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A private Facebook group called “Off the Derech” has 755 members. There are a burgeoning number of OTD bloggers. And Pearl Reich, the daughter of a prominent Hasidic rabbi in Borough Park, Brooklyn who left her community, is starting an offline group, Your Kids Deserve You, to support parents separated from their children.
Experts say that there may even be some early indications of some openness to addressing issues of sexual abuse and mental health in insular Hasidic communities, including New Square and Kiryas Joel, another upstate New York Hasidic enclave, which is populated by the Satmar Hasidic community.
When someone leaves an ultra-Orthodox community, he or she leaves a social support network of extraordinary strength. The cohesion of those communities comes with an insularity amplified by the distinctive, ultra-Orthodox dress style and the use of Yiddish as their primary language.
When people depart, they face a modern world for which many are ill prepared. Being a parent can compound those challenges with a battle for custody. Among other things, the ultra-Orthodox community will often help provide for the legal costs of the parent who stays, while the one who leaves seldom has resources to match.
“There’s a lot of stigma, a lot of shaming,” said psychotherapist Michael Jenkins, director of programs at Footsteps. “I’ve heard stories made up to attack the parents [who are leaving]. If it’s a long court battle, often the person leaving will just resign themselves” to giving up custody of his or her children. “They feel it’s insurmountable.”
The religious community they are leaving “will separate them from seeing the spouse leaving as much as possible, because they are seen as a negative influence,” Jenkins said. “Most people would prefer that the spouse who is leaving just leave and be invisible.”
Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, a well-known yeshiva educator and advocate for abused children in Monsey, N.Y., sees the number of contested custody cases arising from such instances growing. He also sees the point of view of the parent who remains in the community when he or she fights to limit the child’s exposure to the “departed” parent’s new life.
“If a child is raised in a very sheltered environment, it is very jarring to have to navigate in between the two worlds,” he said. “The judges in situations where children are on a track typically favor the status quo.”