By Alissa Figueroa
In the heart of New York City, a deeply religious community has created its own secluded island, where Yiddish is the primary language, men wear towering black hats and long robes even on the most sweltering summer day, and mothers lead broods of eight or 10 children.
They are Hasidic Jews - the descendants of a small group of ardent followers whose Eastern European villages were all but decimated during the Holocaust. For the better part of the last century they've been building their own communities in Brooklyn, maintaining the dress, language and traditions of their ancestors.
There’s an estimated 300,000 people living in various Hasidic communities in New York City, and they're poised to become the largest Jewish denomination in the city in the next two decades.
"There's a conviction that their way of life is special, unique, authentic," says Samuel Heilman, professor of Anthropology at Queens College. "It's a belief that what comes from the past is superior to what is in the present."
Much of the secular world is off-limits, including television, non-religious books and most websites.
Instead, religious study is emphasized, as is devotion to God and family. Most Hasids are wedded in arranged marriages while in their teens or early 20s. In a few years, they’re expected to be on their way to building a large family.
Avraham Berkowitz is a rabbi in the Lubavitcher Hasidic community. He says that this focus on family and religion is worth preserving.
“The modesty in the dress, the language in the house, standing up for parents, not interrupting when adults are speaking. That kind of protected lifestyle, that is what we have today,” says Berkowitz.
“You have to be able to pick and choose what to bring in and what to keep out that's negative.”
LEAVING THE COMMUNITY
But that seemingly simple life, while comforting and fulfilling for some, can feel oppressive for others.
“Most of the individuals that are coming to us, what we're seeing is they just want to learn. They want to study physics. And they want to study how atoms work. And they want to study math.” says Lani Santo, executive director of Footsteps, the only organization in New York that helps people leave Hasidic communities.
Sam Katz is a Footsteps member. A yearning for knowledge drew him away from the Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn where he was raised and into Manhattan. He describes sneaking into the Museum of Natural History, where the dinosaur skeletons caught his imagination like nothing in his religious books.
“There was something so connected about standing next to a dinosaur, something so-- universally harmonious-- for lack of a better word,” says Katz. “It was just a feeling of this fantasy world.”
Katz’s secular education stopped when he reached middle school, when he, like other Hasidic boys, began focusing exclusively on religious study. Yet, he’s managed to earn a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, and is headed to Berlin in the fall on a Fulbright scholarship.
Hindy Sabel, who also left her Hasidic upbringing with the help of Footsteps, says she started questioning the Hasidic way of life as a child. She wanted to ride bikes around the neighborhood, says Sabel, like the boys could. And she wasn’t ready to get married before finishing college.
“I couldn’t be a leader in that community and I wanted to do something with my life,” says Sabel. That’s when she came to Footsteps with an older sister. Today, she’s working full time and studying for an MBA at New York University.
But picking up and leaving behind everything they’ve ever known isn’t easy. The process can take years of catching up.
“Footsteps members are very much like immigrants,” explains Santo. “But they're immigrants to a country that they're citizens in.”
CONFRONTING PROBLEMS WITHIN
For Judy Braun, 31, getting out was particularly difficult.
Braun grew up strictly Hasidic in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and recalls a happy childhood filled with summer camping trips in the Catskills.
But when she was 12, Braun says she had a terrifying experience that would haunt her the rest of her life – she found her friend trying to hang herself in the bathroom, and learned she’d been sexually abused.
Braun says the adults she told about the attempted suicide turned a deaf ear. She says she saw firsthand how the community refused to acknowledge that one of its own could abuse a child.
“Our rules and our laws will keep us pure, will keep these things from happening. Coming to terms with the fact that they will happen regardless undermines the entire idea of the truth,” says Braun. “If our way of life doesn't prevent our men from turning into beasts, then what's the point of our way of life?”
Feeling trapped by tradition, Braun ultimately got married and had children. But in her mid-twenties, she started secretly writing about what she saw as a child.
That fictionalized account of her ordeal, "Hush," was published anonymously in 2010. While some supported her efforts, when her real name leaked out as the author, she said threats started coming in. She received a copy of her book covered in fake blood, her car windows were smashed, and threatening messages were left on her phone.
“When you're an author of a book and you publicly shame the community, there is a full-out campaign against you at every level,” says Braun.
Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz says people are now acknowledging sexual abuse is happening.
“These type of crimes have to be eradicated,” He says. He insists, though, that the community can handle the problem internally. “We have to do it within the way the community knows how to solve its problems. Cause sometimes when you come banging with drums from the outside, the community becomes more insular.”
In the last two years, Braun has come out publicly as the author of "Hush" and started speaking out against abuse in the community. She recently divorced her husband and moved her children outside the boundaries of her old Hasidic neighborhood.
“It gives you more psychological safety,” says Braun. “Even though it's not that far a drive, but you’re in a different place.”