Amos Schonfield
Amos Schonfield

Celebrating the freedom to choose

My Unorthodox Life: Season 1.  Episode 5, Secular in the City. Pictured: Julia Haart c. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021 (Via Jewish News)
My Unorthodox Life: Season 1. Episode 5, Secular in the City. Pictured: Julia Haart c. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021 (Via Jewish News)

When I think back to the most major decisions in my life, they normally start in the same way: having a cup of tea with my mum. We would reflect and consider, challenge and critique until she would pose the perfect question that would let me choose the path forward. It is because of her skills that I have found myself today with the pleasure of leading Mavar, a charity that supports people from the Strictly Orthodox Jewish community in the UK who wish to explore new paths in life, and flourish and thrive in a life of their choosing.

The hundreds of people who have reached out to Mavar since we were founded in 2013 have done so because they have looked for the freedom of choice that many others take for granted. It is why, together with partner organisations in Israel, the United States, Australia, and across Europe, we are celebrating the first International Day of Choice (or Yom HaBechira in Hebrew) on 27th October.

There is no pattern as to why someone chooses to leave the Strictly Orthodox world. We receive calls from all sorts of people – all ages, genders, locations, nationalities – and with many different stories. Some are looking for education and some are looking for work, some are seeking refuge from trauma and some simply want to live as their most true self, some are aware of mainstream British society and some never had the opportunity to learn basic English.

Those that make the decision to take on a new life often talk about the things they miss about their time growing up. It can be the close-knit community, with a rich cultural tapestry of music, food and stories, and it can be – although conspicuously not for the women – the educational immersion in yeshiva learning. However, these ideas and practices do not have to be lost or ignored, rendered into some form of nostalgia. It also does not have to be rendered into an oddity or exotic reality, packaged and consumed for the Netflix generation, as in the case of Unorthodox and My Unorthodox Life. These things can live on, in new and different ways, as part of a cultural, social and religious life of their own choosing.

Over the years, Mavar has stepped in for members in many different ways. When Z called us, he had £60 to his name, and within weeks he was living in a houseshare while studying for his GCSEs. O has been diligently visiting a Mavar tutor for 4 years to work on his English, and in the process has developed a strong social connection too. When we asked another Mavar member what having the freedom of choice meant to them, they said Mavar has “saved my spiritual life by giving me the possibility of starting life anew and to live a self-determined life in the way I choose. Mavar has granted me my freedom and has opened up our wonderful world with its endless opportunities.”

The people who go on this kind of journey are sometimes referred to as OTD, which stands for ‘off the derech [path in Hebrew]’. These kinds of journeys do not take someone off any kind of path, however. Members of Mavar and likeminded organisations have to search long and hard for basic rights that I was born with and have the ability to live independently in a manner free of external constraints. In making this journey, the rest of us – in Anglo-Jewry and in British society at large – are all strengthened. Such a journey may not start with a cup of tea round the kitchen table, and may go on a path that many of us recognise. It can be long and isolating, but each and every one of us should celebrate their choice to embark on it nonetheless.

About the Author
Amos Schonfield is CEO of Mavar. He previously has worked at Yachad, and is currently co-chair of the Board of Deputies’ Social Justice Committee.
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