SYDNEY, Australia — 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.
Hershkowitz met with The Times of Israel outside the Sydney Jewish Museum, a few days after he presented at Yom Limmud in Sydney. It is a wintry day Down Under 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. He winds his way to the museum’s café upstairs while snapping photographs of the exhibits on his smartphone. He plans to visit the museum again, he says.
Sitting down, he fidgets, looks sideways and checks his phone. He has a Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter account and appears to be on call. Every now and again he needs to be reminded where he left off in the conversation. He clearly finds it hard to focus — but focus is necessary to tell this 21-year-old’s story.
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 Hasidic Jew,” Hershkowitz says.
In his childhood, he went by the name Arye.
“I don’t remember much of my early life,” Hershkowitz 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 8 to 12.”
He begins with the basics.
Hershkowitz’s formative years are set in the heart of the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Satmar community in Williamsburg, New York. He is the second of nine children. The Satmar dynasty is one of the largest in the world. It is characterized by strict religious observance, rejection of modern culture, and fierce anti-Zionism. In a podcast interview, 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 ages of 8 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, mishnah and chumash,” Hershkowitz says, referring to various texts of the ancient oral law and Bible.
“Initially, I was a very good student. I had a folder for ‘best in class,’” he says with a hint of irony.
It is this subpar education which, he claims, has caused the community to be crippled by poverty, beset with ignorance and reliant on government funding for virtually all aspects of life.
But it’s what he calls its skewed values and the importance accorded to trivial things which he remembers most vividly.
“What our eyeglasses were made of was very important. Metal is bad; plastic is good. What counts is the color of your socks, which shoe you tie 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,” he says.
The period he finds hard to recollect is not incidental. “I never talked about it. I choked it for so long,” he says.
At the age of 8, Hershkowitz says he was sexually assaulted in a synagogue by an older man. After a pause and some hesitation, he recounts the incident bit by bit.
“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,” he says, continued for a number of weeks, in 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 realized what had happened and he started yelling at this guy in front of everyone,” Hershkowitz says.
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,” Hershkowitz says.
Hershkowitz’s behavior 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 says 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,” says Hershkowitz.
He repeats, “He definitely saw me tied up.”
The perpetrators, says Hershkowitz, continued working at the camp. He is skeptical about pressing charges or filing a formal complaint with 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,” he says.
Like many others who have survived 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,” Hershkowitz says.
He adds something, quietly, that only resonates later: “Two people stuck with my in the tough times. Only two people. Everyone else bailed.”
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 online searching for anything from particle accelerator to Bonny and Clyde, and anything in between. Slowly I developed my English. I started chatting with 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 are quite disturbing. The self-harm 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 favorite. I drink it neat.”
The path 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 says 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 stimulants. When anyone asked me about my pupils, I told them I needed glasses. They took that for an answer,” he says.
By this time Hershkowitz had begun seeing a series of therapists — licensed and not — who prescribed psychiatric medication, starting from age 10.
“One time I broke my leg because the medication I was on made me dizzy and I fell. At one point I was on 2,400 milligrams a day [of a medication he later learned was unnecessary]. 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,” said Hershkowitz.
“I wonder if there’s a file with all the medication I’ve been given,” he muses to 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 hooded sweatshirt in the train to avoid being seen by members of the community.
After having felt the support of his friends at the picnic, on the way home he took out his mobile phone, looked up the nearest barber shop and headed for it.
Pointing to where his sidelocks used to be, he says, “I walked two blocks and told the barber, ‘Take them off.’ I then posted a photo of my new look on Facebook and wrote, ‘This is me now, 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, yet he was still living with them. It was a trying time for everyone. His father made it clear that because he was not following the rules, including Jewish law, it was time for him to leave.
A Hasidic man from the community who helps the so-called “outcasts” got Hershkowitz into a rehabilitation clinic. That, too, was not without its challenges. He relapsed numerous times. 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 MDMA].”
He called a friend who picked him up and later an ambulance was called. “They locked me up in a psychiatric ward and I was there for a few days. My father picked me up [upon his release] 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,” Hershkowitz says numbly. He says he still showed up at work the following day, a Monday.
I have learned to live without a family
But behind the rather cool façade, it is clear that things did not just happen overnight.
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 and get back on track.
And now he is Ari.
“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 a circular token from his pocket which reads, “1 Year.” It was given to him by The Living Room, a Jewish recovery group in Brooklyn. He has been clean since March last year.
Hershkowitz has left the Satmar community and leads a secular life. He has held down a number of jobs and is currently supporting himself through his own business. The relationship with his family “is an ongoing thing,” as he puts it.
“I have learned 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 their relative support, which they have afforded him over the years.
Last year Netflix featured the documentary “One of Us,” which follows three individuals from Brooklyn’s Hasidic 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 participating in a Hasidic community event. In another, he is sitting in a church, listening to a charismatic preacher delivering a sermon. But now he is clean, he says, and has his sights to the future.
“I love computers,” he declares, his eyes lighting up. “I build computers, I fix computers – anything to do with computers. Troubleshooting, setting up… anything.”
Hershkowitz is about to begin studying computer science and electronic engineering at college.
“I cannot see what the future holds; I can only see where I am trying to go,” he says.
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.
Hershkowitz 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 New York City. No politician tries to mess with them. All the Hasidic communities vote in one bloc. That will make or break an election. The authorities allow them to do what they like,” he says.
Hershkowitz is still dealing with aggrieved family and friends; still trying to figure out the social norms of secular life and what the Satmar community — the only home he has known — means to him. His is an ongoing story, the chapters of which he is still writing.