I Rented a Room to an Orthodox Jewish Girl Who Ran Away From Her Brooklyn Community.

In 2018, I rented a room in my Brooklyn, NY apartment to a 19-year old Orthodox Jewish girl who. ran away from the community to escape the strict lifestyle, rigid rules, religious dogma unyielding regulations, but mostly the inevitability of arranged marriage by age 21.

She was a sweet and polite girl, who was employed as an assistant teacher within her community. On weekdays, she wore the traditional modest, black clothing and stockings when she went to work. She truly enjoyed her work with disabled and autistic children, and wanted to pursue higher education to become a certified teacher.

Every week during the summer, she attended at least two weddings of former Yeshiva (Jewish school) classmates who had been preparing for marriage and motherhood all of their lives. She had no such desire for herself, but was soon to turn twenty — marriage age.

Jews of this community were banned from going to the public library and weren’t allowed to read secular books. Grace never got a traditional education, exclaiming that even in books with children of both sexes, boys would be redacted with black markers, before girls would receive them and the same would be done for the boys — girls would be blackened.

Grace shared that she was fed up of the strictness and control of every aspect of her life, including her thoughts. She described her education as limited, censored and inadequate. She yearned to attend college, to travel and to discover freedom and life.

Grace lamented that leaving the community caused her to lose family, friends and a sense of connection but she still had a few loved ones with whom she was in contact and she was able to keep her job. She wished to experience dating and what it’s like to have a boyfriend, having decided that she would not marry her handpicked “Beshert,” the soulmate which she would know only a few weeks, and would have to marry. Grace began dating a non-Jewish boy who she had recently met in a night club.

One Saturday morning she left the apartment early and returned with bags full of modern, trendy clothing, shoes and cosmetics. That evening she donned a pair tight coral-colored jeans, an alluring blouse, fixed up her hair and applied makeup. She left at 9:00 PM to meet friends for a night of clubbing.

Every Saturday night for months Grace would go to parties, clubs and restaurants and return home very late. She was experiencing and experimenting with a newfound freedom and choice; which she had never known before. She would return home at all hours and I was concerned for her safety and well-being. I gave her the “safety” talk, warned her not to drink too much alcohol, and gave her a lip-stick-size pepper-spray to put in her purse. She was more excited to have freedom than she was conscious of her need for safety.

One Friday afternoon, I answered the door to a woman who I could tell was Jewish because she was wearing the wig and conservative dark clothing. I could see she was double-parked, as her vehicle’s emergency lights were blinking. She was carrying a large cardboard box. Without any salutation, she curtly asked me for Grace, and I told her she was in her room. She pushed passed me and walked right in to the apartment. Grace came out of her bedroom and I left the area so that they could privately speak.

After about five minutes, Grace tapped on my bedroom door to show me the huge aluminum tray of “smoked” Kosher chicken and sausages and lots of kosher snacks, imported from Israel. Eating “kosher”was a priority, she chuckled and said. I smiled and retorted: “A mother’s love is often expressed with food.” She then said: “If my mother had her way, I would be sitting on the sofa getting fat and old, as the world passed me by.”

That night we talked for hours. about her life as a Jew, the mandatory year in Israel, the lack of freedom and her desire to break away. She said that all she was expected to do was eat, breathe, birth lots of children, pray, serve a husband and then die.

We spoke about the Jewish Holocaust, Jewish resilience, the strong sense of community and isolationist practices as well as great Jewish achievements. This young woman had never learned about Jewish artists, celebrities, comedians and politicians and I was in shock that she did not know of Joan Rivers, Sammy Davis Jr., Natalie Portman or Steven Spielberg. I told her that Spielberg produced Schindler’s List, which won seven Oscar awards. A few weeks later we watched the film together and she was shocked that a Hollywood film was able to capture the horrid and inhuman events that took place during the Holocaust. She thanked me for sharing the film with her and I thanked her for allowing me into her world.

The following month, Grace’s mother again came bearing a large aluminum foil tray but Grace was not yet home from work. While in the vestibule, her mother began to sob. I introduced myself and said that I would try to help Grace. I commended her raising a wonderful young woman. And after about four minutes, her sobbing stopped and I saw anger and frustration, perhaps even a bit of resentment, then she dismissed me. Although she didn’t acknowledge a word I had said, I felt her sadness, shame, fear and helplessness as she walked towards her vehicle.

After seven months Grace eventually left my home and moved in with the young black man she had been dating. She was enjoying dating, romance and intimacy. I advised her to reconnect with her family, to access therapy, to use birth control and to take small steps. I continue to pray the best for her. I hope that she gets to travel, discover herself, reconnect with her mother and to attend college.

I believe in justice, balance, equity and that the society is failing in living out its contract. Cynical and unconventional, I’m an advocate for change.