When One Parent Leaves a Hasidic Community, What Happens to the Kids?

Posted By on May 22, 2023

Not long after, Chavie decided she was done. She knew that husbands were often reluctant to give their wives a geta religious divorceso when Naftali agreed to give her one and they went to the beis din, the rabbinical court, she readily signed whatever papers she was given. She didnt pay much attention to a clause requiring her to raise the children Hasidic. In March, 2009, they were officially divorced. Later that month, Naftali married again. After he remarried, he told Chavie that he needed to focus on his new wife, and he stopped seeing their children regularly. Sometimes he took them out for pizza, but he didnt have them over to his new house. He didnt pay child support. Soon he and his wife began having babies of their own.

It was at this point that Chavie allowed herself to think, If I am raising these children alone, how do I want to do it? And what do I actually want in my life? She consulted a Modern Orthodox rabbi, hoping he would tell her that she could be both gay and religious, but he said that if she was really a lesbian she had to be celibate. And so her choice slowly became clear to her: she could be celibate; she could live a secret life and lie to everyone; or she could leave the community. This last possibility was so extreme that it took several years to form in her mind.

Outwardly, she was still a good girl. She worked at a community magazine, she was involved with the PTA. But she must have had some kind of air about her, because people started confiding their own weird stuff. This one wished she could wear shorter skirts; that one wanted to go to the movies. Some women were meeting strangers they had found on Craigslist. One day, she heard her co-workers gossiping about a woman named Chani Getter. Chani was a little older, but Chavie knew who she wasshe had grown up on the next block. Someone said, Did you hear? Chani is a lesbian now, and shes running crazy wild retreats for lesbians, and she takes her kids there. The co-workers were horrified, but Chavie went home, Googled Chani Getter, and called her.

Marie was an Army bratshe grew up half in Germany, half in the U.S. (Marie is a pseudonym.) Her father was a Christian, an American soldier; her mother came from a Haredi German family. Neither was religious, and they celebrated holidays in an irregular fashiona bit of Hanukkah, a bit of Christmas. When Marie was a child, her mother told her stories about growing up Haredi, and the one that stuck in her head was about how if she used the wrong fork and made it un-kosher she had to go outside and thrust it into the ground, and sometimes it was so cold and the ground so hard that it was difficult. At the time, Marie thought this sounded crazysomething that only bizarre, mean parents would force their children to doand certainly her mother was very bitter about her religious upbringing. But, as Marie grew older, her mothers stories piqued her interest. She was looking for a way of life that was more spiritual and structured than the way shed grown up, and, after moving every three years from place to place and country to country, she wanted a community to belong to. By the time her parents settled in Killeen, Texas, near Fort Hood, when she was in high school, she had found herself wanting to become Orthodox.

She couldnt force her family to keep kosher, so she ate vegetarian. She babysat and mowed lawns in order to earn money to buy an extra set of dishes, so they wouldnt be tainted by her familys non-kosher food. She stopped wearing pants. Her mother was appalled; she said that Marie was spitting on her familys way of life. Eventually, this caused so much strain that Marie went to live with a religious friend she knew from her synagogue. After graduating from high school, she went to Baylor to study premed.

While she was in college, Marie met a rabbi from Monsey. He told her that in Monsey there were men who were a little older than she but still unmarried because for some reason they werent considered a catch. If she wanted to marry a Haredi man, he said, she should look for a man like that, because with her dubious religious background she wasnt a catch, either. It took her a while to get used to the idea of marrying a man she didnt know, but she believed that she should trust God without questioning, so she did. She met a twenty-seven-year-old man in a religious chat room, and left college to marry him in the fall of 2001.

When Marie first arrived in Monsey, it felt wonderful to her to be in a place where nobody thought she was strange for being religious. There were kosher stores everywhere, lots of people were modestly dressed. People in the community spoke Yiddish, but Marie understood them because she spoke German. Early on, a woman walking near her on the street grabbed her shirt and yanked her over to let a man pass by, so that he wouldnt have to walk behind or between them, and that startled her, but she told herself that she was new to this, and there were bound to be customs she didnt know about.

The marriage, though, was difficult from the start. She wanted to go back to collegeshe still hoped to become a doctorbut she was scolded for trying to overthrow her husband. (Maries husband, too, declined to be interviewed.) She saw that as a bride she had not received the same kinds of gifts as other daughters-in-law; her husband told her that she should be grateful that his family took her in after the way she had been raised, like an animal in a zoo.

