"When I found out that evolution is not the laughing stock of the world and the Big Bang is not a punch line, I was curious," says Mandel, who ultimately left his community and served four-and-a-half years in the Army before settling in Westchester, N.Y., to start college.
Lani Santo, executive director of Footsteps, an organization that helps unhappy ultra-Orthodox transition into the mainstream, says her organization has lately been experiencing a 35 percent increase in new members every year. Last year, Footsteps met with 55 disillusioned ultra-Orthodox, the bulk of whom went on to use Footsteps’ services—help with getting GEDs, finding jobs, leaving their families. She traces much of this to the influence of the Internet, which is often the first place where people encounter the fact that it’s possible to leave, and that others have done it and survived.
The accounts of people like Mandel, Vizel, and Pollak are, broadly put, a tale about the essential problem of Hasidic life in the Internet age. It’s very hard—maybe impossible—to wall an entire community off from the vehicle for unfiltered information that is the Internet. But if you have no preparation for engaging with the outside world—if your English is limited, you have no schooling past high school, you've never experienced television or movies or radio, you've been taught that your community in Williamsburg, Monsey, or Kiryas Joel is an oasis of holiness in a corrupt and dangerous world—you are ill-prepared to recover once the outside world doesn't meet those dark expectations.
"We were told clearly, 'You so much as step out of our little protective bubble, you deviate a hair, it's murder and mayhem and rape, it's just Sodom and Gomorrah,’ " says Mandel.
Unlike, say, a growing cosmopolitan strain in fundamentalist Christianity, which engages in the secular realms of politics and Hollywood to better convert the world, contemporary Hasidism offers few tools for engagement. The former Hasidim I spoke with were most familiar with the language of fear. Thus, the flyer recently posted in Monsey calling the Internet a "loaded gun" and a "poison," complete with skull and cross bones. And yet that “poison” is already so present in people’s lives that the taste-no-evil attitude has become increasingly difficult to impose. Which is why some Hasidic leaders acknowledge the necessity of computers for work, but urge people to use filters when they’re online. And why the anti-Internet rally held in May at Citi Field, which attracted tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men, was streamed live via the Internet so women could watch without attending the sex-segregated event.
For some, the realization that the outside world wasn’t as bad as they imagined leads to the dissolution of faith altogether. There’s “a world of knowledge, of science and ideas, that pose a challenge to the traditional narrative and traditional beliefs,” says Deen, 38, who is now divorced and has lost his faith. “People sometimes don’t recover from that.”
There’s another piece to the influence of the Internet, and it has with the life span of Hasidim. It is infinitely easier to leave before having children (Deen, a father of five, is an exception), and because many marry young, they have a little time to explore the secular world after leaving the strict confines of their childhood homes. Santo says this is a major reason why a majority of ultra-orthodox who leave their communities are men—they marry just a little later, around the age of 20 instead of at 18, and that greater window for intellectual exploration gives them more time to consider leaving. If they miss the window, they are relegated to living double lives, living outwardly as pious Hasidim, while inwardly chafing at the restrictions of the lifestyle.
Vizel, who once imagined herself as Eve, is now divorced and living in a modern Orthodox community in Rockland County, taking care of her six-year-old son while working and getting a masters in women’s history at Sarah Lawrence. She is still deeply tied to her identity as a Jew. “What I rejected is not Judaism,” she says. “It’s ignorance.” Occasionally she writes moving, lyrical pieces about her life, like this one. And she wonders if, were it not for the speed of the Internet—if she’d only had the library—she might ever have managed to leave Kiryas Joel.
She might have found “little ways to feed my curiosity,” she observes. But her knowledge of the outside world probably would not have been great enough to sustain the bold decision to strike out on her own. “Had this happened a year later, I would have had another kid,” she writes. “And who knows if I'd have been able to leave then?”