As a professor of both sociology and Jewish studies, Shelly Tenenbaum conducts research on such wide ranging topics as Jewish self-help societies and attitudes toward a controversial student assessment exam. She also mentors students completing senior honors theses and Holocaust and genocide studies internships.
Taking risks in order to learn
Interview with Adrien Uretsky
Senior Adrien Uretsky is majoring in sociology with a concentration in Jewish Studies. She discussed her senior honors thesis that she is researching with the guidance of faculty advisor Shelly Tenenbaum. Adrien is hoping to present her findings at Academic Spree Day 2002.
Adrien, tell me what your thesis is about.
It's on the processes by which individuals leave Orthodox Judaism. In my classes with Shelly Tenenbaum we'd learned about people who grew up secular and left that world to become more religiously observant, to become Orthodox Jews. As I was studying that, I realized there wasn't that much information about people who went in the opposite direction, people who grew up extremely religious and insulated from secular society, but then made a decision to leave that world and go into the secular world.
So your thesis topic is an off-shoot of something you had been examining in one of your classes.
Yes. We had been studying about Baalei Teshuva, people who become more observant, and I realized that there wasn't a voice for people who had done the opposite. What makes this both a little scary but also exciting is that there isn't anything written about it--people haven't looked at it before.
Does everyone agree on the definition of ultra-Orthodox Judaism?
There really isn't a consensus. I have to listen very carefully to how people define themselves. When I began my research I used the phrase ultra-Orthodox and I got some very nice, respectful, but very direct responses from some potential interviewees, saying that ultra-Orthodox was not how they identified themselves and sharing some other terms that they thought would be more appropriate. So when I interview people I'm very careful to listen to the labels that they use. Ultra-Orthodox is seen by some as being pejorative. Some people see it as emphasizing the negative stereotypes of Jews. My intention in using that word was to separate this group of Jews from individuals who are extremely observant but still very active members of secular society. The same thing happens with the word "leaving". My paper is tentatively called "Leaving Orthodoxy: A Study of Religious and Cultural Transformation." I spoke to someone recently who refused to let me use the word leaving. He said he's evolved.
So when you call for interview volunteers, it sounds like you need to do some screening to make sure people will be fitting your criteria of ultra-Orthodoxy?
Initially that wasn't the case, but as I've come to find out that people define themselves in very different ways, especially around this term, there are some general questions I need to ask to make sure.
Besides the obvious difference in religious beliefs, what sorts of behaviors distinguish and isolate ultra-Orthodox Jews from "mainstream" Americans?
Very often they won't have televisions in their homes, no secular books, no magazines. They vacation in separate bungalow colonies in the Catskills. They are completely separate from secular society. There are rules of Kashrut. They can't eat even with other Jews because their standards are so different. They are often taught that the secular world is tainted.
So it sounds like there's both a difference in personal practices at a daily level, and also some geographic segregation by choice?
Yes, and this extends also to where they live. In Brooklyn, NY there are very specific areas where the ultra-Orthodox live.
I would assume that the purpose of this kind of separation is so that they can engage in religious observances in as perfect a way as possible?
Yes. They are living in America -- as their own isolated group in America, but not of America. America is a place where they can have the freedom to be isolated.
It might provide some context to point out that ultra-Orthodox Jews are not the only religious group in the United States who practice some kind of separation. Another example that comes to mind is the Amish. Separation is really a question of degree-some Christians, for example, choose to send their children, not to public school, but a school sponsored by their own religious denomination. It's a continuum as opposed to being black and white.
Absolutely. That whole idea of a continuum is something that's coming up in my research as well. I have spoken to many people who all identify as Orthodox, but have really grown up with very different relationships to the secular world. Some actually identify more with moderate Orthodoxy. They grew up going to religious schools, but it was expected that they would go to college and be active players in the secular world. Their decision to leave the Orthodox world is very different than that of someone who has been totally isolated from the secular world. The ultra-Orthodox often come out never having heard of the popular movies, never having watched TV, never having participated in the dating scene. I had one person say to me 'I went to a nightclub the other day and I was thinking what's the point of this--I was raised to think everything has a purpose. This isn't serving anything. I don't know where this fits in.' People leaving the modern Orthodox world may have just gotten into a fight with a rabbi and left. Maybe they experienced a loss of community but they knew how to act, they knew how to dress.
It must be a very difficult transition for people to make.
Yes, and what's amazing is the amount of detail that people can remember about their experience. I had a person send me a 15-page paper about her experience making her first telephone call on Shabbat, the Sabbath, a day when it is forbidden to talk on the phone or use electricity. The entire paper is about her sitting by the phone, debating as to whether or not she's going to do this.
You talked in your thesis introduction about the ultra-Orthodox culture as being one where lives are prescribed and ordered, with no such thing as free choice, in contrast to a society where we're just overwhelmed with choices and alternative ways of belief.
