Degrees of Separation

How exiting ultra-Orthodox Judaism is not a single act of defiance, but an interactive process that extends for years after leaving

Those who exit a religion—particularly one they were born and raised in—often find themselves at sea in their efforts to transition to life beyond their community. In Degrees of Separation, Schneur Zalman Newfield, who went through this process himself, interviews seventy-four Lubavitch and Satmar ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews who left their communities.He presents their motivations for leaving as well as how they make sense of their experiences and their processes of exiting, detailing their attitudes and opinions regarding their religious upbringing. Newfield also examines how these exiters forged new ways of being that their upbringings had not prepared them for while also considering what these particular individuals lose and retain in the exit process.

Degrees of Separation presents a comprehensive portrait of the prolonged state of being “in-between” that characterizes transition out of a totalizing worldview. What Newfield discovers is that exiters experience both a sense of independence and a persistent connection; they are not completely dislocated from their roots once they “arrive” at their new destination. Moreover, Degrees of Separation shows the process of transitioning identity has implications beyond religion.

Read an excerpt from Chapter 1 (pdf)

Degrees of Separation is an original and imaginative investigation of the character and consequences of exiting closed and closely knit religious communities. On the basis of extensive interviews and observation of two Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in New York—Lubavitch and Satmar—Newfield examines the experiences and consequences of exiting. He rejects the taken-for-granted assumption that exit can be clean and decisive and hence prefers to talk about ‘exiting.’ Like whistleblowers, exiting individuals are typically subject to symbolic attacks and are often regarded as psychologically unstable by the community. Exiting can never be complete, because individuals have deeply ingrained habits acquired from early socialization in the community. Degrees of Separation is not simply a study of religious communities; it offers important insights into membership of and exit from any community or ‘total institution.'

Bryan S. Turner

Presidential Professor of Sociology, Emeritus, Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and author of The Religious and the Political: A Comparative Sociology of Religion

Degrees of Separation is a nuanced, sensitive book about ‘exiters’—those who leave their Hasidic communities of origin—for all kinds of reasons. Newfield’s account moves beyond a simple binarism, that of staying or going; instead he foregrounds the complicated ways that exiters experience long-term liminality, simultaneously attached to and independent of the totalizing communities in which they grew up. Newfield has written an accessible, fascinating book sure to be of great interest to a wide audience—a real accomplishment.

Ayala Fader

Professor of Anthropology at Fordham University and author of Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age

The publishing and entertainment industry has found an interest in those who leave ultra-Orthodoxy. But all one is left with there is the drama of Hollywood fiction. In “Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism,” one can go behind the scenes and see what is really happening.

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Ben Rothke

Jewish Link

Zalman Newfield has made a significant contribution to the body of social scientific analysis of contemporary Hasidism through his book....Beyond shedding considerable light on the specific phenomenon of those who choose to leave Hasidic communities, the book also offers the reader important insights into the communities they have left. 

Ira Robinson

Department of Religions and Cultures, Concordia University