The following is a transcript of Episode 128 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer. And we’re recording on Thursday, February 9th, 2023.
So over the hundred-plus episodes of Identity Crisis that we’ve done since we launched this podcast back in the spring of 2020, we’ve done quite a few on what maybe we’ll call bad Jewish behaviors.
We did an episode on the violence perpetrated by some radical Israeli settlers against their Palestinian neighbors. We did an episode on Bernie Madoff. We did an episode on Chaim Walder, an abusive super predator in the Ultra-Orthodox community who thrived as of all things, a children’s book author. We did multiple episodes on occupation and its corrosive consequences, and on scandal inside Jewish institutions.
There’s a lot of good reasons to talk about these stories. We can’t fight the wickedness in our midst if we don’t acknowledge that it’s there, and we have a prophetic tradition for that very reason. To be morally serious and intellectually honest right now in Jewish history is to see that Jews are just like everyone else, and even as we claim that we seek to be exceptional, there’s no guarantees that Jews actually will be exceptional.
I think that most of all, I want our Jewish conversation to sometimes exhibit qualities of a mirror that we hold up to ourselves and then for us to move past just seeing our collective flaws and enabling us to take responsibility to repair them. The goal of talking about Jews doing bad things is not that we reinforce the good Jew, bad Jew divide that Emily Tamkin warned us against back in October, but rather that we be honest and accountable about what Jewishness does convey and really about what it should.
There are plenty of Jews out there who would prefer the alternative, who insist that to lead in the Jewish public is to hold up to others the best version of ourselves. In the Israel space, this is known as hasbara, a word that loosely means propaganda, but the hasbara industry is not alone on this. For the better part of the 20th century, a lot of Jewish conversation in America took place under the specter of a kind of self-imposed gag rule For Jewish leaders that we quote, don’t air our dirty laundry in public.
You know, sometimes, for some Jews, this was motivated by shame, by embarrassment. Like, can you believe that one of us did this or that? So let’s never speak of it. Sometimes, more often, perhaps, it was motivated by fear, less a person or an incident be a shanda for the goyim, a source of shame, that might then come for other Jews with retribution collective consequences.
Now I’d like to think that most of the time it wasn’t Jews trying to pretend that these things don’t happen. Shame and fear rather, are pretty serious motivators on their own. But as I heard my colleague Tal Becker say once, the belief that we shouldn’t air our dirty laundry in public shouldn’t be an excuse not to do the laundry. It’s easy to see how a culture of fear and shame can make us feel protected in the short term, but allows a lot of rot to go uncleaned.
A lot has changed in the past 20 or 30 years of Jewish public discourse, and I’d go as so far as to say that if once upon a time Jews feared airing our dirty laundry in public, nowadays the Jewish public square is basically a giant dirty laundry clothesline. It’s pretty much all we do. Highlighting the failures of other Jews is oftentimes a convenient way for Jews to engage in a power play with one another, a way for us to signal internally to one another or externally to non-Jews, that we are right or better than those other Jews, or to use public shaming as a strategy for some sort of social change.
Today’s episode is inspired by an email from today’s guest, a few months ago. There were a series of stories in the New York Times about the failures of the ultra-Orthodox education system in New York, including the alleged misuse of public funds and the ensuing lack of accountability. It was precisely the kind of moment that tends to inspire two totally separate conversations. One about the issue itself and the other about the story, about what it means for Jewish dirty laundry to be aired in public.
Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL was quoted as saying that quote, given that hate crimes and hate incidents against Jews, particularly Orthodox Jews who are more visibly identifiable, have risen greatly over the past few years, such stereotyping can add fuel to the fire, and we ask that the New York Times take this into account in their investigative reporting and that the readers of these articles refrain from generalizing about these communities.
Lani Santo, the extraordinary CEO of a remarkable organization called Footsteps reached out and proposed today’s topic: Is it ever a good time to talk about the failures of our community? Do we have to subordinate our failures to a climate of antisemitism out of fear of how people are gonna see Jews? And to paraphrase an older Jew from a long time ago, well, if we’re not gonna talk about this now, then when?