When she and her husband had their first child, a daughter, she became absorbed in being a mother and felt happier. A couple of years later, they had a son. But the marriage grew worse. Her husband controlled the household money, and told her that in order for him to give her some, even to buy basic items such as sanitary napkins, she had to deserve it. He called her names, and when their daughter was around six or seven he started calling her names, toougly, fat, stupid. Finally, in 2012, they went to the beis din to get a divorce. She got custody of the children; he was to see them for dinner a couple of times a week and every other Shabbos.

After her husband moved out, Marie began seeking out family and old friends. Before she had kids, she had been estranged from her parents, but now they travelled from Texas to visit her. Her family knew that she hadnt had a minute to herself during the more than ten years that she was married, so they gathered together some money and told her to take a vacation. One of the friends Marie reconnected with was an Indian-Jewish woman whom shed met in college and who had moved back home afterward, and this friend invited her to visit. Marie arranged for the kids to stay with a family in Monsey for two weeks and bought a ticket to India.

Issac was born in Borough Park, Brooklyn, the ninth of ten children, in what would become the Bobov-45 group. (Issac is not the name he usually goes by.) His father was exceptionally devout and rigid about rule-keeping, but Issac was always getting into trouble. When a teacher hit him, he called the Fire Department. When one of the school principals made him angry, he squirted ketchup and mustard all over all the principals lunches. He was bullied by the other kids. When he prayed, he tried to feel a connection to God, but it never worked. Mostly, praying meant nothing to him. His father was always telling him stories about people burning in Hell, and those would frighten him for a while, but then it wore off. He didnt doubt the existence of God, exactly; he didnt have a strong belief one way or the other.

He was sent to sleepaway camp for the first time when he was nine or ten. On visiting day his father came to see him, and while the other parents played games, or took their kids out boating, Issacs father took him into the empty shul and said, Lets review what you have studied these past two weeks. The summer that Issac was fifteen, he had a rough week at camp and decided to kill himself. Luckily, he didnt know how to do ithe took forty Benadryl pills and went to bed. The camp nurse gave him water the next day to flush his system, but apart from that no one did much; mental illness tended to be hushed up, because it could affect the marriage prospects of everyone in the family. Issac didnt see a therapist until about six months later, and that was to deal with attention deficit disorder. He was advised to tell nobody about the therapy, not even his brothers and sisters.

When Issac turned eighteen, in 2006, it came time for him to marry, and matchmakers started getting in touch. Normally, a person had only one shidduchone match. Eight of Issacs nine siblings married the first person they met, but Issac met five girls, and five times he was rejected. Part of the problem might have been that he wasnt a yeshiva boy anymorehe worked in an office-supply storeand having a job was less prestigious. One matchmaker told him that shed fibbed on his behalf, saying that he learned with a study partner every night, but it made no difference. He was told that one girl rejected him because he talked too much. By the time a matchmaker suggested a sixth girl, he no longer gave a shit. He agreed to go through with the meeting only to pacify his father. The matchmaker didnt know him or the girl personallypresumably, she had picked a girl for her failings, to go with his.

His father mentioned the girl one day when he got home from work, and Issac drove up to Monsey to meet her. He was done trying to make himself look goodhe thought, Lets just get through this and go home. But he liked her. She was devout, but not stiff or judgmental. She was very attractive. She had had a difficult childhood and wasnt living with her family. They talked for about an hour, and, fifteen minutes after Issac left, the matchmaker called both of them and told each that the other wanted to meet again, although in fact neither had said anything about it. They met the following afternoon, and then a third time. At this point, Issac had begun to think that something might actually come of it, so they talked seriously for four or five hours. He asked the girl, Faigy (a pseudonym), if she had any questions for him, and she fetched a list shed drawn up. Faigy told him about her childhood, and he asked her if she was in therapy. She admitted that she was. Issac told her, If you werent, there is no way I would consider this. She said, I want to marry you.

After her divorce, Marie felt hemmed in by scrutiny and gossip. She believed that her ex-husband was trying to find dirt on her, in order to get the kids back. He told people in the community that she didnt keep kosher, that she didnt keep Shabbos. People rammed their shopping carts into hers at Rockland Kosher. Her employers, who had heard that she was no longer Jewish, fired her.Photograph by Dawit N.M. for The New Yorker

The first year of their marriage was easy. His wife was the opposite of his parents, he thoughtshe never told him what to do. He felt that life with his parents had been a constant struggle, and now the struggle was over. Nine and a half months after their wedding, he and Faigy had a daughter. But being happily married to a religious woman didnt change Issacs feelings about religion, and, left to his own devices, his observance started to slip. He still did the basics, showing his face in shul when he had to, but he wasnt praying every day.

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When One Parent Leaves a Hasidic Community, What Happens to the Kids?

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