Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism


LUCKY SEVERSON: They live conspicuously pious lives in a secular world, especially in enclaves and suburbs of New York. Ultra Orthodox Hasidic Jews observe the strict rules of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and its 613 commandments.

Their structured lifestyle seems to work for the majority. But, for some, the lack of choices is too rigid, so they choose to leave, even though doing so can be very painful. Hasidic groups remain some of the most insular religious sects in the U.S. Sol Feuerwerker knows, he was one of them.

SOL FEUERWERKER: I think that’s what surprises most people, you know, most outsiders, is that how can something this insular be happening right here in the middle of New York City. You know, as I’ve moved farther away from it, it kind of shocks me too actually.

CHANI GETTER: When I tell people that I grew up 30 miles north of New York, that I went into the city and I had never seen a movie before I was in my 20s, they think I’m insane.

SEVERSON: Chani Getter grew up, married and had three children before she broke away from her Hasidic community. Those who leave Hasidism paint a picture of a very puritanical and sheltered way of life.

Chani Gette

GETTER: When I left, I moved into my own apartment and I started driving, and as a woman who was driving, my parents disowned me. In our sect, women did not drive. And so, for eight years, they didn’t talk to me.

SEVERSON: In Hebrew, the word Hasidim translates to mean the “pious ones.” They are defined by their devotion to a hereditary leader known as the “Rebbe”, by their distinctive clothing and Yiddish language. Professor Samuel Heilman is a Jewish scholar at Queens College.

PROFESSOR SAMUEL HEILMAN: They have everything that makes up a culture, social norms, language, a career pattern in life. Even the ones who leave say that there are aspects of their lives that they left behind that they miss. To go to a Hasidic gathering and to sing the songs and to dance in the circle and to be enfolded into the community, and to hear your voice in a chorus of other voices. This is a tremendously exciting experience and when you leave and you’re all alone, all alone in the city…

SEVERSON: Professor Heilman says there are as many as 350 thousand Hasidic Orthodox in the U.S. and Canada, and an even larger population in Israel. And the numbers are increasing fast, he says, because Hasidism strongly encourages very large families.

PROFESSOR HEILMAN: They don’t believe in birth control. They believe that the commandment of “be fruitful and multiply” is incumbent upon all Jewish people and they practice it. Not only do they have large families but they are the poorest of all Jews because they don’t go to college, so they lack often some of the skills that are necessary for high income. They are all literate in Jewish education, but their secular education is limited. That is not to say there are not some who are successful…in the diamond business, electronics business, in trading on Wall Street.

SEVERSON: Relatively few leave, in professor Heilman’s view, because they’ve been taught to shun the secular world.

PROFESSOR HEILMAN: They’ve been told that the world outside their own is demonic, corrosive, dangerous, they wouldn’t want to be part of it, that they live a superior kind of life.

GETTER: One of the things that they teach you is that we get to choose what we allow our eyes to see. We get to choose what we allow our ears to hear. And so when you go into the city, you make a conscious choice not to allow your eyes to see.

Sol Feuerwerker

FEUERWERKER: There’s this whole, like belief or narrative in the community that if you, if you try to break away or change you will fail and you won’t be happy and you’ll just end up on drugs.

SEVERSON: Lani Santo is the Executive Director of a non-profit group called Footsteps, founded in 2003, not to proselytize but to provide counsel and support to those who want to explore life outside the confines of the world in which they were raised. They’ve assisted over 700 altogether so far, a majority are young men.

FOOTSTEPS GROUP DISCUSSION: “I mean my mother still hasn’t called me. My mother hasn’t spoken to me this whole time.”

LANI SANTO: We are seeing a lot more, just in this year alone, we’ve seen a 60% increase in our membership and in new people coming to us, and that’s compared to a 35% increase that we’ve been on for the last few years.

SEVERSON: In the past, it was easier to shelter those in ultra religious communities from the outside world. Television, magazines, radio, even libraries were off limits. Then along came the internet.

Prof. Samuel Heilman

PROFESSOR HEILMAN: The internet is a real problem for them. There has been, there have been efforts, for example there was a recent gathering at Citi Field here in New York that was against the internet. But it’s a case of trying to close the barn after the horses are out.

SEVERSON: Lani Santo says those who do leave suffer serious bouts of loneliness and guilt.

SANTO: It’s more about guilt in terms of impacting their families. If they have younger siblings, the fact that they’re leaving is putting at risk the marriage prospects for their younger siblings and that’s a real challenge.

PROFESSOR HEILMAN: Marriage is critical. And it’s all by matchmaking. Finding single people in this community is rare, and if they’re single then it means they’re problematic…and problematic can be that you have someone in the family who’s not Orthodox or that there’s some mental or physical ailment in the family or that there are, it can even be somebody has too many people with red hair in the family.

