The Frum Community: An Ideology of Guidance and Dependence

In One of Us, the 2017 documentary that follows three people who broke free of their Hasidic upbringing, at least three people on three separate occasions talk about the way the frum community’s networks of chesed help and hinder.

Chani Getter, Program Manager of Footsteps, mentions the networks in positive terms. These are constructs of community that are hard to give up, she says. In the community, whenever anyone is in crisis – or even just needs some extra help – the community is there to help out.

Look at any Bais Yaakov chesed program, and you can see this is true. [in-line image of chesed updates page] The myriad of programs, from Help-A-Mom to Adopt-A-Bubby, are designed to make sure that no one is ever left alone with no one to depend on.

Beyond Bais Yaakov’s chesed programs, the community’s organizations (some of which are depicted in the image at the head of this post) are a safety net and an assurance that if you belong to this community, you will never be left to fend for yourself.

That sounds wonderful. But it’s not uncomplicatedly so. That dependence on systems and networks can be very harmful to anyone who doesn’t choose to live that life. It makes leaving that much harder.

Etty and Luzer both talk about how it’s difficult to make it “on the outside” because of how living in the community affected them. Luzer focuses on his lack of marketable skills due to the lack of secular education in Hasidic yeshivas, and Etty talks about how the loss of chesed networks – both formal and informal – is difficult.

“It’s designed to make it hard to leave,” they say (paraphrased). Now, while I wouldn’t say it’s designed because that presupposes a designer (watch and watchmaker, anyone?), it is certainly true that the design of the community as it has developed over time does make it hard to leave. The essential structures of the community condition us to expect help and support, and therefore make it difficult to transition away from these supportive structures.

In fact, one of the things I heard most often as I contemplated leaving – most often from my mother – was this:

“Here in the frum community, everyone cares about you for no reason other than that you’re Jewish. Here, they’ll take care of you and support you because you’re Jewish. Out there, no one cares about anyone else because there’s nothing binding them. Out there, you’ll be alone, forced to take care of yourself.”

There are a few things wrong with this statement, so I’ll take them one at a time.

“Here in the frum community, everyone cares about you for no reason other than that you’re Jewish.” It may be true that everyone takes an interest in you simply because you’re Jewish, but it’s “caring al t’nai” – it comes with conditions. Conform to all the rules, and you’re a valued member of the community. Violate any of the rules – religious or communal – and you’re an outsider on the inside, worthy not of care but of suspicion, of polite distance, and maybe even of kiruv.

“Here, they’ll care of you and support you because you’re Jewish.” True. Even those who violate rules will be taken care of if in crisis. Of course, when the crisis is caused by the community’s ostracism, the community will not take care of them then. But in terms of chesed when hospital visits or doctor referrals or chevra Kadisha is needed – yes, they will take care of you simply because you’re Jewish. What’s wrong with that? Well, it breeds insularity, racism, and xenophobia.

“Out there, no one care about anyone else…” Demonstrably false, but when the only environment you know intimately is the one telling you this, you can’t even begin to argue against this horrible statement.

“…because there’s nothing binding them.” It may be true that in the secular world, there are no ties (or fewer, weaker ties) based on religion. And yet that does not mean that there is nothing binding people to each other. In my life at the moment, I have communities bound together based on our identities as: ex-Orthodox; literature scholars; medievalists; LGBTQ; femme-identified; pagan; writers; teachers; activists of various causes. In all of these communities (yes, communities), members take care of each other when necessary. Just this morning, someone posted in Queer Exchange asking for urgent help because there was a mouse in their apartment and they’re terrified of mice. Someone (a stranger to this person except for Facebook) immediately volunteered to come over and get rid of the mouse and help clear up. Mi k’amcha?

“Out there, you’ll be alone, forced to take care of yourself.” I already disproved this in the previous point, but there’s something even more insidious about this statement than the suggestion that no one outside of Orthodox Judaism cares about other people: It assumes that being forced to take care of yourself is a bad thing. Now, okay, being forced to do anything is bad. But taking care of yourself, not always relying on others taking care of things for you, is not a bad thing.

A couple of years ago, about two years after I left the frum community, I had some intense medical issues. I needed to find doctors but had no idea how to do it. Until I was 25 years old, anytime I needed a doctor – or any service, really – there were structures in place to tell me which one to go to.

No, the rabbis didn’t order me to go to one doctor or another! But the Bikur Cholim could guide me as to which doctor to go to; Relief Resources could guide me on mental health professionals; whisper networks and word-of-mouth “I used that doctor for my baby, don’t take your baby there” – these are all built into the structure of the community.

And don’t get me wrong – it’s a good thing that people can rely on community organizations that guide them through tough times. But the absolute reliance and the lack of necessity to think things through on one’s own sets us up for failure if we reject this community and, of necessity, its structures of help and guidance.