I’ll introduce Lani more formally as we go, as well as about her organization, an organization that she has grown enormously during her tenure. But I, I wanna talk about the organization and its work, but, but let’s start with this issue. Lani, you said in your email that this is a conversation that’s already happening on Twitter. I suspect it’s happening among many of the. Orthodox Jews and ex-Orthodox Jews that you serve in your organization.
I want you to bring us into that conversation as you see it playing out. This question of, can we talk about corruption, rot in sectors of the Jewish community? And if we can’t talk about it, is there gonna be some time or some framework where it’s gonna be possible to do so?
Lani: Thanks, Yehuda, and thanks for having me today. On the question of can we talk about it and should we talk about it, I, I would imagine that you would understand where we’re coming from and ultimately I think that this is a question of values, right?
From my perspective and from our perspective, standing up for the rights of individuals to lead self-determined lives with access to build lives in which they could thrive, and they’re supported by an inclusive community, that doesn’t shame them, these are Jewish values.
To stand up for those values is in fact to stand up for Jewish values and for then, for people to bring in a claim that this is gonna lead to anti-Semitism is, is actually like ultimately a sacred disruption. To say something is anti-Semitic when it’s not is, is gonna water down the importance of of anti-Semitism, which is a valid and real and scary thing that’s growing in our day and time.
There’s a lot of fear out there, and the shadow of the Holocaust is a long one, but that also doesn’t diminish the lived experience that people have, right? Whether they’re coming from communities that they have a lot of love for, many of them still have a lot of love for, with relationships in those communities, with family members, with nephews, and people are coming from a space that they want the communities to do better for them and they want the communities to do better for the people that are still in the communities.
And so to then turn around and say, you have no right to do this, or it’s a shameful thing to do, is is also a hurtful claim. And again, I think waters down the issue of antisemitism as well.
Yehuda: So let’s talk a little bit about the organization itself. I’m just reading the description that’s on your website. “Footsteps is the only organization in the United States providing comprehensive services to people who have chosen to leave their ultra-Orthodox communities and begin new lives.”
You offer a range of services, social and emotional support, educational career guidance, workshops, social activities, and thanks to your work again on your website, “formerly Ultra-Orthodox Jews have a safe, supportive, and flourishing community to turn to as they work on defining their own identities, building new connections, and leading productive lives in their own terms.”
I think since you’ve been there, you’ve grown the team from four to, I wanna say, 28. Maybe that’s the right number. Close enough.
Lani: It’s always hard to know, right?
Yehuda: I know. I know.
Lani: How many, how many people are on staff at this moment count in time?
Yehuda: Who counts? Yeah.
Lani: We’re around 30 right now.
Yehuda: Yeah. But I would say what it, what it suggests is that you are both an organization, supporting people, a social services organization, but you’re also increasingly representing a segment of the population that on one hand has left certain communities, on the other hand is very animated about the successes and failures of those communities.
So let’s, I wanna probe that a little bit cause it kind of start, where you started was from a place of like, most of the time when people are kind of cheering on the New York Times, finally doing this investigative work, they’re doing so out of a sense of love for the wellbeing of the people who are in those communities, but certainly that’s not how it always sounds or feels like. So maybe you could help us like access where your stakeholders see this, see that work taking place.
Lani: Yeah, and I’ll say, right, every individual has their own experience. Sure. And many are coming from a place of really wanting to see those communities that they grew up in, that they have siblings in Yeshiva cheder, right? Like they have nieces about to get married. Like they want the best for that, and they also want the best for people to be able to like, have a ability to earn an income to care for their family, to not have to rely on the, like, handouts from government and from the community, which has an amazing ecosystem, but people have pride and they want to be able to earn for themselves and provide for themselves.
And so, yeah, I, I do really think that for those who are leaving ultra-Orthodoxy, there is a unique space where they can help the broader public really understand where they came from with love and with respect. And then also, yes, call ’em out in moments when there has not been love and respect directed at them, right?
