Degrees of Separation

Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism

Schneur Zalman Newfield
Book Cover

PB: $34.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-1896-8
Publication: Apr 20

HC: $99.50
EAN: 978-1-4399-1895-1
Publication: Apr 20

Ebook: $34.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-1897-5
Publication: Apr 20

228 pages
6 x 9

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

Read a blog entry by the author

Read an excerpt from Chapter 1 (pdf).


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 forge new ways of being that their upbringing 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 that this process of transitioning identity has implications beyond religion.


"At its most compelling, Degrees of Separation offers numerous inside(r) portraits of the emotional cost of exiting.... Degrees of Separation should be received as a significant contribution to the emergent field of OTD studies. (off the derech, or path, way) In light of the current vogue of memoirs, novels, film, and television shows by and about the so-called formerly Orthodox, Newfield cautions against partial or breezy generalizations; his intervention highlights the limits of our current understanding of what 'going OTD' represents in its religious, sociological, and psychological dimensions."
—Contemporary Jewry

“Degrees of Separation offers a fresh perspective on…following those who have chosen to exit Hasidic communities…. The book takes readers on a generally convincing journey into how exiters become something new while never fully separating from the people they used to be…. Degrees of Separation is a welcome addition to a nascent body of literature looking into Jewish ultra-Orthodox life from the vantage point of its restless, unruly, and permeable social margins.”
—American Journal of Sociology

"(T)his book is an important contribution to the field and is ideal for graduate or advanced undergraduate courses in the sociology of religion or social psychology. It is an interesting read, the writing is accessible and relatively jargon free, and Newfield allows the data to do most of the talking. Moreover, as an exiter himself, Newfield writes in an engaging, empathic way that does not exoticize the Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community. Overall, this book will make a great addition to the library of anyone interested in religious exit, identity transformation, and the social construction of reality."
Symbolic Interaction

" Newfield’s book on the exiting of Ultra-Orthodox Jews from their communities is a welcome addition to the sparse literature on this topic.... The book is informed by sociological theory and concepts and describes the historical context of these two Hasidic movements.... The book is well conceptualized and contains rich examples of the reported experiences of exiters."
—American Jewish History

" Newfield’s book offers a deep, descriptive accounting of the experiences of exiters from ultra-Orthodox Judaism. In so doing, it contributes substantial insight into ultra-Orthodox communities. It also provides clear evidence of liminality in the lives of ultra-Orthodox exiters, as they navigate between their worlds of origin and their new communities."
—Contemporary Sociology

"(Newfield) builds on interviews with 74 men and women from the Chabad and Satmar Hasidic communities to focus on the 'exit process' they underwent.... Sociologists will appreciate how much Newfield employs from sociological theory, especially the concepts of liminality and hybridity, and how he compares exiting Hasidism to exits from other 'total institutions,' such as convents, prisons, and totalitarian countries.... (N)o scholar of “exiting” should ignore Newfield.... Summing Up: Recommended."

" Newfield offers an undeniably substantive work on an emerging subject and a real contribution to Jewish studies; this book will undoubtedly serve as a reference book for subsequent research on the (exiters) from ultra-orthodox communities."
—Canadian Jewish Studies

"(An) excellent analysis of exiting from ultra-Orthodoxy.... (T)his is a most opportune book.... (Newfield) is to be congratulated on this exemplary work of scholarship and also on his contribution to public sociology."
Social Forces

"(A)n important scholarly work precisely because of popular interest in sensationalist stories of departure (liberation!) proffered in books and films."

“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

"Newfield treats both his subjects and their former communities with fairness and empathy. He presents the world of these exiters as they see and experience it, with admirable clarity and honesty. Degrees of Separation is truly an excellent book. It follows the gaze of Newfield’s subjects back at their former communities. But it’s the complexities of the hybrid lives they are living now that are the real and enduring revelations here."

"This is a fascinating book in which Newfield attempts to understand why people leave (Ultra-Orthodox Judaism). The complexities of life and religious experience are such that there is not a single answer. However, a common thread is that many exiters had deep questions that were either not answered or minimized.... What parents and educators can learn from this book is that sophisticated questions must have an equally sophisticated response."
Jewish Link

" Newfield has made a significant contribution to the body of social scientific analysis of contemporary Hasidism through his book.... There are a number of key findings.... 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.... (T)his book goes a long way towards filling a significant gap in our knowledge of communities whose increasing presence and importance make them well worth knowing on a more than superficial basis."
Ethnic and Racial Studies

Table of Contents


1. You Can Check Out, but You Can Never Leave
2. Permeable Boundaries
3. Exit Narratives
4. Habits of Action and Habits of Thought
5. Strategies for Managing Liminality

Appendix A: Three Structural Factors That Enable Exiting
Appendix B: Demographics and Method of Study
Appendix C: Interview Protocols

About the Author(s)

Schneur Zalman Newfield is an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Department of Social Sciences, Human Services, and Criminal Justice at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York. Visit him online at