Throughout his childhood, Izzy Posen was a bright boy with a curious mind. At school, he worked hard, with long hours of study stretching late into the evenings. He was a shining example to his nine younger siblings.
But at his unregistered school in the heart of the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jewish, community in Stamford Hill in north London, and later at a yeshiva, or religious school, in Gateshead, Posen was taught only in Yiddish and studied only religious texts. No maths, no English, no history, no science.
So it is an astonishing achievement that, this week, he graduated from Bristol university with a first class integrated masters degree in physics and philosophy.
Posen’s journey from the closed world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, with its strict dress codes, educational segregation, religious rituals and prohibitions on internet use and mainstream media, to collecting his precious degree has been immensely complicated and challenging.
It involved him secretly teaching himself to read English, questioning everything he was taught to believe, and ultimately leaving his community.
“It has been a tumultuous journey. For the first 20 years of my life, all I knew was the culture I grew up in. I can’t describe how scared I was of the outside world, and how lonely it was to leave. I had never interacted with anyone outside the Haredi community,” he says.
Posen, 27, says he had very positive memories of growing up in Stamford Hill – home to more than 30,000 Haredi Jews, the largest community in Europe. “It’s a very vibrant community with close-knit families and strong support networks. It’s very communal – every week there were barmitzvahs and weddings.”
Pozen says he is anxious to rebuild his relationship with his family – he speaks to his parents on the phone and occasionally, but he has not seen his siblings for seven years. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian
But he says he has difficult memories and feels he was ill-treated at school. “Some elements of the community are quite cult-like. Even the tiniest bit of doubt is not permitted, and we were cut off from the world,” he says.
Posen recalls hearing about the 2012 London Olympics, although without access to television, internet or non-Haredi newspapers he had “no clue” what the games were about. “Slowly I started to realise there was a massive world out there, and I was curious.”
He taught himself to read English with the help of a dictionary and started looking at his sisters’ science and maths textbooks (girls have a broader curriculum in Haredi schools). When he moved to the Gateshead yeshiva, he smuggled books forbidden to students out of the library. “I was thirsty for knowledge. Discovering science was an absolute revelation.”
At the age of 20, Posen left the Haredi community. He enrolled at college to study for maths, English and science GCSEs while working night shifts at a supermarket. After completing a certificate of higher education at Birkbeck, he applied to study physics and philosophy at Bristol.
“They listened to my story and offered me a place even though I didn’t have any A-levels. I’m very grateful to the university,” he says.
At Bristol, Posen threw himself into study. “That’s how I spent all my time. It was difficult to acclimatise, and I felt like an outsider. But I found some fellow nerds, weirdos like me, who became close friends.”
He was surprised to find debate narrowing in the university environment. “For me, university was meant to be a place to question everything, a space to experiment in opinions. But the openness I expected to find was closing down.”
He was also surprised that some fellow students regarded him as a “white, privileged person”. “I’ve had to overcome a lot of barriers and disadvantages. It was quite painful to constantly have to justify myself.”
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Posen is now considering his future. He has applied for a teacher training course, and is also keen to develop educational material in his beloved native Yiddish. He feels positive and excited about future opportunities, but is also anxious to rebuild his relationship with his family.
He speaks to his parents on the phone and occasionally meets them on neutral ground, but he has not seen his siblings for seven years. “My parents are scared that I might influence them. Me leaving the community was very painful and shameful, and they have had to deal with that.
“My parents are very precious to me. I need them to know how much I love them. I try to be honest and open with them about who I am now, but I also need to respect them. My life is extremely complex.”
Posen also wants to use his experience to help others in the Haredi community who are struggling. “I don’t want to encourage people to leave, but I want to get the message across that there is a different way for those who need it. It’s hard but it’s not impossible.
“The Haredi community is going through a profound transition. They have fiercely tried to resist the internet, but many people have secret smartphones and are looking at social media. There are people on the inside pushing for change, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it will come.”