Like if, if someone has their parents testifying against them in court and saying that, they’re not fit to be a parent, right? That’s a grandparent testifying against an adult child saying, my daughter or my son should not have access to their children because they’re crazy, quote-unquote, right? They’re unstable, quote-unquote.
And that craziness, I’m using air quotes here, or instability, is actually someone who’s searching to live an authentic life. And to have parents in a community turn on you, it’s hard to hold that love. And I’m saying, so that’s why I’m saying like it’s not always that each person who’s leaving is holding, is there’s a lot of pain that people are holding as well.
But I think in all of this we have to be living them multiplicity. There’s a both and here. And there’s a way that we can be holding the Haredi community accountable to the things that a Jewish community should be, right? Living with integrity, educating our children so that they, they know how to navigate the world, whatever world they land up in, and, and being honest brokers of just the directions that we go in life, right?
So there is a desire to hold accountability there, and I think that it ultimately does come from this place of wanting the community they come from to do better for those who choose to stay and those who might choose to leave.
Yehuda: So that makes sense to me. I wanna go deeper on it, but it makes sense to me when the question is like, how are ex-ultra-Orthodox Jews gonna process when finally some daylight is shed on environments or places where they think there are real problems. I understand how somebody might feel profoundly validated. Not only, wow, somebody else noticed this, but even if it’s motivated by, at the end of the day, I just want the kids in the community I came from to get a better math education. It’s not that I want them to be shamed, I just want them to learn math to be given opportunity, that I totally get.
The piece that makes this more complicated is for the vast majority of us American Jews who are not in those communities for whom the depiction of these narratives at best corroborates deeply held stereotypes that Jews already have about ultra-Orthodox Jews, and at worst foments or builds a narrative that is genuinely terrible.
If I can give you an example, right? So I remember a number of years ago I read this horrific and haunting article about the rates of, um, childhood sex abuse in Satmar. Like an absurd number. I was like really upset about it for a while. And then the more I learned about the rates of childhood sex abuse in general, I started to say like, well, is this really anomalous or is there something about the insularity, the study-ability, like I can name that as the problem, which helps me avoid that like Satmar has a version of an epidemic that takes place in a lot of places and it becomes easy to say, Satmar is corrupt, and then I don’t have to investigate what’s, what’s happening over here.
And I, I would guess that that’s actually a, it’s like a not uncommon thing that non-Orthodox Jews do. And they’re like, gasp, look at the Haredi educational systems as opposed to gasp, look at the public school systems down the block from where I might live on the Upper East side that are perhaps equally bad, but those are Jews, and therefore I’m supposed to have, I’m supposed to be prompted with like a different type of reaction. There’s a lot going on here.
Lani: Yeah. There’s, you just brought up a lot of different threads that I’m, um, there’s one that is about our universes of obligation and where they fall. Especially in this day and age and asking like, where should our activism lie? And if we don’t hold those in our community accountable, who else will slash also, right, like, if the government is not holding those institutions accountable or the public sector is not in the way that it should be, then there is this collective responsibility that those outside maybe the Haredi community hold to say, hold on, like, you know, there are certain rights that people have in America, and we need to ask our public officials to investigate abuse in those communities if it’s being covered up or hold the schools accountable to the education at all schools are being held accountable to.
And so I do think that there’s a piece that is unique here that is like, where is our responsibility in the broader mainstream Jewish community around our sisters and brothers in the Haredi world? And one could think, right, growing up from a modern Orthodox community living in a pretty black hat community myself, like I might have said, Ugh, like what is my responsibility to Chassidism? Like I, okay, like they’re gonna live their lives and yes, but if that is our general take, then where is that mirror that you hold up?
Because it’s not happening in the communities itself. The pressure will not come from within the community, and there has been much progress on a lot of fronts, right? Including domestic violence, including sexual misconduct, and still there is so much shame, and this goes back to the earlier piece that you just brought up, Yehuda, around like, what’s the distinction between abuse in the wider world and childhood sexual abuse and abuse in the Haredi community writ large? Satmar is its own enclave within that.
