Leah Vincent knows Squirrel Hill well. She is the daughter and one of 11 children of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi. But when she returns Thursday to speak at the neighborhood’s branch of the Carnegie Library, it will be as an advocate for a more secular way of life.
At age 16, she left the Yeshivish community, a fundamentalist sect of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Her initial attempts to forge a new life for herself were disastrous. With no previous access to television, secular music and other popular media, she experienced major culture shock. The isolated life she led while working as a receptionist at a business in Brooklyn, N.Y., made her especially needy and vulnerable. She became the victim of a sexual assault, cut herself and had suicidal thoughts.
Yet she also became the first child in her family to attend college, and in 2009, she earned a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard. She later worked as a consultant to foundations, married and has a 3-year-old daughter. Now 32, the author of “Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood,” speaks at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. She is glad to be at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh because it was always a place where she felt comfortable, she said.
Ms. Vincent last visited Pittsburgh about six years ago, when her father, Rabbi Yisroel Miller, retired from Congregation Poale Zedek. Her parents now live in Calgary, Canada.
“I was still one of the rabbi’s daughters. I hadn’t told my story. My parents were leaving Pittsburgh. They said if I wanted to come, I could come.
"I was eager to have that last chance to see the place where I grew up. I came in for a few hours, made an appearance at the dinner and left,“ she said, adding that the experience was “like being a ghost in your hometown.“
For the past three years, Ms. Vincent has not had any communication with her parents.
”Whenever we are on talking terms, they don’t want to hear anything about my life. They think that everything I’m saying about my life is a lie. That makes it very hard to talk to them. They are unable to see me as a person. That makes it hard for me to see them as people,” she said during a telephone interview.
Her book, which was published this year, has made her an advocate for people who want to leave cloistered religious communities. Pittsburgh’s ultra-Orthodox community is small, she said. In the Yeshivish community, men devote themselves to studying the sacred Torah while women raise their children, cook, clean, wash and attend synagogue.
"We were integrated into the more modern Orthodox communities. My dad was doing missionary work. We were like the outpost of ultra-Orthodoxy in Pittsburgh, trying to convince the other Jews in the area that our way of life was the only authentic Jewish way of life.“
In ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, she said, “women are denied positions of spiritual and communal authority. Their lives are totally shaped by religious authority so that their lives are totally dictated by men.
”There’s no way for that to produce a good result for women. Women’s voices need to be heard.”
Ms. Vincent said the ultra-Orthodox way of life was presented as the only path to happiness. “We were always told that when we leave ultra-Orthodoxy we are going to end up dead.” For some people, “it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
While she still attends synagogue occasionally, Ms. Vincent said, she is more of a cultural Jew who is interested in Jewish questions but no longer believes in God.
She is active in Footsteps, a nonprofit organization that helps people who leave ultra-Orthodox communities build new lives. She met her husband, who is also a former ultra-Orthodox Jew, there.
People who have left these communities are said to be OTD, short for off the derech, a Hebrew word that means path.
”We have reclaimed that term proudly,“ Ms. Vincent said. "I am very grateful and proud of a lot of what I’ve accomplished.”
Shortly before giving birth to her daughter, she wrote to her father but never received a reply. She stays close to one of her younger brothers, who is in law school.
"We see each other whenever we can. He has a child. We Skype a lot so we can keep up with each other.“
While she is glad to have her own life and family, Ms. Vincent said, ”I obviously miss having parents. That is a loss that stays with me.“
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