‘How I escaped the alternative reality of Chasidic life’

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‘How I escaped the alternative reality of Chasidic life’

After almost three decades Akiva Weingarten left the Chasidic world behind and found an unfamiliar new one waiting for him.

Akiva Weingarten was 28 when he decided that he’d had enough. Born into a Satmar Chasidic family in Monsey, a predominantly strictly-Orthodox town about 25 miles north of New York City, he describes in his memoir ultra-Orthodox growing up in a “alternative reality”.

His first language was Yiddish. Contact with both non-Jews and non-Orthodox Jews was exclusively professional. Rigid separation of the sexes begat underground same-sex relations.

From a very early age, Weingarten tells me he was taught that Chasidim were “the centre of the world” and to be Chasidic was “the real way of being Jewish”.

Akiva Weingarten as a young boy.

Weingarten began to question strict Orthodoxy “from a very young age”, he says, though it wasn’t until his mid-20s that his sense of alienation fully developed.

By then, he was living in Israel, married with children, and ordained as a rabbi.

He was also working for a kosher internet service provider, giving him unfiltered access to the world outside.

“I started researching the history of theology, of other religions, science, archaeology – things that are basic knowledge for the rest of humanity – and found out how all of this had been hidden from me,” Weingarten recalls.

By his late 20s, Weingarten simply couldn’t see himself spending his life on something that he didn’t believe in, in a society that wasn’t going to change fast enough to allow him to feel comfortable remaining in it.

He felt he had to leave. “I think people can live a lie up to a certain extent,” he explains, “but not forever.”

To leave the strictly-Orthodoxy world is to migrate across centuries. It means giving up everything one has ever known – your spouse, children, job, home, shul – and entering a world without the skills even to do simple things like open a bank account.

For Weingarten, going off the derech meant leaving Israel for Germany in 2014, landing at Postdam University’s Abraham Geiger College. Reading Jewish studies in the context of German liberal Judaism, he discovered “how freeing it was to learn [about] and study Jewish texts and history from a non-ultra-Orthodox perspective: in a way where you can question openly”.

Today, Weingarten is the rabbi of liberal Jewish communities in Basel, Switzerland and Dresden. He also runs Besht Yeshiva, which is designed to support those who have left the strictly-Orthodox world to transition to the secular world, find a place in a new Jewish community, and gain a foothold in the German job market.

“I left the community about seven years ago and I can see the enormous changes going on with it,” Weingarten says. “The number of births within the community is decreasing. The number of people leaving is increasing, and the number who are living a double life is increasing.”

Weingarten concludes: “I believe that the ultra-Orthodox world is living on borrowed time.”

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