But I will say like right there is so much shame around airing your dirty laundry. And while it’s fair to say, okay, in the mainstream Jewish community, like maybe there’s a big laundry line of, of dirty laundry that’s being aired, but that is not what’s okay in spaces that are more insular. It is not said to be okay to do that, right.
And so if someone is growing up in a community where they’re saying, no, hide it, hide it, hide it. This person didn’t OD, they got into a fight at a party. ODing doesn’t happen. Or where there was not this abuse. Cover it up. It didn’t happen. Move this teacher who was problematic. Just don’t talk about it. Figure out a way to do it without it being in public. Like everything that that does for an individual when they have their own internal disruption that doesn’t fit with a conformity that is being asked of them, right?
Like, and whatever that is. A parent that’s leaving, a cousin that’s gay, sexual abuse, suicide in a family that’s covered up. All of these pieces are continuously asked to be covered up in a community that is asking there to be a strong veil of conformity. And so there needs to be a mirror in order for people to be able to like live healthy lives also, right.
And there is a really big distinction, Yehuda, between child sexual abuse in a space where people feel like they could go to their parents and talk about it, and someone who’s afraid to do that, lest they be cast out as different and shamed into silence. So, I, I, I just, I don’t think that there’s an exact correlation on the way that you just drew it.
Yehuda: You know, there’s a piece of this that feels about the New York Times. I wanna talk to you about the New York Times because, if you look at like the tiers, the levels of where we air the laundry in public, you know, there’s a big difference between publishing something in, or at least this is the argument between publishing something in the
Lani: The Forward.
Yehuda: The Forward. Or the now-deceased New York Jewish week, which doesn’t print anymore, right? In fact, the paper is part of the story, cause if you have communities that don’t access the internet, then it could be published online, who cares? Or they don’t acknowledge that they use the internet.
The New York Times has had for a long time a particular triggering quality to it because it is the paper of record, it is the public square. And ironically, it actually sometimes like works backwards because once people have decided that the New York Times is, I don’t know, anti-Israel or the New York Times is, has an anti-Semitic agenda, then I wonder whether like, on one hand it’s like a major escalation to get something into the Times. On the other hand, it allows a lot of community leaders to say, well, of course the New York Times is highlighting what they think are the problems in our community. It’s because they’re trying to make us look bad.
I’m curious, so I guess there’s two different questions. Like, do you think that there should be like a normative difference between where we push on particular stories? And I guess the second question is, does the fact that like the New York Times takes on a reputation of a certain way sometimes backfire against trying to create daylight or sunlight rather?
Lani: Yeah, I’ll see if I can tackle those.
I think the first question of, is the New York Times the right place to be doing this? The question is what’s the “this,” okay? The “this” in the fall, and this was on the Times agenda since 2019, and Covid interrupted the start of an investigation, but there are state laws that are not being followed and the advocates around Yeshiva reform and it’s important to name Yaffed in this conversation, right, like have been trying to do work to get Albany to hold the schools accountable with not much progress on the investigation process, okay?
And then the Times runs a series of investigations, and now they’re turning around. And in early January, the state said, oh, okay, now by June you have a deadline and you have to finish this investigation, right? And so an investigation that’s been dragging on for years is now getting the attention that it rightly deserves and that people were trying to do without engaging, you know, the New York Times in it.
But if there’s a certain issue of public accountability that our city and state officials are not paying attention to, I actually do think the Times is the exact right place for it. As you said, it’s the public record.
This doesn’t exactly relate to your second question, Yehuda, but there is this piece that is very surprising to me in this whole conversation of like the Times is fueling antisemitism. I wanna just name like where media consumption happens for the folks that are the deep perpetrators of really scary antisemitism, it is not the Times. They are not reading the Times. This is a different media consumption universe that is on dark holes of the internet that is creating really problematic discourse that is followed by actions.
