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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Pearl Perry Reich Doesn’t Speak For Me

Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. (...
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Yesterday the messages flew across my cellphone.

First came the text: “Have you heard about this lady? I’m going home to watch Dr. Phil.”

Then there was the phone call: “What a disgrace. She’s on right now! I can’t believe this. Wait…I want to hear the whole thing.”

If you were at the office like me and missed the whole thing yesterday, the long and short of it is that (yet another) formerly ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman has decided to leave the Hasidic community and go public with her story.
  • Now there is Pearl Perry Reich, who left the ultra-Orthodox community in Borough Park and who is going to television, the media and Facebook to gain support.

Both women left their husbands. Both faced intense pressure to stay. Both feel threatened for leaving. And as far as I can tell, both are worried mostly about keeping custody of their kids. So they are using the public eye as a way of protecting themselves from the wrath of the community. (Feldman calls her book an “insurance policy.”)

Feldman and Reich have both appeared on TV. Feldman is better-educated – she went to Sarah Lawrence. Reich is less articulate – she compared breaking away from Borough Park to being unable to make a chocolate cake like everybody else. (Sort of.)

Reich is going to get more attention because she, unlike Feldman, is a model. (They call her the “Hasidic Hottie.” And she says she wants to “represent thousands of women going through what I am going through today.” (Watch video clip here.)

This is a problem because Reich – for whatever reason – maybe youth, immaturity, coming out of a bad situation, you name it – seems like she is out to deliberately stir hatred of ultra-Orthodox Jews. 

This last point was made by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, an advocate of Jewish values, on the show. It seems to me that he is right.

Don’t get me wrong – I am happy that women are speaking out, especially Jewish women, after so many years of silence. I think Orthodox Judaism as practiced is sometimes more restrictive than the Torah prescribes. I know what she means when she calls Hasidism a cult.

But based on my upbringing, education,family and friendships – I know there are a lot of inaccuracies in what Reich is saying. And I don’t think she knows the harm that she can do with them. Especially since she claims to represent other people. Which you should not do, unless they consent.

As follows:
  • Yes,the community is insular and indoctrinates people. However, this is because the secular world is all around them, and it is tempting. It is hard to stay spiritual and keep the rituals when all around you there are opposing messages.
  • Yes, there is pressure to marry, lack of birth control, and lack of education. But these apply to both women and men.
  • Yes, men have more formal power – religious, financial, political. But women have more familial power and the children are seen as “theirs.” (Update: a friend made a good point that this is only so long as they stay in the community.)
  • Yes, there is abuse and the community doesn’t like to deal with it (like in any community). But there are many informal channels that women use to deal with it, including going to the women and men in their families for help.
  • Yes, if you dress immodestly, you will be called names. But that is a community norm and would not be perceived as “abuse.”
  • Yes, you are pressured to stay within the community. And yes, leaving is hard and you might even be threatened and lack support. But the issue is not that women lack freedom. Rather, there is an overriding desire to preserve the religion at all costs. And if you represent yourself as religious on your wedding day, and have four children while still in the religious community, and then decide to be the “Hasidic Hottie,” it is highly implausible that you are going to raise your children in the manner to which you agreed upfront.

Reich misrepresented Orthodoxy in some other ways, too. If she is not observant then fine, but if she is then behavior doesn't match ideology:
  • She appeared onstage with a boyfriend despite not being divorced.
  • She said that Orthodox Judaism is “basically morals.” It’s not – it involves an extensive amount of ritual.
  • She works as a model but Orthodox Judaism emphasizes modesty and not flaunting your body.

Rabbi Boteach, who appeared with her on Dr. Phil (see hereand here),spoke very well in response to her.

Basically he said:
  • Focus on solving the issue.
  • You are in pain – deal with that directly. “Don’t use your pain to make more pain” and “malign an entire group.”
  • Kids need to be raised in “one specific tradition” – otherwise it’s confusing.
  • Don’t blame the religion for your experience – any religion can be abused by anyone.
  • Divorce happens, and Judaism believes that both parents should stay involved in the kids’ lives afterward.

At the end, Boteach offered Reich his personal assistance in resolving the situation. Which reflects true Jewish values and religious/humanistic values generally.

Some people think that it’s bad to air “dirty laundry” in public. I think it’s fine to share the issues. Because that leads to an open conversation, and logic in the end does prevail.

However, when someone says things that are not true, and they do it hatefully, it’s very important to get on the record and correct the facts. Pearl Perry Reich doesn't have to be Hasidic, but she doesn’t have the right to spread baseless hatred as a way of healing her own wounds.

As an aside, this is a nice Op-Ed by a Hasidic Jewish woman, Chava Tombosky, in response to Reich.

I am sorry to see it when people suffer and hope this family finds peace.

Have a good rest of the weekend everyone, and good luck!
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