Shneur Zalman Newfield ’07 grew up on Crown Street between Troy and Schenectady, close to the southeastern tip of Crown Heights and squarely in the middle of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic enclave. The neighborhood was then and remains today largely a mix of Orthodox Jews and Caribbean immigrants, yet Newfield says that he never knew any of his non-Jewish neighbors.

Until he got to Brooklyn College.

The story of his journey here and the life-altering transformation that his undergraduate education accelerated is one for the books. So Newfield, now an assistant professor of sociology at Borough of Manhattan Community College (CUNY), decided to write one about former Orthodox Jews, much like himself, who left their religious community and began radically different lives.

For Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism (Temple University Press, 2020), Newfield interviewed 74 ex-Haredi from Brooklyn’s Lubavitch and Satmar communities, pouring over their exit narratives and the ways in which they navigated their new lives, and taking measure of what they gained and lost in the process.

“When I started this research, I assumed the people who left were all similar to me,” says Newfield. “What I found was a multiplicity of narratives.”

What most had in common, he says, was a tendency not to leave based on one moment of crisis but, rather, as a gradual process. He says most fell into two camps—those who left for intellectual reasons and those who left for social-emotional ones. Newfield found a continuum of family ties, some who remained close to their parents and siblings while others were only somewhat disconnected. He says he found almost none who were completely untethered, a major finding of his research.

Thanks to the popularity of Netflix’s Emmy Award–winning miniseries Unorthodox, loosely based on the memoir of a woman who leaves Williamsburg’s Satmar community, Newfield’s book proved timely. He was a hot ticket this year on the Zoom panel circuit, logging more than 20 discussions on what the series got right and which aspects were not so authentic.

He says throughout his research and as he talked about it with colleagues, public audiences, and at academic conferences, he tried to remain conscious as a scholar of the tendency to “otherize” Orthodox communities because of how closed off many remain. Yet he also walked the line on having candid discussions about pervasive problems around topics like race, gender, and homophobia.

“I didn’t want to exploit their stories and I didn’t want to feed into anti-Semitism,” says Newfield, who now lives in New Jersey and remains very much in touch with the family he grew up with. “I did want to humanize these communities to outsiders and also to speak openly about the major life choices these people made and the context around it.”

For Newfield, it was a context very close to home. He attended yeshivas during his youth, never learning to read in English until he was about 14 years old when a secular uncle offered him a second-grade workbook. From then, he surreptitiously devoured every book he could get his hands on (even stashing them under his bed and in the ceiling), and went on to obtain a General Equivalency Diploma. He eventually enrolled at Brooklyn College, a move that broke his mother’s heart.

“What decent Jewish girl is going to want to marry a college boy?” he remembers his mother asking.

But Newfield had discovered a new world. He joined the student government. He met classmates from Haiti, Taiwan, Turkey, and Pakistan.

“My social circle exploded to the point that I couldn’t hold on to old stereotypes,” he says. “I met professors who helped me make up for lost time and also made me feel comfortable about who I was. Like I belonged.”

He read classics from Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emma Goldman—texts that challenged his notions of religion, race, sex, marriage, and gender equality. He became close with college faculty members like Sociology Professor Carolina Bank Muñoz, a Chilean immigrant, and retired Honors Academy Coordinator Robert Scott ’96, a black man from the South. Both pushed his intellectual development while also encouraging him to apply for fellowships and scholarships that expanded his horizons.

“These people had backgrounds as different from me as you could possibly get, and yet we connected. They saw something in me. Considering the lack of support I felt from my community at the time, it was great.”

Weeks shy of graduation, Newfield shaved his beard and took off his yarmulke. He wouldn’t see his mother for the better part of a year after the transformation but has since mended fences.

He went on to get a Ph.D. in sociology from New York University, with a focus on identity, narrative, and socialization, and taught at several New Jersey state prisons before moving on to BMCC.

“I never thought of college as something that would cause me to leave my religious community,” he says. “But it expanded my thinking around my central belief system in a way that made it hard to turn back. And it made me a better person.”