OTD Videos - Shifra - Leaving as a Family

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In 2006, Shifra Lowen and her husband Yochanan left the Chasidic enclave of Tosh, Canada together with their four young children. Shifra talks about the transition into secular life in Montreal. In Yiddish with English subtitles (click "CC" in the video controls to activate the closed-caption translation).

  • Click here for info on how to contact Shifra 19:44, 31 October 2015 (UTC)

Video Transcript:

Hi, my name is Shifra Lowen. I am the lucky wife of Yochanan Lowen and the mother of four precious children. Eight years ago, I lived in Tosh...a bit more than eight years ago. We moved ourselves out from there because we wanted our children should have a better chance for a great education and a better life, a better childhood.

When I first left the Chasidic world, the first two years, I was very, very isolated. I still didn't know any people from the outside world. I didn't know OTD people, I didn't know anyone, except my old world, the Chasidic world. And, I no longer had much in common with my old friends, to enjoy talking with them because, we didn't see eye-to-eye and it was like they were no longer my cup of tea. For me to be able to discuss something with them, and feel like they understand my perspective, for them it was too hard to discuss anything except the things that, they were used to talking about. For two years, I was very lonely, and I almost gave up on ever having friends that I would enjoy talking to and who would understand me. And I thought that I had sacrificed it all for my children, completely leaving my whole life behind. I had a career in Tosh. I was famous for the songs I wrote, I was a tenth grade teacher, I had things that made me feel like I was contributing to society. I could say I was a beloved person, a respected person. But I left because I wanted to do this for my children. I wanted them to have a better life. One that they could never have in the Chasidic system, especially not in a place like Tosh.

The first two years that were so isolating at first, because here in Canada, there was no [footstepsorg.org "Footsteps"] organization and there wasn't really anyone I could talk to even about simple things like, how to dress, how to style my hair. I had no idea how to do the basic things. I had to figure everything out on my own and, what was a lot more important than that, was the emotional needs, to be able to talk to people who can understand my journey. It was a very traumatic experience when the Chareidi system rose against us. They tried to defeat us, to stop us, to make sure we shouldn't be able to leave successfully. They placed all kinds of obstacles before us, trying to disrupt us in any way possible with different types of traps so we should basically lose our children. They basically did not want us to be a success because if we show for people that something like this is possible, then the whole system will collapse, and who knows how many people can be inspired to do the same thing. So therefore, one must be stopped before one succeeds in opening a window in this closed placed or else the whole system will start falling apart.

So basically, after two years I finally learned how to use FaceBook. I didn't even know how to use the Internet. I had no idea how to make use of technology. But honestly, I didn't even have the time to devote to learning it because I was too busy to settle into my new life. It was then, that I promised myself that if I ever get out of this, if I am successful and establish myself in a new life, and find new friends, then, whenever I will hear of someone who is this type of situation, someone who's in the middle of a transition, trying to get out of the Chasidic system, and settling into a new life—it's a very big adjustment—so if I ever hear about someone who's in such a situation and does not have any help, or needs some help, and I could possibly help out in any way, I promised myself that I would do whatever I can to help so it should be easier for them. Because I know how it feels, I know how lonely it can get not knowing whom to turn to.

I'm happy to say that there are a lot of people that I spoke to who feel the same way. They feel that it's extremely difficult to navigate this journey. It isn't one that comes with a manual that tells you what to do first and what to do after that. Every person is different, but at least if there is a person you can talk to, that's of utmost importance. It's very important to reach out, and not to be embarrassed. Where I come from, there was a shame associated with someone asking for help. Being in need of help was a great humiliation. But the truth is, if you don't ask, you don't get. And it doesn't harm anyone when you ask somebody for a favor. If the other person says no, then you can ask someone else, but to have the courage to ask, and to ask for help is the most important thing for success in such a journey and overall, for life in general. But especially when you take such a huge step in life, you need support.

Instead of feeling guilty, and think that you are doing something wrong by being your true self—you don't want to belong to the Chasidic world anymore, you want to spend the days of your life that you have left to do that which you believe is correct for you. Why feel guilty? You aren't doing anything wrong. But that's what some people will try to do; to make you feel guilty for leaving by telling you your father will have a heart attack if you cause him this much pain” and “your mother will eat her heart up”. This is a very old trick that they use to control people with guilt. But the truth is, from the first moment, my husband explained to me—you aren't causing distress for your mother, you aren't causing pain for your father. It's the system that is doing it. It's not your fault that they grew up in a system that is limiting their life in that way that not only is it forbidden to them to do anything that the system doesn't allow, but also their children, if they deviate by a hairline, then they are not allowed to even talk to them anymore. It has nothing to do with you. On the contrary, you are just as much a victim as they are in this situation because it is the system that has corrupted the whole relationship. The pain that they have, you did not cause it. The cult made that for them and all this humiliation that they have, it's not your fault. It's the system that is at fault—not you. And once you recognize that, especially for me being that I'm a mother of young children, it no longer made sense to sacrifice the lives of my four innocent young children and not provide for them the best that they deserve. Just because a system is programmed to torment people, certainly, that system is not my responsibility.

These are people who are now in their 50's, but have already lived out the most of their lifespan and, I don't know how much hope they still have to have any joy in this world. Because this is not what they are searching for, officially. Fundamentally, they are programmed to spend their days preparing for Paradise, ("Gan Eden") not to have joy here. So basically, my children have their whole life ahead of them. There is so much they can accomplish in their life. And for me to take that responsibility and destroy four young lives just because of this guilt—it's a false guilt!

It is merely a tool to control people. Lots of people have asked me, "how did your husband accomplish this?" I was a very pious wife, and very fanatic woman if I may say so myself. I was never dumb, but I was very closed-minded. In my upbringing, it was ingrained in me not to have an open mind to hear anything other than what you were raised to believe, to fear change and not want to listen to anything other than what you were taught. It was therefore a very long and difficult transformation for my dear husband to be able to open my eyes, to help me see that there are other ways and better options and better ways to raise our dear children and to give them a better chance in life. And I'm eternally grateful that he never gave up on me not matter how tough it got and he was extremely patient and so understanding with me. He never pushed me into doing anything I didn't want to. He always just patiently explained to me, about other options so that I would be able to make an informed decision. And even for that I would give him such a hard time, I wouldn't let him talk, I didn't want to listen. I was afraid of any change, I was taught and programmed that change is dangerous and that it will bring the worst things in your life. I believed all that. Turns out change brought the best things in my life.