This is a repost of a story that appeared on the OTD Stories website that is now integrated with this website.
Yakov is 23 years old and lives in New York City. He is a writer and teacher who is working to bring Orthodox non-believers together through his blog, FreethinkingJewboy.com.
How would you describe your religious upbringing?
I’d say my upbringing was in between Modern Orthodox and the frum right-wing. I’ve been called “MO” by right-wingers and “yeshivish” by MO people. I had access to television, the Internet, the New York Times. On the other hand, I was socially separated from girls and was led to understand that meaningful interaction with them was discouraged until dating age or at least post-high school. And serious Torah learning for boys was a strong value in my family.
You were a believer throughout this period?
Yes, up until the middle of college, I never consciously questioned my belief in religion. During the high school years (and my year in Israel) my questions were focused on why learning was important and to what extent I needed to devote myself to its pursuit.
Did you go to Israel after school?
Yes, I went to a studious and competitive Hesder yeshiva for one year. It represented a place where I could get away from yeshivish-land while still pursuing serious learning. Though I didn’t grasp this clearly at the time, I wanted to learn so as to please my father. That was the dominant reason.
What was it that you really wanted to do?
Go to college. Meet girls.
Do you remember when your first doubts started to settle in?
Well, I never perceived them as doubts until after my faith was entirely gone. But they existed as far back as I can recall. I remember a counselor I had in camp (who took me for a receptacle for his hashkafic pearls of wisdom) asking me, with a show of great significance, why I was Jewish. “Because my parents are Jewish,” I promptly responded. “No,” he crowed. “Because you believe in Hashem.” He waved away my measly objections to this point: that I wouldn’t believe in Hashem if I hadn’t been raised Jewish; and that anyway you could believe in Hashem without being Jewish, or be Halachically Jewish without believing in Hashem.
A few years later, a “rebbi” in high school who taught “Jewish History” i.e. Navi i.e. Hashkafa told the class that no one really had 100% faith. If we did, his reasoning went, we would never sin, since sins are the result of a lack of faith. While there may be more to sinning than this teacher claimed (so much more, in fact), his point about faith made obvious sense to me. Of course – how could I be 100% sure about something I was taking on faith? The teacher didn’t cause me to have doubts; he just made me aware of doubts I already had. But because I wouldn’t or couldn’t accept that they were doubts, I ended up holding contradictory beliefs about myself. I was a person with, say, 70% faith, 0% doubt.
Could you share some of your doubts with us?
There were the substantive objections. How could it be just for a genuine polytheist to receive punishment for idolatry, or for any nonbeliever to be punished for breaking Shabbos? I was skeptical that rabbinic decrees were binding, that God intervened in the world, that there existed a spiritual dimension beyond the material as suggested by the laws of tumah and tahara.
Then there was the more fundamental problem which hid in my subconscious for as long as I clung to faith. What reason did I have for believing in any of it?
Did you share these doubts with others?
That last problem I wasn’t even conscious of. The other issues I shared with a few philosophically inclined friends of mine. They had the same or similar questions. The only question I remember posing to my father was, why is learning Torah important. Instead of answering, he directed me to a book written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
When did you go public with your kefirah?
A year after I realized I didn’t believe in Judaism, I gradually came out to close friends and family over a period of about two years. At some point, I stopped needing it to be a secret, and it stopped feeling like one. It has spread now, I don’t know how far. I’d tell any individual in principle, but I’m not interested in advertising it. So I have not completely “gone public.”
Did you ever tell your parents? And if you did, how did they react?
I told my parents after a full year of keeping it secret from everyone I knew; I was still observant. The experience was traumatic for all three of us, though it needed to be done. They accepted what I was saying and told me they loved me. Two years later, there’s still pain floating through the house when I visit.
What books or sites did you find helpful when looking for answers?
I never looked for answers. I think I already sensed deep down that there were none, and I feared investigating for its potential to lead me to a conclusion that would tear apart my frumkeit. I discussed my questions with one or two friends and thought about them to myself only because I just couldn’t help it.
After I lost my faith, I gorged myself on OTD and related media. I took frenzied trips through the OTD blogs, never sticking on any single one for too long, though I read many of your interviews. I read everything written by Shulem Deen. I watched YouTube videos of Christians coming out of the atheist closet. I even watched the documentary about closeted gay Orthodox Jews, Trembling Before God.
These stories about others’ closeted experiences helped me emotionally, but they did not satisfy me. I needed community, a real-life in-person community of people who had come from where I had come from and who had been through what I had been through. I didn’t find it. So, eventually, I created my own. The benefits to myself and to other members have been enormous.
Could you tell us a bit more about creating your own community? I am sure this will be helpful to many readers.
One day while scrolling through OTD blogs, I read a wistful comment about young heretics meeting up in groups during the Haskalah, which brought to mind vivid descriptions by Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish writer. I thought, why not?
Except that the group I wanted to form would not be aimed at discussing theology or philosophy. I was floundering in my closeted state, torn between my Orthodox identity and my need to be true to myself and to my beliefs. I needed to discuss that struggle with peers who were likewise living it.
I had one frum friend who I knew was skeptical about religion. I reached out to him and pitched the idea; he brought in a third; and in a matter of months we had a sizable number of people along with a mission statement describing what we were meeting up about.
There’s something about shared adversity that makes for really great bonding. Our group meetings take an experience that was causing us pain and turn it into something to feel warm and even happy about. What could be better than that?
And, yes, it seems to be becoming a sort of fledgling community. I see in the eyes of some of the people at their first meeting a deep confusion, a sense of being hopelessly lost. When your beliefs have laid siege to your Orthodox identity, you no longer know who you are or where you belong. Being part of the group, I hope, offers a way to realize a sound new identity, one that combines that weakened but living Orthodox identity with those heretical beliefs. I can enjoy Purim with these people in a way that I simply can’t with anyone else.
Most recently, I started a blog in which I post about these kinds of kofer experiences and invite a discussion about them that would mimic the kind of discussions that take place in my group. My ultimate goal there is to extend the community beyond my own group by facilitating the formation of more in-person groups just like it. I’d like for there to be a number of such groups scattered over Orthodox hotspots and catering to closeted young adults, parents, communal/religious leaders, etc.
What would you do different if you could go OTD all over again?
My loss of faith I think was virtually inevitable, so I’m glad it happened sooner rather than later. After that occurred, I should have pursued two things as soon as possible: one, financial independence; two, reaching out to peers at Yeshiva University who were closeted nonbelievers. Finding such people is difficult, but they undoubtedly exist, as I have discovered over the past year. At the time, however, I was too scared and alone to realize that I was far from the only one. And financial independence has helped me to stand within a Jewish identity of my own that is no longer identical to that of my parents.
Do you have any message for people who are still going through the process of finding their own derech?
Connect with people like you, and try to do so in as intimate a way as possible. OTD blogs and Facebook groups certainly help, and they are good stepping stones especially when you need to keep your kefirah secret from frum people. But interacting in person with true peers is so much more powerful and should be the principal goal in this regard.