Not long ago, Adelle Goldenberg was a teenager growing up in a Hasidic community in Borough Park, Brooklyn with a clear-cut future laid out before her. Like her classmates, she was expected to finish high school, get married, and raise a large Jewish family. Instead, Adelle is now poised to graduate from Harvard University.
Recently, Naftuli Moster, Yaffed’s founder, had the opportunity to listen to Adelle explain her unique journey.
“When I was around 15, it became very clear that I was not thriving in the environment I was in. I looked ahead at what awaited me in the future and having it all prescribed was very upsetting. I wanted adventure, spontaneity, and the chance to have a say about how my own life would unfold. That started leading me off the traditional path and thinking about college.” said Adelle.
Adelle’s thinking about college led to more research and eventually studying for and taking the SAT. Because of her strict religious upbringing, she only considered Jewish colleges for women, like Stern College at Yeshiva University.
Filled with excitement about this next step in her education, Adelle approached her principal for a letter of recommendation. Instead of giving her the letter, the principal told her, “a girl from Borough Park doesn’t go to a place like that.”
Adelle was hurt and surprised by her principal’s response. While her education wasn’t perfect, she had spent enough time on secular subjects to pass the New York State Regents exam. This was in sharp contrast to her brothers who, similar to other Hasidic boys, studied almost exclusively religious studies and could barely communicate in English.
Instead of receiving the help she needed to take the next step, Adelle was left completely on her own.
“I really just felt invisible. I was this 17 year old who had no one in my immediate surroundings to support me.”
Adelle began reaching out to any organizations that she thought might be able to assist her. Unfortunately, she was not successful in finding help. Even Yaffed could not offer her support because, at the time, it had only one part time staffer and was focused solely on advocacy.
In the end, help came from an unlikely source. The movie Menashe was being filmed in Brooklyn and Adelle applied to be a Yiddish translator. During the movie’s production she got to know the director, Josh Weinstein. Mr. Weinstein took on a mentoring role for Adelle. He helped edit her essays and gave her advice about the next steps she should take towards applying for college. On Mr. Weinstein’s advice, Adelle began taking the subway to the Option Center, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where she received help on the basics of college applications.
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Finally, she was accepted at Baruch College. Each day, Adelle commuted from her home in Borough Park to the campus where she got her first taste of college life.
“I just loved the college environment. I wanted more. I wanted to leave home and live on a college campus. This time I applied everywhere. I didn’t care if it was in New York, I would find a way to get there.”
Adelle’s determination led her on a three year journey to find a college that felt like the right fit for her.
“It was a long process. I took the SAT three times. During this time, all my classmates were getting married… they were 17, 18, so I was losing my friends to their husbands, basically. I stopped going to weddings. I didn’t do anything else. I was just focused single mindedly on this goal of going to college.”
Her persistence paid off. After three years and three application cycles, Adelle was accepted to Harvard University. She’ll be graduating this May and continuing her studies at the University of Cambridge in Britain. She hopes to work in the field of political philosophy, concentrating on ways that states can respect cultures and simultaneously ensure that human rights are being upheld within communities.
Adelle notes that she didn’t choose college as a way to escape. Academia was always something that she had an affirmative love for. In fact, she wishes that people didn’t feel like they have to make a choice between a religious life and an education.
“People shouldn’t have to lose everything to get an education. Ideally, I wouldn’t have to leave and be afraid of going back. It’s just that this is the way things are right now… but it doesn’t have to be this way.”
Despite the Hasidic leadership’s claims, Adelle does not believe that secular education is antithetical to foundational Haredi principles or a threat to the continuation of the community. She notes that some Hasidic schools and most Modern Orthodox schools already offer excellent religious studies and secular education side by side. She wishes that every Haredi youth had that option.
“What kept me in the fight was that I wanted to make it easier for people like me in the future. I promised myself that my struggle wouldn’t be for nothing.”
Adelle was true to her promise. Soon after she got to college, she used the information and advice that she’d learned on her journey to create a handbook for other Haredi students who wanted to go to college. Her work earned her the 2021 Yaffed Haredi Changemaker Award.
Through her experiences, Adelle has gained great wisdom about how others can make changes in the Haredi community.
“First and foremost, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Going through this is very overwhelming and painful. You have to get yourself to a place of safety first. I had to get myself to college and then I wrote the guidebook. In the future, any work that I’m going to do will be parallel with whatever safety I’ve acquired for myself.”
As Adelle continues to work to help young people in the community she grew up in, she also acknowledges her frustration that the greater Jewish community has not been more proactive about ensuring that Hasidic kids get an adequate secular education.
“Some people in the broader Jewish community are especially concerned about optics. So they see a Netflix show like Unorthodox, and it’s concerning to them because they don’t want people to think that all Jews or all religious Jews are like that. I really want to encourage this concern for optics to be transformed to action. If you don’t like how this community is portrayed in the media, then do something to change it.”
One of the best ways to bring about positive change is to support Yaffed in our fight to ensure that New York State Law is enforced in Haredi schools. Find out how you can help give every child the education that they deserve!