Wednesday, 18 July 2018

From Faith book to Facebook.

Ari Hershkowitz has already experienced a lot in life. A former member of Satmar, Brooklyn, he has endured sexual assault, substandard education, substance addiction and the loss of his faith. And yet he remains defiantly optimistic.

On his Instagram page, there is a photo of Ari Hershkowitz wearing a virtual reality headset. It pretty much sums up his story: an escape from one world to another.

I meet Hershkowitz outside the Sydney Jewish Museum, the day after he presented at Yom Limmud in Sydney. It is a wintry day and he is wearing black jeans and a red T-shirt. He doesn’t like to wear long sleeved shirts, he later says. It reminds him of his previous life. His American drawl makes it hard to imagine that for most of his life he could not speak English.

Hershkowitz cuts a hipster figure, as he ‘vapes’ on his electric cigarette. We wind our way to the museum’s café upstairs and he snaps photographs of the exhibits and on his iPhone. He plans to visit the museum again, he says.

As we sit down, he fidgets, looks sideways and checks his iPhone. He has a Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter account and appears to be on call. Every now and again I need to remind him where we are in the conversation. He clearly finds it hard to focus. But focus is what we must do, because his story demands concentration to understand what has happened to this 21-year-old.

His name is now Ari. During another phase it was Alex, the name he took on when he escaped to Florida for six months. “I wanted to run away from Judaism as far as I possibly could. I then took on the identity of Alex who was never a Chassidic Jew.”

Arieh was his childhood name.

What does he remembers of his childhood? “I don’t remember much of my early life” he says. “From the age of 14 to 20 I was on the wrong medication. I don’t know whether that ruined my memories from before, combined with the fact that I wanted to forget everything, especially aged eight to 12.”

He begins with the basics. 

Aryeh Herschkowitz’s childhood is set in the heart of the ultra-Orthodox Chassidic Satmar community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in New York. He is the second of nine children. The Satmar dynasty is one of the largest in the world. It is characterised by strict religious observance, rejection of modern culture, and fierce anti-Zionism. He describes this brand of Judaism as “Judaism on steroids.” 

Yiddish was the only language he spoke. At school they studied Jewish texts. They did also learn English, he adds, but that was only from the age of eight to 12, and it was relegated to the last lesson of the day, taught by teachers who could barely speak the language themselves.

“We studied Gemara, Mishna and chumash. Initially, I was a very good student. I had a folder for ‘best in class,’ ” he recounts with irony.

It is this subpar education which, he claims, has resulted in an entire community crippled by poverty, beset with ignorance and reliant on government funding for virtually all aspects of life.

But it’s the skewed values and the importance accorded to trivial things which he remembers most vividly. “What our [optical] glasses were made of was very important. Metal is bad; plastic is good. What counts is the colour of your socks, which shoe you tie up first in the morning. Wearing a watch is discouraged before bar mitzvah; after that it is completely banned. Being a good person was never a priority.”

The period he finds hard to recollect is not incidental. "I never talked about it. I choked it for so long," he says by way of explanation. 

At the age of eight, Aryeh was sexually assaulted in a synagogue by an older man. After a pause and some hesitation, he tells the story piecemeal. “The man made up some story about my belt. He shouted “you hit my son, you hit my son with your belt” and then he grabs me and takes me downstairs to the basement, takes away my belt and then …. whatever… I had no idea about sex or anything. The abuse was violent. I still have the scars”, he says.

The ‘punishment’ continued for a number of weeks, at the basement of the synagogue.

“One day, when we walked up the stairs from the basement my dad saw me. I guess by the look on my face he realised what had happened and he started yelling at this guy in front of everyone.”

The abuser never returned to the synagogue. 

“I told my father from my little understanding what had happened, but I am sure as a grown, smart adult he got the picture. He still told me that I must be thinking that … looking back, I am sure he knew. He never said that he was sorry it happened to me. He couldn’t because that would mean he’d have to report it to the police - something he would never do. Satmar never calls the police. No matter what happens. Never. Which is wrong because in some cases they should.” 

Herschkowitz’s  behaviour became erratic or, as he puts it: “I was a very wild kid and always getting into trouble.”

Two years later, during a summer camp in Napanoch, a small hamlet in Ulster County, New York, he was assaulted again. This time three people were involved. “They held me down to a bed, I managed to get free. I grabbed the fire extinguisher and tried to fight back with that. They grabbed me and pulled me back into the bunk. I am not sure how long it lasted. It seemed like five hours before my private tutor came to look for me. Then they left. I was tied up and my tutor saw me.” Then, for emphasis, or perhaps as an afterthought, he repeats, “He definitely saw me tied up.”

The perpetrators, says Herschkowitz, continued working there.

Would he be willing to press charges? Has he made a formal statement with the police?

"All the people who witnessed it….none of them would ever testify. It’s my word against theirs. In fact some of them specifically told me that if they had to testify they would say that it never actually happened. So, realistically, there is nothing I can now do about it.”

Like many others who have experienced sexual abuse, the experience triggered a deep crisis. "I thought to myself: maybe I am praying to the wrong God. I was desperately unhappy in the community. I was still dressed as a Satmar but I had no religion left in me.”

He adds something, quietly, that I only pick up later. “I had only two friends throughout my life. Two people.” It is a revealing glimpse into the isolation and loneliness of a lost teenager whose life was upending.