People that are reading the Times are not this, it’s, it’s just like a totally different universe of media consumption. And so like to say, okay, like now the Times has a reputation of being anti-Semitic. The people who wrote the articles are two Jewish reporters. I mean, and it’s like, so that in of itself, I don’t know, does it water it down that the Times is taking this on? No, I don’t think so. I personally think that it’s the exact right place to be calling for public accountability.
Yehuda: I’m curious whether you’ve seen movement in sectors of the Hasidic communities that are being covered here. What we tend to hear about in the media is resistance, right? So the Agudah, you know, dismisses the allegations, deflects them, says it’s equally bad over here and we don’t do this and we don’t do that. I mean, the, the Agudah statement was kind of amazing cause they said if there’s fraud, of course, that’s terrible.
But, you know, that’s not really what we’re talking about. But like, in order to generate real social change, you’d have to have like a whole bunch of um, of receptors
Lani: Insiders, yes, right.
Yehuda: In the community. Right.
Lani: Yes, certainly. And I will say, right, like the, most activists, and I know this is true of Yaffed like started to try to do the work within the community and, and then the questions of it, of how to do that became a challenge, namely because people who wanted a better education for their kids in the community. And there are many, didn’t feel that they could speak publicly about it because they were afraid that they would be turned on, lose their kids, right?
And so this is the, also the piece about like, why do you only see largely people who are leaving being the spokespeople here? Well, they have the lived experience and they’re no longer afraid of the retaliation unless they’re in a custody proceeding, then they are. So in general, they’re speaking for their friends that are back in the community, that are living lives, that are trying to make it work. And I would say there are many, and like in the meta, if you step back and say, has there been movement in the Haredi community?
I think there are movements in multiple directions, right? There are segments, right? There’s, the Haredi community is not monolithic. There are segments that will and have been digging in their heels and becoming more insular. Sure. And there are many, many pockets that have been saying like, if we wanna thrive, if we wanna continue, we need to not kick our kids who are going off the derech out of the house. We need to address sexual abuse in our community, domestic violence.
And there are then advocates that are coming along within the community. And it’s much trickier, again, because these are parents who are at risk of losing custody of their children if they speak out. But there are many, many parents in the community who want to speak out and who I know will talk off the record, especially with our partners over at Yaffed about the changes they wanna see, but they can’t go on the record there.
And so then it’s like only people who’ve left can speak for this. And then they’re being accused of tearing down the community that they’re coming from, which is not what their goals are.
Yehuda: It sounds, I mean, I, I would suspect that this is an accusation that gets leveled against Footsteps all the time, right, as an organization that’s supporting people on the outside. I would imagine, I think I’ve seen it on in various places, the allegation that you’re not merely supporting people on the outside, that you are essentially evangelizing people out.
Now, I know that that’s not what you do, but it when, when you wrote to us, one of the things you said is you think that Footsteps actually could be a really interesting bridge builder between the conversation outside the Haredi community, about the Haredi community, and inside.
So maybe you could talk a little bit about negotiating that even as by virtue of just helping people once they’ve left, there are gonna be people who are gonna claim that you’re not a bridge builder, you are an underminer.
Lani: Yeah, I mean, and there will always be those claims and that’s not something that we’re really gonna be able to shift. I think what’s most important is that we live from a space of our, and act from a space of our values.
We come from a space of respect for individual choice and individual freedom. And so that means that for those who are choosing to lead a life in the Haredi world, we want to be helpful in creating conditions that further people’s agency and thriving wherever they’re living.
Our focus, cause we need to choose a focus, is on people who are choosing to leave. And we believe there is a multiplier effect where in reaction to that the Haredi community needs to then and at pockets of the communities, right? They need to look inwards and say like, what do we need to do to do better by our folks who maybe don’t fit into the boxes that we are ascribing and we hope for them? How do we do this better?
