Leaving Lubavitch

Leaving Lubavitch

Academic from Hoboken will talk about his life and his book on Zoom for Nyack shul

Dr. Schneur Zalman Newfield
Dr. Schneur Zalman Newfield

Start with the proposition that people are endlessly interesting.

Look at a subculture from the outside, and you see ways of living, of believing, of engaging with the outside world that seem more or less appealing, more or less reasonable. Some of them might seem exotic, others seductive, others less so..

If you are inside that subculture, if it is your world, then of course you see it differently; in some ways with more clarity, because you understand it, and in other ways less clearly, because how can you analyze the assumptions that ground you? That’s like analyzing the air you breathe.

So an insider understands a group in one way, and a sociologist understands it in another way. But if you happen to be a sociologist who once belonged to a specific subculture, and you still have deep roots in it; if you remember some of your upbringing with joy; if you still have parents and siblings in it, whom you love, and who don’t approve of your choices but still love you, then you are ideally situated to understand that subculture and explain it to the outside world.

That’s the position that Schneur Zalman Newfield of Hoboken is in. (It would be conventional but wrong to write that it’s the position in which he finds himself; he had to work hard to get there.)

Dr. Newfield was born in 1982 and grew up as a Lubavitcher chasid; he’s now a sociologist, an assistant professor of sociology in the department of social sciences, human services, and criminal justice at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, the husband of Dr. Jenny Labenz, who holds a doctorate in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and an every-Shabbat shulgoer at the United Synagogue of Hoboken.

He’s also the author of a newly released study of the community he came from; because he cannot give talks in person, he’s been Zooming about “Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism.” His next talk, set for Sunday, May 24, is at Congregation Sons of Israel in Nyack. (See box.)

Because his background informs his academic work, Dr. Newfield talks about both. He comes from Crown Heights, the Brooklyn neighborhood that was home to the Lubavitcher rebbe and still houses the movement’s worldwide headquarters, at 770 Eastern Parkway. His parents were both baalei teshuva — his father, Shlomo Newfield, a dermatologist, graduated from Columbia and then from Harvard’s medical school. His mother’s father held two doctorates and was a psychologist; his mother, Basha Newfield, went to Queens College. When Shlomo and Basha met, “they got connected to Lubavitch and joined whole-heartedly,” their son said. 

Zalman Newfield, the third child and second son in a family of nine siblings, grew up in Crown Heights until he was in fourth grade; then his parents moved to Morristown. “My father is from Flatbush and my mother is from Queens, but my mother had a fantasy that she could have a big house in the suburbs.” Morristown made sense because Lubavitch has a big presence there. But still there weren’t enough schools there for Lubavitcher children once they were past elementary school age; because Dr. Newfield had to commute to his practice in Queens and the two older children had to commute to their schools in Brooklyn, the family soon gave up their suburban dream and moved back to their house in Crown Heights, which they prudently had not sold. Shlomo and Basha Newfield still live in that house.

Meanwhile, “I went to a lot of yeshivas,” Dr. Newfield said. He stayed in Morristown, boarding with another Lubavitch family, for a year, to finish school there, and then he went to a mesifta in Chicago. That school, which then was new, could offer only two years of schooling, so when they’d finished it, he and his cohort went to another Lubavitch yeshiva, this one improbably but wonderfully near the beach in South Beach, Florida. “It seems like somewhat of an odd place, this Orthodox yeshiva just six blocks from the beach, but it suited me just fine,” Dr. Newfield said. After they’d finished that school, “an older buchur” — yeshiva student — “in Miami, who was from Argentina, said that we could go to Argentina, and we were like, ‘This sounds fantastic! A year in Buenos Aires!’” So they spent a year in Argentina, and then Dr. Newfield went back to Morristown, finished up at the yeshiva gadola there, and then “I went off on shlichut to Singapore.” (Not a full-fledged off-to-seed-a-new-community kind of shlichut, as slightly older, newly married Lubavitch couples undertake, but a shorter-term internship.)

