The shocking story of one woman’s attempt to escape an Orthodox Jewish community.
By the time I was ten years old I knew this life wasn’t for me. No, I was not molested. I was not beaten or abused in any way. I was the middle child in a large Orthodox family and I always felt loved and cared for. My parents are honest and kind, good people.
But there was something in this life filled with rules and limits that I couldn’t understand, something that tugged at my heart and told me that my path would be different. And all this before any Jew would disappoint and disgust me and lead my intellectual self running toward the place my heart had been taking me to.
I was fourteen at the time. I was hanging out with whomever I wanted. I was eating whatever I wanted. But I was in an Orthodox school and environment and my friends were, as well. I wasn’t doing drugs. I wasn’t staying out late with a bad crowd and partying. I was living the life I knew was right for me. Read more
Akiva Weingarten was born in New York in 1984, the oldest of a family of 11 children. At 18, he moved to Israel where he lived for 10 years. Akiva got his first Smicha (rabbinical ordination) from a Chassidish Yeshiva in Monsey, NY at the age of 17 and was ordained again 8 years later by a Litvish Bet Din in Bnei Brak, Israel. At the age of 26, he received his third ordination from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement. Today, Akiva is a rabbinical student at the Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam, Germany and studying to be ordained as a Reform Rabbi.
Hi Akiva! How would you describe your family background from a religious point of view?
I would say that my family is the most typical Chassidishe family, no BT background, 100% Ashkenazi. I learned in Satmar, my father and grandfather are both Dayanim (religious judges), my mother is a teacher and speaker, all my brother-in-laws went or still go to Kollel, as does my wider family. Read more
I was born into a Jewish family which was very involved with Jewish and synagogue life, long before we all became Orthodox. Our family belonged to a synagogue affiliated with the centrist Conservative movement of Judaism (religiously in between the more liberal Reform and more strict Orthodox movements) in Rockville, Connecticut, a suburb of Hartford. I attended that synagogue through Bar Mitzvah, Confirmation, and participation in the Conservative movement’s USY youth group in high school. I also became familiar with Reform Judaism after my family moved to the neighboring town of South Windsor with its Reform synagogue, and I occasionally attended events with the Reform movement’s NiFTY youth group.
At the time, the Conservative movement was the largest Jewish denomination in the United States. Since that time, Reform and Orthodox Judaism have grown in their share of congregants; Reform is now the largest denomination. The Conservative movement was an attempt to meld the traditional/Orthodox belief that Jewish law is binding and obligatory on all Jews (rejected by Reform Jews, who believe Jews are free to choose their ritual practices) with an openness to the seemingly heretical findings of scholars about human authorship of the Bible (rejected by Orthodox Jews). In reality, Conservative rabbis, including our own, tended to be strict in their observance of Jewish law like Orthodox Jews, while Conservative congregants, including my family, tended to pick and choose their practices like Reform Jews (though on average Conservative Jews were a bit more traditional than Reform Jews).
While my parents, like most people who attended suburban American Conservative synagogues, did not observe Jewish law as understood by Conservative or Orthodox rabbis (for example, they ate food which was not kosher, and did not follow the laws restricting various activities on the Sabbath), their level of involvement in Jewish and synagogue functions was unusually high. They were vocal supporters of Israel, and they were part of a small group of local Conservative families which got together for traditional Sabbath meals. Also, they were very concerned about Jewish assimilation and the prospects for “Jewish continuity” (the survival of Judaism in light of assimilation and intermarriage). Throughout my childhood, before my family’s journey towards Orthodoxy began, my parents repeatedly expressed their disapproval of “interdating” and “intermarriage” with non-Jews. They even argued that Jews who intermarried were “finishing Hitler’s job” of destroying the Jewish people, because many of their children were not Jewish.
The first person in my family to become Orthodox was my older brother, who became interested in Orthodox Judaism around the age of 11. My brother was inspired by the writings of extremist/militant Rabbi Meir Kahane (though my brother later became an Orthodox rabbi who opposed many of Kahane’s teachings). After some initial resistance, a couple years later, my parents started becoming interested in Orthodox Judaism themselves through my brother and the Orthodox Rabbis and communities he was in contact with. My parents’ move towards Orthodoxy was partially a reaction against assimilation (most of my cousins intermarried), partially because they liked what they saw, and, I now realize, partially because they had a lot of personal problems and it was an escape.
