On the Fink Summit

 Posted by on May 13, 2014
May 132014
 

 

Friends have been asking me about the meeting I attended this Sunday. It was hosted by Rabbi Eliyahu Fink. I was there with nine people; five orthodox who are in some position of authority, five formerly orthodox who are in no position of authority whatsoever (we OTDs don’t believe in authority anyway, so there.) We met in a nice Rockland home, just a few minutes away from where I live. When I came inside, Hasidic time; which is a few minutes late, everyone was already assembled in the living room and people were making introductions. There were bottles of waters and the participants were curling up their notes into long microphone-type rolls. I spotted my friend Leah Vincent amidst the odd crowd, in a black skirt and beige stockings, talking to some bearded guy about the parsha. This, I assure you, has not happened at any of my meetings with Leah before.

I know well some of the people who were there. Leah, Adina and Ushy are good friends. Fink is a good star I follow online. The other people had good beards, except Avital Chizhik. She had good hair; great hair. Fink had no hair and no beard. Anonymous had no hair, no beard and no name. As I said, there was great diversity.

I was introduced to Shafran and when I said I’d read his stuff, he said “and you’re still talking to me?” His answer was NOT the style of small talk my own Satmar Rebbe would have made, which would have probably been to kick me out the door with his silver cane. See, my reference point is a fundamentalist rabbi, so I am perhaps not the best judge of seasoned politician rabbis. But from my shtetled perspective, I appreciate the Rabbis’ willingness to “talk.” In my journey I’ve very often turned to Rabbis for help. And I’ve been yelled at, talked down to, ignored, brought to tears. I’m always cynical about grand efforts to save the day by Rabbis and the troublemakers like me, yes, but all that aside this was an unusual opportunity to be able to talk to Rabbis, with the promise to at least brainstorm.

The meeting was not about vague talk. It was a platform to discuss concrete issues. There were no illusions about grand solutions, it was just an effort, another one of thousands from many of us, to try to figure out problems that seem insurmountable but are too important to ignore.

I’m not sure I can divulge what others spoke about, but I’ll tell you about my subject:

I spoke for the issue of custody wars that erupt when a parent leaves the faith. I made it very clear that I come from a Hasidic community and that I’m not sure of the degree to which these issues are relevant in mainstream orthodox or Yeshivish communities. I did not come with any illusions that there is accountability for hard-core Hasidic problems in the wider orthodox world. I came because I think the wider orthodox community needs to be aware of it and needs to stop turning a blind eye.

I have two girlfriends who lost custody in the Hasidic community. I myself was very close to losing custody, and only because I had some good luck and good timing am I lucky enough to raise my son (and I raise him on The True Off Derech, mind you.) My proposal was for there to be pressure from the larger Jewish community to stop tearing children away from one parent, especially, excuse my old fashioned values, mothers. My proposal for action was this: that we should look at the issue the same we we look at the aguna issue. The aguna issue is morally unjust but created by religion (only as a friend pointed out, the aguna problem is an imaginary construct and using kids as pawns isn’t.) Both aguna and parental alienation are incredibly tragic contortions of religiosity used in bitter divorces. If two people want to destroy each other and their children because their marriage went sour, our hands are in many ways tied. But in some segments of the Orthodox religious community, religion is the tool through which the destruction happens. And it is such a powerful, effective tool. The ability for the religious community to empower injustice, petty fighting, self destruction, bitter divorces, is incredible. The tool must be stopped.

Here’s how a religious community is so effective:

(note, I use the Hasidic community in my example, because it is what I KNOW. It may be true to some degree too in other branches of orthodoxy.)

 

1. Rabbis and askonim get actively involved in ostracization, shaming and bullying the OTD parent.

2. The money poured into the legal system by the religious community just buys the legal victory.

3. Family court judges are elected, and the religious community can bargain with a huge bloc vote.

4. The buddy-buddy friendships between the influential lawyers who know how to work the legal system (take Eric Thorsen) and Hasidic community is a mutually beneficial union that makes lawyers rich and the community successful even while destroying little children. Often these goons don’t even go through the legal system. They use “mediation”, i.e. legal language intimidation with rabbinic power, to get their way.

5. People who leave a sheltered community (especially if it is the only community they know) are emotionally very vulnerable and this is exploited to throw a convenient label of ill mental health on them. Borderline and BPD and Depression crop up in forensics and legal arguments before you know it.

6. The schools and chedarim cooperate with this war as well; threatening to throw the children out as a leveraging chip. The court hates getting children expelled, so judges are very influenced by the argument that the parent who is OTD is causing children to be removed from schools.

7. The wider Orthodox world does not offer a yeshiva in its place. Or any help for the leaving parent. This means that the choice of a middle ground does not exist. You either stay in the Hasidic community or drop orthodoxy entirely. And the very need to make a radical change is very off-putting to courts.

8. Courts love status quo. A status quo designed by a system that marries its kids off at 18 isn’t a fair status quo though. It doesn’t allow for personal growth.

