Leaving the fold in search of a besser life

The Montreal Gazette/May 3, 2013

Montreal - It began in Grade 4 when Mendy Pape used to sneak into a deli before attending class at a Montreal yeshiva to buy beef jerky and ice cream, and would linger around the magazine section, hungry to feast his eyes on even the minutest morsel of published material. It didn't matter what it was. By the time he was 16, he had stopped wearing a kippah and observing the Sabbath.

Today, Pape, 23, the seventh of 11 children from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish home, is pursuing an education in watchmaking in Trois-Rivières and working full-time as a cook. He goes by the pseudonym Nick Parker on Facebook, a derivative of his original last name Papernick, so as to avoid backlash from the ultra-Orthodox community for posing in pictures with girls and donning a shaved face.

Not everybody is built for it, the same way some kids drop out of high school, or choose art over accounting. Pape knew from an early age that the rigid moral and religious structure of ultra-Orthodox Judaism didn't mesh with his moral code, so he left.

"You're coming from a community where every action, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, is calculated," Pape said. With no access to a computer, television, or newspapers, his only contact with the outside world was on Friday nights when he went downtown to hand out pro-Orthodox Judaism pamphlets.

"I came from a place where watching a movie was the epitome of no-no," he said. Despite having fallen off the path, he endorses ultra-Orthodoxy as a wholesome way of life, but not suitable for everyone.

Pape considers himself fully integrated into secular culture, but will not eat pork or work on Saturday out of respect for his father. He talks to his father occasionally on the phone, but Pape's mother no longer considers him a part of the family and has excommunicated him.

Of the 95,000 Jews in Montreal, the 19th-largest Jewish population in the world, approximately 13,300 are ultra-Orthodox. According to Hillel, the organization responsible for offering moral and economic support to former ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, 400 cut their roots each year. There are no official organizations in Montreal to document statistics, but according to Yisroel Bernath - the head rabbi at the Monkland Chabad Centre who facilitated Pape's transition - Pape is one of the hundreds of young Montrealers who, over the years, have put their ultra-Orthodox past to bed.

During the past decade, Bernath has been approached by more than 100 young adults seeking a way out. An active social media user with more than 14,000 Twitter followers, he said his secular behaviour is not the only reason he has acted as an integral source of guidance for many young people and their families.

"Maybe because I'm accepting," he said. "Every person is special. I don't look at a person and judge them based on how they look, but who they are. I think we need to judge people based on who they are and not who we want them to be. So, they're looking for someone who will say 'you're okay, you're fine.' " They approach a rabbi because it's a familiar figure, he said.

Bernath counsels parents to ensure they maintain strong ties with their children even after they've left the fold. "If I want my kid to be a doctor and they decide to be an accountant instead, does that mean I'm going to brush them off? Our children are individuals and we shouldn't try to choose their path," he said. "We are their educators and we should try to bring them up with the best values we can. And we hope when they grow up, they make good choices, but we can't control them."

In 2005, Bernath conducted a field study to understand why people leave the ultra-Orthodox fold. He found that, it is not necessarily the temptation of wanting to experience eating a cheeseburger or watching a movie, but often because parents tend to speak negatively in the home about rabbis and teachers when the child is young. A child, who, at a young age, can only "see black and white, as opposed to a grey area," according to Bernath, deduces that Judaism as a whole must be bad after hearing the parent say a rabbi is "bad."

Pape's escape mirrors the YouTube movement that blossomed in New York last year called It Gets Besser, meaning "better" in Yiddish. Its founder, Samuel Katz, 23, grew up in the Satmar ultra-Orthodox community and attended yeshiva in New York. In 2011, he stumbled upon before and after photos on his Facebook news feed of his peers as ultra-Orthodox Jews featuring payot (curly sideburns) and long beards, and then as secular Jews in T-shirts and jeans. He solicited a dozen of his friends to send in their own before and after shots in hopes of inspiring those struggling in silence to make the change. Today, the It Gets Besser video has nearly 40,000 views.

Katz felt compelled to take action after arguing for hours with a rabbi who told him he would never be able to integrate into secular society or find a job, and that anybody who tries to leave inevitably fails. "I knew the truth," said Katz, who left the community five years ago. "I knew other people who did it, so I really wanted to create something that could counter that message."

In 2010, American author Dan Savage created the It Gets Better Project directed at teens who needed help coping with issue of suicide in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. It Gets Besser is a Jewish spin on a problem rooted fundamentally in the same place: the need for support.

Katz, along with former ultra-Orthodox friends Ari, who joined the military, Melissa, an actress, and Oscar, a transgender individual, endeavoured to create a support movement that they would have wanted before they left the fold. They asked peers to record a video along with a selection of links viewers could use to help them more smoothly integrate into secular society - where many, for the first time, will be interacting with outsiders and learning English.

