Ari Mandel was raised in an ultra-Orthodox chassidic community in Monsey, N.Y. He married at 18 and had his first child a year later. When he was 22, he became an atheist. Now, he’s a student at New York University, and he works with the It Gets Besser project to teach like-minded individuals that you can live a happy, fulfilling life outside of the community. His message: it may seem difficult – even impossible – but it is possible to leave that lifestyle, and after people make the break, it gets better.
What is It Gets Besser?
It’s a play on the Dan Savage project called It Gets Better for gay kids and teens who are bullied and are going through a rough time. He got people to record a video saying, “It gets better, don’t give up.”
Our idea was to do essentially the same thing for people who have left the ultra-Orthodox community to live life as they see fit outside of that world.
For many of us, it’s a very rough transition, so it was essentially the same message: it is hard but it’s not the end of the world. We’ve all been through it, and you can do it. It gets better. The Yiddish word for “better” is besser.
Since the project started a few years ago, our video got 50,000 or 60,000 hits. Since then, we made a website where we host individual videos of people talking for a few minutes. Recently we did this third iteration, which is longer, and the new idea was people going about their current everyday lives, but at the same time, listening to music that is literally from their past or reminiscent of it, and still connects them to that world.
In my case, I was studying and in the background, I’m playing music that comes from the ultra-Orthodox world. It shows everybody going about their day and doing their thing.
You can leave that world but you don’t have to abandon everything. You can take the things you find enjoyable and meaningful and cobble together a happy existence.
How would you describe life as an ultra-Orthodox Jew?
In my case, as ultra-Orthodox lives go, I had a very normal life. I believed in everything they stood for. I agreed with it and I was fine with that life.
The problems arose when I started to find holes in the veneer. The more research I did to plug up those holes, the bigger those holes got. I came to realize that it wasn’t quite as cut and dry as they had led me to believe. Ultimately, I decided to leave.
Growing up in that world, you don’t go to libraries, you don’t read books other than what they approve of, written for and by them.
What made you decide to leave that life behind?
I got married at 18, which is normal in that world. Once you’re married, you have a little more freedom and autonomy, so I could go to the local public library for the first time. I was just reading for the fun of it. I wasn’t looking for trouble, I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but just reading material that wasn’t so heavily censored, introduced me to ideas I never knew about before. I just kept following the leads, and it completely shattered my worldview.
By the time I was 24, I had been trying for a couple of years to reconcile what I was thinking and what I was doing. Eventually, I couldn’t do it anymore. At 24 I left.
I ended up joining the U.S. Army, did that for five years, and got out at the end of 2011.
Now, I’m not religious by any standard. I’m culturally Jewish. I’m more than happy with that. That’s exactly who I am. But what Jewish used to mean to me and what it means now are very different things.
Growing up in that world, it’s all encompassing. It’s your entire world. It’s all your friends, everything you know and everything you’ve ever read. You’re Jewish first, human second and American third. Now, I’m human first, American second and I happen to be Jewish, so I appreciate the cultural things that come with that, but it no longer defines every moment of my life or every drop of who I am and of my day.
How prevalent is that idea that people who leave ultra-Orthodox Judaism can’t have happy and healthy lives?
Within the community, that is the predominant view. You’re either here with us and your life is perfect and happy, or you leave and you’re miserable and end up as a drug addict in an alleyway somewhere. That is the prevailing view.
How difficult is it for people to leave Orthodox Judaism?
It’s very difficult. Everyone has their own story and their own past. It’s harder for some people than it is for others, but across the board, it’s difficult.
I happen to be able to speak English, but there are many of my peers who sound like they just got off the plane or boat from eastern Europe. We have virtually no secular education. Try getting a job even at McDonald’s when you don’t have a high school diploma and can’t do basic arithmetic.
There’s family pressure, community pressure, there’s all sorts of scare tactics that they employ against us.
What was the biggest challenge in leaving the community?
It was definitely the emotional stuff, not wanting to hurt my family and friends, not wanting to disappoint my parents. The emotional boundaries were the hardest.
What is your relationship like with your family these days?
It was difficult at first, but we now get along wonderfully, almost as if nothing ever happened. We play a game of don’t ask don’t tell. They know I don’t live their lifestyle anymore, but I’m respectful enough.
Regarding my wife, what happened was, we didn’t end up staying married, but she did end up following me out of the community. We get along as friends, so we’re not fighting each other.
I don’t have many of the issues many of my peers have.
What advice would you give to people whose families don’t accept their decision to leave?
It’s really tough. There are court battles, child custody battles. It gets dragged on forever, and it gets really ugly. The community will gang up against the person leaving. It’s not pretty, and it’s not easy. I do not envy those people. I’m very involved in these issues as an activist, so I’m aware of it happening.
Mostly, “It Gets Besser” shows that others have done it and the world didn’t come to an end and they’re living happy and normal lives. That’s the biggest message we want to point out with the video, but aside from that, yes, there is a growing community of people who have left, whether it’s online or real life. It’s a growing community, with organization and get-togethers and everything you can think of, with all sorts of people. That has made it easier to leave.
What’s the most important thing ultra-Orthodox Jews should know about those who choose to leave?
All of those stereotypes they like to say about us are just not true. We’re just like you.
It’s not about sex drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. If you would just play nice instead of fighting us, we wouldn’t be fighting back. It wouldn’t be a standoff. We would have a lot more to gain from each other if we played nice, if we stopped fighting.
They often complain we badmouth them or make them look bad, but for the most part, all we’re doing is saying we don’t like that lifestyle and are leaving it
If we could all stop fighting each other, things would be better for everyone.
Our slogan is, “We’re not saying you should. We’re not saying you would. We’re saying you could.”
People ask me, ‘Should I leave?’ I’m not saying you should leave. I’m not saying it’s the default right answer, but just know it’s a possibility, that it’s doable.
If you want to badly enough, you can do it. It’s not the end of the world
Thousands of others have done it, and we’re a living testament to the fact that you can do it and be happy.