Chapter 5: Denial; Not Just a River in Egypt.
The conversation that woke me up to how far I had fallen off the path.
He called himself Rabbi E. He stood outside the store trying to convince people to sign up for Birthright. He had been doing so for several years now. I’ve walked by him many times. He should have known I work in the store. He had been pitching his Birthright trip outside of the store for several years. But never once did he even look me in the eye.
He kind of reminded me of C-3P0. Or at least what C-3P0 would look like if he was human. He wore a small black velvet kippa. He had tzitzit sticking out. He had small payyot tucked behind his ears. He had red hair and a 5-o’clock shadow that was beginning to turn white. And like most campus missionary types, he spoke the language of the college neophytes.
At least that was his target audience. Clearly, he was ill-prepared for a hardened heretic.
I only stopped by his table because an old friend was preparing to film him. I hadn’t seen Shlomo in a few years. Shlomo had graduated a few years before. Now, he was a cameraman. He did a lot of work for Jewish organizations. Now, Shlomo was about to film the Kampus Kiruv Klown in action. I just stopped to catch up with Shlomo. I had no interest in engaging the Kampus Kiruv Klown.
Shlomo had a friend with him. The rabbi asked the friend his story. The friend mentioned he’s Jewish but not frum. The rabbi said “you’ve never truly experienced Judaism.” The friend couldn’t argue—he was raised conservative, was bar mitzvahed, not much else to say. So the rabbi convinced him to sign up for Birthright. It’s free, nothing to lose, you can extend your ticket indefinitely, so after a week of doing the program, you can spend 2 months partying in Tel Aviv for all they care.
He then turned to me and asked “what’s your story?” After years of standing outside my store, this was probably the first time he ever so much as looked me in the eye. As if the fact that I was holding The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins in my hand didn’t give it away, I told him I’m a former Orthodox Jew, currently an Atheist.
Suddenly, his eyes were locked on me. He went from completely ignoring me to predatorily fixing his eyes in my direction: “you’ve never fully experienced Judaism!”
I chortled. I curtly answered “I have experienced more brands of Judaism than you could possibly dream about—including Chabad!”
He continued to insist that I’ve never actually had a real Jewish experience.
So I gave him the short list of my Jewish experiences
- 22 years of being Modern Orthodox, including a yeshiva education
- Many shabbosim in Boro Park and Monsey
- Half a year living in Boro Park, plenty of Shabbosim with my Bluzhever cousins
- Plenty of Shabbosim in my teen years with a Lubavitch friend in Monsey
- Studying Shana VaChetzi in Israel
- Plenty of Shabbosim in Me’ah She’arim and B’nei Brak. Viznitz, Karlin Stolin, Nadvorna, Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok, Breslov, et al
- 5 years in Camp Ramah (I know, Conservative Judaism does not count for Kiruv Klowns, but I wanted to round off my experience).
- 2 years at Yeshiva University
- Did NCSY in high school
And this, my friends, was just the short list.
Nope. Not good enough for our Kiruv Klown. I still have never fully experienced Judaism.
“You’ve never spent Shabbos by me.” Notice, he said “by me.” One of those Yiddishisms I still catch myself saying.
So I stood firm and said “you have 2-minutes. What does ‘Shabbos by you’ have that my 22 years of keeping Shabbos didn’t have?”
“Come and find out,” he responded.
I was not compelled. Not in the slightest bit.
Finally, he decided to go on the offensive. “You’re just looking for an excuse to be free to have sex, do drugs, and not care about the consequences!”—the Hail Mary Pass of Kiruv Professionals! I didn’t think he was going to go there.
Finally, I raised my voice at him. “I have been working on this campus for over 5 years now. I am a known entity on this campus. I challenge you to ask anybody who knows me if I am indeed such a minuval!” Yes, I used the word minuval. “Find me one person who thinks I am a drug-addled philander.” And to drive the point home, I stated that I did a lot more drugs when I was still frum; since going off the derech, I’ve taken it easy with the drugs—but not with the sex or the rock and roll (but that’s another parasha).