SANTO: Any mark of difference is a mark of shame. So whether it’s a mark of having a child that’s leaving the community, whether it’s a mark of having a child that’s sexually abused or whether there’s some sort of ailment in the family, um, or someone who’s committed suicide, all of that will be covered up.

Footsteps meeting

MICHAEL JENKINS: The first thing that really struck me was the courage in the room.

SEVERSON: Michael Jenkins is Footsteps’ senior social worker. He says he’s amazed at the risks young Hasidim are taking by even walking through the front door. He conducts group therapy and private counseling, says a number of people he meets with lead dual and deeply conflicted lives, with one foot in their Hasidic community and one foot out.

JENKINS: There’s things in the community that I love, that work for me, family, friendships, relationships … this is where I’ve always been and this is where I want to be, yet there are things that I disagree with…and I want to be able to talk about that or express that somewhere else.

FOOTSTEPS GROUP DISCUSSION: “I want to be who I want to be. And if I find God, I find God on my own, you know? I don’t go any more according to what I was told as a kid.”

SEVERSON: In Hasidic communities, young men study the Torah in Hebrew at least 7 hours a day and spend only one hour on secular education. So those who leave are woefully unprepared to go out on their own. Sol was 19 when he broke away.

(to Feuerwerker): What was your education level at that point?

FEUERWERKER: If I had to estimate it would probably be, you know 4th or 5th grade.

SEVERSON: Was that pretty standard for most of the men of your age?

FEUERWERKER: That’s the norm, yeah. And in fact I believe I was actually a little bit more advanced than some of my friends at the time.

SEVERSON: Another consequence of the insularity is that if a crime is committed, it often goes unreported.

FEUERWERKER: I have many friends, men and women who have been abused, sexually, physically, emotionally…

SEVERSON: Sol is now in his 4th year as a pre-med student. He says it hasn’t been easy. Some old friends speak to him, some don’t. He says he has a message for others who are worried about leaving the sheltered world of Hasidism.

FEUERWERKER: My point is it’s challenging and it looks really, really scary at the beginning. Um, but it’s, it’s possible.

SEVERSON: Chani Getter says Footsteps has made leaving the Hasidic community a little less scary.

GETTER: Since Footsteps opened the thing that I saw different is that when people used to leave the community before it would be through alcohol and drugs. In order for them to leave, they had to become a total outcast.

SEVERSON: When Chani left, her parents were traumatized, and then she announced that she is gay. Now she’s studying to be a rabbi.

GETTER: They’re hurt by the fact that I will not live, you know, that kind of life, because my soul is in danger. And yet they don’t understand why my eyes sparkle and why I’m so happy.

SEVERSON: As the world continues to shrink because of access to modern technology, like the internet, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for anyone or any group to shield their families from the outside world.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Lucky Severson in New York.

  • A Aron

    Not so, my friends. A closer look at Footsteps members reveals a somewhat different story. The bulk of them are those who had a multitude of issues while growing up, including social, discipline and learning problems in school. Some of the most successful doctors, lawyers, accountants, social service professionals and businessmen come from communities like these, the majority of whom, raising beautiful families in these communities. Those who want to leave might be frowned upon in the community, but nevertheless they are free to do so, and only a minute amount do. The greater majority like it right there. After speaking to a number of them, I can say with confidence, that by and large, Footsteps members choose to totally reject all practice of religion, instead of opting for a more open version of Orthodoxy. Its all or or nothing for most. Rather sad. In summary, they show a discomfort with religious practice and rules, to any degree, not solely Ultra-Orthodoxy.

  • A Aron

    Not so, my friends. A closer look at Footsteps members reveals a somewhat different story. The bulk of them are those who had a multitude of issues while growing up, including social, discipline and learning problems in school.

    Some of the most successful doctors, lawyers, accountants, social service professionals and businessmen come from communities like these, the majority of whom, raising beautiful families in these communities. Those who want to leave might be frowned upon in the community, but nevertheless they are free to do so, and only a minute amount do. The greater majority like it right there.

    After speaking to a number of them, I can say with confidence, that by and large, Footsteps members choose to totally reject all practice of religion, instead of opting for a more open version of Orthodoxy. Its all or nothing for most. Rather sad. In summary, they show a discomfort with religious practice and rules, to any degree, not solely Ultra-Orthodoxy.

  • David

    It’s a sick cult like radical Islam or scientology or any other cult. And just like any cult, members are threatening into staying, and brainwashed so badly from the age of 2 or 3 to hate non-Jews and to think that gentiles are filthy, evil, demonic, and that if you even touch one you are contaminated. Footsteps does a great service.

  • Helen Brown

    These young people have so much courage. It is sad that they often are shunned by their families and former friends, just because they want to live their lives in freedom.

