Life is a series of trade-offs.
Yes, that’s a cliché, but like most clichés it’s rooted in truth.
There is a trade-off, a precarious and often-shifting balance, between the comfort and security of living in a tightly knit community and the sacrifice of individuality and autonomy that life requires.
There also is a trade-off between particularism and universality, but that comes a little later in this story. Let’s start with the one about community.
Chani Getter grew up in the Nikolsburger community in Monsey; it’s an offshoot of the Satmar chasidim, and is unyieldingly strict in its approach to life and its rejection of the world outside its boundaries, both physical and metaphysical.
Ms. Getter will talk about her experiences, and much more, at Temple Emeth in Teaneck on Sunday. (See box.)
It’s a wonderful life if you fit into it, if your heart beats and your soul unfolds to its rhythms. But if somehow, for some reason that you can’t figure out, you feel that it’s not as much enfolding you as it is suffocating you, then it’s hard to live there and it’s hard to figure out how to leave.
Ms. Getter, who is 42, grew up in what was then a “very small community,” she said, so she and other girls were allowed more access to learning and spirituality than they would have been later, when the group grew larger, or than they would have been in other chasidic communities. “Both men and women were told ‘You both belong to God,’” she said. “And my family was one boy and four girls. So my father taught Torah to everyone at the table, so I received a tremendous sense of entitlement around the Torah.”
Her parents, like most people their age in the community, were the children of Holocaust survivors. “My mother was born in a DP camp, and my father was the first in his family not to be born in a DP camp; his parents met in a camp and had two children there, and then they moved here and had him. All they came with was the clothes on their backs.”
The family had not been Satmar in Europe, but “the Satmar rebbe gave them something they needed,” she said. They needed a community, a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning that protected them against the evil that had stalked their families. Their children felt that as well. “I was given the gift at a young age of a voice, and the idea that a voice was to be heard and listened to.”
But that didn’t last. As they matured, girls were expected to silence their voices. “I went on one date for three hours, and I was pronounced engaged the next day,” Ms. Getter said. Then she was married. She was 18. Soon she became the mother of three children, and she was desperately unhappy. “Single parents have a really hard time in the community,” she said, so she tried to stick it out, but it didn’t work. “My parents were very supportive of my leaving my ex, and I will forever be grateful to them,” she said. She and her children lived with them at first — but their support had its limits. “Soon they realized that they couldn’t just marry me off, and the questions I was asking were not comfortable to them.”
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said. “I knew I was going to leave the marriage, but I didn’t know I was going to leave the community.
“I think it happens to a lot of people. When you start questioning the status quo, you start questioning that which exists, and then everything just comes tumbling down around you.
“It comes down to your asking yourself ‘Is this what God really wants?’ And then you start thinking ‘This doesn’t work for me, so if it is what God wants, what kind of God would want it?’
“To me the big questions were why would God give me a voice to sing if I wasn’t allowed to sing? And why would God give me leadership qualities if I wasn’t going to be allowed to lead?”
The question of a voice to sing is metaphoric, but it’s also literal, Ms. Getter said. “I love to sing, and in school plays I was constantly in the spotlight.” It was an all-girls school. “But then I had to hide who I really was. And as a single mom you are a nonentity.” Forget the spotlight — no one sees you; it feels like living in endless shadow.
The final straw, the breaking point — choose your cliché! — was when “I started driving a car,” Ms. Getter said. She had to; she couldn’t stay at home, and she couldn’t afford cabs.
She and her parents did not speak to each other for eight years, “but it’s been 11 years since we started talking again. Time does work miracles.”
Stop for a minute to think about the enormous amount of courage it takes to face the world, a single woman with three small children, educated in Torah but in not much else, for a time penniless and friendless.
But Ms. Getter is outgoing and resourceful. “There I was, a single mother, and I would get invited to people’s houses. I was a nebbuch” — a sad sack, a charity case — “and I’d get invited, but I realized that when I invited people over, nobody came. I am not the kind of person who can be only receiving, not giving. So I started going to the city, spending Shabbes there with friends.”
She found the Carlebach synagogue — modern Orthodox, but also deeply musical and famously welcoming — on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “That was one of the first places I went,” she said. “There are chasidim who go to Carlebach, so I had known that it existed.” Remember that this was before the internet had gained much traction. She wouldn’t have been able to Google “friendly Jewish services for single mothers leaving Monsey.”
“My kids and I were totally accepted,” she said. “So I started having a day-to-day life in Rockland County, and a Shabbat and holiday life in New York. I would try out different synagogues.”
