Chassidic fundamentalist environment in a part of Williamsburg in Brooklyn NY. She lives with her parents but has often been thrown out of the house and has other times tried to run away. She is 19 years old, and works fulltime as a nursery teacher, a job that she detests and that her mother forced her into. She has minimal independence skills, little social maturity, i.e. developmentally behind her age in comparison to 'normal' American society, although has an IQ that I suspect is quite high. Given her lack of secular subjects, all of Ellie's knowledge comes from books that she acquired from the library when she, benign thrown out of the house, found her refuge there at night. Ellie is totally ignorant therefore of some subjects, such as math and geography, but has a knowledge of others, such as Latin and Greek that others her age would not have. Her group is Satmer and they do not believe in the Israeli State as being Jewish. More so, they do not hold of the value of secular education believing exclusively in the merit of studying Jewish subjects and that anything extraneous to that is wrong and spiritually contaminating. Girls -- women are even further limited. Ellie for instance did not have exposure to Jewish texts in her school. It was held that the female touch would contaminate them, Ellie's brothers did not look her in the face, it was believed that men should not look at females, and this extended to siblings; there have been cases where men spit at females. Admittedly, this is comparatively recently. Always a fundamentalist sect, Ellie's particular one -- Satmer -- has become far more so during the past few years with successful businessmen having become powerful in the community, with anti-Israeli fervor growing, and with religious fundamentalism increasing the world over.
Women are limited in other ways, too, they cannot drive; they work only in teaching or secretarial professions and then in those that are run by members of their community; they generally stay at home looking after an unlimited brood of children, sometimes running to as much as 14 or 16. 18 children in one family are not uncommon and are condoned.
Ellie has 7 siblings, 3 sisters and 3 brothers. She has poor connections with them since the others have been encouraged to stay away from her and view her as potentially contaminating them in a spiritual way.
Ellie had a difficult childhood. A natural thinker and non-conformist she was disturbed by the mixed messages that she saw from an early age. Asking a lot of questions and somehow teaching herself Latin when she was approximately 9 years old and memorizing Shakespeare (she picked a torn copy up from the street), her parents were concerned at her behavior and interpreting that she was occupied by an evil spirit physically abused her in all manners of ways from starving to locking her out of the house at night (she found her lodgings in telephone booths and libraries) in the attempt to kick out this evil sprit. Repeatedly ridiculed by her classmates, some teachers, an assistant principal of the Chassidic College that she later attended and, certainly by her family as 'abnormal', Ellie sincerely believed so wondering by age 20 whether a not normal person could consider himself or herself normal; why she felt normal when she was not.
When not thrown out of the house, Ellie tried to flee it. Sent from family to family and kept locked in one attic for the duration of a year, since people were too intimated by her mother (a personality in the community) to keep her for long, Ellie ahs a way of retreating into herself to escape reality and appears to be detached from anger and dispassionate to emotions such as sadness and anger. She has great difficulty, too, making friends and often displays naive and simple social response being too gullible and trusting on the one hand, and extremely distrustful of people on the other.
At age 19, Ellie still unmarried (an unusual phenomena in a community where marriage is the norm at 16 or 18) and ostracized from the community because of her differences, naive as to sex (she thoguh children emerged due to germs), and emotionally immature although intellectually mature far beyond her years is still trying to find her independence.
I decided to choose Ellie for two reasons. Firstly, much of my works devolves around products of fundamentalist backgrounds. To understand them better, I need to get into their world from their perspective and explore it from a phenomenological perspective. Secondly, effective social work must be free of feelings. Empathy for the client is important and condoned. However, somehow or other, I must liberate myself form anger and criticism towards client's environment, attempting to understand the reason for their behavior and mindset howsoever difficult this may be. This does not mean to say that I conclude that Elie's community is acting correctly. When judged against their alleged directives of behavior, the ethical manifestations of some of these people fall far below that which their community preaches. However, I would like to endeavor to step beyond my subjectivity, perceive them as fallible humans, perceive their actions as prompted by the atmosphere of their times (possibly, for one, by the huge surge of dropouts that threaten them), and attaining an objective pose understand them better,
Learning Activity One
Log Entry 2, Part 1: To help me understand the community better, I decided to initially start from a 'safe' perspective. Admittedly, I was concerned about what these people would do to me particularly my being an alien and secular to boot. I wanted to live, not die prematurely and so I needed to hike up my courage before stepping into this community. I decided, therefore to do it slowly.
My first step was to read whatever I could about Chassidic Judaism in general and about this group in particular. I initially gravitated to ethnographic books, the books being helpful here included.. And was most inspired by cases of anthropologists / sociologists, similar to myself (i.e. college or university-educated) stepping into similar communities. The one book that I found the most identical to my situation was authored in Israel where someone (Landau, 1993) entered a community, less fundamentalist, but similar to Ellie's. I read his account of his assumed behavior and experience closely so as to take pointers and model them in my own. There was an account written by Kranzler about this same community. However, he being an Orthodox Jew (although a sociologist too) was familiar with them and accepted. Most significantly, his account was written more than half a decade ago. The community has changed rapidly since then, particularly with the demise of their Rebbe.
Log Entry 2, Part 2: When I read the literature on satmer and the various Chassidic groups, I could see a bit how Ellie felt growing up in one of these groups each of them similar to outsiders yet very different to those who grow up within them. I envied their sense of cohesiveness and trust in God as well as their close-knit family way of life, at the same time feeling a sense of claustrophobia. On the toehr hand, I could understand better where Buber came from when he glorifies the Chassidic way of life an example of an I-Thou relationship. Knowing this and reading something of Kat's community will enable me to understand her better.
Log Entry 2, Part 3:
The literature also enabled me to understand why Ellie felt the way she did. I once read a book on sociology of madness and senility with the book explaining that each culture had its own norms developed through years of cultural evolution. The majority of members within that specific culture would feel comfortable with these norms, but here and again a member would be born whose nature would militate against that specific cultural environment. Ellie is one of those individuals. Her culture, accordingly, perceives her as abnormal and a threat, deals with her as such, and Ellie, accordingly, feels increasingly lonely and rejected.
Log Entry 2, Part 3: (writing as Ellie) I am at an age when I want to marry. Most kids I my class have already married at age 18. Some of them left right after school. It is, however, not so easy to marry for me because I have to be set up with someone -- have a shidduch -- and there is none -- given the fact that I am abnormal who will marry me. As yet, my parents being desperate to marry me off in order to proceed with the other kids have made me meet anyone from stuttering creeps to half-blind, nervous individuals and others whom I distrust and seem to me write out of Dickens folktales. More specially, the way it is done is that the boy meets the girl once around the table accompanied by his…