Israel Irenstein, who has become something of a relationship guru for formerly Orthodox men, was the focus of a recent Slate article detailing the dating challenges of individuals who grew up in the Orthodox community, but have since left. Among those challenges: “Inexperience, having no identity, and having no understanding of the opposite sex.”
But the story all but overlooks the experience of formerly Orthodox women. And you can’t just ignore the issue of gender — particularly when an individual comes from a community in which ideas about gender roles and personal agency are outside the mainstream.
Alex Newpol, intake coordinator for Footsteps, a group that provides support services to men and women who have left the ultra-Orthodox community, explains that many women in Footsteps struggle with interpreting male advances.
A female member of Footsteps who asked not to be identified because of the insular nature of formerly Orthodox community said the biggest issues she faces are: “How do I say no? How do I decline someone? How do I know if this is a date?”
The woman explained how activities as mundane as shopping for a new outfit can create anxiety over how much skin they should be exposing. She also said that coming from a community in which women often defer to men, learning how and when to be assertive is also challenging.
For some women, self-image and the practical issues of finding a place to live, attending school, finding a job and possibly raising kids, take precedence over dating, said Newpol. “For women there’s less of a sense of urgency to date and master ‘getting someone,’” she said.
Women now make up about 40 percent of Footsteps, an organization with 200 active members once dominated by men. The organization hosts co-ed discussion groups in which dating and sexuality are frequently discussed.
But the ex-Orthodox woman who spoke with The Sisterhood said it’s the friendships she’s made in this group that have been most valuable when it comes to getting advice about dating. “We get together, develop friendships and we figure it out,” she said, noting that there is no female counterpart to Irenstein.