Life outside the Shtetl : excommunication from the Hasidic Jewish community

Expulsion from the Ultra-Orthodox community can happen for a number of different reasons: disbelief, challenging the dogmatic principles to which the community subscribe or simply disobeying standard practices. It can be a dark an isolating feeling, leaving all that you have known and to enter a world that you’ve grown up believing will lead to your eternal damnation.

The seclusion and indifference to the outside world displayed by many orthodox communities was forged after the atrocities of WW2. Confronting their own mortality and the great injustices of the Holocaust, many Jewish people had one question: why did this happen to us? Centuries of relentless and systemic oppression was too much for some Jewish people to accept, and thus some completely abandoned the Jewish tradition and ultimately their faith. Whilst others, sought enlightenment in a more strictly observant and closed branch of Judaism: orthodoxy, which made even eye contact with those who are not part of their community was strictly forbidden. There are orthodox shops, schooling and of course an exclusive language reserved for those who subscribe to this faith.

 From the outside looking in, this reality is impossible to understand, and whilst reflective of a close-knit familial community seems entirely isolating. That is the reality for some Hasidic Jews who could no longer remain in this community- here’s one of their stories:

London native Izzy only began speaking English the age of 18. Self-taught in the confines of his family toilet, Izzy became enthralled by the world of secular education his community rejected. As a one of the 10,000 Hasidic Jews living in Stamford Hill, these sect of Yiddish speakers has limited encounters with those outside their community were during visits to the GP.

As Izzy hit adolescence he began to question the dogma of the Orthodox community to which he belonged, a quest that ultimately led him to reject his Orthodox belief and become expelled from his community. It was at this stage that he believes life truly began- an “immigrant” to London, outside of the Orthodox community.

Though he now considers himself a secular Jew, Izzy remains connected with his Yiddish community, giving lectures about Jewish tradition at a liberal synagogue and pursues his love of science through his Maths and Physics degree at Birkbeck.  For Izzy, and many ex-Orthodox Jews, their ability to live and learn freely was only made possible through the work of Mavar.

Mavar is an organisation that works to help support ultra-orthodox Jews “exploring options to work, study or live beyond the community”. It is important to note that Mavar’s intention is not to dissuade Hasidic Jewish from continuing to follow the Jewish tradition, but is rooted in the belief that “everyone has the right to choose”.

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Founded all but 4 years ago, Mavar is a fledgling support network- but their work is crucial. After speaking to a spokesperson from Mavar, it came apparent just how life-saving their work can be. There were tales of offering legal support to parents who left the community and were struggling to gain visitation with their children. Dreams of young Hasidic adults who wanted to pursue a secular education in the hopes of secure a higher paying job. Or just stories of those who simply wanted to talk through their questions and learn more about the outside world. Mavar’s work is extensive, which makes the voluntary foundation on which its work is built all the more inspiring.

One of the more poignant takeaways that came from a discussion with one of the Mavar team, was that not all who contacted the organisation wanted to leave. Many wanted to remain within the confines of Ultra-orthodox practice, they just wanted to know more. It was an interesting realisation: not all who challenge the status quo do so in anticipation of rejecting it, perhaps that’s why for some the response, expulsion, is so devastating.

Ex-communication is the ultimate dissolution for Hasidic Jews from their community, but for some it is not the death sentence they feared. It can be difficult to leave everything you know, but walking in your own truth and understanding is perhaps the greatest consolation there is.

Augusta

Cases of people deciding to leave the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community happen not only in Britain, but much more frequently in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and in Israel.

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