From the cover: “Dina-Perla grew up in Jewish orthodoxy and a suffocating reality, where nothing is what it seems. As a young girl, she fough for freedom and love, flees her parental home and decides never to return.”
Dina-Perla Portnaar’s debut is called “Exodus from the lighthouse” and will be sold in Dutch stores starting this coming Monday 13th November 2017. An English translation is currently in planning.
Aryeh is 21 and was raised in Seattle. Today, Aryeh considers himself to be an atheist, but a human before anything else. In many ways he identifies more with his hunter gatherer, primate, and non-mammalian ancestors than his more recent Jewish ones but feels a cultural kinship not related to religion for his fellow Jews.
Hi Aryeh, what was your family’s religious background?
Raised by Aish parents, so orthodox. In my teens I became devoutly yeshivish (black hat) and eventually developed my own mix of Chassidus, Kabbalah, and Yeshivishness.
How was it like to be ‘raised by Aish parents’?
Like everything in life, it was terrible and wonderful, and deeply, deeply, bizarre.
Ironically, it provided me with a lot of the values that eventually lead me away from Judaism – ideals like seeking truth above all else, standing up for what you believe in, the primacy of knowledge and its ability to relieve others from suffering. It also made me fiercely confident in my belief in God – I watched my parents convince many people to become observant of judaism and grew up convinced that there was objective proof for its claims. It wasn’t just a religion, it was reality – I remember my father saying those exact words. It also exposed me to some of what proselytizing can necessitate – for example, when convincing people to accept the 613 commandments, you’re taught not to mention the genocide or the slavery and whatnot first. On the plus side, having 30-100 secular people at the shabbos table every Friday night taught me a lot about people and how to communicate with them, as well as giving me a taste of the outside world. I feel very close to my fellow OTD’ers, but even closer with those who made the journey out of Aish families (of which there are many – it is hard to keep kids in the bubble when you’re letting the influence of the secular world into your home, even when it is to convert them. It’s the same with Chabad families).
What made you become a devout yeshivish person?
I took religion very seriously. I was deeply inspired by it, and wanted to serve God as well I could. I haven’t met any other OTD people who took it as seriously as I did. I chose to go to the most intense yeshivah possible because I wanted to become a Rabbi, and spread the good word. I even fantasized about being moshiach, or at least one of his good friends. I cried to God, and begged his forgiveness for various assorted sins such as masturbation, walking more than four steps without washing my hands in the morning, and not spending every possible moment of the day studying Torah . I stayed up until the early morning learning. I gave up movies and music and tried my best to fit their mold. I did have a personal version of God that I defended against yeshivah as well – I was very into chassidus and kabbalah and would often have my books confiscated by my rebbeim. So there was a kind of double layer of intensity there – intense pressure from friends and rabbis, and then my own personal relationship with God, whom I would speak to constantly, often more than any of my friends. The Yeshiva world seemed the most devoted to Torah, and Torah was what i wanted- so i jumped in without thinking.
So where did things “go wrong”? 🙂
It’s impossible to point at any one thing. I started getting into science by sneaking in iPods full of educational podcasts into yeshivah during my last year. During my last year of Yeshivah in California I would hike nearly every day and learn about nature, which made me feel happier than any amount of gemara ever did. I had one English teacher in the early years of yeshivah with whom I learned about science and some philosophy, and my conversations with him were always disturbingly more interesting than my chavrusas were. After high school, I became very depressed, and when I looked to God and Torah for help, it was only exacerbated by the guilt, the pressure, and the ignorance i was surrounded by. I constantly struggled with the faulty logic of the gemerah- when id point out its irrationality my rebbe would say that i had a ‘goyishe kup’. Eventually exploring a previously prohibited combination of philosophy external to judaism, such as Buddhism, Existentialism, and Psychedelic literature, provided some healing. The array of new ideas offered something i had sought in vain for in judaism- paradigm shattering experiences so large i had to rearrange myself to make them fit. But these things were not earned, and this profoundly disturbed me. For example- these plants that helped me so dramatically grow naturally out of earth, they evolved out of our planet just as I had come to accept I did. Meditatio, too does not subscribe to the reward/punishment paradigm-, the experiences I had were not earned, they were uncovered. From then on, I began to feel that bliss is not something to be earned or bestowed, it is a human birthright, accessible to all. The idea that the wisdom I had found in Buddhism wouldn’t be the first words God spoke to his people was the first real strike of doubt in my mind. What kind of God has this knowledge and hides it? How could my people be the chosen ones if they can’t even figure out something as essential as peace of mind?