9. People who leave Orthodoxy often lack a support network. This is exploited by lawyers and therapist directly and indirectly.

10. And most sadly; the children are often poisoned against the leaving parent and they themselves wage the war against their own mother or father. How terribly sad.

 

These are issues that few people know about. Number ten is only part of the list. Please, feel free to add an eleven, twelve and thirteen and thirty.

I care not only because I retained custody through the skin of my teeth and was so close to losing my son, but because of the heartbreak I’ve experienced through friends who were mulled ruthlessly by people who commit injustices under religious guise.

I am not saying this has much to do with Shafran and Fink. But in the same way that the orthodox community is to some degree effective in raising awareness and shaming the man who refuses to give a get, we can try to tackle the issue of custody cases. We can try to stop making this about religion versus no religion and make it about the children’s wellbeing.

I got five minutes for my presentation. Each presentation was followed by a conversation. There was of course, no objection to the problems I raised, and no solutions either, but I could hope that this overlooked issue will get some attention in the Orthodox community.

As we were eating dinner Shafran asked the old question — why those who leave Hasidism “go all the way” instead of staying to some degree religious. And it was an opportunity for me to bring up the problem of the complacency among the Orthodox, of almost enabling the Hasidic world. I myself tried to become mainstream orthodox, but no Yeshiva would accept my son. They didn’t like a Yiddish speaking little boy with a Hasidic background. Yes, I tried and was denied, turned away time and again. The orthodox don’t like the whole idea of former Hasidim, that was my experience. Let’s be honest, there’s a silent prejudice the way there is among the Satmar towards Yemenites. I lived for three years in an orthodox community and tried to integrate. My son didn’t make a single friend on our block (in fact, I paid a neighbor to play with him) and I felt like a complete outsider, a few rungs down and out. I got none of this type of condescending treatment EVER from the secular Jewish world.

The orthodox community has a silent respect for the Hasidic, or maybe a desire to see it survive and thrive. That is all good and well. I want to see my Hasidic family and friends thrive happily too. But it does not mean it is acceptable to turn a blind eye to problems like: parental alienation, no yeshiva for children, etc. Contrary, if you care and want to see a community prosper, then you don’t ignore where it bleeds. The orthodox world needs to be aware of these problems and make an effort to help address it. We all need to. This is not the type of problem we can stand back and watch “respectfully.”

I am hopeful that next time I contact one of these rabbis because a friend needs help in a legal war, they’d be a little more engaged. They’d speak up, make some phone calls, put some pressure. Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz has been very effective in influencing even the Hasidic community on the issue of sexual abuse, because rabbis who really want to can do so with unique influence. Maybe the solution isn’t magical, but it is anytime better than the silent pain we have now.

After we all talked we had dessert of chocolate rum balls and cookies with a chocolate swirl on top. We all agreed to finish strong like that.

On the Bicycle

 Posted by on July 26, 2013
Jul 262013
 

bikeshaded2Twenty-five is a tough age to first learn to ride a bicycle, especially if you already have a five year old who is, from your motherly perspective, going much too fast on his. My first bicycle, bought at that age, was a Schwinn light purple women’s mountain bike that sold for $99.99 at Target. Since the cost was so high, I hatched a plan to ride the bicycle for one Sunday only and return it for a full refund the following day. It was a stunning summer day — the perfect day to give away my biking virginity. I walked the bike up and down the Nyack boardwalk in Rockland County with the Target tags and instruction kit dangling at the sides, paper circles with information shuffling inside the wheels, the whole thing shaking dangerously from side to side if I tried to mount it. I raised one leg high over the seat and planted it on the other side, walked on my toes while pushing the bike between my thighs, and tried to pedal a few times before falling over. (It would be a while before someone would show me that if you tilt the bike to the side, getting on doesn’t require picking up your leg to your nose and looking like a mad yoga lady in the middle of the street). I rode a little, but also crashed a little, and at the end of the day the Target bike with bent handlebars and mud covered frame was destined to stay mine.

I never rode a bike as a child, because bicycle riding was, of course, one of God’s infinite nos. Even for the boys, for whom the immodesty of raising a foot to the heavens to climb on was not a concern, bikes were absolutely forbidden. They were called shaygetz bikes. There was no female version of the bike; shiksas in the rabbi’s minds didn’t do much besides lure the bikes with their cleavage.

Athleticism for women was not even a concept I had ever heard of. There was no sports program in the girls’ school, and as we approached our mid-teens we were thought too grown up to be very physically active – with the exception of a sporadic ball game during recess or swim in the pool where I made seven somersaults at a time with my knee-length swim dress on. The occasional energetic girl would briskly walk to school with arms swinging from side to side, but that kind of athleticism would never be mine. I was the girl who was always on the school bus a minute after everyone, my pleated skirt unpleated and my thick tights puckered with runs that ran from the pantyline to toe, where a knot would take care of the big toe’s exit. In all, my athletic future promised to go as far as prenatal Lamaze.

Then in my early twenties when I left it all behind, one of my big appetites was to actually learn to ride, no, fly, a bike. So there I was – ripe business for Target.

