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Leaving the ultra-Orthodox community

Sarah Judith Hofmann
March 22, 2022

In his autobiography, rabbi Akiva Weingarten talks about why he left the ultra-Orthodox community of Satmar Hasidic Jews and what Judaism means to him today.

Akiva Weingarten
Akiva Weingarten is now a rabbi in Germany and SwitzerlandImage: Stephan Pramme

On the first day of school, little Akiva Weingarten was made to sit on the lap of the rabbi, who took a sheet of laminated paper and traced the Hebraic alphabets alef, mem and taf with honey.

Written together, these letters stand for the word "emet," or truth. "And then they let me lick the honey off the sheet," remembers Weingarten in his autobiography, available in German under the title "Ultraorthodox: Mein Weg" (Ultra-Orthodox: My Way).

"Akiva! Take this as a sign that the words of the Torah are as true and sweet as honey," said his rabbi during the lesson.

But only a few of Akiva Weingarten's memories are as sweet.

As the oldest of 11 siblings, Weingarten grew up in the community of Satmar Hasidic Jews in Lakewood, New Jersey.

For him, it was above all a world full of rules.

A world in which one had to first put on the right shoe before the left one, because the right hand symbolized the mercy of God and was to be preferred. That was also the reason why toilet paper was not be used with the right hand, because it was the hand that held the leather prayer boxes, or Tefillin.

"One must think about it like looking back to the 18th century," Weingarten told DW, discussing the world of Satmar Jews. "Everything is completely different there: the clothes, the language, the food, songs, the way of thinking, supervision, equality. Everything is a couple of centuries behind," he said.

Cover of Weingarten's "Ultraorthodox: Mein Weg"
Weingarten's path led him from the US, to Israel, to Germany

'Not proper Jews'

It is a community that has hermetically isolated itself from modern times and from everything deemed "impure" by ultra-Orthodox rules.

The Satmar community has its own newspapers, schools, workshops and bakeries, clothes and book shops, supermarkets, and its own security and rescue services.

Weingarten recalls inviting one of the few non-Jewish children in the neighborhood to play with him, but he was told that the kid was no company for him. "He and his parents were Goyim, non-Jews," was the only explanation given. And even Jews who were not ultra-Orthodox were "not proper Jews," he was told.

Akiva Weingarten vividly describes the everyday life of the ultra-Orthodox community in the US. For non-Jews or those not from his community, he explains where these rules come from.

"We are the Hasidic, those who fear God. The 613 commandments, which the Eternal one gave to humans in the Torah, the five books of the Hebraic Bible, and the innumerable instructions, which Moshe received in Mount Sinai through the Mishnah, the Oral Torah of God, gives orientation to our lives. The purpose of our existence is to fulfill the Mitzva, these commandments; to realize them in our lives in such a manner that there is no difference between our doing and God's will."

Originally, this was not meant as slavish adherence to the rules, Weingarten says. Instead, it was indicative of spiritual striving towards unity, not only for the individual, but for the perfection of the world.

Only when "the Jews as the chosen people of God followed the Mitzva completely," would the "longed-for Maschiach, the messiah," come.

Jews in festive clothing at a rally
Ultra-Orthodox Jews at Mount Meron in Israel, 2021Image: Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images

Slapped for masturbating

As Weingarten grew older, he grew less accepting of the rules. As a teenager, he masturbated, although he knew it was strictly prohibited. The rabbi slapped him in the face in punishment

But that rather led him to explore more taboos. Together with his schoolmates, he sexually satisfied an older ultra-Orthodox man in a hotel. The youth would prostitute themselves for money and then use the money to buy a prostitute's services.

Weingarten laughs as he discusses these events with DW: "It was like a jail. You didn't speak about it, but you had sexual needs and you did something together."

Just Deborah Feldman's book "Unorthodox" in 2012, Weingarten's account offers insight into the ultra-Orthodox community and their strict sexual rules, but from a male perspective. 

Feldman also grew up in the community of Satmar Jews in New Jersey and describes, among other things, what it meant for her to be obliged to get married at a young age without knowing anything about her own sexuality.

Deborah Feldman
Deborah Feldman is the author of the book 'Unorthodox,' which was turned into a hit miniseriesImage: JAN ROEHL/DW

Weingarten's arranged marriage was also a disaster. At the age of 20, he was married to an orphan in Israel. Together, they lived in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, a suburb of Tel Aviv.

Two years later, they already had two children together, but Weingarten felt completely alienated from his wife. "In the last months before my exit, I sometimes had the feeling of being mentally raped, and being forced many times a day to meet my rapist — the one the community called 'God,' the one they prayed to and admired."

Returning to the land of the Holocaust perpetrators

Weingarten decided to leave Israel and go to Germany, of all places — the land of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. 

"My grandfather hated everything German," he writes in his book. "He would never let a Bosch or Miele washing machine into the house. And because Hitler rode a Mercedes, it was always the 'Führer's car' — an attitude my father still cultivates to this day."

Weingarten's grandparents were Hungarian Jews. His grandmother survived Auschwitz and her husband survived another concentration camp, but both hardly spoke about their experiences.

"At our place, we only spoke about Germany in the context of the Holocaust. If you spoke about Germany, you meant Nazi Germany. The Germans were always the bad ones, and they still are today, for many ultra-Orthodox people. In Israel and America, where many descendants of the survivors live, this theme is very present even today," says Weingarten.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Bnei Berak celebrating the Jewish festival 'Tu B'Schevat'.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Bnei Berak celebrating the Jewish festival 'Tu B'Schevat' (2022)Image: Ariel Schalit/AP/picture alliance

But Weingarten's decision to go to Germany was very practical.

"I did not have money and wanted to study," he explains. He found out that it was possible to study in Germany without having a lot of money. And he thought that knowing Yiddish, his mother tongue, which has many similarities with German, would make it easy for him to adapt.

It was not a move he did to provoke his community, but rather to escape it.  "You can't go farther than Germany, because of the history," says Weingarten.

This history always feels present to him: "Yesterday I saw a very old woman on the street and my first thought was: What was she doing 75 years ago?"

Rabbis and liberal Hasidic Jews

Weingarten is however reluctant to speak about antisemitism in Germany today. "Fear is always there," he says. "But we shouldn't ask Jews about antisemitism; we should rather ask the Germans. The German police, the government and the people should engage with that," he adds.

Today, Weingarten shuttles between Dresden and Basel, where he is the rabbi for two liberal Jewish communities.

For Shabbat, he wears the shtreimel, the Jewish fur hat, and the kaftan – garments that are usually worn only by members of the Hasidic community.

In Berlin, Weingarten has founded an association to support people leaving ultra-Orthodox communities and help them integrate themselves outside the strict religious environment. "We are not Orthodox anymore, but we are not really secular. We have a strong Jewish identity, but at the same time many people leaving the community would not see themselves as religious, although they celebrate the Shabbat and pray," he says.

Purim festival in Jerusalem: Ultra-Orthodox girls in costumes (2021)
Purim festival in Jerusalem: Ultra-Orthodox girls in costumes (2021)Image: Oded Balilty/AP Photo/picture alliance

"To me, being Jewish is first and foremost an identity. It is a place where I feel at home. I can visit a synagogue in India or Finland and feel at home. That is our tradition, that is our history — everything that defines us as group, as a people, as humans. There are many beautiful things about Judaism, which we have inherited and which should be continued. For all humans, not only for Jews."