There were a few specific thinkers who really practically changed my life and perspective. Discovering them was an incredible experience – I truly was on a quest for truth, and I knew I had found it in these ideas. Alan Watts, Terence Mckenna, Carl Sagan, Sam Harris, Aldous Huxley, and the words of many many others were fuel for a fire that burned in me the way my Rebbeim described the greatest Rabbis learned. I felt everything I was told I was supposed to be feel about the words of Torah when I read their words. I would write furiously, read furiously, and then experience blissfully their perspective, in meditation, isolation/sensory deprivation tanks, in nature, and in daily life. I had one or two friends at different stages of this process as well, on parallel journeys. Talking to them was a very big part of speeding up the process for me, but for the most part it was an intensely solitary process, as i was usually in different countries than them.
This process, and the ideas that I encountered along the way, brought up a lot of old questions, ranging from moral ones like “do homosexuals really deserve to die?” to logical ones like “how the hell did kangaroos cross oceans to reach Noah’s ark?”, to spiritual ones like “why does staring into the eyes of a deer feel more Godly than learning what is supposed to be his holiest publication?”.
The philosophical and and intuitive issues I had wouldn’t have been enough alone. Once I was introduced to the concept of rational thought I really had to figure this out on that level. I was home for medical treatment and had access to the Internet and began watching debates and reading books on the subject. I watched dozens of hours of debate with the four horsemen of the atheist apocalypse, which was when a lot of the logical wars were won. I had one friend who was on a similar journey, spiritually, philosophically, morally, and logically, and that was hugely important to the process as well. The loneliness and alienation is probably the most painful part. Having your context for existence punched out of your lungs is one thing; being the only person you know who knows what it feels like is another.
Around this time, I volunteered for a frum organization devoted to helping kids with cancer. I remember one day a kid from the camp died, and the staff were telling the children to daven harder so that god wouldn’t take any more children. I knew then something had changed in me. I didn’t see God’s grace and mysterious ways. I saw dying kids, often with diseases caused by scientific ignorance, whose parents were cousins, who didn’t bother or know to check for genetic diseases common in the inbred ashkenazi gene pool, suffering immensely. Telling them they weren’t praying hard enough seemed terribly abusive for the first time.
After that summer, I went to Israel to speak to the same Rabbis who had convinced my parents to throw away their secular lives and devote themselves to ending “the spiritual holocaust of intermarriage.” I needed to bring them my questions and see if they had any answers. This was their job, after all. I’m sure I wasn’t the first kid who came to them with questions. My father insisted he had done the same and was convinced. I needed to see for myself. Over the course of a few months, I spoke and debated with them. It was a fascinating experience and mostly disappointing. I was raised being told there were proofs for orthodox Judaism’s claims about reality. This trip confirmed, without a shadow of a doubt, that this was false and that my moral and philosophical issues with Judaism had no satisfactory resolutions.
Could you give us a glimpse behind the curtain of your debates with these kiruv Rabbis?
One of my favorite moments was when this rabbi was arguing intelligent design to me by giving the classic example of how amazing the human eye is (despite the fact that a quick google search reveals that it has very few frames per second, can see only a very limited range of light, and is wired completely backwards). I paused for a second and pointed at his glasses. “Rabbi, you’re wearing glasses. Obviously, something’s gone wrong.” It’s a great metaphor for the whole experience really. They were great at spouting rhetoric and arguments that had the appearance of being well thought out, but at second glance were laughably illogical and deeply flawed. One rabbi shouted at me, in a crowded coffee shop, that he would murder and rape his wife and children if God didn’t exist. That was a fun night. Others were much more respectable and moderate, but when I pressed them hard enough, for long enough, and took their logic trains to their last stations, we always arrived at the same place: blind faith. And that was never going to be enough for me. Not with so much evidence against it. Not one rabbi could give me a good reason why we really needed to commit so much genocide in God’s name, or why it was ever ok for Jewish fathers to sell their daughters into slavery, or why every year, millions of infants die while their mothers beg their respective Gods to spare their children. They have some great matrix metaphors, but again, when discussed for more than an hour, the kiruv stuff really falls apart. They were not really willing to do or respond to research, which stopped a lot of conversations in their tracks. They were specifically comfortable with circular logic, which is impossible to point out to someone who hasn’t seen beyond it. You’re dealing with a very infantile twisted sort of logic that mimics reason – the only way to disprove it is to wade deep into those waters and point out the issues one by one. The response is usually belligerent repetition of the faulty logic, and that’s where it gets really exhausting. With my yeshivish Rabbi’s, even that would have been impossible- you simply cannot convince someone who does not value reason to value reason using reason.
