What does it mean to religiously attend church, temple or synagogue, live in a community where G-d’s laws are first and foremost, and then deliberately go on the internet in order to break one of the most sacred of commandments: Thou shall not commit adultery? It is no surprise that the internet has become an electronic meeting place for married men and women looking to have affairs; it may come as a shock, however, to learn that the web is also the hub for a growing number of ultra religious married people looking to start extramarital affairs with people who share their faith.
On sites like Craigslist and AshleyMadison.com (which carries the motto “Life is short. Have an affair.”) people who self-proclaim as “religious” can be found seeking out others of their faith tradition to be unfaithful with. In the past, philandering religious men went to strip clubs and so-called “kosher” brothels to retreat from their wives in secret. But there appears to be a trend of religious men and women seeking out affairs online; and one man has founded a website tailored specifically to his community’s needs.
“Every day I would see ads on Craigslist from the “frum” [religious Jewish] community. My wife and I started talking to them and realized there was a big need for this,” said Jerry (who does not wish to disclose his last name for safety), founder of Shaindy.com. Shaindy.com is tailored mainly to the religious and Jewish seeking extramarital affairs. Though the site is only two months old, Shaindy.com — with the tag line, “Jews Can Have Fun Too” — already has 2,500 members paying $99 annually for the right to log on and seek out other married people interested in having an affair.
“People always like to think that we are holier than thou,” Jerry said, who himself is a member of the Orthodox community. “Our community has the same needs as any other community — dating, drugs, cheating or whatever, and it’s silly to think we are ‘different.'”
Clearly they know it’s not Halachic
In fact, many people are surprised these affairs are taking place within tight-knit religious communities. Jennie Rosenfeld, co-founder of Tzelem, a Yeshiva University sexual education program for the Orthodox community, said her initial reaction was sadness.
“Clearly, they are aware that having an affair outside of marriage is not Halachically [lawfully] permissible. Something is deeply wrong, problematic in the marriage they are in. For whatever reason, they feel they are unable to leave the marriage and they are turning to this,” Rosenfeld said.
“This site is not a Jewish solution or a lasting solution, and not dealing with the underlying issues,” Rosenfeld says. Perhaps the people using it, she says, are part of the observant community in form, but not in feeling.
This is true of Shaindy’s founder, Jerry, who admits he does not believe and feels stuck in a system with communal pressures. Though he is not alone, some find their way out of those pressures rather than turning to websites like his.
Footsteps helps people leaving isolated, ultra religious communities to assimilate into modern life. They receive three to five phone calls or emails a day from members of religious communities in need of assistance. Many who come to Footsteps have left behind their marriages, sometimes even their children; many in virtual poverty with no place to go. Footsteps helps them assimilate by providing them with shelter, access to an education, social work, and even mentors or volunteers to help them in day-to-day life situations, such as how to properly interact with a person of the opposite gender.
“When I read about [Shaindy.com],” said Footsteps Executive Director Paula Winnig, “there’s a whole part of me that makes me laugh and cry simultaneously.”
“You laugh thinking here are people choosing a website compatible to people of their religious belief when what they’re signing up for is antithetical to their religious belief. That is the part that makes you laugh,” she said. “The part that makes you cry is there are so many people unhappy, desperate enough to put themselves out there and not seek the kind of help that they could get.”
It’s all part of a system, she said.
Winnig says the system has pervasive issues that are difficult for people to deal with, starting with marrying young. They have no training and assistance in the emotional issues surrounding marriage. When their marriage begins, the couple has had virtually have no contact, and no emotional connection.
“Sex is considered to be an honorable, good, pleasurable event between a husband and a wife. Yet, the first sexual experiences people have in these Orthodox communities is between two virtual strangers,” Winnig said. “Clearly, this website is a symptom of the problem.”
Izzy Klar left an orthodox Jewish community at age 22, leaving behind a marriage and family: “I actually left the Chasidic lifestyle and divorced my wife of three years because I am by nature an honest and god-fearing person. When I was still married, a very close friend of mine told me, ‘Why don’t you stay in the community, remain married and do what many of us do — mess around?'”
Instead, Klar chose to leave and today considers himself secular and spiritual in his own way.
What are the causes?
“If it were one or two people, we could blame the people,” says Tzelem’s Rosenfeld. “It behooves us to introspect on a broader level. What are the causes? Rather than getting caught up in the scandal itself, where is it coming from?”
“Shaindy doesn’t sound like they are in the business of soul-mating,” Rosenfeld said. “I don’t think there is any concept [in Judaism] of finding that soul mate while you’re married to someone else. If they leave the marriage, then they can move on. There’s nothing undignified about that.”
As for solutions, it’s time the community introspects and looks within, she said. How are couples meeting? Are there communal pressures? Is there a lack of adequate premarital preparation, counseling, education and resources? “Praying in shul while husbands and wives are having affairs: I don’t think anyone would agree that this is the ideal,” she said.
Rosenfeld is modern orthodox and grew up with a Judaism that revolves around family life and romantic love. She says this is less about ‘How can people do this?’ and more about how they are not finding fulfillment in their marriages.
“What is G-d sitting and doing since he created the world?” asks Rosenfeld. “According to Talmud, G-d is sitting and making matches. That concept of finding your match being a difficult thing, that this is what G-d is busying himself with — being a matchmaker — says it is not easy. It is not easy to find the right marriage partner.”
“Maybe in the past it might have worked — put two people together in the shtetl, the small Jewish villages of the 19th century,” says Rosenfeld. “What we are seeing now is maybe some of the fall out.”