At 14 he went out to look for answers. He frequented internet cafés and walked the streets. “I went on-line searching for anything from particle accelerator, Bonny and Clyde and anything in between. Slowly I developed my English. I started chatting to strangers. I’d ask them: how do earthquakes happen? A lot of people ran away from me,” he smiles.

What followed was a phase of self-harming and his descriptions of this phase are quite disturbing. This morphed into substance abuse. First it was alcohol. He drank whatever his father had at home. “I love Vodka” he laughs, “It’s my all-time favourite. I drink it neat.”

The way to harder substances was just a matter of time.

He began smoking cannabis before progressing to stimulants. “Weed, amphetamine, cocaine… things like that,” he lists them casually. “Cocaine was a weekend treat”, he grins. To finance his habits, he used imaginative and creative ways to earn money. 

At school, when he turned up, no one had any idea. "To this day 99 percent of the community don’t know that dilated pupils means opioids. When anyone asked me about my pupils, I told them I needed glasses. They took that for an answer.”  

By this time Hershkowitz was prescribed psychiatric medication. “I had all sorts. For six years they upped my dosage. It made me down and sleepy. They tried different medication on me. One time I broke my leg because the medication I was on made me dizzy and I fell. At one point I was on 2400 ml a day. I was always drugged up. Sometimes I was asleep during the day for no reason. It messed with my head. I was sure I wouldn’t make it past 25.”

“I wonder if there’s a file with all the medication I’ve been given” he asks, seemingly himself.

August 28, 2015 was a watershed in Hershkowitz’s life. He was on his way to a picnic with friends from a recovery community. At the time he was still ‘a Satmar’ – as he puts it – and he wore a hoody in the train to avoid being seen by members of the community. On the way out of the subway, spontaneously, he took out his mobile phone, looked up the nearest barber shop and headed for it. “I walked two blocks and told the barber: take them off (pointing to where he once had curled side locks). I then posted a photo of my new look on Facebook and wrote: this is me, deal with it. I went back home late at night. In the morning, my mother looked at me and said nothing."

A period of uneasy cohabitation with his family had begun. His parents were by now clearly aware that he had left the fold; and yet he was living with them. It was a testing time for everyone. His father made it clear that so long as he was living in his home. He chose to leave.

A Chassidic man from the community “who helps the outcast” got Herschkowitz into a rehabilitation clinic. That too was not without its challenges. He relapsed numerous times. Up and down. In and out. Then came a dramatic fall.

“In June 2016, I overdosed in my bedroom. I was unconscious for some time. I had ingested a cocktail of Ketamine, GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate) and Molly (the street name for ecstasy). An ambulance arrived. They locked me up in a psychiatric ward and I was there for a few days. My father picked me up and took me to a hotel. He paid for one night and then walked off. I had 24 hours to find an apartment and rebuild my life,” he sums up blandly. 

But behind the rather cool and brash façade, it is clear that things did not just happen overnight. There is another, separate story.

Hershkowitz turned to Footsteps, a New York based organization dedicated to helping members of the ultra-Orthodox community who wish to leave. They helped him find his feet, redefine his goals and get back on track.

And now he is Ari. He has his act together, he says. “No more cigarettes, coffee, candy, drugs, alcohol, weed – all of that out. Actually, I did have candy and chocolates but none of the rest,” he laughs. He produces out of his pocket a circular token which reads: 1 year. It was given to him by The Living Room, a Jewish recovery place in Brooklyn. He has been ‘clean’ since March last year.

Hershkowitz has left the Satmar community and leads a secular life. He holds a number of jobs and is supporting himself. The relationship with his family ‘is an ongoing thing’, as he puts it. “I have learnt to live without a family” he concludes matter-of-factly. In other interviews, however, he is a lot more understanding of his parents and appreciative of the support, moral and financial, which they have afforded him over the years. 

Last year Netflix featured the documentary "One of us" which follows three individuals from Brooklyn’s Chassidic communities as they leave the fold. One of them was Hershkowitz. It shows him perhaps in his most vulnerable and conflicted phases as he grapples with his identity and sense of place. In one scene he is partaking in a Chassidic community event. In another, he is sitting in a church, listening to a charismatic preacher delivering a sermon. Inconsistency and contradiction is a feature of this young man.

But now he is clean, he insists, and has his sights to the future. “I love computers,” he declares, his eyes lighting, “I build computers, I fix computers – anything to do with computers. Trouble shooting, setting up … anything.” Hershkowitz is currently studying computer science and electronic engineering at college. “In five years’ time I will probably be at the end of my master’s degree. I cannot see what the future holds; I can only see where I am trying to go.”

He is also involved with YAFFED, an advocacy group committed to raising awareness of the substandard education levels within ultra-Orthodox schools. “We are trying to get the schools to give a proper, valid education not like what they are currently giving which is useless” he says, riled.

He then proceeds to reel off the grim statistics in Brooklyn and why no one insists that ultra-Orthodox schools comply with the state’s education laws. “They have 300,000 votes in NYC. No politician tries to mess with them. All the Chassidic communities vote in one block. That will make or break an election. The authorities allow them to do what they like.”

Ari Hershkowitz’s story is extraordinary as it is inspirational. It is a story of a young man learning to take stock of his life, redefining his own value system and claiming his own identity. He is still dealing with aggrieved family and friends; still coping with the lingering turmoil relating to his abuse; still trying to figure what the Satmar community – the only home he has known – means to him.

It is an ongoing story, the chapters of which he is still writing.

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