At the end of the day, they were people, which meant some got mad, others sad, and others didn’t really care either which way. I used to speak to my rabbis only in third person, and this really shattered the illusion of grandeur that can create. The other thing I saw again and again, and was impressed by, was the tenacity of cognitive bias. These rabbis had everything to lose if they were wrong, and it showed. There was one rabbi, however, whom I spoke to, who I saw I was really getting to. I realized in one moment that my doubts had spread to his mind, and I saw genuine fear on his face. I got scared too. I was in a lot of pain, as my world came crashing down on me, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that to this man, who had a wife and children. I stopped pushing him so hard, and watched his cognitive biases erase the fear, as he assured himself things would be ok. It was a powerful lesson for me. I knew what it felt like to bury doubt; I had been doing it for years. To watch an adult man do it in front of me, in real time, was a powerful thing to witness, Especially because these were the rabbis that had convinced my parents- and thus were at least partly responsible for my existence in the first place.
What are the most positive aspects for you of going OTD?
Yahweh, as Dawkins put it, could be the most unpleasant character in all of fiction. For me, leaving his shadow meant leaving behind a great deal of shame, paranoia, pressure, and delusion. I live a less deluded life, in line with what is as close as possible to what I perceive as the truth. Perhaps more important than even that, though, is the loss of meaning.
A lot of the positive aspects of being OTD are born from the loss of unnecessary bullshit. As religious jew, I believed my life to be the most meaningful possible life one can live. Now I know that life is a fantastic bizarre mistake, and that meaning is something we make for ourselves, like tea or art or air conditioning. This is incredibly liberating. The stars are no longer pretty decorations in god’s pretty terrarium, but rather massive nuclear furnaces in which everything I have ever cared about were cooked. I don’t have to be alive. I can opt out whenever I like, without fear of eternal punishment. Every moment I stay is my choice, not a commandment. I count the loss of the afterlife, too, to be a gain. I was nothing a lot more time than I was something, and I will lapse back into nothingness within the next 80 years or so. Makes this whole affair a lot less of a burden. It’s real freedom. The experiences I had with psychedelics were also astonishingly powerful and healing. With psychedelics, I experience honestly and completely every cliche I had ever heard about feeling at one with the universe, at peace with myself, and in love with my fellow beings. I finally felt, not just intellectually, at home in the universe, not a stranger banished from eden but a product and part of the universe the way a fruit is a part of a tree. I really felt that, in my bones, and came for the first time to love my primate body and the squirmy-comfortable sensation of being an organism. I shudder to think of dying without having had such experiences, which I count among the most spiritual, most meaningful, most liberating moments of my life. I can finally be the person I daydreamed about being, and I’ve only been out a year. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
One final gain I must mention is the wonderfully queer pleasure I can now experience of changing my mind. Once you step out of the rigid thinking of belief, you can constantly have your mind changed through conversation and research. Knowing I will never stop doing that means knowing I will probably be unrecognizable to my current self in a few years. I’ll die and be reborn again and again in a certain way. It makes it a lot more fun, and a lot funnier.
When we met in Israel a few months ago, we indeed found a common interest in meditation. What does meditation mean to you and what could it mean for people who are going through life changes like yours?
I’d like to preface whatever I say here by saying that, while it has changed my life quite dramatically, I do not currently have a ton of experience with meditation, nor do i have a very devoted practise or respectable understanding of buddhism and/or modern mindfulness. Most of what I say here is paraphrasing the ideas of people who do.
I believe that there is a baby in the bathwater of religion – and that baby is the secret tip of maslow’s hierarchy: above the need for food and water and safety and community resides the need for self-transcendence. The respected neuroscientist and author Sam Harris discusses in his book ‘Waking Up’ how nuns, monks, rabbis, and priests, when put in MRIs, tended to show similar things happening in their brains as they prayed. Meditation has a comparable effect, without the need for spiritual mumbo jumbo, dogma, and shame. More often than not, when you are raised frum, you are told that Jews have the monopoly on spirituality, on being Godly, and on true peace of mind. For me, engaging in meditation disproves that, scientifically and experientially. Scientific research has confirmed dozens of benefits of meditation – from better sleep to less anxiety, from better athletic performance to a literal increase in grey matter, from enhanced creativity to increased susceptibility to awe – but the real benefit isn’t as concrete as that. The real benefit promised by practitioners of meditation is a fundamental shift in how we relate to ourselves and the world.
