Dec 24, 2023 8:00 AM
What happens when an outsider who was welcomed into an insular community changes his mind and decides to leave?
27-year-old Satchel Bloyd learned the answer to that question this month, when his decision to leave the Hasidic community and re-embrace Christianity triggered a storm of rumors in the Haredi world, falsely claiming that he was never really Jewish to begin with.
For about a day, Bloyd, who briefly went by the first name Yechiel and also sometimes uses the name “Bartimaeus Black,” was the subject of wild speculation. “Shock in Satmar,” the headline of an article on Matzav.com, a Haredi news site, read, stating that Bloyd and his wife, who is also a convert, were “revealed as imposters.” On the Yiddish-language ivelt forum, a popular Hasidic discussion group, several commenters claimed, without evidence, that Bloyd had infiltrated the community so as to perform “kishuf” — or black magic.
A couple days later, Bloyd went on the Zev Brenner radio show, popular among Haredim, to correct the record.
His past, Bloyd told Brenner, included growing up Protestant in Washington state and learning about Judaism at 14 when his friend invited him to his bar mitzvah. He started attending a Reform synagogue, but soon realized he wanted to be Hasidic.
“I loved the idea of serving God with simcha,” Bloyd said, referring to the Hasidic teaching of practicing Judaism with exuberant joy. At age 21, he finally converted to Orthodox Judaism.
Bloyd told Brenner that he and his wife had lived in Williamsburg and were close to the Satmar community there — though Bloyd told Brenner he often prayed at the Vizhnitz synagogue. The couple faced negative comments from community members due to their age difference: Bloyd was 21 and his wife was 50 when they married.
While some of Brenner’s listeners came to Bloyd’s defense against the false rumors, others remained skeptical — perhaps reflecting how Haredim sometimes see converts, wary of their intentions and likely to see departures as evidence of earlier insincerity.
“This whole thing is very suspicious to me,” one listener who called into the show said.
“Within six months, he’ll be a Rastafarian at the airport asking for money,” said another.
A third listener emailed Brenner with a question that was revealing in its own way: “Does Yechiel feel any resentment and anger toward the Hasidic community for mistreating him the way they did, and how much did that impact his decision to leave?”
Wanting to move on with his life, Bloyd declined to be interviewed for this article, but a couple people interviewed by Shtetl who said they were friends with him confirmed that, for the brief time that he lived as a Hasidic Williamsburg resident, Bloyd was genuinely committed to a Hasidic life.
“He wasn’t an impostor,” said Simcha Wait, a fellow convert who never met Bloyd in person but exchanged messages with him often on Facebook. “He was accomplished and learning. I couldn’t imagine all the work that he put in.”
Yoel Menachem Kohn, a former Hasid who told Shtetl he was friends with Bloyd, said, “I always considered him sincere.”
As a Hasid, Bloyd dressed in a black hat and coat as commonly worn by Hasidic men, and sported wild shocks of hair at his temples that flowed into long sidelocks. But in a video posted on Facebook, Bloyd is now seen with curly light brown hair and rimless glasses, looking remarkably ordinary. His Yiddish, while fluent, has a pronounced non-native accent, but it also carries traces of the Hungarian-accented Yiddish common among Williamsburg’s Hasidim and is peppered with contemporary Hasidic idioms.
At various points during his interview with Brenner, Bloyd sought to highlight his own intelligence, striking a somewhat grandiose tone. “I’ve always been very smart,” he said. “I’ve been reading at a college level since I was nine years old.” He claimed, at one point, “I’m quadrilingual, and three of the languages I know are Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish.” (Bloyd clarified in an email to Shtetl that his Modern Hebrew is “pretty weak.”)
In response to a caller asking if Bloyd had been to see a therapist during his “transitioning and exploring” process, Bloyd said he was asked to see a therapist before converting and also went for psychiatric evaluations. “But they diagnosed me as normal. Which I know is probably hard to believe,” he added with a chuckle.
While Judaism embraces converts, the reality of Haredi life is often more complex. Lacking family ties or communal roots, those who attempt to join the insular Haredi world often face severe challenges, including a stigma that creates obstacles for everything from finding marriage partners to renting an apartment to being hired for a job.
Often, converts to the Haredi life are also perceived by community members to have various psychological flaws. As Kohn put it to Shtetl, Haredi people “assume that everyone who wants to convert to Judaism is slightly off their rocker.”
Still, when asked by Brenner whether he felt resentment and anger toward the community, Bloyd said “no,” quickly adding “chas v’shulem” — God forbid. Rather, he said, he simply chose to leave Hasidic life quietly. His reasons, he said, were “theological.”