In other words, Schneur Zalman Newfield had a standard smart boy’s Chabad Lubavitch education. “All the schools I went to followed the rebbe’s guidelines,” he said. “We were taught no secular subject. No ABCs, no arithmetic. I spoke English at home, but the language of instruction in school was Yiddish.

“I could speak English, but I couldn’t read it. When I went to Chicago, I couldn’t read anything.”

Because he grew up in Crown Heights, the movement’s epicenter, and went to its crown jewel school for young boys, Oholei Torah, the school “on Eastern Parkway, only a block away from 770,” from kindergarten through fourth grade, his education was even more essence-of-Lubavitch than students at other, lesser places could get, and so he knew noticeably less about the outside world than kids from less rarefied environments did. “In summer camp, where we met other Lubavitch kids, they’d make fun of us,” Dr. Newfield said. “They’d call us Oholeitorahniks; we were backward people who couldn’t even read English. There was an understanding among kids from Miami, LA, Chicago, that there was something wrong with these kids from Brooklyn.”

Girls were taught more English and other secular subjects, he said; and some boys learned from their sisters, although he did not. Girls’ education, as far as he could see, was in some ways odd; “They read ‘Animal Farm’ — you could do a whole study on what the girls are taught,” Dr. Newfield said. “Basically, they read older texts because there is no sex or drugs in them.” They also read “A Separate Peace,” the John Knowles 1959 classic. “There is a homoerotic element to that, but the girls weren’t taught about that part,” Dr. Newfield said.

It became more and more clear to Dr. Newfield that he had to learn to read English. 

When he was going to Chicago, Zalman and his parents decided that he should get a passport; they realized that his education was likely to take him abroad. “I went to the post office with my father,” he said. “My father had filled out the entire passport form for me, and took it to the clerk. She looked at it and said, ‘You didn’t sign it yet.’ My father said, ‘Okay, we will go over there and sign it.’ She said, ‘No no no. Sign it in front of me.’

“I was 14, and I had never signed my name in my life.

“My father carefully wrote out my name and I practiced writing over it, and then he gave me another piece of paper and said, ‘Do it yourself,’ and I scribbled it out, and he said, ‘That’s good enough, now sign it on the paper.’

“And I did, and I remember thinking, ‘This is insane. I have to learn this English thing.’”

How to do it? The deus ex machina.

“Around this time, my mother’s brother, Uncle Jeff, who never was Orthodox, came to my parents’ house. We were talking, and I said to him, ‘I need help. I have to figure out this English thing.’ And I told him what happened.

“I was very lucky. My uncle is a great lover of literature and books and knowledge. Of Shakespeare and Dickens and Moliere. Of Broadway shows. He’s a great Civil War buff. He said, ‘I’ll be happy to help you.’”

Zalman went to Chicago, and Uncle Jeff “bought a third-grade English workbook, and cut out the pages, and went me a few pages at a time. I would secretly fill in the pages. It was very basic stuff, but it got the ball rolling, and I started to read.”

And read. And read. And read. He hid his books, hoarded his books, and read and read and read.

He got a great deal of help from his roommate in Miami. “He was a genius, and he was able to read English perfectly,” Dr. Newfield said. There was a Lubavitch high school nearby that “did teach the rudiments of English, and it had a library with books for their students.” The library was not open to the yeshiva students, however; “they wanted to protect us.” But his brilliant roommate knew had to pick locks. (Why? “For diversion,” Dr. Newfield said. “Buchurs in yeshiva are always looking for something to do.” In Chicago, he and his friends made prank phone calls, he added.)

His friend read long, serious books. Zalman started with the Great Illustrated Classics; they’re abridged, simplified, and profusely illustrated. “I remember the first ones were ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ ‘White Fang,’ and ‘The Three Musketeers.’

“I loved them. The type was very large, there weren’t that many words, and some of them would trip me up, but I could  master them, and they were very exciting stories.

“So I read them all, and before I knew it I was reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn ‘Gulag Archipelago.’