Religion isn’t the only lie we were brought up with. There are plenty of other flawed human constructs that are, while incredibly powerful tools for the growth and organization of our species, (as explained brilliantly by Yuval Noah Harari in ‘Sapiens’) cause immense human suffering, for example concepts such as free will and a self. From a meditator’s perspective, these too are illusions to be shattered, and if the claims of buddhism are to believed, for some this change is more or less permanent.
Judaism is often all about commemorating the past, undoing the sins of the past, explaining the past, in the hopes that we will build the temple in the future, live in gan eden in the future, be out of exile in the future. The present moment is extremely neglected. Meditation gave the present moment back to me. I do not mean to claim that I am free of anxiety or the notion of self or anything as radical as that, but the edge has been taken off. For me, meditation allows for a sort of atheist spirituality that is far more meaningful than anything I had as a slave to Yahweh. It gives me the best possible chance of letting go, really letting go- of everything, including my preconceived notions about meditation. It is a continuous practise, to unlearn something new everyday, to embrace every facet of life without resistance, to return to the primacy of direct experience, to improve the only thing we have at the end of the day- our subjective experience of reality.
To people going through changes like mine, I highly recommend it. Cliches are cliches for a reason. Change really can be embraced. It’s easier said than done, but that doesn’t make it not worth trying. The insights and perspective changes meditation brought were powerful enough that they acted as a catalyst for my most serious doubts. No God worth taking seriously has this information and hides it from his chosen people. I couldn’t accept that he would.
Another big part of what meditation is to me is the exploration of consciousness and self. The spiritual truths Buddhism holds differ from Judaism’s ideas because they are accompanied by evidence. Buddhism is among other things, a science of mind. You do not take anyone’s word for it – that’s religion. Here you have your own experiences – that’s spirituality. To me this process is very well complimented by psychedelics. Again, you don’t take anyone’s word, no matter who their father is or how many days they spent talking to God on a mountain. You eat the plant. You have the experience. And unlike meditation, you are guaranteed a powerful experience every time. It’s extremely hard to put into words what these experiences contain, but given the opportunity, I could go on for hours about them, as they contain some of my most treasured memories, exciting epiphanies and cathartic moments of healing. But like meditation, it helps one rediscover what was stolen from us by religion – the primacy of our direct experience.
How has your family and environment reacted to your new derech?
It hit my parents the hardest, and in the beginning it was terrible. The fact that they were raised secular is both a blessing and a curse. They sacrificed a lot and believe in a way that only a baal teshuvah can, and they project that onto me. I was the only son planning on becoming a rabbi, and the only one as inspired about and committed to Judaism. On the other hand, they left behind secular family who they still make an effort to maintain a relationship with. So the idea of secular family isn’t completely strange to them, as it may be for Frum From Birth families. In the beginning, they freaked out, and responded with judgment, condemnation, threats, and guilt i came to expect hearing about other people’s stories. Now it really is an ongoing process, but one that is moving in a positive direction. In recent weeks, a real shift has occurred- they apologized for their initial reactions over the past year or two and come through with real change. Its overwhelming and tastes of the same cognitive dissonance I experienced in the beginning of this process- radical change is such a bizarre yet consistent reality of life.
Besides my parents, there was my siblings – my sister who was wonderful about it, and my younger brother, whom i’m headed home to soon and does not yet fully know. I’m quite concerned about telling him, as i think it will trigger the same sort of crises I experienced in him, and he’s far younger than I was at the time. But I can’t hide the truth from him.
I lost most of my friends from yeshivah. We might as well live in alternate realities. With them, it really is that black and white. But I’ve found my new secular relationships, and friendships with less intensely Yeshivish Jews, to be far more fulfilling and supportive than any yeshivah friendship.The religion I was hurt by in yeshivah is very different than the ones my parents and many of my friends practise, though it is not without its own similar issues. It is definitely more extreme with certain people and sects. I had this one friend, my best friend from middle school till after high school, with whom i was extremely close – telling him I was OTD was like telling him I had cancer. We tried to meet up when we were in the same city, and I really honestly tried to connect, but he was so insecure about his beliefs that just seeing me without a Kippa was obviously too much. We haven’t spoke since. It’s a terrible loss, but in my new friendships outside the shadow of God, a new, uncensored, unregulated form of friendship is born. A friend in God’s world is a temporary thing and not a priority. In the real world – the one where we are shooting through infinite space on a tiny rock lit by a giant nuclear explosion made by mistake – choosing to be someone’s friend is a very special thing.