One of the things in our long-term goals that we have yet to take on, but really do see the importance of pursuing down the line is a question of what about all of these kids who are deemed at-risk, quote unquote, who are bouncing around the Yeshiva system, 14 to 17, not fitting in.
And I know that there are really interesting people working on these issues in the Haredi community. And what would it look like to behind the scenes partner with these folks and say, you know what? Like we all want the best for people who are feeling like they’re not gonna fit in, right? Once they come to us, they’re adults now, right? It’s over 18. What does it look like to have internal alliances?
And we don’t have to talk about it. We don’t have to talk about it publicly. How do we have those conversations? Like no one wants their kids on the street and no one wants them jumping off buildings. I believe it to be true. And so if we could come to a place of, we want what’s best for the individuals and have behind-the-scenes conversations, that’s a really important bridge-building space.
We do some of that here and there, and like we have had conversations with community leaders, especially after unfortunate instances of, of suicides that are publicized. It’s been a long time since there’s been anything big like that, but it’s, you know, it’s at points like that that we have people, and I won’t name big institutions in the Haredi community, reaching out to us and saying like, what could we do to help, right?
And the answer is like, let people live lives of their choosing and don’t stand in their way and support them if it’s not working for them. If this life is not working for them, maybe don’t shame people when they’re different and try to enable healthy behavior. And that doesn’t mean looking the other way when you know your kid is self-medicating and, and they’re 17 and you know, and you’re like, all right, well just come home and stay for Shabbos dinner and we won’t ask where you’re going. That’s not necessarily support. It’s tricky.
Yehuda: Yeah. I mean, what you’re articulating is actually a very profound way of getting at the whole dirty laundry question with what is, I think a deceptively simple take on Jewish peoplehood.
What you’re, what you’ve effectively said is our job is to care for those people who leave, who need support, and to try to create better conditions on the inside for people who stay.
Lani: Hundred percent.
Yehuda: That’s an extra, I know that might be like simple to you.
Lani: No. I mean this is like a brick.
Yehuda: Lani, this is like, you know, it’s a really big idea because, it imagine mapping that on, anytime when Jews have relationships with other members of the Jewish people who are sometimes gonna make choices similar to our own and sometimes gonna make really different ones where instead of thinking like there’s some zero-sum game of how do I get people onto my team. And then like the ones who’ve agreed with me, in which case I’m not really loving Jews, I’m loving my own way of being Jewish.
It’s a way of saying, yeah, I, I want more people like me, or I want to help people pursue their own destiny, right, through my values that I care about, but I’m also willing to invest resources and capital to allow people to live totally different lives, so long as it’s also rooted in their capacity to self determine, to self-actualize, et cetera. It’s a big idea, Lani.
Lani: It, it was not a simple piece to come up with at all honesty, and we struggled with it for a lot of years and had I think, some breakthrough in thinking about this as we stepped back and thought about our future last year.
Yehuda: Yeah. Um, you know, we, uh, kind of dipped our toes into this at Hartman over the last few months with this limited series that we released that was, uh, written by Nomi Seidman, a, a fellow here at Hartman called Heretic in the House, which was really about the fascination that a lot of people seem to have with XOs, formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews, and one of the pieces that seems very similar to the way that you’re talking is that the Hollywood version of the story is one of dramatic departure and oftentimes like a redemptive arc. And of course,
Lani: That’s Hollywood.
Yehuda: Human relationships are so much different, and oftentimes it’s about leaving the house and never really leaving.
David Hartman actually, this is a little bit of a tangent, but it’ll make sense.
Lani: That’s fine.
Yehuda: David Hartman has a way of describing secular Zionism in Israel in the first half of the 20th century as like a teenager who storms out of the house, slams the door, but stays inside, meaning, there was like a great rebellion against what Jewishness meant, but it took place within the house of the Jewish people, and within the story of the Jewish people.
And I think about that a lot in analogizing to some of the stuff that we’re talking about because some of it is about recognizing that it’s not always a full exit. Oftentimes it’s a
Lani: Hundred percent.
