Satmar leaders often told me: “We demand that you follow the rules. If you don’t like our rules then you have a choice. You can leave.”
Really? How exactly can I leave, what with my young child deep in the system’s throes, how?
Officially, those who don’t comply can leave. After all, they’ll all say, the community strives to maintain utmost purity in its schools and in its homes and does not want my or your or anyone’s filthy ideas about individuality or modernity or cross-country cycling (that’s mine) infiltrating their community. But the truth is that they don’t want you to leave either; they aggressively don’t want you to leave. That’s because the Chasidic community is a social construct in which one departure pulls a thread out of the whole fabric of the community. A man or woman who leaves implicates the sibling’s marital prospects, the “poor abandoned spouse”, the “grieving parents”, quite often young children who are on the threshold of two worlds, and all the other neighbors, friends, or unrelated gawkers who may be led to think or take action as a result.
If you are happy in the community, good for you. But if you are unhappy, the reality is sadly very grim. Leaving it is a journey through hell via the extended scenic route.
The community is set up like an onion; layers upon layers that keep you in the system in various ways, and oh, how it can make you cry. You are sewn into its fibers by relations to friends and family you love; you have no one else. You are married before you are old enough to make a choice, and then tied to a spouse and soon children. You have little vocational training; no financial headstart, no education or personal development, no practical world knowledge, a language barrier and a cultural barrier and the barriers just piled so thick, to slice through them you weep. You are so bred into the system psychologically and emotionally, you may not be able to leave even when all logistical boundaries have been removed.
The result is that even if you feel you outgrew the community and the community oppresses you, judges you, hurts you, controls you, bleeds you and robs your spunky spirit and crazy opinions, you may not be able to imagine yourself anywhere else. You may not hope to leave. You may not be able to part with kin and kind. The bind that this creates is a double life fraught with conflict and restrictions too painful to imagine. There’s a growing underground community of double lifers who are finding support and ideas among each other. I know some of them to be incredibly unique, often gifted and supremely talented, with ideas and interests that sets them apart from any mainstream culture. They are resigned to go through hundreds of rituals a day that have no meaning to them and keep secrets from loved ones, because their loved ones cannot accept their truth.
And if you want to leave, if you cannot bear another minute of no freedom, intimidation and raising children against your beliefs, then slather your skin with lots of protection, because hell’s rays blister to the bottom of the soul. Leaders may tell you to go and good riddance, but they will also tell you that they will do all they can to make your life miserable. If you are a parent, the children will be pawns through which they will not let you go. I know this because I’ve been through it. They will tell you they will ensure that your children will be barred from every frum school, that your spouse will be “saved” from you and your marriage torn, that you will have to fight a losing custody battle in which you will be vastly outdone in power, support and money. That you will be ostracized, isolated, defamed and lonely. They will tell you that while you can make a choice, your children cannot be part of that choice. After all, you made a commitment upon marriage (at puberty; when you may have otherwise made a commitment to move to the moon and cure your acne) to raise your children Chasidic. So why, go, go, good riddance, leave your children you carried in your womb and nestled on your breast and go wander the world alone. It’s what you want, isn’t it? Now why aren’t you going yet? It’s a choice, a choice!
Oh?! Oh no, that’s no choice. If any parental tie is torn to bloody shreds when we “can choose” to leave, then NO Mister Rabbi, we don’t have a choice. When our children will be allowed to have relationships with both parents, when children won’t be turned against the leaving parent, that’s when we’ll have a choice. When family won’t close their doors on their own, when a mother won’t have to fight tooth and nail to retain custody of her children, that’s when we’ll have a choice.
The reality is a horrible nightmare of power and control that cruelly attacks anyone who threatens the system. Those inside who are content may not understand the need to leave or the pain one goes through when stuck in a system they want out of, and in that way, they are complicit in the ostracizing, gossiping and investing money in fighting the leaver.
My only solace is that the present situation will improve, that leaving will become easier. It simply has to. Footsteps, an organization aimed to helping those who leave, is growing its resources for parents. There’s also a new organization called “Unchained at Last”, for women in particular. There’s increased social support for those who are in the process of making this decision, online especially. Perry Reich brought national media attention to this issue when she went on Dr. Phil about her own custody battle. Some Hasidic parents are finding out that it is alright not to fight their OTD ex; it is best for the children for the parents amicable. And more awareness and writing from those on the other side, who have survived this nightmare and managed to resettle and salvage their cherished bonds, gives hope to those who want the same.
And there’s the human spirit and our loved ones. We can only hold on to that and keep going, keep going, keep going, until hell can’t hurt us anymore.