Monday, December 14, 2009

How Did this Happen to ME? Lily's Story

How did this happen to me? I still ask myself that occasionally. I look back on my "frumming in" story and shake my head in disbelief...

I was nineteen years old and searching for meaning in my very broken world when I found Chabad through a friend. She showed me photographs she had taken of the mitzvah tanks and described the music that spilled forth from them. I was fascinated, and in my typical, methodical, organized way, I set out to research the Lubavitchers. At first, I think I was pretty objective. I had no personal communcation with Chabad. I read articles and books and listened to the haunting niggunim online. I was exhilarated when I found out there was a Chabad House close to my home, but afraid to visit it, worried that outsiders might not be allowed. Ever-resourceful, my friend provided me with the email address of a shliach. From that day forward, my life would never be the same. Correspondence between Rabbi X and I increased to multiple times a day, as well as telephone and online conversations. I was provided with specific spiritual instructions, including to proclaim "MOSHIACH NOW!!" each night before bed, following the other prayers I was told to say. Eventually, Rabbi X directed me away from the relationship I was in, away from the friends I had, and toward the Chabad House near my home.

At first, my conversations with the local shliach, Rabbi Z, were online. His words were warm, welcoming and inviting. I could not wait to spend my first Shabbat there - which would be my first Shabbat in any Orthodox shul, anywhere. I had been preparing for this for months, even sewing long skirts and matching scarves for myself (I thought I needed to cover my hair in shul). Bringing a friend with me for moral support, I entered the Chabad house that day as a different person entirely. I used my Hebrew name for the first time in public, and tried my best to act as though I understood the service and customs. After months of careful conditioning by Rabbi X, I felt that being Chabad was everything I wanted, and that I needed more spiritual food in order to achieve that goal. I became a fixture at the shul and came to enjoy the warmth and attention with which I was literally showered. I was seldom left alone, receiving a constant stream of invitations to meals and "classes" as well as "just because" telephone calls from the Lubavitchers. I felt accepted, valued and loved. Soon, I was deemed "ready" to go to a proper "women's learning program." I packed my bags and went completely blindly to Crown Heights. The sheer insanity of this action is jarring to me today. I am an extremely careful, cautious person - but took off for the cold, dark streets of crime-filled Brooklyn without knowing where I was headed, who I was meeting or what I would be doing. I was under Lubavitch mind control, and I had no inkling of it. Very disturbing.

The day I left for Crown Heights, I dressed demurely in a black skirt, black cardigan and pearls. My curls were straightened carefully and pulled back into a bun. My makeup was simple in keeping with the rules of modesty. In my purse, I carried a prepaid cell phone my parents begged me to bring, my wallet, and two prayer books with pictures of the Rebbe tucked inside. I was numb with the excitement. I bade farewell to my family and boarded the plane, not having a clue that this trip would be the most psychologically-damaging decision of my life. I didn't want to look back...I wanted to live in the Rebbe's shechuna as his daughter, just soaking up the kedusha of it all.Naive, naive, naive.

When I deplaned in New York, I was shocked to see frum Jews all over the airport. Men in black hats and women in long skirts and sheitels chased after their countless children (dressed alike in charming Children's Place ensembles). I approached an Orthodox couple and asked them if they would like to share a cab to Crown Heights. The wife clicked her tongue and shook her head in disdain. I learned quickly that not all fedora-wearers were Lubavitch. Or liked Lubavitchers. At all. I struggled to carry my heavy luggage, and felt a strong dose of culture shock. No one would help me. There were other frum people around, there were airport employees around...but no one would lend a hand. Finally, a very foreign skyhop approached me and took my baggage outside. He placed the luggage at my feet and stared at me. "Thanks!!" I said cheerfully, but he didn't budge. He rubbed his thumb and index finger together and I understood. I nervously dug out a few one dollar bills and handed them to me. He looked at them, shook his head and walked off. I stood there alone, with throngs of people spiraling around me, wondering for a brief moment if I would be okay. Snap out of it, I told myself.The Rebbe will be proud of you. I closed my eyes, hailed a cab and sped off toward Crown Heights.

"Where to?" The cab driver asked me in an almost angry tone. "Crown Heights, Brooklyn, please," I replied. "Where exactly in Crown Heights?" he asked. I rattled off the address of the apartment the yeshiva had arranged for me and held on tight for the winding, almost naseating cab ride. I was over the moon when I recognized the street names from all of the Chabad books and articles and conversations I had had over the past few months.Montgomery, Carroll, Crown, President, Union. I was on a religious pilgramage, and these were like holy sites. Visible in many windows were yellow posters with crowns and pictures of the Rebbe, with Hebrew letters beneath. I couldn't yet read Hebrew save for "Chalav Yisrael," "Pareve," and my name, but I didn't care what they said. I felt consumed with holiness. I was home.