Yehuda: And, and I guess I’m curious how, what that looks like for footsteps on a, in general, and then I’ll talk about you personally, but I’m curious how that plays out for a lot of the work that you do, which isn’t just okay, you’ve left. It’s actually you have this complicated relationship from where you’ve come from.
Lani: Yeah. I mean, first and foremost, I, I wanna say thank you to you and Hartman and Nomi for doing that series. It hit on so many issues that we work to educate our allies and supporters around in an incredibly nuanced way.
And I do think that one of the spaces where people who have the lived experience can be bridge builders is in educating the broader community around the grays. I mean, this is all gray, right? It’s, I, human, human relationships are not linear, right? And people’s, people’s journeys around their identities and their religion are not linear. So how does it play out in our work?
There are a lot of different ways in which the non-linear piece of this plays out in our work. I mean, I could think of one example that’s pretty concrete that also relates to how the community has shifted over the last, I would say decade, or some of the communities within the Haredi world, in that there used to be, and this relates to the, like, what was it, the Silent Shunning, probably, episode of Hereitc in the House.
And there used to be this, Oh, a kid is going off. We need to kick them out of the house. Like it will negatively impact the shidduchim, right, the marriage prospects of the siblings. And we need to just like make sure that story stays silent and it’s not discussed. There’s less of that now. It’s not that there’s none of that, there, it does happen, certainly, and I don’t wanna minimize what it does happen. It’s very painful for people.
What’s happening more and more these days is that parents are saying, okay, how do we live with this just enough? And what is happening in today’s day and age is that there are a lot of people who are like maybe negotiate with their parents, oh, I wanna go to college. So they let them go to college and they can’t be their full selves with their parents, but they’re going to college, right? They’re going to like Hunter College, right? And then they’re going back home. They can’t be their full selves. But there is a difference in how they’re relating to their family.
And some would say that this is elongating the transition for people. And some would say that there’s ideological and mental health pressures that are more intense now, if before, for this same population, there was a, more financial pressures in terms of like getting cut off and needing to worry where you’re sleeping at night. We have plenty of members that do need to worry about where they’re sleeping at night, but this subpopulation that is going off to school, living at home, going back and forth, can’t be their full selves with their families, but they’re trying to figure it out, right, it looks really different than it did a decade ago. So there is movement, and yet it also. What does that mean in terms of our services?
It means actually like we need to have many more robust, culturally competent mental health services for people. Cause they’re trying to navigate, how do I hold onto a relationship with my family and be my authentic self? And maybe that means I don’t hold this hold on to this relationship right now, and I do my work on myself, but it’s very complicated when people are continuing to live at home.
I mean, that relates to sort of like how the community has shifted in some pockets and how then our services are then shifting in relationship to that. I mean, that’s just one example that came to mind.
Yehuda: Yeah, I would, I would hope it’s not elongating the transition, cause elongating the transition implies that transition is something that has a clear beginning and the end goal, right.
Lani: Ah. Good question.
Yehuda: Instead of saying, instead of saying like, you know what it’s, what we’re doing is basically taking responsibility for people’s full, long, and complex lives and providing them services to whatever end goal they’re pursuing, which is a, feels like more human-centered, I guess.
Lani: Yes, and I don’t wanna minimize the trauma that is connected to this. So the piece that is elongating is that internal conflict of how do I be my full self and also hold in relationship to my family, and some might argue that it was like easier to do that when they were kicked out, right? So I think it is elongating, what might used to be an acute time period is now longer in terms of like sort of a deeply vulnerable space that people may be in, if that makes.
I’m curious if you can speak personally, if you’re comfortable speaking personally, you don’t come out of a ultra-Orthodox community. We’ve known each other a long time. You’ve done an unbelievable thing building this organization, and I’m curious about the benefits of being a little bit of an outsider relative to the story, and if it ever comes with any kind of liabilities in terms of either credibility or other types of things around your own voice. I’m, I’m curious.
Lani: Oh, Yehuda. How long do we have here right now? Oh God. A big conversation for me. A follow up.