***

Rockland Bike Club was a bicycle club for riders of all levels, said rocklandbike.org, and they welcomed anyone for the weekly ride in the park. At the next opportunity, I lugged the purple bike out of the garage and over to the meetup location with the plan to learn how to work the thing properly. I could easily spot the “club”- its bicycle wielding members appeared from slick SUVs with racks mounted on the top, wearing spandex and walking funny. The riders strapped on shoes and fastened gloves and marched about in pants that looked exactly like the girdle we religious girls had to wear to hide our wanton buttocks. The cyclists’ girdles didn’t hold up thick beige stockings, and paradoxically, came with padding that only made their behinds look bigger. They wore the underwear just like that – skirtless and shameless.

I did not look anything like them and they all seemed to have telepathic knowledge of each other’s names but mine, so I sidled up to the group quietly and tried to keep a low profile by doing what everyone did. We rode around the park. Then they all stopped to wait up for me. I was far behind, sat far below, pedaling quickly in small circles with my knees coming up to my face. I looked like a circus girl on a unicycle, someone was kind enough to tell me. To stop, I had no choice but to skid with one toe, skid with another, let go of the bike, fall, dust my palms and retrieve the bike.

They watched me, the purple acrobat, collect my circus prop and join them.

“Where d’ya get the bike?” Someone asked me.

“Target,” I said innocently.

“You mean”, said a short gentleman pumping air in my tires “Tarjé“.

The club laughed.

I laughed. Still not blending.

But they were nice – as nice as cultists can be to outsiders. Someone pulled the bike seat up to my hips, someone else got something from his car after it was conferred that it’s desperately needed. The gears were moved and chains lubricated. The brakes, they said, were shot, but that didn’t stop them from turning screws, adjusting pads and tipping the whole thing over and spinning the wheel. While I stood at the side and watched, a woman wearing knees support over her girdle told me she paid over three thousand dollars for her bike. I just stared at her hundred fifty dollar sunglasses through my prescription plastic frames, my $20 Chase account balance flashing before my eyes.

***

The sport is clearly expensive, fanatical and dangerous – my elbows and knees are testament to the last. I should have never coveted it, I shouldn’t have seen those bikers on yomtov when I stayed in Williamsburg as a kid. But what could I do that I fell in love with biking – purple Schwinn and all? What could I do if riding down the hill in Haverstaw to the library made me feel so free and light and alive? Or if hours of riding along tree-lined roads led me to feel magically content, an epiphany of internal peace – otherwise known as endorphins?

The Tarjé took me through as many emotional rides as physical rides. Bike Club be damned, I was purple proud of my evolving skills of coming off unharmed and going downhill without panicking. But just as I was starting to chain the bike whenever I left it outside, it was stolen. It was stolen in front of an Orthodox shul in Manhattan, while I was sitting inside in the women’s side of the divide, enraptured by the fact that women had an equal half of the synagogue. When I left the services I found no bike. Someone must have put something in my prayers.

It was replaced, it was upgraded and somehow, slowly, I amassed the gear and jargon of a regular radical cyclist. This year, three years since I learned to ride a bicycle, I rode my first century – the Gran Fondo 100 mile race from the George Washington Bridge into Rockland County. As I biked in the rain for miles and miles through hills and mountains, I reflected on what drives us, a mad crowd of athletes riding since dawn, to push ourselves through such intense physical challenges. Endurance sports are so foreign to my childhood culture, yet almost an obsession in the secular world. Why do so few Hasidic people care about such things? I pedaled and pondered – as is fit for a multitasking cyclist who comes in last. Perhaps, I thought climbing up Bear Mountain in rain and dense fog, this is about setting goals and proving to ourselves that with perseverance we can obtain any goal. Maybe in it lies a very unreligious idea, the belief in our own human powers — that we can reach beyond the impossible and make it possible; to challenge fate with willpower. That’s the very secular American concept that the destiny can be controlled if we have enough human resolve. May the heavens open with ice cold rain, may Rockland tilt and suddenly become all uphill mountain, may the cleated shoes lock and the bike fall over – we can still get up and keep going.

I think for the Shaygetz girls and boys that’s really what drives at least some of us. Or maybe it’s just the pasta you get at the end, which is just not kosher for the people of my home culture. Either way, the thrill of riding against so many challenges and facing the terrifying fear that you can’t go any further, and pushing yourself on despite, is enough to keep me racing. The pasta and medals and waving crowds and festive afterparties and facebook likes are only added perks.

That’s why each finish line I cross I get a medal for overcoming the challenge of the ride, plus a second for overcoming the personal challenges of being an adult-beginner and single parent, and I bring home the second one for my son. Well, I don’t quite get that second medal, I take it – hey, I deserve it. As with the whole sport, it’s all part of culture of self-determination: whatever you want, you must take!

Somewhere someone who took a purple Schwinn Tarjé is nodding an enthusiastic head in agreement.

Frieda and son at the Gran Fondo

Gran Fondo