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What Happens When Ultra-Orthodox Jews Leave Their Communities?

Religion is one of the world’s most powerful social-cultural systems. Entire cultures and communities are built on shared faiths that sometimes influence where people go to school, who they marry, and how they live. But what happens when people leave the religions they’ve been born into?

Borough of Manhattan Community College Professor Schneur Zalman Newfield explores this question in his new book, Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Newfield, who was raised in the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community known as Lubavitch, interviewed 74 Lubavitch and Satmar Jews about their journeys after leaving their communities.

“It’s a very long, painful process,” Newfield says of the exiting journey. “People transition, make new friendship circles, find new romantic partners, develop a beautiful and exciting new life. But this takes months and years to develop. It’s a very traumatic and painful process as people make their way out of the communities.”

People born into strict religions who decide to exit them remain in an in-between state even years later because of the internalization of the totalizing institutions in which they were raised, Newfield writes. The book explores the patterns among these exiters’ experiences, including ways that their old lives continue into their new ones.

“My research shows that there could be many challenges and unforeseen aspects of trying to change yourself. The people I interviewed, they’ve made so many changes to who they are, to how they dress, to what they eat, even a lot of how they think,” Newfield tells SUM. “But many parts of their thinking and some of their behavior are still colored by their upbringing. This means that we have to be aware of how people’s attitudes and behaviors are so deeply ingrained from their youth that make it very difficult to completely overcome that.”

Through the interviews, Newfield unpacks ideas of superiority within the Jewish communities. Akiva, a man in his mid-20s, said of the Satmar community: “Satmar tends to only respect their own. They don’t respect anybody else.” Thus, community members sometimes utilize gossip to explain away the reason the exiters left, in hopes of delegitimizing their actions.

“Initially my siblings tried to convince me to come back. Then they decided that I was ‘mentally ill’ and should see a shrink, and they gave up their efforts to bring me back,” Shifra, a woman in her mid-20s, recalled to Newfield.

“I’m apparently mentally ill. I went crazy; I started sleeping with all the women; then I slept with all the men. People in the community said, “This woman is crazy! Her poor husband, he’s such a good guy!’”

The book was born out of Newfield’s own experience exiting the Jewish community in which he grew up. As he worked to make sense of his life outside of the community in his adult years, Newfield was intrigued by learning about other religious exiters through reading. So, he decided to add his own research to the topic. Newfield focuses on the two communities in Degrees of Separation but says he hopes the book can be used as a model to study exiters of other religions.

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Schneur Z. Newfield (Assistant Professor, Sociology) | Profile 1