Smart Phones and Hasidic Jews: A Dangerous Combination

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Aug. 21 2012 11:08 AM

Google vs. God

What’s causing all these Hasidic Jews to flee their community? Smartphones.

Hasidic Jew prays in a small town in Poland.
In the last five years, stories of Hasidic Jews becoming ex-Hasidic Jews have been virtually everywhere

Photograph by Janek Skarzynski/Getty Images.

Once upon a time—say, in the 1990s—a Hasidic Jew looking for escape from her blinkered world might have gone to the library. But by the time F. Vizel, a Satmar Hasid, learned that the public library existed at the age of 20, she’d already made a far more critical discovery. She’d found the Internet.

Libby Copeland Libby Copeland

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.

Vizel, who grew up an hour and a half from New York City, started going online at 19 on her husband’s laptop. Within two years, she began exploring blogs by people who had left Hasidism, and had a huge realization: She wasn’t the only Hasidic Jew questioning what she now calls a "lifetime of indoctrination and being taught not to think." When she set up an anonymous Facebook account, she posted a painting of Eve in the Garden of Eden as her profile picture, implying that the Internet had become her tree of knowledge.

In time, Vizel became so rebellious—she asked to stop shaving the hair she covered with a scarf, flouting the standards for married women in her community—that she says she was asked by community leaders to hand over the laptop. By then, though, it was too late. Two years ago, she and her husband split, and some months later she left their community in Kiryas Joel, N.Y., taking her son with her. (Out of concern for her own privacy, and for the repercussions her Hasidic family may face because of her rejection of that way of life, Vizel asked me not to use her first name.)

In the last five years, stories of Hasidic Jews becoming ex-Hasidic Jews have been virtually everywhere. New York magazine profiled a 23-year-old renegade named Gitty fighting for custody of her daughter, and Deborah Feldman’s memoir Unorthodox hit the New York Times bestseller list. Slate ran two pieces on dating services for ex-Hasidim, and Salon had an essay by Shulem Deen, who brought a radio into his home, causing all manner of marital havoc. Deen has also founded a fascinating site called Unpious, a kind of literary group blog for “voices on the hasidic fringe.” Shalom Auslander, who’s not Hasidic but Orthodox, has chronicled his journey away from strict observance in Foreskin’s Lament. And naturally, someone is reportedly shopping a reality show about former Hasidim, featuring a young mother of four who wants to be a model. When I interviewed ex-Hasidim for this story, I was asked more than once, Why now? Why at this particular moment is the mainstream media so interested in the story of strife within an ultra-orthodox branch that makes up a tiny, if growing, percentage of American Jews?

The answer has a lot to do with the life span of the Internet. Because of it, more Hasidim are publicly exiting their communities than ever before. The earliest adopters—many of whom started anonymous blogs during the mid-2000s, like Deen’s Hasidic Rebel—took years to extricate themselves from their marriages and to engage in lengthy custody battles over their kids. Only in the last few years have those early adopters gotten out and begun to speak candidly about their exile.

And the drumbeat of the disaffected is likely to continue. While the first wave of Internet-influenced ex-Hasidim had to rely on workplace or library computers and (sometimes borrowed) laptops, today’s young Hasids have it easier. They only need smartphones. Libby Pollak, 24, who was raised in a strict Hasidic family in Williamsburg before becoming disillusioned with her life, told me some young people obtain piles of cellphones through family plans, then hand them out "under the table" to friends and cousins. Once online, Hasidim often use fake names to establish accounts on Facebook, where they quickly encounter other Hasidim who are curious, and even disillusioned.

Many of the former Hasidim I interviewed started using the Internet innocently, with no intention of ever leaving the community. Pollak got an email address when she worked an office job briefly between high school and getting married at 19, and was initially hesitant even to read basic news from Yahoo. Vizel told me she at first was interested only in politics, books, and clothes, avoiding anything "that didn't reconfirm my existing beliefs." But online, once she’d started her own anonymous blog, she struck up an email conversation with a Brooklyn rabbi, presumably not Hasidic, who suggested that, contrary to what she'd been taught, she might not be obligated to have as many children as possible, and she might even be morally permitted to use birth control. She was learning, in other words, that she had choices.

“I had a theory that [H]asidic life provided security from infidelity, drugs, violence, loneliness—which made it incredibly valuable,” Vizel, now in her mid-20s, wrote me recently in a series of emailed interviews. “I slowly began to learn about the price we pay.”

Ari Mandel, 29, who grew up in a community of Nikolsburg Hasidim in Monsey, N.Y., purchased a home computer because he was interested in breaking into graphics for work. Through the course of reading science blogs, as well as covert visits to the library—he went just before Shabbat sundown on Fridays, when he felt sure roving members of the "purity squad" wouldn't be watching—Mandel was shocked to discover an alternate version of the world's origins. He had been raised to believe that the world was less than 6,000 years old; he recalls his father telling him, on a rare family visit to the Museum of Natural History, that a dinosaur skeleton was "just rocks."

"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?”

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