How do you see your future?
Wow, and I thought that last question was hard to answer!
I’m figuring that out as we speak. After coming to Israel to talk with these Rabbis, I ended up finding friends here, and during that incredibly hard time, I learned what friendship really was. There was one period where in the space of a short span of time, I told my parents I was going off, had my first breakup, and was forced out of my apartment by a terrible landlord. I don’t know if I would have made it through that without those friends. Standing outside with everything you own at your feet, along with the shattered remains of everything you believe in, and pieces of your heart you didn’t know you could lose, in a country that feels more and more foreign everyday… it’s unspeakably lonely, not in a romantic way, but in a deeply panicked and horrible way. My friends carried me through that in many ways, and It’s very hard to say goodbye to people who express that sort of love and selflessness.
So I spent over a year here, and am so grateful to have spent it with such wonderful people, but now I know in my bones I need to step out of Israel and move on to the next chapter of my life. I want to see the world I was deprived of. I want to discover the education I was tricked out of, and I want to live a life completely outside of the Jewish bubble. Israel is not a great place to do that. So I am headed to America. I have a job lined up at a sensory deprivation tank facility, which is a sort of dream job for me. It looks like I’ll probably be going to college, which is as terrifying as it is exciting. I truly love to learn, now that I can pick the subject matter. I have discovered a deep love for science, for philosophy, for psychology, anthropology, history, and literature, and I have years of reading to make up for.
I haven’t lost the idealism being raised by kiruv parents comes with. I still want to spread the good word. Just different words.
What would you like to achieve by writing a book?
I want to make this journey less daunting for kids like me. Being raised orthodox is hard enough. I am not even fully in the healing phase yet – it’s been a full year and I still feel like I am still discovering exactly how deeply this ideology messes with a child. Leaving can and should be easier. I wish I had someone who had been through it to tell me I wasn’t alone, that I’d see beauty I couldn’t imagine on the other side of my fear. So if you’re reading this interview, take it from someone who did it, from all of us: this is possible. It’s been done in a thousand ways and there are people waiting for you on the other side. And we’ve got bacon.
The OTD story is a relatively new one, and I’d love to see it it more often told, so why not do it myself? Books shaped me into who I am today, liberated me from oppressive ideas, gave me an escape from the prison of my yeshivah, and connected me with like minded people, across cultural, temporal, and mental barriers. I’d love to be on the other side of the pen.
Books were a huge part of my journey. I’d actually like to name a few here that I’d recommend to anyone on this path: The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts, Food of the Gods by Terence Mckenna, Waking Up by Sam Harris, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, The Science of Enlightenment by Shinzen Young, My True Type by A.J Drenth, and Cosmos by Carl Sagan.
I love talking about my story, and these issues, so anyone with questions can feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
Shoshi is 25 and was raised in the Stamford Hill community in London. She is currently living in Switzerland where she is studying for her IB (International baccalaureate) after which she would like to become a pilot or a robotic engineer.
Hi Shoshi, could you describe your family’s religious background?
My family was raised within the chassidish community in Stamford Hill, there were ten children. The girls were all sent to Satmar school and the boys to Skver cheder but my father didn’t subscribe to any one sect of chassidus.
My father is a ger (convert) and had been through the hoops of Chabad and other smaller chassidish groups, he now follows an eclectic mix of chassidish traditions with the additional Sephardic and Kabbalistic spin.
My mother is a BT, she became very frum over a rather short period of time, cutting off ties with her family and everything else along the way. She took every minhag and chumra seriously by taking it one step further, from tights thickness to skirt skirt length, amount of tehillim to tzedakah over family needs. My parents had an arranged marriage, surrounded by their manipulative, controlling and coercive advisors. Both my parents learnt Yiddish and that became the 614th mitzvah.
Our household was extremely frum. We spoke only Yiddish, the girls always had to wear tights outside of the bedroom, and always had to dress modestly. Newspapers or fiction books were not allowed to enter the house, even the frum yiddish newspapers were considered shmutz, (dirty). Kashrus was followed to the tee and things like negel vasser, brachos, washing one’s hands the designated amount of times were just some of their favourite obsessions.
