My first encounter with GesherEU was at Limmud 2014. In little more than two short months, my eyes have been opened to a world on my doorstep that remains hidden from the majority of Jews right here in London and indeed across the UK and Europe. This world is the Chasidic communities that many hold to be the practitioners of “authentic” Judaism and perhaps a guarantee for the survival of Judaism in some sort of “even if I don’t do it, they do” kind of way. At her Limmud session however, a young lady described how, having left the Ultra Orthodox community in London, she had set up a support group for those who had left, and now needed help to take the group forward. She described some of the difficulties faced by those who leave and my wife and I put our names on a form, as one does at Limmud and rushed off to the next session.
A few weeks and a few emails later, I was setting up a quick website, registering some domain names and setting up some email addresses. It was not until I was invited to attend a support come social meeting, that my eyes became opened to why GesherEU was so important to so many people’s lives. Why would someone fly in from Zurich for a few hours with some acquaintances? Why the secrecy about the location of the evening? Why were so many taking such risks to be there? What was the need that brought these people together?
I was worried that, as an outsider, conversation might be difficult. I knew people would have a different background and being a rather introverted (in my opinion) techie, approaching retirement, thought that a quick 20 minutes to show my face was all that would be required.
I decided, as midnight approached, that I really should be on my way, upset that I had not had time to talk with many there. The next meeting was again a full house and both my wife and I were able to engage with more GesherEU members. It is heart-breaking to find in such a group of bright intelligent people such upheaval and internal conflict. It became clear that one could not simply list the difficulties people leaving the Ultra-orthodox communities would face and plan solutions at each stage of the process. Each person had a different tale to tell. Children, no children; contact with family, no contact with family, good English, poor English; a secular career, only a religious education. People came who were at different stages of the journey, yet they seemed keen to have their story heard. Some were married, some had been married. A few had left before being married.
It became clear that the whole set up of these Ultra-orthodox societies, either by design or by coincidence, made leaving their community a mind-boggling complex operation, if the result was to be a stable and fulfilled life in the wider world. With arranged marriages at eighteen, most already had children before they could understand their emotions, make their plans or get themselves a career.
One surprise to me was that the members of GesherEU had not expected the wider Jewish community to be sympathetic. These are people who have been brought up to understand that any other way, be it Jewish or secular, or any mixture of the two is bad. I think ‘bad’ may be somewhat of an understatement on my part. The term commonly used within their (ex-)communities, for people who don’t toe the line is “off the derech” – off the road. Yet, I have found members of the wider Jewish community both sympathetic and supportive and would be much more likely to embrace GesherEU members as part of their own community, than the members of the Charadi community from which they have come. Who is “off the derech” is strictly a point of view.
Many members rely heavily on GesherEU for emotional and practical support. It is a privileged to be able to support the brave individuals who are determined to follow their hearts and live a life with the choices for themselves and their children that the rest of us take for granted.