“And around that time I just took off and started reading everything I could get my hands on. I remember once – it was a fast day, I think maybe Tzom Gedalia – and there were no classes, so I ended up sneaking to the nearly Barnes and Noble and spent the entire day rifling through the shelves, sitting on the floor, pulling out books. I forgot that I was fasting, I was so entranced by the books. I was like a kid in a candy store.”

To be more precise, he was a book-besotted kid in a bookstore. He was in heaven. “I really am so thirsty for knowledge,” he said. He reads everything he can – the Western canon, “while recognizing a lot of problems with it and who gets to define it — and the Eastern canon, and literature and history and philosophy and science. I want all of it. I am obsessed with it.” And when he can’t read books, he listens to them.

When he was in yeshiva, Dr. Newfield would have to hide his books. A stash like his could get him expelled. “But no one suspected me. I gave off a pious appearance.” As time went by, he spent more and more time reading, but he was able to pull it off. “I didn’t do the kinds of external things that would imply religious doubt or deviance,” he said. “I didn’t cut my beard, or talk to girls, or wear stylish clothing. I just read my books.”

When he got back from Singapore, after working at a nonprofit helping people with autism find and hold jobs, he realized that he wanted to go to college. He was 23. His parents objected, but he applied to Brooklyn College, hoping to become a clinical psychologist. Over time, he realized – often with the help of his professors – that he was drawn even more to sociology. Eventually he decided on graduate school, applied to 16 of them, got into half of those programs, and chose NYU.

By the time he’d graduated from college, he took a huge step. He shaved off the huge beard that had announced his identity to the world. It was a coming out of sorts. He walked by people who knew him well and did not recognize him; it was only the unchanged sound of his voice — despite his retaining the same eyes, nose, and forehead — and signaled to many people that it was still him, Schneur Zalman Newfield.

“I knew from the beginning that I wanted to study people who left the charedi community,” Dr. Newfield said. “When I started to read the academic literature, I realized that it tended to assume that religious identification is a binary state. Either you are part of the community you grew up in, or you aren’t. You were in it, or it was all over. And I knew from my own experience that this wasn’t true.  So this became a big focus of my dissertation – how people still remain connected to their communities after they leave.

“I wanted to highlight that yes, people leave, but there are degrees to which they are on the outs and degrees to which they are are connected, and that they think and feel and behave in ways that are conditioned by their upbringing.”

Now, Zalman and Jenny have two daughters; Lieba is 8 and Maya is 6. They go to shul every Shabbat — their father is an atheist but he finds great beauty and connection in Jewish ritual and community. They go to public school — there is no day school close to Hoboken, and their parents want them to encounter a greater diversity in other children’s backgrounds and situations than they’d find in a day school anyway — but then they come home every day and their parents teach them Torah and Talmud. Dr. Newfield finds the Conservative Judaism of his wife’s background and training and their shul to be both emotionally and intellectually gratifying.

The subjects of his book — he worked with 74 people who had left ultra-Orthodox Judaism — do not. “My book focuses on the issue of residual effects” — the bone-deep beliefs that are left over after the rest of a worldview are shed — “and looks at attitudes and beliefs,” Dr. Newfield said. Those residual effects often include “negative attitudes toward liberal Judaism and some very conservative views about gender and race. That’s not true of everyone, but it is of a significant percentage of people. There are things like an irrational repulsion toward pork — they have given up kashrut, but they still feel that pork is disgusting. Sometimes people shukle when they read a secular book, as they did when they read Talmud.”

Dr. Newfield lives with many residual effects of his childhood; they’ve given him his academic interests and have informed his life. He’s a sociologist and a deeply if differently connected Jew; an obsessive reader and learner. Those are Jewish values at work.

Who: Congregation Sons of Israel in Nyack

What: Presents the M. Nathan Cember lLecture series ; this year it’s a virtual lecture on Zoom by
Dr. Schneur Zalman Newfield

What’s it called:  “What does ‘Unorthodox’ get right about those who leave chasidic communities?”

When: On Sunday, May 24, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.   

How to get the link: Email csioffice@optonline.net

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