A girl (who, mind you, was approaching thirty years of age - but since she was not married, she was still a "girl") waited for me under a sprawling tree in front of the house where I would be renting a basement apartment at a steep price. She opened the door to the basement and immediately started gushing about how beautiful and wonderful the apartment was. She saw a palace, I saw an extremely dark, dingy basement. But within a few minutes, her carefully chosen language convinced me that it truly was a special place, afforded to me so that I could finally live a proper Jewish life. I put my bags down, peeked out the tiny window to the outside, and decided to venture out into the twilight to explore. I visited 770 and wept tears of joy to be present at the house of my leader, the Rebbe. I found the ladies' entrance, entered and became entranced by the niggunim that were being sung downstairs. I gazed through the plexiglass partition and saw the men dancing and learning. At that moment, I decided I would never go home.

The euphoria I felt that night was short-lived. The next day, I began full-time study at the Yeshiva. I was plunged into classes that spanned the entire day and left one precious little time to actually digest and make sense of the barrage of information. Years later, I realize that this was part of the brainwashing. I sat through hours of classes about conduct with the opposite sex, the issue of non-Jews, Kashruth, Shabbat observance, and more. In the evenings, there were "games" intended to coerce confessions/stories from new recruits. Early mornings, we were expected to daven for an hour or more. There were sessions with "learning partners," there were meetings with "spiritual advisors (mashpiim)." There was literally not a moment in the day or week that we were not being indoctrinated. Dissent was discouraged and punishable with embarrassment (remember, being accepted is the premise on which most of us were recruited) and rejection. If one didn't agree with something, they were met with the condescending answer, "You're just not 'there' yet." Once, I told a madricha that I wasn't, and never wanted to be "there" on a particular point. We never spoke again.

Within about two weeks, I left my apartment and moved into the dormitory. There, I experienced much of the same as Mimi spoke of in her post "Falling Off Which Wagon?". Medical needs were ignored, food safety was minimal, cleanliness was equally questionable. I, too, snuck in Shabbat phone calls at times, in mortal fear, hidden in a room. I experienced the mental abuse of the Rabbis and school officials. But still, I wanted more. I was a mental and physical prisoner.

My memories of the rest of my time in New York are very amorphous. It is common for former members of cultic groups to have blocked memories, and I am certain that is why I have few specific ones. When friends who have also escaped Lubavitch recount stories of our time in the yeshiva, memories come back to me. For the most part, though, I am glad that I don't remember absolutely everything. I remember taking a trip with Mimi to meet the shliach who got me "started" on the derech. His outright irreverance, disrespect and chauvinism shocked both of us. Soon, I was asked to leave the yeshiva and dormitory immediately, with no reason provided. I was utterly crushed. I came home, but never told my family I was asked to leave. Instead, I was resolute to make good on whatever misdeeds I must have unknowingly done. I became even more "frum" and obsessive.

Over the next few years, I continued to suffer emotional abuse at the hands of Lubavitch. I became dependent upon them financially and otherwise. I lost myself. I was constantly preoccupied with the minutiae of observance, attributing my difficulties to a lack of proper Orthodoxy. Eventually, though, I broke. A series of very personal and painful circumstances with Chabad led me to rethink my spirituality and my life. As tragic as the break was, I am grateful for it because it has allowed me to see the world clearly again for the first time in years. It means a normal life for my children, it means a career and an education for me. Transitioning back into normal, functional society is a slow and sometimes frustrating process. I struggle every day to undo the damage done to my spirit by this cult. BUT I REFUSE TO BE A VICTIM. I AM A SURVIVOR. I attend a university and am working on a bachelor's degree. I am a kind, patient, loving parent and a devoted wife. My experiences with Chabad have put me in a unique position to help others and to LOVE people unconditionally. I hope that my story and my fight to rise above Lubavitch inspire someone who is thinking about doing the same thing. We can do this, together, with REAL love, respect and compassion.


  1. You are truely strong. Thank you for sharing your story.

    So many aspects of your story I also have delt with, and for a long time had no idea that they were doing any harm! Chabad outside of NY telling me to quit university and move to crown heights is one example.

    The condescending answer, "You're just not 'there' yet. I was like you, you still think goyish" Always pissed me off quite frankly and yet they were my only friends so I continued to see them, still do, I just refute their ignorance and obsession. Eventually I am sure I will be isolated completely, because apparently friendships here are conditional!

    I never attended Machon Chana, though I have certainly been there and never wanted to after a few classes. I ended up in another ultra orthodox community and now I feel like I am drowning...

    I am afraid to leave with no support group, funny, I never used to be afraid of doing I seem overwhelmed with fear.

    take care,
    sdebeau (at) y a hoo dot com

  2. somehow you forgot to mention it was your (now) husband that pushed you towards chabad, that you were married to an abusive man, you came to NYC with a 3 month old, that you behaved erratically and were asked to leave because they only gave you permission to stay in the dorm for a certain amount of time. you also did not follow rules: ie, using phone on shabbos in the halls, instead of privately in your room).
    yes, mrs l was horrible and still is horrible, and no one would ever ever excuse her behavior.
    no one there was forced to pray for over an hour - davenning time was only 30mins!
    you are either purposely leaving out great details or you simply refuse to remember.

    either way, i wish you much hatzlacha