"Someone (in the fold) would ask me: 'Well, how do you dress?' And I would say, 'It's out there, just Google it.' There's a video for just about anything you need to know, even crossing the street," Katz said.

For Katz, leaving the past behind came with many side-effects, including culture shock. "My full name is Usher Shmuel. So when I went to school in the States, I had to use my legal name, which was Sam. When I had told people my other name was Usher, they would say: 'Oh, like the R&B singer?' and I had no idea who that was."

The creators of the movement acknowledged the risks of getting behind a message of this nature. "We're not saying you should, we're not saying you would, we're saying you could," is unbiased enough of a mandate not to warrant flak from the ultra-Orthodox community, Katz said. "If someone wants to stay a yeshiva student, who am I to tell them whether that's acceptable or not? I only want people to know about the possibility, not the necessity, of leaving."

Katz estimated that one in ten of his yeshiva peers have thought about leaving the fold.

Of course, there are many shades to the story, said 24-year-old Montreal-based house and hip-hop DJ Joshua Z. Joshua, who requested his last name not be publicized, is one of six children. He knew from a very early age that he would not be able to continue the rest of his life in the ultra-Orthodox community because of various unfavourable experiences at school.

"I was hit and locked in closets day after day in the yeshiva," Joshua said, fiddling with an earlobe. "When I was younger, I used to have infections on my ear because it got split from my teachers lifting me by the ear," he said.

"It says somewhere in the Bible that it's a mitzvah (good deed) for teachers to do that - at least that's what the teacher said," his brother, Israel Z., added. Israel, 29, who helps with Joshua's music production, looked for the exit sign at age 12, when he was out one Friday night on Van Horne Ave., in the heart of Montreal's ultra-Orthodox community, asking people if they were Jewish as part of a Lubavitch (ultra-Orthodox sect) custom.

"How could you believe in God?" one lady asked him in a fit of rage. After learning she was a Holocaust survivor, he instinctively parted ways with religion. An avid believer in math and science, subjects he was never taught at the yeshiva, he describes himself as an atheist.

Joshua's producer/manager and longtime friend, Moe Wilansky, 24, is the seventh of 14 children and cites the "laws and restrictions" of ultra-Orthodoxy as being his main impetus for leaving.

"It started when I was 15. I wanted to open my mind to the outside world, so I started going downtown every night - anything to avoid being in synagogue," he said.

"The beauty about leaving the fold is that you don't look back," Joshua said. Joshua, Israel and Wilansky conceded that leaving has become infinitely easier than it was 10 years ago because of social media, which has been a contributing factor to the trend's upward climb in Montreal.

"We're actually not off to go out onto the street and do drugs," Joshua said. "We care about the planet and we care about our future, and our kids' future. We're living for us, for reality."

Despite being ultra-Orthodox all her life, Tanya Zajdel, 26, empathizes with those who choose to leave. "I think it's healthy to find a way to express your spiritual connection in the way that speaks to you, and sometimes that way is not exactly what you were taught, and that's fine," she said.

The period between late adolescence and early adulthood means more independence, travel and work, which she said enables people to "stop and really think for themselves as individuals and what about their lifestyles they really believe in and appreciate and what they actually want to keep doing, or not doing."

For Zajdel, it's crucial to address whether your upbringing made you a better human being, parent and friend. The point, she said, is "not about how observant of every small detail you are when you grow up."

Binyomin Weiss, chief rabbi of Beth Din of Montreal - where Jewish people bring their disputes to be resolved and rabbis supervise the production of kosher food - said we should improve the way we handle problem children, and treat them with more passion and warmth.

"I feel pain," he said, "because if a person that grows up in an ultra-Orthodox family decides to make a drastic step, (they) probably had some very unpleasant experiences in the family or community. It causes me pain for the community and family."

Weiss said we need to take a close look at ourselves and ask why this happens. Though the unresolved issue has tarnished some family ties, there is hope for all, including Pape, whose father still wants him to succeed.

"Nowadays, there's a trend to be thin and everybody wants to be a model," said Pape's rabbi father, Dr. Dovid Sholom Pape, editor of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Moshiach Times magazine, which is distributed in Montreal. "But if your child stops eating to appear a certain way and they then become malnourished, you feel terrible for them. But you never stop loving your child, no matter what. Falling off the path of the Torah is the same thing."

He recognized that people experiment with a variety of choices, but that's not a reason to marginalize them. The differences between the two worlds are irreconcilable, but he said the power of family can bridge that gap.

"I love him from the bottom of my heart and soul," the elder Pape said tearfully.

"You said it gets besser? It kind of gets besser, but not fully, because you'll always have that connection to Judaism," Mendy Pape said. "If you want to break yourself off of it, you'll never get there. But, what does get besser is that there's a big part of this community who sees me around. They know exactly who I am and what family I'm from, and slowly, people are accepting me. I do hope for the day that, without growing out my beard and taking out my piercings, my mother will accept me, too."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.