Young Ultra-Orthodox Jews Struggle Against Tradition Samuel Katz says he's leading a double life. He'd study in temple, but he didn't tell his family that he was eating taboo food and wanted to go to college outside his ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
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Young Ultra-Orthodox Jews Struggle Against Tradition

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Young Ultra-Orthodox Jews Struggle Against Tradition

Young Ultra-Orthodox Jews Struggle Against Tradition

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. In New York City, a handful of young ultra-orthodox Jews are struggling to leave their neighborhoods and their faith. They often hide their desire for a different life for fear their families and communities will turn on them. Sometimes, they're told they will never make it if they leave. Reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro has the story of one young man who did leave and is now struggling to build a new life.

ARI DANIEL SHAPIRO: One look at Samuel Katz's bookshelf gives away the journey he's on. In the middle...

SAMUEL KATZ: So this is my Tanakh, which is the Hebrew Bible.

SHAPIRO: To its left, Plato's "Republic" and Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye." And on the right, science books about chaos theory and evolution. Katz is 21, and he's accumulated this library gradually. Only religious books were allowed in the insular Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he grew up. New York City pulsed all around him, but he lived a world apart. Men and women were separate. Everyone ate strictly kosher. They spoke Yiddish almost exclusively.

Katz and the other boys studied at a yeshiva or Jewish school. There were no public schools, no concerts and minimal interaction with anyone outside the community. But when he was 10, his parents got a divorce and things changed for Katz.

KATZ: We were a school of 1,300 boys. I was the only child from a divorced family, and I didn't want anyone to know it because there was such a stigma on it. I was looking for some escape. So there was this library next to my house. Actually, my first secular book I read, I read "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald Dahl. And I read it, like, with a dictionary, and I compared every word. It took me like a month or something.

SHAPIRO: The more Katz read, the more he wanted to read: books on psychology, human behavior, philosophy.

KATZ: Nobody knew about it, just my secret life.

SHAPIRO: And then, Katz went to a Darwin exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. He found himself staring at an evolutionary timeline of actual hominid skulls, and he imagined his head at the end of that line.

KATZ: Where is this going to be? And I studied God's law all my life. And you're a Jewish male. I mean, you're the pinnacle of creation. And suddenly, you're not the pinnacle of creation. You're the endpoint at this moment in time, and something else will happen soon. It's hard to explain what that was like, but it was beautiful.

SHAPIRO: When he was 16, Katz went to a prestigious religious school in Israel, and he struggled. He confessed his secular interest to the dean of his school, a scholar whom he greatly respected.

KATZ: And he put me in a single room, so I don't corrupt anyone, so I don't talk to any other students. Friends came telling me, staff is asking about me, whether I'm saying things, which was miserable. I mean, it was absolutely terrible. Till finally, I just said, I'm going home.

SHAPIRO: When he got back to New York, Katz felt like he was leading a double life. He'd pray and study at temple, but he didn't tell his family that he was eating pork in private and that all he really wanted was to go to college. But he needed help getting his GED, which is where an organization called Footsteps came in.


SHAPIRO: When I open the door to their office in Manhattan, several young people look at me and my microphone almost suspiciously. There's a lounge with a TV, a study and a large meeting room.

Footsteps is a confidential place for people questioning the ultra-orthodox world and looking to venture beyond it. Katz went to Footsteps seeking help with math and writing, and he found a community and some of his best friends.

MICHAEL JENKINS: It's a profound experience to be around.

SHAPIRO: Michael Jenkins is a social worker and director of programs at Footsteps. He's worked closely with Katz. Jenkins helped him explore his new identity and find his way to college. Footsteps has served over 600 people, either face-to-face or over the phone, and some of the participants take advantage of the career coaching here.

JENKINS: If you have no skills and you've had no experience, how do you explain that? I'd say this is a strength. You have chosen a particular life path that has extreme challenges and you have been successful. That's amazing. Spin it.

SHAPIRO: Samuel Katz's family wouldn't speak with me. In fact, many are reluctant to talk about this issue. But there was someone who agreed to an interview. Pearl Engelman lives in Borough Park, Brooklyn. She's a friend of the family, and her youngest son left the ultra-orthodox community seven years ago. Engelman has a good relationship with her son now, but she understands what Katz's family must be going through.

PEARL ENGELMAN: It's heartbreaking to watch your child choose to throw away the best that you've given him and choose what we consider the worst. So which normal parent is going to say, fine, your happiness is the only thing that matters? They would try to explain to the child that their version of happiness is a recipe for total disaster because they're throwing away this world and they're throwing away the next world.

SHAPIRO: The stakes for leaving are high, but Katz did manage to get out and go to college. He starts his junior year at Stony Brook on Long Island this fall. He calls his mom every Friday night before the Sabbath. They talk, but he doesn't speak openly about his new life. Katz knows it upsets her.

KATZ: It hurts me. I wish there was a way out, but there isn't. A friend of mine once told me, you know, Sam, do you realize how brave you are? And I was like, you know, I don't think it was bravery that made me do it. You leave because you're so afraid of the life that you would have if you stay.

SHAPIRO: For Katz, the life he lives now is full of biology, physics and theater. But every day before he leaves his dorm room, he double-checks that he's got his yarmulke folded in his pocket, just in case his family shows up to surprise him on campus. For NPR News, I'm Ari Daniel Shapiro.

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