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Opinion: Orthodox rally ignores abuses

By Deborah Feldman, Special to CNN
updated 12:59 PM EDT, Thu May 24, 2012
Deborah Feldman is the author of
Deborah Feldman is the author of "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Some 60,000 Orthodox Jewish men gathered in stadium to discuss Internet's moral dangers
  • Deborah Feldman has written a book detailing her years in the Orthodox community
  • Feldman claims the Orthodox community largely ignores abuse at the hands of its leadership

Editor's note: Deborah Feldman was raised in the Satmar Hasidic community in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York, and wrote a book about the experience. She attends Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York with her son.

(CNN) -- When I rode the No. 7 train to Citi Field last Sunday, I was one of the few women in a train car packed with Hasidic Jews. My knees were in full view, but I shielded my face behind a pair of shades and a copy of Christopher Hitchens' atheist bible, "God Is Not Great," held conspicuously aloft. Toward the end of our shared journey, when it had become clear that the only people left on the train were headed to the same event, I looked up from my book, removed the sunglasses and asked the men sitting across from me if they were there to protest the Internet or the abuse.

Taken aback, they looked at me for a moment before answering "both." They did not recognize me as Deborah Feldman, the author of the controversial memoir about the life I fled as a Hasidic woman.

Some 60,000 ultra-Orthodox men had gathered to discuss the dangers that prurient elements of the Internet present to their community. They were probably unaware of the planned counterdemonstration, which was being organized by a good friend of mine named Ari Mandel. He's a fellow ex-Hasidic Jew, who, like me, felt compelled to protest the rampant injustice and abuse covered up within the Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox worlds, some of which we had seen or experienced firsthand.

After exiting the train and lingering in the parking lot for a moment, persona non grata because of my female status, I was approached by an erudite-looking Jew, who asked what I was doing there. He claimed that I couldn't possibly understand what the rally was about, that the event was for men only. Reporters inched closer, extending mikes and cameras. People seemed to think something juicy was going to happen. I opened my mouth to talk, and suddenly I felt a surge of adrenaline, the kind that makes your knees all shaky, fuel my words. It was my first time standing face to face with a man who represented my former oppressor.

What I said boiled down to this: I am horrified that religious Jews would spend millions of dollars on a rally to protest an unstoppable force such as the Internet instead of focusing their attention on the real problems their community is facing, such as the sexual abuse scandals that are now public knowledge. The Internet can never be stopped, but parents and kids can be educated as to how to use it, just like in the real world. Instead, I argued, the ultra-Orthodox were just trying to bury their heads in the sand and ignore the real problems by waving a giant distraction in front of it.

Feldman\'s memoir details the life she fled as a Hasidic woman.
Feldman's memoir details the life she fled as a Hasidic woman.

I spoke with emotion because five minutes later I would join a group of people across the street, some of whom were formerly Hasidic or Orthodox, and others who were still part of the community, but had summoned the courage to speak for the voiceless, all of whom had suffered or witnessed some form of abuse at the hands of the religious leadership. We held signs that said, "The Internet Is Not the Problem," or "The Internet Didn't Molest Me," because we felt outraged that real problems were being ignored while the community spent millions on a gathering designed to deal with the "evil" of the Internet.

The fact is that some Hasidic and Orthodox Jews continue to ostracize victims of abuse and support their abusers, and they offer no apology for doing so. They continue to deprive young men and women of vital education necessary for a successful and happy future. And both insiders, who are afraid to speak out, and people who've left, feel that this is the case. It is no longer possible to pretend we don't exist. To those who remained across the street, both physically and metaphorically, we called, "You're on the wrong side!"

Ours was the very power that the Orthodox rally was protesting, the power that the Internet gives to the lowly people and takes away from the rabbinic leadership. However, there is a new threat that the Hasidic community has to be concerned about, and this one is greater than the Internet. The Hasidic community is endangered by their own members, for those who have been betrayed and abused are now brave enough to speak; they will no longer be bullied into silence. The discussion has begun, and it has begun publicly, in the media.

Clearly, Hasidic communities feel threatened, as evidenced by the recent post in xoJane titled "What Women's Media Needs to know about Chassidic Women." This essay was ostensibly written by a Hasidic woman in response to the media attention focused on the Citi Field spectacle. It has sparked a controversy both in the comments section and on forums such as Metafilter, a backlash that I felt compelled to join (and blog about). The article enraged many of my peers, some of whom are religious, because it replaces what could have been a sensitive personal essay about Judaism with a whitewashed version of Hasidic life.

Chaya, the author of this article, assures us that she is a media professional with a degree in women's studies from a liberal college. Sadly, Chaya omitted the most crucial details about her identity, namely that she is a member of the most liberal Hasidic sect (Lubavitch) and that she is a Ba'al Teshuva, which translates as someone who returned to the faith. So a woman who resided on the most liberal end of the spectrum in the most tolerant of all Hasidic sects, who had chosen this way of life after she had already had access to a secular education, wrote an essay on behalf of all Hasidic women across the global spectrum, telling women's media that all is glorious and wonderful in their world. She made sweeping claims on behalf of Hasidic women: They all love their husbands, enjoy following the laws of marital purity and are safer from cervical cancer as a result. She also reduced all non-Hasidic women to a coke-snorting and skinny jeans-wearing caricature.

Words cannot adequately describe the depth of my disappointment regarding this woman's attempt at public relations. She said she felt compelled to write this in the wake of negative media attention, but she could have opted for a thoughtful essay on how she had come to choose her spiritual path and why it made her feel so fulfilled. She could have shared her personal journey without diminishing the pain and suffering of women who hadn't been consulted before she put pen to paper.

If Hasidic women can summon the moral fortitude to face up to the cracks in the foundation of the lifestyle, they can perhaps work toward repairing it, and create a healthier, happier environment for their children to grow up in.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Deborah Feldman.

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