Yehuda: Hey, you, you emailed us .
Lani: No, no, no. It’s good. It’s good. And I did, once you invited me, I was like, should I do this? Should I invite one of my amazing colleagues on our staff or board who grew up Haredi?
Like, and I, and I thought about it and I thought for this particular conversation, which is the moment I consider myself to have outsider and insider perspective on this. And I, and I do feel comfortable speaking personally, that is to say, right, like that, yes, we might have grown up seeing each other in camps and you know, like, um, in college spaces, right?
And then also my individual experience was, my family landed itself, as progressive as my family might have been, landed itself in an increasingly Yeshivish, black hat community in Queens. And there’s a lot of beautiful things in that, and there were a lot of things that didn’t work for me around that.
And one of them, I referred to earlier in this call, that really has to do with the avail of conformity was very strong and continues to be strong in many spaces. I will say like, this is now 30 years ago, but like modern Orthodoxy that was moving to the right and like where we were one of very few families that was not sending kids to Beis Yaakov or the equivalent boys’ school. Right, like that, that was sending to co-ed day schools, busing out to another neighborhood. Right?
Like what does that do when you have a mom that comes out when you’re 12 or 13, right, as gay and like, I didn’t feel that I had anyone that I could share that with and maybe my siblings had different friends and they felt like they could share it, but it happened that I had a group of like more religious friends and that like what that meant is for five years I didn’t feel that I could tell a soul that I had a gay mother.
And so yes, I did not grow up in the Haredi world. I grew up more adjacent to the Yeshivish community. I like, that was our shul, and our Shabbos afternoons at Bnos or, right, if people know what that is, and Beis Yaakovs, and like, so yeah, I had some experiences there, but like I would say on a personal experience, like I deeply identify with the importance of building communities where people can be their authentic selves. And where they are welcomed for their difference and loved for their difference, right? And not shamed into hiding that.
And then like from a very basic space, like having a basic right to access what every American should have the right to access, to build lives in which people can thrive and access to resources thereof. And so, for me, yes. I’m a bit of a mutt on this and I think that it has benefits where, Yehuda, I’m not triggered when you ask me about the like broader Jewish community and how do we see this in a Jewish context where, you know, we have colleagues who like, I wouldn’t wanna throw into a Hartman podcast because like it’s not fair to them to have to grapple with this as part of their daily work.
Like I wanna let them hold our members authentically and not be asked, what’s your relationship with Judaism and what do you think of the Jewish community? And it’s like, For some people who grow up already, there’s like very fluid answers around this. And for others and for the majority, it is very complicated. And, uh, you know, it sometimes helps that like, I, it’s easier for me to talk about these issues and then it, it helps us then have conversations.
So I really do think about like when do I go in a public speaking space on my own? When do I have a colleague that grew up with much more lived experience than I did represent that? And you know, we have a scholar-in-residence who grew up in the Hasidic community. A quarter of our staff grew up Haredi. Another quarter grew up modern Orthodox. A third of our board grew up Haredi, right?
Like we certainly weave this in and we really also value the multiplicity of voices and also being able to like, not have to put our colleagues who might get triggered by a conversation in the middle of it. So that’s the short answer on, on your very big topic.
Yehuda: Yeah, I’m, I’m very grateful because I actually, there’s a space for talking about difficult issues in public, and then there actually is a piece of public leadership which involves talking about how to talk about difficult issues in public. And I feel like it’s, you know what I mean? I feel like that’s a piece of my work. And I think the way that you’ve characterized the unique role that you have relative to your board members and staff and stakeholders is that you might be the right person to help not only talk about these issues at a certain level, but like to mediate, and mediating and bridge building have just run through this whole episode.
So anyway, thank you Lani, for emailing us, for reaching out, and thanks for being on our show.
Lani: Thank you, Yehuda.
Yehuda: Thanks to all of you for listening. Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. The show is produced with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz with music provided by Socalled. Maital Friedman is our Vice President of communications and creative.
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