Leaving Lubavitch

Leaving Lubavitch

At JCC, memoirist to describe how she left the chasidic world but kept close to her family

Chaya Deitsch at her Barnard graduation
Chaya Deitsch at her Barnard graduation

Many people outside the Jewish world, and even some people inside it, have a tendency to think of all chasidim as the same, a vast mass of undifferentiated black and white.

They also often think of the chasidic world as unchanging, out of time, eternal.

Neither of those ideas is true.

Chaya Deitsch, who will talk about her new book, “Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Faith,” at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly (see the box for more information), grew up Chabad-Lubavitch in New Haven, Connecticut. She left that world, although unlike many people in similar situations, she did not have to leave her family to make that break. In her book, she talks about the world of her childhood as well as her decision to lead a different life.

Born in 1963, the oldest of five daughters, Ms. Deitsch was the daughter of first-generation Americans with roots in the Ukraine. Her mother’s family had moved east, to Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, to escape the Nazis, and her father’s father ran to Siberia before rejoining his family in Samarkand, also in Uzbekistan. Later, his family also moved to Tashkent. Both families eventually “filtered their way through the DP system and both ended up in the United States in 1950,” she said.

The Gurwitzes settled in Crown Heights; the Deitsches soon made their home in Norwalk, and then in New Haven. “My grandfather had a business opportunity,” Ms. Deitsch said. Remember “The Graduate,” where Dustin Hoffman was given advice about the field he should enter. That advice could have come from the Deitsch family. “It was in plastics,” Ms. Deitsch said.

Her grandfather asked the Lubavitcher rebbe — then it was Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the father-in-law of Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the last Lubavitcher rebbe, who is buried in Queens and often is thought to have been (or still to be) the Messiah — for his blessing. Yes, Rabbi Schneersohn said, as long as you fund-raise for the new boy’s yeshiva in Crown Heights. He did, so her grandfather “went with the rebbe’s blessing,” Ms. Deitsch said.

Ms. Deitsch’s parents’ families had known each other in Tashkent, and met again in Brooklyn. There, Joseph Deitsch and Sarah Gurwitz married, and there their first daughter, Chaya, was born; soon the young family moved to New Haven.

Although they were new Americans, both the Deitsches and the Gurwitzes were what Ms. Deitsch calls “Old Vine” Lubavitchers. The movement into which they had been born is different in some key ways from the movement as it is today.

“All the outreach that people have come to think of as typical Chabad is fairly new,” Ms. Deitsch said. “It started in the 1970s. That’s very different from the Lubavitch I grew up with. People were new to the country, they were a lot more relaxed, and outreach was not as much of a priority.

“And then in the ’70s, it changed profoundly. It was a very disruptive time.”

Ms. Deitsch went to a Lubavitch yeshiva — Lubavitch, that is, in that it was owned and run by Chabad. Its students, though, were far more mixed. “There were a lot of modern Orthodox kids there, and some who were entirely unaffiliated,” she said. “There were only two Lubavitcher kids, including me.” It was co-ed, and as a lure for the non-chasidic parents, whose children it needed, it offered a high-quality secular education.

Lubavitchers at that time and place were more open to the outside world than they are now (although, as Ms. Deitsch points out, they always are more open to the world than other chasidim are).

Growing up in Crown Heights, “My mother and her sisters were voracious readers,” Ms. Deitsch said. “They went to the movies. My mother had no restrictions on her reading.” In Connecticut, there were even fewer constraints. “I was a curious kid, and I lived to read,” she said. “I read Jewish books about the Ba’al Shem Tov, and about pogroms, but I also was an avid read of the Betsy-Tacy books.

Chaya Deitsch
Chaya Deitsch

“We went to the library every week, and we came out with a stack of books.”

They also had a television, and were allowed occasionally to watch it.

It was the ’70s, Ms. Deitsch said again — the decade played as big a part in her story as if it were an actual person — and feminism was in the air. “My mother was very interested in it,” she said. “She bought some Ms. Magazines, which she hid under her mattress and I found when I was 12. I read them from cover to cover — until she caught me.” That was not typical reading for a chasidic woman, even then.

“My mother made a choice,” Ms. Deitsch said. “It was difficult for her. She was very interested in feminism, but it’s hard to be chasidic and a feminist in a way that still allows you to be honest. But her family and being part of the community were very important to her, and she made a choice.”

When she was in fifth grade, Ms. Deitsch said, “I was like, ‘ohmygod, in 10 years I’ll be married.’ I never had that vision for myself. I saw myself more like in ‘That Girl’ or “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ living in a bachelorette pad. My reading continued, and I got into rock music.”

Her real turning point, though, she said, was in high school. “Our principal — who had no business in our high school — she was Jewish but a secular Yiddishist, with no interest in religion whatsoever, and I don’t know how they hired her — she said, ‘You will go to Barnard,’ and she started AP English for me.

“My mother got married at 18, and she didn’t go to college. I probably would have gone to Stern, but Barnard really put me on a different track.”

At Barnard, Ms. Deitsch said, she thought that she easily could slip into the large modern Orthodox community, but soon she learned that it was not so easy. “It was a shock to me to learn that people have their own ways of being Jewish. When you are raised ultra-Orthodox, you think of it as a ladder. You are at the pinnacle, and other people drop down, rung by rung. And then you realize that other people don’t actually think of themselves as being on a lower rung. They have their own distinct Jewish identity.

“I just never felt comfortable there. That was an eye-opener.

“Many people I know who have backgrounds similar to mine do just leave it completely. With this upbringing, it is hard to find another place where you feel comfortable. I’m looking for something that connects me to where I came from — but I also have a fear of getting sucked back in.”

Part of what propelled her out of the community was how gendered everything was, she continued. “But it was also very hard to be a boy. The expectations for them are high. They don’t get a secular education. They were on the top of the heap — and I didn’t realize it at the time, but life was hard for them. And if you were a boy who wants to read, or live a little bit more of a relaxed life, it is very hard.”

But “for me, being shoved behind a curtain was a big deal. The idea of being silenced, of staying at home, and my boy cousins always getting preferential treatment — I had enough sense of self to think that this really sucks.”

Ms. Deitsch worked in book publishing for many years, and she now does marketing for the financial services industry. “I’m not particularly Jewishly connected, but I go to my parents for the holidays,” she said. “I feel very Jewish, but very secular.”

One of her four sisters still is in the Lubavitch world; the others all have left. The family, though, still is very close. “I give my parents all the credit,” Ms. Deitsch said. “It was all on them, and they said, ‘How else were we going to respond? Your happiness is important to us.

“‘You are our daughter.’”

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