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What it's like to live in - and leave - the ultra-Orthodox sect that banned women driving

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Emily Green didn’t decide to leave the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community she grew up in, she decided to leave her husband. But that decision had consequences.

“I was pushed out in a sense,” she says. "One thing led to another, the way people in the community sided with him. I just felt more and more alienated. I was very respected, I’d been the wife of someone respected. It all changed very quickly."

People were shocked as her life “had seemed perfect from the outside”. “He had such a good reputation in the community. I didn’t tell anyone how unhappy I was.”

After the rumours started, and when the Rabbi of the school she taught in threatened her job, Emily knew she and her children would no longer feel comfortable living by the strict codes of the Charedi ultra-Orthodox Belzer community, which recently hit the headlines after one of its schools threatened students with expulsion if their mothers drove. On some days there, Emily says “I felt like I was choking”.

Emily was lucky: she was eventually awarded custody of her children in the secular courts but leaving meant discovering an entirely new world and being shunned by her family and friends she grew up with. That she survived at all, Emily says, is a miracle.

“For me, what broke the relationship with my parents is my father said 'we’re going to take you to court and take your children away from you if you’re not going to stay religious. The children will be better off with their father.' I said 'no, I’m done'.”

The Charedi community is notoriously insular and practices a form of Judaism as that emerged in 19th century Eastern Europe: the secular world is scorned, Yiddish is the primary language, married women are required to dress “modestly” and cover their hair, while the men wear big black hats and long black coats.

“There was no TV, no secular newspapers. I wasn’t even allowed to go to the library [when I was growing up]. We were allowed to read Enid Blyton books but that was as far as it went,” she says. “Internet, no. Definitely not. At the end of my marriage I had the internet in my house but I couldn’t tell my husband. No films. I think I watched my first TV show when I was 24. I watched Friends. My goodness. It was - wow”, Emily says of her upbringing.

While Emily remains observant and her children go to Jewish schools, she is no longer bound by the community’s strict laws. She teaches full time and helps run Gesher EU, an organisation for people like her who want to leave their Charedi communities. They survive partially on word of mouth, and they need to support - which is one reason she agreed to this interview.

“There’s so little support for people that want to leave because the journey is so difficult and the price is so big, because of the way that the community is structured,” she says.

“We have one member, her children have nothing to do with her. They won’t speak to her, acknowledge her. It’s heartbreaking. That is probably the highest price and the biggest barrier. I always think if I’d lost custody I would have killed myself or gone back. I couldn’t function.”

Here, because she explains her situation better than we ever could, is an edited Q&A with Emily. Some details have been changed at Emily's request to protect her family's privacy.

What did you think when you read about the driving ban?

It didn’t surprise me because it’s been going on for many years. My mother, for example, she was always a bit of a rebel in her own way - not that she talks to me now - but I think she also found it restrictive. My father always harassed her about it, she couldn’t drive in Stamford Hill only outside the community. This is only one aspect of what happens.

What are the other aspects?

The main thing is the education. These schools don’t provide any kind of good education or prepare the children for modern British life, to have a career or job or integrate in any sense. These schools manage to get good or outstanding ratings in Ofsted. That to me is the bigger issue, that goes under the radar.

So what do Charedi kids learn?

The boys only have two hours a day of secular learning. I actually ironically taught for a year in one of these schools in London and in the end they fired me. They wanted me to teach from 1950s textbooks and I just outright refused. I wanted to make it exciting for them, so they fired me. They were saying “oh, the boys are starting to enjoy English more than Jewish studies”. And then by the time they are 11 or 12 there are no secular studies, full stop. For girls, it’s a bit better. Girls do end up doing GCSEs but higher education, A-levels, they don’t have access to that. And in any case, they marry them off so young.

What was the process of leaving like?

I first separated from my husband a few years ago. I didn’t even think about leaving the religion at that point, I just wanted to leave my marriage. I was very unhappily married and I wanted an education for my children.

What was unhappy about your marriage?

