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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.

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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. 

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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  • Mel Profit

    The NYT is definitely anti-Israel. But anyone leaving the Haredi cult, which does not represent real Judaism in any way, should be praised

  • Ben Ziggy Faulding

    “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.”

    Here you go.
    https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/22/opinion/why-are-white-death-rates-rising.html

    • JBUB

      Article is not focused on suicide alone nor is it focused on secularism of the people involved.

  • Ben Ziggy Faulding

    “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?”
    The Times has in fact written about all these things.
    https://mobile.nytimes.com/…/11/arts/music/11shyne.html…
    https://mobile.nytimes.com/…/leaving-islam-for-atheism…
    https://mobile.nytimes.com/…/the-evangelical-scion-who…
    https://mobile.nytimes.com/…/some-mormons-search-the…
    Apparently the author of this piece is incapable of basic research.

    • Bert

      Perhaps the NY Times should also write about former readers who got fed up with the leftist bias that infects (or infests?) the sick mentality of too many of their writers.

  • Richard Colin Ames

    As a Karaite Jew. I see this as an inventible phenomenon. Excessive rules and regulations added to the written Torah causes a burden to be laid upon the souls of the Jewish people and detracts from the Divine Torah given to Moses (of righteous memory) at Mount Sinai. To add to the law is to detract and to detract from it is to add. Jewish tradition and ritual is made to enhance the religious life of a Jew, but the Ultraorthodox and the Rabbinate take things too far. They need to come back to the true essence of the Torah.

  • Leslie Benjamini

    The N.Y. Times is a progressive liberal rag that has no respect for other points of view. Once you know that you understand exactly where it is coming from & how it’s bias colors every printed word.

  • Abby Hyman

    Do you think that the NYTimes obsession with all things Jewish and Israeli speaks to their anti-Semitism and fear as being identified as being “too Jewish”? What is so newsworthy about anyone moving from one sect of their religion to another?

  • Dani

    The NY Times has always bee anti-Israel. Now, it seems they are also anti-Jewish orthodoxy. Preety soon they will be simply antisemitic.

  • danehrlich

    The fact is you can’t complain about how devout Muslims dress when the super frum Jews look even more out of place. At least Muslims dress as they would back in their native lands…the Hassid and Haredim have no such reference points…they appear out of touch in any society. That’s because their customs are unique to the dark depths of eastern Europe where they were born.

    As for people who leave the fold, unlike Islam they aren’t murdered,but may be cast out by the family. Still,the the conservative and reform communities will be glad to have them.

  • Reb_Yaakov

    Instead of referring to “Jews who become less religiously observant,” one should say “Jews who become differently observant.” “Less” can be a judgmental, even pejorative, term. No one group sets the standard for the meaning of “observant.”

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