Religious Oppression

January 6, 2018

Brooklyn, New York – a place I’ve never been. A place that is so far removed from my reality from being raised in California, that it seems like a foreign country. And, in some ways it is. 

The Hassidic Jewish community in New York grew in the area after the end of World War II and the Holocaust. The community is incredibly insular, not allowing outsiders in, nor insiders out. They have their own rules and systems, their own school system, etc. (It reminded me quite a bit of what I’ve learned about the Amish communities in America.) The trouble comes when someone wants to leave the community. How on earth do you make your way in the “secular” world, when you don’t know the basics of math, or how to get a job, etc,? 

The documentary One of Us is all about the Hassidic community in New York and the very few people who have chosen to try to leave it. It’s a horror story – truly, I had nightmares. Women get married when they are 18 or 19, having met their spouses for maybe 30 minutes prior to the wedding. They have large numbers of children and they never work nor have the opportunity to do so. Children attend Hebrew religious schools and are forbidden from things like the internet, television, and movies. The community relies heavily on subsidized housing and benefits from the government. 

As a result of such an insular community where everyone on the outside is considered basically unclean and secular, leaving the community is pretty much impossible. If you try it, you are ostracized from anyone and everything you have ever known. Your own parents will not speak to you and you suddenly have no access to anyone or anything. Worse yet, if you try to get a divorce, the courts will side with the “religious” member in an effort to provide “continuity” for the children, regardless of the history of physical abuse within the marriage. Watching a woman with 7 children try to fight her extremely abusive husband in courts and then lose because the husband was “religious” and she was (now) not was horrifying. It was almost unbelievable, but you could actually read the court transcripts which included the judge actually asking this woman what clothing she chose to wear, which non-religious people she chose to associate with, and whether or not she now attended meetings with an ex-Hassidic community support group. 

Ultimately, many ex-Hassidic members end up abusing drugs and alcohol, find themselves unemployable, and often find themselves returning to the community. Listening to stories of missing out on the feel of community is very familiar. I’ve had only a small taste of that with only questioning my faith…..I can’t imagine what would happen if I outright left it. I think the same thing would happen to me – ostracization likely, but ranting, raving, and endless preaching at the very least certainly. 

It is really bizarre to watch multiple scenes of the Hassidic Jews walking around New York in their very obvious religious garb, with women and men walking separately. It’s so strange to think of such a religious cult operating so openly within the walls of the U.S. People preach endlessly of the dangers of Islam, but nobody says a word about Hassidic Jews, or the Amish, or even some Christian communities who are equally insular. Worse yet, hearing from ex-Hassidic members about the cover-up of childhood rape and  physical abuse within marriage is horrifying to say the least. 

I have no idea what to do about any of what I’ve learned, other than to be open to loving people no matter their backgrounds. But, the film is definitely worth watching. I would only suggest watching it over a few days or sessions. It is not easy to watch.  

My hearts go out to the children in these communities. I can’t imagine being one of them. Worse yet, I can’t imagine trying to not be one of them. 

Galatians 6:2 (NRSV): Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill[a] the law of Christ.

Serve all with love.

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