It was because of the nature of the way we met. My father picked him because he thought he was a good religious boy, but in essence we had no connection. We met on Sunday night, got engaged on Monday night. We spoke a couple of times on the phone, and then six months later we got married. It was like marrying a stranger. There was nothing to hold us together. I hoped it would get better but that never changed.

The love didn’t grow?

Chasidic people don’t believe in romantic love. Falling in love is a secular notion. But after 10 years I thought “it hasn’t changed. It’s not going to”.

But divorce is not the done thing in the community is it?

No. But I was getting older and looked at my life. I had a few children and I looked at their future and saw the same future that I had, that was the thing that really bothered me. I just felt as a parent I couldn’t do this. I saw that if I didn’t do anything nothing would change and people would continue to control my life. I felt like I had no choices, I was living a life decided by everyone else.

And you were already a teacher?

I thought if I was going to marry a husband who was going to be learning [Torah] his whole life that I thought I would have to be the breadwinner. I did an open university degree which I continued when I had my children. I qualified and went to work as an English teacher in a Charedi school.

What were you teaching?

Romeo and Juliet? We weren’t allowed to do that. Jane Austen? No. My challenge was I had to find a kosher syllabus. All the books were censored. It was very complicated. But that really got to me. As my world opened because I started reading more I started realising how many restrictions there were. I was teaching a GCSE and I could see these girls were going nowhere. An AQA examiner came and he was very impressed with the girls and I said to him openly - this is quite rebellious for a Charedi woman - I said “these girls are just going to get married”. He said “that’s so sad”.

And what happened when you got divorced?

Once I separated from my husband my family gave me a lot of grief. They gave me a very, very hard time. My job wanted to fire me. The community spread rumours about me - I don’t know where they came from, to this day. The Rabbi of the school called me in and said “it’s better you go”. I was traumatised, it was horrific. I needed the money. I was desperate and at that point I was still religious. The headteacher was quite good and I got my job back. But it gave me a wake up call, I just thought “I can’t stay in this job.” One thing led to another, the way people in the community sided with him. I just felt more and more alienated. I thought I’d have to move out and the only question was where.

So you left your husband and the community left you?

Yes. Leaving means losing all the relationships. People that you love and trust. Your whole entire world. Family, friends, alienating themselves from you. For those that don’t have a career, for a lot of men who don’t even speak the language, it’s not having the skills or the confidence. You’re disabled in a way, where do you even begin? You don’t have any connections or network outside as well. More than that you’re told the outside world is bad and not to trust anyone. You have to overcome that psychological barrier. Charedis are so insular even modern orthodox are considered are not real Jews. It’s very, very difficult. Where do you begin: language, skills, everything, cultural knowledge. Until today, I have that gap. It’s like losing your whole life, everything you are familiar with.

Another very, very big challenge, especially for those who are married with children is custody.

And that’s why you set up Gesher EU? Because it’s so hard for people to leave?

I thought ‘I’ve been through this, there must be others’. People shouldn’t have to go through this journey without support.

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How many people does Gesher EU support?

About 25. Not everyone leaves. We have one man in his 40s with 10 children who barely speaks English. He says he’ll lose touch with his children, which is probably right. His knowledge of the outside world is so minimal that he wouldn’t know where to begin. But he’s part of us because the loneliness of being trapped in a community can be very difficult.

Why do people leave? Because they don’t believe in god or they don’t believe in the community?

I think a lot of people in the community don’t necessarily believe in god, per se, but they like the life and are happy with the life. It’s usually when it affects you personally, if you’re not happy. A lot of it is to do with the restrictions the community places on you, there are a lot of rules, they are very narrow and if you step out of line… The control they have over your life, that’s what most people complain about.

Will more people leave the community?

I think are lot of people are living double lives in the community. A lot of people push the boundaries as far as they can. But I don’t think boldly leaving, that is only a trickle of people. It’s still too difficult, the price is still too high. People will continue the pretence.

Note: some details have been changed

More: Gesher EU

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