  • Wendy J. Marks

    TREMENDOUS courage displayed by those that have left! However in reading this story, the producers left out a HUGH part to the viewing audience that Ms. Getter has COME OUT as a lesbian and is now in school studying to be a Rabbi. REMARKABLE! This piece deserves a follow-up!

  • Cleta Hughes

    In what way is this Hasidic theocracy within our Democratic country less offensive than Sharia Law? In what wy is it less unjust toward “the other”? In what way is it less Medieval? In what way can we say that this religious theorcracy is contributing culturally to this country that harbors it? I pray to God they don’t vote.

  • Naftuli Moster

    This is beautifully done. I’m glad to see a program that finally had the courage to say it like it is without sugar-coating it (too much).

    Here are some facts:

    -Simply by choosing your own path, by choosing how to groom your beard, and by choosing to drive a car, you can get shunned from your family and your community.

    -The education provided in these Yeshivas are worse than the worst public school in the United States. Boys graduate from these high schools with less knowledge than a recent immigrant from a third-world country, even less familiarity with US history!!!

    -People leaving the community are made out to be losers or even mentally-ill, and are promised to become drug-addicts and to end up committing suicide. FALSE. More and more are out there working their a**es off to make up for their education and to pursue higher education, and it’s beginning to show! Many are graduating with BAs and are pursuing advanced degrees. Some are already pursuing PhDs.

    The Hassidic community must acknowledge that times are changing and that they have chosen to live in a country that prides itself on free-will, not opression. Members of the community should be able to pursue what they want without being shunned, without losing custody of their children, and without risking ruining their family’s reputation.

  • Melissa

    While I enjoyed the story about the Ultra-Orthodox who choose to leave their communities, there are a couple of things that I really think need to be said: 1) The Lubavitchers who were profiled in the report are NOT the only ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews, not even the only ones in New York City. 2) You somewhat misrepresented the position of the Lubavitchers and by extension Chabad, their religious outreach organization. The decision was made by the Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, OBM) to reach out to the Jewish world using the internet, somewhat before the internet became so pervasive in American culture. He also made the decision that women should receive Torah education. Your report reflected neither of these facts. 3) The Rebbe was not the only Hasidic rebbe, just like the Lubavitchers are not the only Hasidim. Different groups have different rules. 4) If you are going to focus on the Lubavitchers (or any other Hasidic group), it would be very nice if you would give some of their history, especially prior to coming to the United States.

    One more comment, not so much related to this story. I wish that you would report on the Women of the Wall movement in Israel, which is a group of women who pray in tallitot and tefillin at the Western Wall. What they are doing is extremely controversial but also very, very important to Jews and especially to Jewish women. It would be nice to see a report on your show about it.

  • JDE

    “And the numbers are increasing fast, he says, because Hasidism strongly encourages very large families.”

    It insists upon them – generation after generation of children brought up in poverty, ignorance and repression. This is made possible because, as the segment fails to mention, they generally avail themselves prodigiously of social services – housing, health care, food stamps, etc. – but you won’t hear politicians complaining about them in the way they complain about other groups, because Haredim wield a tremendous amount of political power (at local levels; outside of Israel, there are too few of them to be a significant influence nationally). They’re raised from birth to be almost incapable of independent thought, and they vote for whomever their rabbis and communal leaders tell them to.

    The entire way of life is a form of child abuse. It should no longer be allowed to continue.

  • E. J. Handelman

    I was disappointed that Lucky Severinson got several basic facts wrong in his introduction, and that placed a shadow over this piece. He did not properly define ultra-orthodox Judaism and he wrongly identified the Lubavitcher Rebbe as the head of them. As to the latter misinformation, Lubavitcher Hasidism is the largest of the Hassidic groups, but also, in my opinion, the most moderate. The piece showed men from other sects (I could tell by their hats). And Hassidic groups are only part of the Ultra Orthodox community. New York City is home to a fine Jewish newspaper which has covered many issues regarding the ultra-Othodox from a detached and well informed point of view, The Forward. It’s a pity Severinson did not call upon them.

  • Yosef H

    I watched the entire clip even though I didn’t agree with a lot of it. Yes there’s a lot of poverty in the Religious Jewish community however many minority’s have major economic issues why imply that its because of the insularity and lack of secular education. Feel free to contact me if you would be interested in doing an episode on successful business including some feutured in the mainstreme media that where started by members of the Religious Jewish communities.