It was a gradual move from chasidic life through modern Orthodoxy and Conservative and non-affiliated synagogues to Jewish Renewal. “I met my partner at Romemu,” the Renewal synagogue on the Upper West Side, Ms. Getter said. “We’ve been together eight and a half years now.” Her children “changed schools every two years, from chasidic to yeshivish to modern Orthodox. We slowly shifted over time.
“It took patience,” she said. “I was figuring out my journey, making mistakes, and finding people along the way.”
That sounds great, but how did she afford it? “I am really good with numbers,” Ms. Getter said. “Seriously good with numbers. I started doing bookkeeping.” She quickly realized that most women working in that field looked for jobs with standard hours, so she decided that it made most sense to do piecework, at whatever hours employers demanded. So she’d work in, say, a law office on Mondays, a day camp on Tuesday, and somewhere else on Wednesday; she’s fit in businesses that needed her once a month around businesses that claimed her once a week. Those jobs paid well, she said.
And as if that weren’t enough, she also worked toward a bachelor’s degree from Empire State College, a SUNY school that offers distance learning; she went to class one night a week and did the rest online. “I would do my schoolwork at 4 in the morning,” she said. “My kids say that they would wake up in the middle of the night and they’d see me there at my computer, working.” It was that example, rather than anything she told them, that developed their own work ethic, she said.
Where did Ms. Getter’s drive and energy come from? “I was really young then,” she said. “I was 24; I graduated when I was 29. I love to learn. Also, it became really clear to me that if I didn’t, I was going to be poor, and in a rut. My ex had a really hard time paying child support. So I realized that education was the only thing I could do.”
So her degree was in accounting, right? No. It’s in human development. “Just because I’m good at numbers, it doesn’t mean that it’s what I like,” she said. “Everyone said you should get an accounting degree and then sit for your CPA, but I said that there was no way that I would do something that would bore me, just because I’m good at it. Everyone said you’d make such good money, but I was like ‘Yeah. I want to do something I care about.’”
Ms. Getter got a certificate in coaching; she’s a life coach, specializing in LGBTQ issues. Her office is in Hackensack. Now that her youngest child is in college, she’s gone back to school; she’ll soon earn her credentials as a social worker.
She also works at Footsteps, the organization that helps members of chasidic communities who are looking for a way to leave those communities and find places for themselves in the outside world. As hard as that move was for Ms. Getter, it’s often even harder for people who have fewer intellectual and emotional resources, and whose families rejected them even more fully and permanently. (Footsteps is based in Manhattan and it also has an office in Rockland. Ms. Getter does family justice counseling in both places.)
“I’d heard about Footsteps, but I didn’t hear nice things about it,” she said; she didn’t go to it as a client, but as a caregiver. “When I left, the people I knew who were going to Footsteps were doing drugs.” She was not. “I thought that they were all a bunch of drunks. But then I realized that the more people who were going to Footsteps, the fewer of them were drunks.” Still, at first, she stayed away.
But soon her partner, who does not come from a chasidic background, convinced her to go. “And as soon as I got there, the executive director made a beeline to me,” she said. “She said, ‘Are you Chani Getter? We have to talk.’ They said they were thinking of starting something in Rockland. So I started to do this work for Footsteps, and it just kind of expanded.” She works with parents who have left the chasidic world but have not been allowed to bring their children with them. “There’s no legal reason for it,” she said. Her work with Footsteps basically is triage, assessing people’s needs and sending them for help. In her private practice, she offers help. “I get to see people shifting and growing and coming,” she said.
All of her work is about helping people move toward authenticity and honesty. “In order to have clean relationships, we need messy conversations,” she said. “We have to have them with loved ones, and with ourselves.”
This is where the tension between universalism and specificity comes in.
Ms. Getter has become an interfaith minister through the One Spirit Interfaith Seminary. But even in that universal world, she is deeply, permanently Jewish. “Judaism is my center,” she said. “It is where I come from.” She officiates at marriages, almost always involving Jews. “It is where my core is,” she said.
“The rhythms are the rhythms my body is used to. The words are the words my tongue is used to. But I do believe that ultimately God is bigger than all religions, and that we are all looking to find connections.”
Who: Chani Getter
What: Will talk about “The Process of Change: Living Your Authentic Life!”
Where: At breakfast at Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road in Teaneck, for its B’Yachad and Viewpoint groups
When: Sunday, January 20, at 10:30
How much: The talk is free; breakfast is $8.
Information: (201) 833-1322, www.emeth.org or email@example.com.
Information about Chani Getter: www.chanigetter.com