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April 7, 2017 7:11 am

New York Times Obsessively Cheerleads for Those Exiting Orthodox Judaism

avatar by Ira Stoll

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Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The New York Times Magazine carries a feature about people who leave fervently Orthodox Judaism.

On the surface, it appears reasonable enough. Not everyone born into a fervently Orthodox Jewish family may be cut out for it, and those struggling with their transitions in life certainly deserve compassion and support.

But the more one thinks about it and looks at the record of previous Times coverage of the issue, the stranger the article seems.

After all, this isn’t exactly the first time the New York Times has written about the phenomenon it calls “off the derech” — hasidic or black-hat Orthodox Jews who become less religiously observant, sometimes dramatically so.

An October 2014 Times “On Religion” column by Samuel G. Freedman tackled the topic, mentioning Footsteps, a non-profit organization that specializes in supporting individuals in this situation.

An August 2015 report for a New York Times subsidiary, the Women in the World conference, also mentions and relies on Footsteps. The subheadline of that report is, “Women who leave ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities often face isolation, loneliness, and a crisis of identity.” That article mentions Faigy Mayer, a former Belz hasid, reporting, “it remains unclear how — or even if — Mayer’s past contributed to her suicide.”

A March 2017 Times feature about actors in a Yiddish play reported: “During a rehearsal break, the five actors discussed going ‘off the derech’ — or O.T.D. — an expression that uses the Hebrew word for path and refers to leaving the Hasidic religion and lifestyle.” That article used a kind of pidgin English in referring to hasidim as “Hasidics.”

Now comes this 2017 New York Times Magazine article to re-plow this already thoroughly tilled soil. Again, there’s friendly reporting on Footsteps. Again there is inconclusive rumination on Faigy Mayer:

I learned about Footsteps in 2015, after the very public suicide of one of its young members. Her name was Faigy Mayer… After I heard about Faigy’s death, I interviewed people who knew her, hoping to be able to paint a portrait I ultimately couldn’t. Her family relationships had been too contentious, and only a few of her family members would speak with me. Her friends told me different stories, but ultimately, the only thing I could say about her was that she was sick and didn’t get the care she needed. On the night of a Footsteps Thanksgiving celebration, I returned home to news that Faigy’s older sister, Sara, who was religious and had just been released from a psychiatric facility, had hanged herself in her parents’ home.

The Times doesn’t offer any evidence that suicide rates are higher among Orthodox or formerly Orthodox Jews than they are among the rest of the Jewish or non-Jewish population.

In fact, though the Times doesn’t mention it, research in the field indicates the converse — that religious affiliation and religious service attendance protects against suicide attempts, that there are lower suicide rates in more religious countries, and that, as a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry put it, “Religiously unaffiliated subjects had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts and more first-degree relatives who committed suicide than subjects who endorsed a religious affiliation.”

Yet the Times goes chasing after suicide news, not among secular non-Jews or people with no religious background, but among people who were or were raised as very religious Jews.

If the Times finds individual religious transitions so newsworthy, one wonders, why doesn’t it write more about people leaving other religious traditions — say, people struggling to abandon Catholicism, or Mormonism, or Islam? Or why doesn’t it write, in the same sympathetic and supportive and non-skeptical tone, about people unhappy with their secular upbringing who are finding meaning and happiness by becoming religious Jews?

Instead the newspaper obsesses over the formerly Orthodox Jews.

The phrase “off the derech” has appeared in the Times on at least five separate occasions in the past three years. The phrase “baal teshuva,” used to describe formerly secular Jews who have returned to Orthodox religion, hasn’t appeared at all since 2011, according to a search of the Times archives. (And the 2011 reference was in a Times review of a play about a baal teshuva struggling with his gay identity.)

Back in 1984, when the Times Magazine did consider the baal teshuva phenomenon, it made sure to include a quote from a Reform rabbi denouncing Orthodoxy for what the Reform rabbi called “intolerable bigotry.” The recent Times Magazine article on the “off the derech” individuals included no such quote from anyone on the other side of the story. Not a word from a representative of the Orthodox Judaism that the Times writer denounces as so much “superstition and magical thinking.” It’s not a balanced treatment.

The Times Magazine description of Judaism is a hostile and even ignorant caricature. The Times journalist writes:

I swore I would rid myself of the vestiges of what was taught to me, which was to be afraid of an angry God who made me a certain way and then disavowed that way in the hope that I’d be some ideal of a person who committed arbitrary acts of blind devotion — eating kosher food only; not turning the lights on during Saturdays; not wearing linen and wool together, which is an actual and serious Torah law.

The law about the combination of wool and linen — sha’atnez — isn’t necessarily “arbitrary.” No less a Jewish thinker than Maimonides wrote that it was a way of drawing a boundary between the Jews and the practices of idolatrous priests. There are plenty of other ways to understand Jewish observance and practice than as simply “fear of an angry God.” Some people might think about it as gratitude for a loving God. Some people might think about it as ordering an otherwise chaotic existence, or carrying on a noble family tradition.

I don’t expect the Times necessarily to endorse these views of Jewish observance or tradition. But good journalism — that is, open-minded, balanced, fair journalism — might involve reporting that these points of views exist. Instead, the Times obsessively cheerleads for people who abandon traditional Judaism, while ignoring those who are choosing to join its ranks.

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here. 

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