Reader Jeff sent along an article about Hasidic Jews, one of the groups that most tries to protect their young from the outside world, who are finding that their young are leaving because the internet is showing them that the world is different from what they were told by their elders.
In that world, children grow up highly sheltered in tight communities and marry very young, often in their teens and in arranged marriages, and are urged to start having many children as soon as possible. That pretty much guarantees that these young people will have almost no time to do anything else other than focus on their home and religious community and thus live lives largely untouched by the outside world. TV, the internet, and even radios in the home are discouraged. In former days, the local public library may have been the only source of news about the outside world, ‘outside’ meaning outside their immediate local community. But that has changed.
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.
As a result, many of them are discovering that the world of science was not some weird aberrant knowledge structure as had been told to them by their religious leaders, but consisted of knowledge that the rest of the world took for granted.
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.
Mandel’s experience is not uncommon. Forced to choose, more and more young people will choose modernity.
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.”
The more religious groups try to wall off their young from the outside world, the less able they will be to deal with the essentially subversive nature of knowledge and the more likely they are to completely abandon their religion.
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.”
The exodus of young people from ultra-Orthodox Judaism is increasing as more and more of them start exploring the exciting new world that smartphones and laptops are opening up for them. There are organizations such as Footsteps that “provides educational, vocational and social support to those seeking to enter or explore the world beyond the insular ultra-religious communities in which they were raised”
This article tells more stories of such people. Now even a reality show called Shunned (which could just as well be called The Real Hasidim of New York) is being shopped to networks that will describe how “three ultra-Orthodox Jews ditch their strict religious lifestyle and join the sin-city world of secularism.”
And of course, there’s the discovery of all the food that religious orthodoxy forbids, particularly bacon. There is something very alluring about bacon, from the smell of it cooking to its taste. People find it hard to resist it, myself included, even though I know that it is bad for you and do not eat it routinely. One of the fallen Hasidim Luzer Twersky says, “When I had the first bite, I felt angry. I felt how could my parents keep this from me?”
Who knows, when it comes to Judaism and Islam, bacon may be even more of a subversive force than the internet.