From Ultra-Orthodoxy to Secular Jew


How Leah Vincent separated from ultra-Orthodoxy and trekked into the unknown.

by Rachel S. Cohen

For many members of ultra-Orthodox communities, interacting with the secular world threatens their brand of Judaism. As a young adult, writer, and activist, Leah Vincent recognized outside temptations. When she defied her insular culture’s social norms and values, the community excommunicated her from all the people and rituals she had ever known. Her book, Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood, catalogs her brave first encounters with the unfamiliar and daunting outside world.

Tell me a little bit about how you grew up; where and how did you live?

I grew up in Pittsburgh. My father is a prominent Yeshivish (non-Hasidic, ultra-Orthodox) rabbi. I am the fifth of eleven children. Our lives were shaped by our faith and traditions that dictated a right way to do everything, from how we got dressed, to what words we could say, to how we walked down the street. As a girl, the two values that were stressed the most were modesty and obedience. I was very devout, and although I often felt afraid and ashamed for not living up to God’s expectations, I also derived a lot of joy and meaning from this life.

How do you think your childhood differed from that of other Jewish kids in America?

My childhood was imbued with a lot more… heaviness, I think. Every choice carried the weight of provoking God’s wrath or God’s pride, and I felt that from day to day.

Two stereotypical American Jewish characteristics – the push to succeed academically and the warm, over-nurturing Jewish mother – were not part of my childhood. College was forbidden, and school was not stressed (although – and I am very grateful for this – my parents created an environment that encouraged reading, and we were all voracious bookworms). My parents had stern and distant profiles that were partly reflections of their personalities, but were also rooted in our very particular ultra-Orthodox subculture, that is known for being rather dry, harsh, and non-emotional.

What precipitated you removing yourself from everything you ever knew?

I was always passionate, but internal. Adolescence started to bring out my personality, and that led to clashes when I questioned some of our mores, tried to express emotion that was offered no outlet, and began to push back against some of the rules. There was little tolerance for deviance, questioning, or rebellion. (Although, to clarify, I never removed myself; I was pushed out, and spent a long time desperate, banging on the door, to be let back in.)

What were the biggest adjustments you’ve had to make as you have plunged into secular American culture?

In a non-obvious, but specific way, ultra-Orthodoxy is a sexualized culture. Modesty was a central focus of my life – and modesty is a code word for a particular relationship to female sexuality. To enforce the concepts of sexuality embedded in our framework of modesty, I was misinformed about how sexuality functioned in general, and in the secular world in particular. The secular world is generally sexualized as well, in a very different way. As a naïve, adolescent girl, the transition to living on my own in New York City – without any guidance and with lots of inaccurate information about what I was going to encounter – set me up for a sequence of devastating experiences. Rebuilding my ideas about how to be a good person and an empowered woman in a world with no single dominant truth was (and remains) a challenging, frightening, and deeply fulfilling task.

Do you maintain any type of connection to your family, or have you completely severed ties?

I am very grateful for my one brother who also left ultra-Orthodoxy. He has been a powerful support, a good friend, and a wonderful brother to me. I am also grateful to two of my remaining nine siblings who have kept in occasional contact with me.

Are you involved now in helping other people detach themselves from the Orthodox community?

Yes! I am a member and board member of Footsteps, the only organization in North America assisting former ultra-Orthodox Jews. It’s an incredible organization that offers social events; scholarships; legal assistance for parents navigating custody issues; counseling; career guidance and coaching; art shows; mentors; GED preparation; and workshops on everything from sexuality to how to adjust to secular styles of dress.

Although I only encountered Footsteps at a late stage of my own journey, I have been enormously helped by their services. The warm and inspiring community has changed my life forever. I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to work with friends on a number of grassroots initiatives that address social justice issues within ultra-Orthodoxy and within the community of former ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Where and how does Judaism fit into your life now?

I am an atheist and a cultural Jew. Being a cultural Jew has become important to me. My conception of cultural Judaism is a personal one, developed in an ongoing process of questioning and exploration. For example, I have never become a fan of that Jewish-American stereotypical staple: bagels and lox, but I have come to love learning Talmud. I am interested in questions of Jewish authenticity and vibrancy, and how other Jewish communities can relate to ultra-Orthodoxy in a way that champions diversity, freedom, and righteousness.

About the Author

leah_vincentLeah Vincent is a writer and activist. Her memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) describes her journey to rebuild her identity after she was expelled from her Yeshivish family as a teenager. Leah earned a BA in psychology as a first-generation night student at Brooklyn College and was a Pforzheimer Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she earned a master’s degree in public policy. Leah’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, Salon, Unpious, ZEEK, the Daily Beast and the Jewish Daily Forward. A member and board member of Footsteps and one of the Jewish Week’s 2014 36 Under 36, Leah is passionately engaged in projects that champion the voicing of women’s truths, promote social justice within ultra-Orthodoxy, and address Jewish fundamentalism.

author_rachel_S_CohenRachel S. Cohen is a Brandeis University graduate with an MSc in health communication from Boston University. While she enjoys writing whenever she can, she earns a paycheck as a grants administrator at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

One Comment

  1. ruth housman October 21, 2014 Reply

    There are many books emergent on this topic lately. Unorthodox is one. I read this several months ago and was shocked by how religion could so hurt people as in a teuly upsetting story of what happened to a young man within the community who was, according to this account, murdered because he was found to be a homosexual . It is very hard to reconcile a community with its rigid rules that define God with a deeper spiritual truth of being,

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


nine − = 4