Doubts about his religious upbringing began to nag at Gene Steinberg when he was just 9 years old.
Raised chasidic in Kiryas Joel’s Satmar community, he struggled with what he calls a “suffocating” lifestyle, strict gender roles and “unforgiving” expectations and beliefs — so much so that at the age of 27 he attempted to end his own life. When he survived, he vowed that he would do whatever he could to help others in similar situations.
But it was the suicide in 2010 of his close friend Rachel Nove that inspired him to create safe havens for those who, like him and Nove, had struggled to leave the charedi lifestyle behind.
Throughout their friendship, Nove had always reached out to include other formerly Orthodox acquaintances who did not have a social circle of their own. When she died, he thought, “Who’s going to look out for them?”
The result was Freidom, a fast-growing nonprofit organization that aims to build community for the “frei” (Yiddish for free).
Steinberg, 43, founded the organization in 2012, calling it OTD Meetup — for “off the derech,” the term the charedi community uses to describe people who have strayed from the community’s religious path. Steinberg changed the name this year to reflect the choice its members make to free themselves from the idea that there is only one path to follow.
Today, Freidom has more than 1,300 members in 12 cities and holds nearly 200 events per year.
The numbers may be small compared to the charedi community’s growing population, but memoirs by the formerly Orthodox and films have brought mainstream visibility to the growing phenomenon of Orthodox Jews going “off the derech.” Two films in 2017, “Disobedience,” starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams and based on an autobiographical novel by British author Naomi Alderman, and Netflix’s “One of Us” documentary focused on individuals who left their tightly circumscribed religious communities. In 2015, ex-Skverer chasid Shulem Deen made waves with his memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return,” about his struggles with the faith.
In 2003, an organization called Footsteps sprang up to support those leaving the ultra-Orthodox world, offering vocational training, legal assistance and emotional support; today, it reports that it has served more than 1,500 individuals. An informal group for people with one foot in Orthodox communities, Chulent, was formed in 2007.
Freidom distinguishes itself from organizations like Footsteps by its small, grassroots community ethos and its focus on social and cultural programming. It organizes events to provide social support during a transition that can be isolating, and to expose people to new cultural experiences. Members go on outings to museums, the theater, sporting events, movies and restaurants. The group provides a safe environment in which people can learn mainstream social norms, ask questions and engage with new ideas.
“My role,” says Steinberg, “is to bring together people from similar backgrounds who can socialize and support each other … in a nonjudgmental, understanding environment of people who share similar experiences.”
Rochelle Teitelbaum, 37, told The Jewish Week that Freidom “actually saved my life” when she left her Satmar community after experiencing physical and psychological abuse. “Here I can be myself. We have each other. I have more now than I ever had.”
Social and emotional support are among the strongest needs for people who leave ultra-Orthodox communities, according to Roni Berger, professor of social work at Adelphi University, who has studied the experience. Individuals who “come out” as frei may be cut off from their entire families, friends, and sometimes everyone they know. “It can be isolated, it can be lonely, it can be depressing. Even if they manage cognitively, even if they manage logistically, the need for emotional validation and social support is tremendous.”
Seeing other people celebrating this only one cause — being frei, being free — it gives me the courage to allow myself to not have guilt about it.
Holidays can be particularly challenging for people who grew up Orthodox. They can bring flashbacks of experiences in the community, says Steinberg, “the intensity and the severity of what it meant,” and for some, the togetherness that they are now missing. Often, for someone who has recently stopped practicing, “years of indoctrination still bring them doubt” at such fraught moments.
Freidom hosts communal meals, getaways and other events almost every day during the holidays. Last month, the organization held 22 events in 11 cities. Steinberg also encourages members to host their own events and created a Facebook group where they can invite one another on spontaneous outings.
Steve Fisher, 37, said that for a few years after he left Monsey’s Satmar community he was lonely and depressed on holidays. Now, “every time I feel like I want to hang out with people, I know I have somewhere to go. I haven’t had a depressed holiday in years.”
Fisher adds that Freidom members are connected by their choice to “break free” from an “oppressing” life. “I never give myself the right to be liberated and not feel guilty,” he said. “But seeing other people celebrating this only one cause — being frei, being free — it gives me the courage to allow myself to not have guilt about it.”
Soon after Nove’s death, Steinberg began to organize Shabbos meals and gatherings, dedicating himself (and later, the organization) to her memory and to this new mission. Although Steinberg had successfully pursued a college education despite the lack of secular studies in his yeshiva, in 2017 he turned down a scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to complete a bachelor’s degree in order to devote himself to Freidom.
This year, the organization created its own sort of holiday: the first annual freiFEST. The festival, which celebrated “personal freedom,” took place over three days in July at an upstate New York campground. The timing was a nod to the anniversary of the excommunication of Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century philosopher expelled from the Amsterdam Jewish community. Some 95 people attended the weekend.
In order to pull it off, Steinberg and his partner, Mary Winter, first had to research what happens at festivals. Winter handled most of the logistics — as she puts it, “He comes up with the crazy dreams, I make it actually happen.”
Attendees enjoyed field games and performances by ex-chasidic singer-songwriter Shlomo Franklin and the newly formed freiFEST band, comprised of Freidom members Rocky Joël Noé, Mo Gelber, Jonah Felix and Hila Naus. At one point, said Steinberg, “there wasn’t a single person not engaged talking to someone. I choked up and said, ‘This is the community we built.’”
As night fell on Saturday, Beyoncé’s “Freedom” rang out over the campground and a column of flame rose from a giant wooden structure in the shape of a brain. The brain was covered with phrases like “What will people think about me?” and “Goodbye to control.” As the flames grew higher, people cheered, embraced and began to dance around the fire. They called this the Freedom Burn.
“The bonding that we had over the weekend,” said Steinberg, and the way people “walked away feeling rejuvenated, supported, was totally worth” the hard work. “We will do it again.”
Attendees agreed. Elisheva Slomiuc, a 40-year-old mother of five who has been fighting for custody of her children for five years, said she felt more optimistic after freiFEST. “Spending this weekend here,” she said, “reminds me that I’m part of a community of survivors.”