Three years ago, Judy Kaye bought her first pair of jeans — an act she describes as “overwhelming”.
Aged 30, she had two children and had lived in three different countries, but was still bewildered by everyday experiences taken for granted by most but which seldom touched her life within a strictly observant, Charedi community.
Now, having cut ties with her Orthodox past, Ms Kaye and her long-time friend Emily Green, 34 — another ex-Charedi member — have founded GesherEU, an organisation that aims to provide support for others facing similar struggles.
“We reach out to people still in the community, as well as those who have left it,” Ms Kaye said. “When I first moved away, I needed someone to hold my hand and tell me the basic codes of conduct. It’s not easy, but when you have people’s support, it is much easier.
Ms Kaye defines her twenties as a 10-year-period of cultural and social pressure. “My marriage was pretty much forced,” she said. “I said ‘no’ and I was told ‘yes’.”
After getting married in 2002, she and her husband lived in Israel, before moving to Stamford Hill in London, and finally settling in a Chasidic area of Brooklyn.
But she found life unbearable after experiencing abuse within the community and having no one to talk to about it. “People are absolutely banned from speaking out,” she said.
Eventually, she turned to Footsteps, a New York-based group providing educational and social support for those who wish to leave strictly observant communities.
They gave her guidance and legal advice and, by her 30th birthday, she had left her husband and was living in another part of New York with her children.
At the same time, Emily Green was also acclimatising to secular society, having withstood two years of legal woes and custody battles to leave her husband in Stamford Hill, London, and move away with her five children.
She says: “I was isolated. It was a very lonely process. That is why I knew we needed something — I knew there had to be other people like me.”
Ms Green and Ms Kaye took the model of Footsteps to launch GesherEU in the UK and across Europe. They offer therapy, social groups and mentoring sessions for people inside and outside the Chasidic community.
“We have between 30 and 40 members, and hold social events twice a month,” Ms Green said. “The wonderful thing is that we all speak Yiddish so we have that shared language.”
In addition to GesherEU, a organisation called Mavar (“pathway” in Hebrew) has also been launched. A spokesperson said the group worked “with Charedim in the UK who are still within the community and are looking to explore opportunities outside. They may or may not choose to leave.
“The organisation offers discreet one-to-one mentoring to guide people. Confidentiality is absolutely paramount”.
GesherEU and Mavar join a growing number of groups — particularly in New York and Israel. The Knesset in Jerusalem recently debated whether they should receive government funding.
Online blogs, Facebook groups and journals like Unpious.com provide further platforms. Shulem Deen, founder and editor of Unpious.com and also a board member for Footsteps, said: “People find themselves in terrible situations, feeling terribly alone.
“In New York, it’s easier than ever to hook into this network of people who are either still in the community or who are halfway out. The UK is still catching up and so organisations like GesherEU are vital.”