This is not accidental. It has nothing to do with the actual religion of Judaism, of course, but it is not incidental or superfluous to the ideology of the frum Jewish world, either. Guidance and support are essential components of this community’s worldview.

An example that starkly highlights this:

In the months leading up to my decision to move out of my parents’ home and leave religion, I gave other religious Jewish communities a trial run. I had some conversations with my mother about moving out – all strictly in an abstract sense, because whenever I brought up the real possibility of my moving out, she turned the conversation from logistics about the move to reasoning with me about why I should stay.

We talked about the “singles communities” on the Upper West Side and in Washington Heights, and she made this point:

In Washington Heights, the singles community exists alongside the structures and institutions of Yeshiva University and Breuers. On the Upper West Side, the singles community exists alongside young couples, but with no central guiding institution. Therefore, she concluded, the Washington Heights singles community was better grounded in Jewish tradition, and I should try them out and ignore the Upper West Side.

(Ironically, I did follow her wishes and visit Washington Heights for a few shabbosim and Yom Kippur, but ultimately I moved to the neighborhood above the Upper West Side.)

The idea of mesorah (tradition) and hadracha (guidance) is a firmly set ideology. Young people cannot decide things for themselves. Young people need guidance from older people. Older people need guidance from wiser people. No one should be left to fend for themselves – whether they want to or not.

So is the community designed to limit our ability to function once we leave? Like I said, I wouldn’t go that far and imply that it’s a conscious and directed goal of the community structures. But the ideology that propels these structures does indeed point to a goal of dependence, a denial of independence – independence of thought or of action.

4 thoughts on “The Frum Community: An Ideology of Guidance and Dependence

  1. > yes, they will take care of you simply because you’re Jewish. What’s wrong with that? Well, it breeds insularity, racism, and xenophobia.

    I don’t think in itself a community caring for its own is a bad thing.
    I think, to an extent, the institutions are a result of the insularity and xenophobia, not the cause. If we can’t trust the outside world and want to interact with it as little as possible, then we need to take care of everything in-house.

    > … Therefore, she concluded, the Washington Heights singles community was better grounded in Jewish tradition

    She was okay with you belonging to a community under the auspices of YU? Even Bruer’s, which has become a lot more RW in the last decade or so, is not Boro Park.

    > The idea of mesorah (tradition) and hadracha (guidance) is a firmly set ideology. Young people cannot decide things for themselves. Young people need guidance from older people. Older people need guidance from wiser people. No one should be left to fend for themselves – whether they want to or not.

    It’s a traditional communal culture that looks back to a past Golden Age in Europe butting up against American individualist culture that looks to the future.

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    1. 1. Fair point. Someone who shall remain nameless (ahem, Bad4) said a very similar thing via private message.

      2. She wasn’t exactly overjoyed about it, no. But to her credit, she did support my moving to the “left” a bit. Though she cautioned me to only associate with “right-wing YU” (which is also what she started telling shadchanim I was looking for). I was to make friends at the Shenk Shul but not at Mt. Sinai, etc.

      3. I’m not sure I agree with that, but then I’m not entirely sure I understand what you’re arguing. Are you trying to say this is like Jewish nostalgia for “yenne yurin”? Or are you saying this isn’t a uniquely Jewish phenomenon? (I disagree slightly with both of those, but before I respond I want to know which you mean!)

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      1. More the second than the first.

        There are other cultures that are communal. China, for example. It’s not inherently a bad thing, just different from individualistic American culture. Looking at a communal culture through the prism of an individualistic culture’s values will make it look terrible, and vice versa. So we look at the frum world, and think it’s suffocating. And they look at our world, and think it’s full of narcissists adrift in a terrifying communal void.

        The looking backward isn’t unique either, but it is more of a problem. I read somewhere once that every era has seen itself as either a degraded version of the glorious past, or as a new golden age that eclipses everything that came before. Western culture since the Enlightenment has been the latter (the “Dark Ages,” right?), while frum culture is the former. The problem with the frum world’s POV is that the world is objectively better in every way than it was in the past. Including morally. Including even sexual morality. So they have to deny reality to maintain the illusion that the world today is terrible and they should avoid interacting with it as much as possible.

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      2. Your second point is well taken – yes. But the first – I’m not claiming that systems of community and support are unique to frum Judaism, of course. Nor am I suggesting that there is something inherently bad about a community or a support system. I would argue the opposite – most people need community and a support system. What I *am* suggesting is that the frum community is based on an ideology that causes these support systems to be implemented in a way that limits individual power – power to act *and* power to think. If you’re never supposed to take a step in life without first consulting with experts, when do you learn to thonk for yourself? This is not the same thing as having resources available – it’s a culture and an ideology of dependence. That ideology is not inherent in *every* community or support network. But in the frum community, it is. And it’s crippling.

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