. We must elucidate to children that our faith is based on knowledge of G-D, as Moshe instructed, Atoh Horaisa l’Daas – You have been shown to know that Hashem, He is the G-D! There is none beside Him (Devarim 4:35).
Our ancestors witnessed the revelation at Mount Sinai and accepted the Torah, proclaiming Naaseh v’Nishmah based on knowledge of G-D’s power by witnessing the Exodus from Egypt. G-D did not demand blind faith from us and we should not demand it from our children. We need to encourage questions and allow children to probe the basic tenets of our faith. A child should never be criticized for asking questions so that when he is faced with challenges and/or pain, he will not escape to the streets, but will be confident that there is a loving Father in Heaven to whom he can pray for salvation—a Father who will never break his eternal covenant with His children.
While the Satmar community must surely have reached out to Feldman, it was sadly to no avail; as she most certainly lacked the foundational religious beliefs to support her through her turbulent upbringing and marriage. Unfortunately, she rejected her family, her community, her religion and now castigates them. She asserts that Chassidic girls wear skirts that cover their ankles and shirts that cover their wrists and jeers at Chassidic women who shave their hair off and wear wigs. I know many women, among my friends and family members, who readily follow this practice with sincerity.
In her New York Post interview, Feldman alleges that we dress prudish; however, Chassidic women are respected for who we are, our spirituality and personality - not merely our physical bodies. While we respect rules of modesty, we dress quite well and the shops we patronize carry designer labels and classy, fashionable apparel and lingerie. While I mingled with my fellow law students at Brooklyn Law School, I was proudly different in appearance. My skirts were below my knee, my sleeves below the elbow, and my head always covered by a wig – which I was unashamed of and discussed openly with my fellow students and professors – and did not in any way hamper the ability to fulfill my dream and earn a Law Degree. In fact, through my outreach activities in law school, two young female attorneys have embraced Torah and Mitzvohs, and are now raising beautiful religious families.
While Chassidic girls do not study the Talmud, most of us learn to read the Hebrew text of the Torah and Talmud. Contrary to her statement on the Barbara Walters show, most Chassidic girls have a secular education beyond 4th grade and many of us have read the classic novels that Feldman mentions. I find it surprising that she identifies with the authors Louisa May Alcott and Jane Austin, who were both religious women with a solid sense of morality. While their characters were strong women, they were exceptionally modest and respected the values of their society, and behaved more analogous to our traditional lifestyle than the one Feldman chose. I have counseled many women from the non-Jewish world, who secretly and fearfully come to court crying for help from abusive boyfriends and fathers of their children. They have learned the sorrowful results of a pleasure-seeking life without rules.
If Chassidic women or men yearn for a degree in pursuit of higher education, they need not become disheartened by Feldman’s experience. I earned my Bachelor’s Degree at Touro College and graduated with many other religious women who chose to embark on a path of advanced education without compromising religious values. Additionally, B’Derech has recently formed a combined GED/Associate’s College Degree programs catering to the Chassidic community’s needs. I am fortunate to be part of a typical, warm Chassidic family and blessed with a supportive spouse who serves as a paradigm Talmudic scholar, dedicated husband and father, and is meticulous in his observance of Torah and Mitzvohs. I therefore, cannot condemn Feldman personally but strongly discredit her philosophy and desertion of Torah values in pursuing her goals.
Feldman scorns the Laws of Nidah—Jewish family purity—and ridicules what we have venerated and observed for centuries, claiming they made her feel “gross” and like an “animal.” I condemn and take offense at this covert misrepresentation of the sentiments of observant Jewish women. I, and countless women who observe these laws, can attest to their wisdom and benefit to the marriage allowing the woman time for rejuvenation. There is separation and reunion which heighten the affection between husband and wife. It is of no surprise that statistics show the divorce rate among religious and Chassidic Jews to be far lower than in secular communities.
Dr. Joseph Menczer, a gynecological oncologist in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel has published articles in The Israel Medical Association Journal, on the low incidence of cervical cancer in Jewish women. While he asserts that further research is necessary, he wrote, “An additional distinct characteristic is the observance of the Jewish religious law of Nidah …Cervical cancer seems indeed to be more common in secular than in Orthodox Jewish women who observe the law.” (IMAJ, Volume 13, November 2011).
The Jewish Week (February 16, 2012) reported that a gruesome murder and subsequent cover-up which Feldman relates in her book seems not to be true. Feldman’s allegations are replete with distortions, including that we have a “lackadaisical attitude toward health and safety,” that “women aren’t allowed to eat out” and that “women can’t be on the street after a certain hour.” She asserts that she was forced into marriage casting suspicion that arranged Chassidic marriages are forced. During the past three years, my husband and I have merited marrying off two sons. The immense time, effort and devotion Chassidic parent invest in finding the “bashert” for their child, is an act of love – but only the first step in the process. The young man and woman must then meet and spend time together and consent to the marriage. We conscientiously prepare our children for marriage and transmit the notion that marriage is a sacred bond between man, woman and G-D.
More than fifteen years ago, my husband and I purchased a summer home neighboring the Satmar community in Kiryas Joel. We are Chassidic, but not Satmar, yet every summer we have been warmly welcomed by the Satmar community. In the summer of 2004, and the beginning of my final year in law school, a chance encounter with Satmar Chassidim at the Woodbury Zoning Board of Appeals culminated in the opening of my practice in Monroe. Ironically, during my years in school, I was cautioned that a Chassidic woman had slim chances of success in law. Yet, it was unbiased Satmar Chassidim, who sought my counsel, providing me with the privilege to learn who they really are. My clients are men and women from the various Satmar segments and communities, and from all walks of life. I know them very well and am qualified to testify to their true character as fervent followers of the faith who embody Jewish ideals of Tzeddakah charity, Chessed loving kindness and generosity of spirit.
Eternal Judaism coupled with our commitment to Torah and Mitzvohs, have made an indelible mark in the annals of history. In his book A History of the Jews, Historian Paul Johnson writes in his epilogue: “To [the Jews] we owe the idea of… the sanctity of life…of individual conscience … and so, of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews, it [the world] might have been a much emptier place. Above all, the Jews taught us how to rationalize the unknown. The result was monotheism, and the three great religions which profess it. It is almost beyond our capacity to imagine how the world would have fared if the Jews had never emerged.”
Let us stand tall and face our new challenge by emulating David HaMelech who proclaimed Gadlu L’Hashem Eetee—Declare the greatness of Hashem with me. (Tehilim 34:4). May every Jewish child mature into a proud, faithful and content adult dedicated to Torah values and Mitzvohs. May we, with our children, be eternally proud of Chassidus and our eternal covenant so that we inspire others as we proudly carry the banner of an Ohr l’Goyim a Light unto the Nations—B’Derech HaTorah Neylech.
Ruchie (Rachel) Freier, Esq. is a practicing Charedi attorney, admitted in New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia, with offices in Brooklyn and Monroe. In 2008 she founded B’Derech, the organization advocating for Chassidic youth. She is a member of the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Children & the Law and New York City Family Court Attorney Volunteer Program. She can be reached at She can be reached at email@example.com or 718-259-4525.
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