My mother vocally opposed anything secular, and would consistently contact the school and teachers about anything that she considered excessive promotion of English language and ideas such as a sketch based on the book Heidy, or a song with English lyrics.
My father constantly bashed and laughed at Rebbes and Chassidim despite dressing chassidish and playing that game. To me, it highlights his hypocritical and disrespectful view of everyone else’s interpretation of yiddishkeit, he believes that his interpretation is the only possible truth.
Do you feel you had a happy childhood?
I didn’t have a particularly happy childhood, my family didn’t fit into the square mold because my parents were not FFB (frum from birth). Also, I was often neglected and left to fend for myself as a result of incompetent parenting. There were a few, actually only one teacher who supported me and made an effort at making sure I was okay.
There was a lot of mental abuse, not so much due to religion but more due to untreated mental health and poor parenting.
Additionally, the school did little to help with social inclusion or support which certainly didn’t make matters easier.
I occasionally had friends, it wasn’t something I stressed about, I was more concerned with making sure I remembered to do everything parents would typically do.
I taught myself to swim and I volunteered a lot after school – I thoroughly enjoyed it and it exposed me to different families and activities. I would take children with special needs ice skating and horseback riding, I would then secretly go myself a few times to have lessons. I was eventually going to the rink 4-6 times a week but my parents took little interest in my well-being and therefore didn’t notice – which suited me fine.
Would you say that, having a ger and a BT as a parent, you were being discriminated against?
Yes, the community is very suspicious of people who come into their communities. In the chassidish community they are rarely treated as equal, rather more like second class citizens. It takes two to three generations to overcome the stigma.
How old were you when you started having doubts?
I don’t remember a poignant moment, there were enough contradictions in plain sight for doubt to be inevitable. Little incidences of non-Jews being kind, something we were told they weren’t, or my finger staying in tact after accidentally turning the light on on Shabbos, not dying after eating candy on Yom Kippur (fast day), etc. These small violations of ideas, that my parents obsessed over, definitely got me thinking. Also, I never had the typical dreams like all the other ‘good’ frum girls had so by default it felt as though I didn’t fit in.
I would add that the extent to which the community piled on more rules and decrees made me doubt its authenticity, it stank of control and pretentiousness.
My thoughts became clearer as I grew older, I would say I was about 13 when I realised that the lifestyle I grew up in is not something I wanted to pursue. I secretly purchased a radio (a big no-no!) and I would listen for hours, most of the topics were foreign to me but I still listened and the little bit I understood made me think.
Would you say that your circumstances caused you never to have felt comfortable in the mold?
Yes, I’m creative and curious. Both are recipes for disaster in the chassidish community where I grew up.
I never dreamed of marrying and having loads of babies. The idea of being bound by a lifestyle of poverty for the sake of Torah was far from appealing. The tzniut, (modesty) rules alluded me, I would abide by them purely because I didn’t have a patience to argue but it never carried any value.
My parents, coming from the background they do automatically made them second class citizens, the community is very harsh and unaccepting of BT, converts and anyone who comes from ‘outside’. They might claim it to be otherwise but the actual reaction is not authentically welcoming or excepting.
If I decided to forgo the basic human needs of acceptance, abandon my interests and hobbies, my curiosity and love for learning maybe it would have been possible. But that would mean not being me, but living my life as someone else which stands against a value important to me – integrity.
Could you describe your process of coming out of the closet as being OTD?
I’m quite blunt and literal, and although I never made an official coming out, if anyone asked I answered honestly.
I left home at 18 whilst I was still religious, My jobs were still based within the community but in my own time I would not keep Shabbos or kosher.
I was employed to work at a very religious, frum and heimish summer camp for children with special needs. At first, the camp directors had a problem with me because I wore jeans outside of camp which they assumed meant that I was a bad influence and that I wouldn’t follow the rules in camp. We resolved that issue and I was allowed to work at the camp. After camp and after a counselor realised I didn’t fit into their perceived stereotype of what OTDers are, and that I wasn’t there to influence anyone else to leave yiddishkeit but rather, I was doing my own thing respectful of those around me. They also understood that I had, what they considered a challenging upbringing they wanted to give me a chance of seeing yiddishkeit from another perspective, or what they believed to be a ‘better perspective.’