That ability to have choice, to make your own decisions, is very exciting, but at the same time, some of the people I've spoken too express this sense of anxiety of not knowing what the right thing is to do. They moved from a life where everything was prescribed: they were told that specific actions would have specific outcomes, that there was a right and wrong way to behave, eat, study. So choice brings excitement, but also anxiety because you don't know if you're doing the right thing.
That's actually a concern for many people who didn't grow up in such a structured community! We can all be overwhelmed with the burden of having to choose what is going to be meaningful and appropriate in our lives. What happens to the ultra-Orthodox who leave, in terms of their relationship with their old community? Is there a total cessation of contact?
I'm still forming a picture of that. But so far it seems that the Orthodox religious rituals that people observed growing up became family rituals. So they are not completely cut off from the Orthodox world. That they don't practice, that they live in the secular world is a situation that can be extremely painful to their families. As of yet I haven't met anyone who is completely cut off from their families. I've met more people who have very strained relationships with their families, but still love them, and don't blame their parents in any way. I do expect I will come across some people who have caused more of a storm and may be completely separate from their families.
So there's no official rule that says once people leave, they can no longer have contact with their families.
No. But there is still a stigma that you carry with you. One person told me that if she decided to rejoin the community, she could never fully become a part of it again-she would be the girl who left.
In doing your research to date, is there anything that's particularly excited or surprised you, or was unexpected?
One thing that has surprised me is the degree to which people really do want to talk about themselves and do like to be interviewed. Sometimes I feel like I'm crossing some boundaries in that I'm asking very personal questions about their lives. Sometimes I feel I should apologize for that. But people seem to appreciate that I'm asking them to give voice to their stories. The amount that people have shared with me, that fact that perfect strangers have offered to help--I appreciate it.
How do you go about doing your interviews?
I'm getting most of my interviewees through word-of-mouth "snowball" sampling. That means I'm pretty much telling everyone I know what I'm doing and hoping that they will tell everyone else so that maybe my phone will be ringing off the hook from ex-ultra-Orthodox Jews who are dying to talk to me! It hasn't happened yet!
I sent some letters to rabbis and synagogues in the possibility that people who had been ultra-Orthodox might now be affiliated with more liberal congregations. There are also a couple of organizations in Israel and I think one in England that are support groups for people who have left Orthodoxy. (As of now there aren't any in the U.S.) So I've also contacted them. Sometimes in the course of talking with someone, they'll give me the name of someone they think I should contact. A lot of people are very sensitive about the possibility of being exposed because of the stigma attached to leaving. But it's been great--people have opened up and talked to me in ways that I wouldn't have imagined. I've had a couple people really pour out their lives to me. It's not uncommon for me to go back to my computer after an interview and find several emails with additional information.
Did you work with Shelly on an interview format, a set of questions that you'd use as a basis for the interviews?
I'm smiling because it seems like we went over them maybe 30 or 40 times! We went over the questions in detail and she referred me to a friend at Brown University who also reviewed them with me. One thing about this project is that it encouraged a lot of other faculty here in sociology to give me things to read! That's one thing that I've really loved--I feel like I have ownership of this project, it is my project, but that there are a lot of faculty here who are genuinely excited about this. But as to changing and refining questions, I would say that they stayed pretty standard. A couple times a new theme emerged in the course of an interview, and I'd go back and modify the questions accordingly.
When you've finished collecting your interviews, is there a standard process for going through an interview and analyzing your information?
After I've transcribed all my interviews I'll be going through each transcript and finding and coding different themes.
Is this your first time participating in research at Clark?
This is the first opportunity I've taken advantage of. In my freshman year I had an opportunity to get involved, but chose not to. At Clark you don't have to wait until you're a senior to get involved and be noticed.
Can you comment on what you see as the advantages and disadvantages of doing research as opposed to doing just standard course work?
What's so exciting about doing research as opposed to a course load is what I referred to before as a sense of ownership. I have a sense that this is my project, my idea in the context of guidance from and discussion with my advisor. As much as I joke about doing 15 drafts of the proposal and how I'll write something that I think is really wonderful and be told: that's a great start (!), I'm really loving being part of the process.
Thanks to Shelly I feel like I've been made comfortable with being uncomfortable, in the sense that she really, really pushes me very hard, but in a very supportive way. I love that I can take risks in order to learn. I can take a risk that this part of the project might fall through or that this part of the project might have a set back, but we'll sit down and come up with a strategy to make it a learning experience. And I would say doing research is a little bit harder than taking a class in that it doesn't have a guaranteed, ultimate outcome. It's not: write this paper, get this grade, take this test, get this grade. What makes it both exciting and nerve-wracking is that I don't really know what's ahead. I take a lot of comfort in knowing that I have an advisor who's going to help me when I reach those points of uncertainty.