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Footsteps into a New Life

When Chana was in her teens, she told her mother that she wanted to go to college. Her mom’s response was immediate and vitriolic. “She told me she’d have me locked me up in a psych ward if I applied,” she recalls.

Now a 33-year-old Manhattanite with a family of her own, Chana says that she was ashamed, but not surprised, by this reaction. In the insular ultra-Orthodox (or Hasidic) Jewish enclave in which she lived, college attendance was unheard of. In fact, books, movies, newspapers, television, the Internet—indeed, all connections to the secular world—were verboten.

“I am the second of 13 kids and was raised with strict rules and boundaries to keep me from forming relationships with outsiders,” she begins. “The idea was that God was looking over our shoulders at all times. As a girl, I was expected to be modest and obedient.” What’s more, Chana was groomed to expect an arranged marriage followed by as many pregnancies as possible.

But things did not turn out as expected. As a young adult, Chana discovered Footsteps, a nine-year-old Manhattan-based organization for those seeking to enter or explore the world outside the narrow confines of ultra-Orthodox life, and her life is now her own.

Chana says that her problems began as a child when she told her parents that she coveted a Barbie boombox; later, she questioned the hatred she heard whenever the word schvartze was uttered. “The term was said in a tone that mimicked the word Jude when the Nazis said it,” she recalls.

Her inquiries—her insistence on understanding the community’s hostility to both African-Americans and popular culture—presaged trouble, and her family worried that her queries might negatively influence her younger siblings. The solution? A summer program in Israel.

Unexpectedly, this three-month sojourn morphed into a year-long exodus after someone told Chana’s parents that their problem child was roaming the Holy Land in immodest garb. “Yes, my reputation was sullied by a tight sweater,” she laughs.

A year later, in 1996, Chana was allowed to return to the U.S. but was ordered to stay away from her New Jersey home. She ended up in Borough Park, alone, jobless, and without friends. She was 16. Eventually, she found both a minimum wage job and a cheap, basement apartment. “I was so lost,” she admits. “I was raised to believe there was only one future for a girl. Now, here I was, on my own. It was like asking a daffodil to become a penguin. I had no idea how to get into college and was scared shitless of God’s judgment.”

Still, one thing was certain. Chana knew that she wanted out of the ultra-Orthodox community. This realization propelled her in numerous directions, not all of them wholesome, but she eventually found a public library where she made it her mission to read everything on the high school and college booklists. She subsequently enrolled in college and graduated in 2006. Three years later she earned a Master’s in Public Policy.

Footsteps is part of a burgeoning movement of ex-fundamentalists. And they’re not just Jews—a wide array of evangelical Christians, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are finding solace in blogs such as unpious.com, losingmyreligion.com, nolongerquivering.com, and hasidicrebel.blogspot.com; podcasts like livingafterfaith.blogspot.com; and memoirs including Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres; Not That Kind of Girl by Carlene Bauer; A Real Christian Boyhood by Frank Schaeffer; Unchosen by Hella Winston; and Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman.

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TAGGED: RELIGION


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