  • sylvia M

    Hey, do you have the guts and “courage” as expressed by FEUERWERKER to report the number of professionals, (doctors, lawyers, professors, scientists etc) that have joined orthodoxy – and Hassidism?
    Reporting a one sided view of a few (out of many thousands) young men and women without offering the flip side is yet again so typical of liberal media today.
    You show the inside of some synagogues…
    They allowed you in – didn’t they? Did they limit your use of this film?
    I suspect not! They believe everyone has “free choice” called “bichira” in Hebrew.
    Just as you had free choice to publish this and I to write my comment. The Torah is our guide – we welcome it – we cherish it – and we try to live our daily lives as prescribed by the Torah. Of course we recognize that one cannot constantly achieve total adherence but it is a goal – and living with a goal is what it’s all about.
    We can be Doctors – Lawyers – Professors – Scientists – and as per the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schneerson obm, it is all perfectly KOSHER as long as one is aware there is a Creator. It is not a life sentence but a choice, a way of life that enables us to journey through life with morals and ethics so that we can live side by side with true meaning. I suggest you read “Towards a Meaningful Life” and you might also read Sue Fishkoff’s book.. “The Rebbe’s Army” . Be Brave and allow yourself to open your eyes to something you allowed yourself to criticize. Be honestly “liberated”.!!

  • Returnee to Orthodoxy

    The yestzer hora (evil inclination) is very clever and convinces these lost souls that the darkness is light. That med student who made a toast to ‘freedom’ is himself in a dark prison. That video was totally one sided. While decrying the ‘insulated’ backward Chassidim they ignore the millions of educated and professional Yidden whose lies have been greatly enriched by these same Chassidim. This report is typical ignorant left wing narrow minded hypocrisy and hatred.

  • Debbie

    As an Orthodox Jew I feel I must correct one error in this video;it was said that the Hassidic Jews don’t believe in birth control,whilst birth control is not used freely it is most certainly permitted if the health of the mother would be endangered by pregnancy.

  • JDE

    The comments posted here by A Aron, Sylvia M and Returnee to Orthodoxy are utterly typical of the rationalizations & apologetics employed on a daily basis within the Haredi world. Those who deviate are dismissed as “troublemakers” or as having “issues”. They point to the few professional people to come from their ranks, while ignoring the many thousands who are uneducated and who either don’t work, or work at menial jobs that don’t pay them enough to adequately support the large families they insist upon having. They decry the immorality of the secular world, while turning a blind eye to the increasingly reported incidents of monetary fraud and sexual predation within their ranks.

    Haredim often point to their large families as a form of validation of their belief system, and tell liberal Jews that they’ll soon assimilate out of existence. Meanwhile, Orthodoxy and liberal Judaism have each been predicting the other’s demise for two hundred years, and we are all still here – but Orthodoxy is now at a crossroad. Their world is collapsing. They can no longer provide for their growing numbers, and they largely refuse to educate their children in a way that would enable them to compete outside of their isolated, xenophobic subculture. Their rabbis grow increasingly detached from reality, obsessed with trivia such as gender segregation and the length of women’s skirts.

    It is a way of life that is simply unsustainable. The Haredim are suffering, collectively, from a toxic mixture of denial, cognitive dissonance, psychopathy, substandard education and above all, an unwavering conviction of their own rightness. They can’t go on as they are, yet they refuse to change. They have a generation left at most.

  • SteveR

    The level of education given to the Haredi children in the United States is contrary to New York state law. Parents do not simply get to “decide” that their children don’t have to learn English, Math, Science and Civics. In general, the level of Haredi eduction in secular subjects is not in accordance with state law. One day, as the numbers grow larger and media attention is focused on the subject, the authorities will crack down. And then see how many Haredi stay Haredi after they are able to integrate into the normal work force.

  • Channah

    They grow and grow by the numbers. It is because they do not believe in birth control PLUS the fact that going by the rules, the only times a man can have relationships with his wife is when she can most likely conceive.

  • Cari Jackson

    I applaud those who find the courage to seek their own paths — whether remaining within Hasidim or outside the bounds of those communities. God is both within these communities and outside of them.

  • Nita

    They do vote—-as an earlier commenter says, ”for whomever the Rabbi tells them to vote”.
    It is like Sharia law–very much the same. In places in Israel, they insist women walk on the other side of the street from men, women sit in the back of the bus (pushing for separate buses), have been known to spit on little girls who are not dressed as modestly as they want and on and on and on.
    In Israel they are strong enough they are making so much trouble for the country. They are fighting going into the army-all they want to do is collect welfare and study. I often wonder how much time they have to study as they spend so much time out demonstrating against the government and other Jews.
    And, yes, at the rate they are reproducing, they will outnumber the ”normal Jews” of Israel in time. There falls the country.
    I am Nita and I live in Jerusalem and NYC.

  • annajrc

    I was forced to reject my mother who embraced this cult about twenty years ago, just to protect my own sanity and sanity of my husband and child. Ever since the mother joined Chabad, her personality has changed dramatically for the worst. She was not warm and cuddly parent to begin with, but this organization has turned her into a narcissistic psycho-bitch. She can do whatever she pleases and die alone. I don’t need her blessings or inheritance.