When Leah Boulton goes to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish wedding she completely “frums up”. She covers her exuberant red hair and dresses neck to knee in the style of those communities. She’s unrecognisable but the transformation is driven by a deep respect for the ultra-Orthodox way of life. She considers it a privilege to have access to this very particular culture through an old friend.
The co-founder and president of Pathways Melbourne says that she was motivated by compassion for the women she met at these simchas to start the organisation which supports members of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities who are questioning their lifestyle. Pathways Melbourne provides services to people who are exploring the world and their identity beyond the segregated community in which they live, leading double lives or transitioning from one world to another. These people are often isolated, confused and without resources.
Leah’s unexpected journey and the organisation started when she was introduced to a young woman, about 21 and newly married, at an Orthodox Jewish party. “I said ‘Oh Mazeltov!’ and her face looked like death, expressionless and no emotion, just looking blank. And with no reaction I looked at her and said, ‘So, how’s it going?’. The young woman looked at Leah, raised her eyebrows and shrugged. “I simply said ‘One day at a time. It’s a new thing. One day at a time.’”
When they met again Leah hardly recognised the young woman because she looked so different. “Cut to one year later and I was at a wedding, all frummed up and the young woman approached me looking radiant”. The marriage had lasted only 3 months and she was back living at home, still wearing a wig and using the name of her ex-husband, sharing a room with her siblings. “I instinctively took her hand and said ‘Well I’m so sorry. That is huge.’” She told Leah that she wanted to attend university and she wanted to roller blade but didn’t know where to start. They talked all night.
Leah understood that her new friend needed substantial support to consider her future but didn’t feel qualified to provide it. She suggested that they make contact with Footsteps, an organisation in New York that provides services to Orthodox people exploring life in the secular world. Footsteps didn’t have capacity to support someone outside NY, so Leah continued to mentor the girl. They spoke on the phone a few times a week, went for walks and had long deep conversations. “She ended up deciding that she wanted to marry again and would remain in the ultra-Orthodox community.” She stayed observant, married, moved away and had a baby.
The story of this first girl Leah and Pathways helped demonstrates the organisations’ aim to be a safe space for people to “work out where they feel they best belong”, whether that means remaining or moving away, without agenda or judgement. Pathways aims to provide a safe space for people to choose lives of self-determination. “This is someone who we helped. I believe she’s very happy. And this is someone who did not leave.”
In contrast to the experience of many she supports, Leah grew up in an outer suburb of Melbourne where she and her family were “the only Jews in the village”. Her parents were atheists and academics who had come from elsewhere and were not embedded in the local community, but they sent their children to Mount Scopus Memorial College, a modern Orthodox school. Leah loved it and formed close ties. “My time at Mt Scopus helped me knit in with the Jewish community. I have a strong cultural Jewish identity but not a strong religious identity. But I felt and still feel on the fringes on the mainstream Jewish community.” So, when she was introduced to the Orthodox world she was intrigued and attracted to it. She developed a strong affinity for the people she met who didn’t connect to the mainstream of their own world, who were “also on the fringes of their community”.
Since 2014, Pathways Melbourne has supported 35 people who attend meetings, connect with mentors and get referrals to other services. Pathways activities are directed and delivered by other Pathfinders (people who have received support from Pathways Melbourne), giving people opportunities to question their traditions and consider their options while connecting to others with similar dilemmas and experiences.
Many Pathfinders have no secular or worldly education. Some come to meetings speaking English only as a second language: Satmar Hassids speak Yiddish at school, in the playground and at home. The culture shock for those leaving can be profound. People who question orthodoxy and their place in the community often face hostility, stigma and shame directed at them from old friends and family who are particularly concerned about the marriageability of remaining relatives. “They are cut off from the community and their family and the consequences are depression, metal illness, isolation, financial instability, abuse. You’re also vulnerable to the outside community.”
“Outreach is our biggest challenge,” says Leah “mainly because the people who need to hear from us have limited access to secular newspapers, radio and the internet.” So, Pathways spends time talking about their work in the hope that they can reach people who need them. They even have cordial relationships with religious leaders who acknowledge that they provide an essential and valuable service.
Pathways also educates the wider public about specific cultural and religious requirements of Orthodox Jews. Leah and one of the Pathfinders recently spoke to a large group of medical specialists at Monash Children’s Hospital about issues that arise when Orthodox children need to be in hospital. They humanised the community, explaining the lack of physical expression by fathers to their children, children’s anxieties about being connected to machinery on Shabbat, and the different rhythms of the Orthodox day. This kind of engagement gives secular and non-Jewish people insight into the conflicts of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox people navigating the secular world.
Leah says that with Pathways they “endeavour to create and have created is a new community of questioning, like minded Jewish people, who have shared in their religious background and religious lifestyle but are questioning whether it’s for them and the risks versus rewards. There’s a real comradery between them all.” Some Pathfinders have confessed they never want to hear a word of Yiddish spoken again and so they live in remote places and have no contact with any Jewish people. “But we offer opportunities to stay connected. We like to provide a feeling of connectedness, so the journey doesn’t have to be as lonely.”
And in helping others Leah has found her own purpose. “With the committed help of others, we have got this going and every month we have people coming to a safe space to explore whether they want to move away or stick with it”. The support Leah gave that first girl lead to the creation of Pathways Melbourne and has helped change lives, including her own.
Leah Boulton was interviewed by Dr Deborah Rechter, an editor of Jewish Women of Words. You can find Pathways Melbourne here.