It was then that I was taken in by the directors of the camp, they were quite affluent and had an influential position in their community. They had a frum and heimish house, quite a typical beis yaacov family. They were friendly and kind but hadn’t a clue what to do with me. I wasn’t well socialised and I just went along with the idea of acting frum but it was all very superficial and it wasn’t going anywhere. I didn’t keep Pesach that year and when I told the family they were shocked at my lack of remorse for eating bread on Pesach. I left a while later and didn’t bother pretending to be or act frum anymore. It wasn’t like I would have become their child, I was just their kiruv (outreach) case. After leaving the family I moved into a flatshare with non-Jews.
At that point I would occasionally still dress up the way they expected in order to go to see my siblings or friends but I’ve mostly stopped doing that. I’ve had a few comments about posting things on social media on Shabbos but if anyone has a problem with that there is always the unfriend option.
I’m respectful of the fact that I have siblings still within the community, so I don’t prance around Stamford Hill much, but I’m very much out and open.
So how has life been for you since then?
I moved to Switzerland in mid 2012, when I was 20. I started as an au pair which allowed me to see how other families lived. When I finished my au pair job I tutored at an international school in the Alps.
I observed people, read books, watched documentaries and tried to decode the foreign world I had entered.
I had a couple of very good friends from when I would go ice skating and they were instrumental in exposing me to outside culture. I’ve met my fair share of undesirables but I met some incredible friends along the way, all of whom taught me a little bit more about life, to become more streetwise, filling in the vast gaps of film and music, technology, opening me up to the world friendship and individuality.
I continued working with children with special needs in various families and schools in Switzerland. I occasionally visited family and friends, lost some and kept some.
Determined to allow myself the opportunity I was denied to finish my education, I spent the academic year of 2015-2016 self studying for my IGCSE’s (exams on individual subjects usually taken at 16) whilst working full time. I loved poetry and sociology. I started from first grade physics from understanding that everything is made of particles to more complex equations and concepts, It was fascinating.
2016 was one of my toughest years as I met the black dog called depression which nearly took my life. It was my most challenging year because I realised that the world will never be a beautiful peaceful planet but one that is ridden with war, hate and judgement. At the same time, it was one of my most successful years because I passed all my IGCSE’s and I was awarded a scholarship to finish my education at an international school.
I still remain at a cultural disadvantage in many respects and there is a tremendous gap in my knowledge which I am trying to fill over time. I make faux pas and I often drop yiddish phrases. It is what makes me me.
How did your family react to you leaving their derech?
My mother lost it and could only think about her image and how my shidduchim prospects will be ruined. My father seemed to take it better, he said he expected it because I was too inquisitive and curious.
My siblings have had many discussions about me behind my back, initially they were critical and unsupportive. Many live overseas so I had little contact with them to begin with. They also think I’m going through a stage, or that I’ll come round later. I have a couple of siblings who are recently encouraging about my pursuit of education.
Their biggest confusion actually seems to be about my lack of interest in fashion and materialism. The general assumption of OTD = drug and sex was far from the route I went down and it took them a while to adjust.
When I still had contacted with my mother she would always ask what I ate, what time Shabbos came in, she never showed any interest in my well being and always looked to find something to criticize…she is a toxic person and I have chosen to cut contact.
In mid 2014, I called my father who is very academic and is always reading and learning to a meeting on my terms, and he agreed to come. We had more of a curious discussion, I approached it from a very non-confrontational place. I asked him how he can justify denying us education, what made him think bringing us up in Stamford Hill and Satmar was a good idea – now those are big questions to which he had little answers ‘I didn’t know, I didn’t think..’ but it took a tremendous amount of mental preparation from my side in order to arrive absent of anger rather than with pure curiosity and openness, I am therefore very pleased I did it. It had an unplanned element of closure to it which made dropping contact, with him as well, far less emotional.
Do you think there are any differences between going OTD if you were raised in London compared to, let’s say, New York?
Yes, it is different in terms of support networks and available organisation. There are fewer developed programs in the UK. Also, the community size in the UK is quite small, once you are OTD you can’t really walk around the frum area without meeting people you know, and some people will make your visits uncomfortable by publicly telling you off, screaming at you or at best ignore you.
I think the biggest difference in OTD journeys, regardless of the community, is family. How much the family will cower under community regulations (tznius police…), how much non-judgmental support they will show you and how much mutual respect there is between you and your family.If you don’t have family support, you are pretty much on your own. The were no organisations when I left, there are a couple now who try to provide advice, support and information.
How do you currently see your own future?
I see myself finishing my education and completing further education. One of my goals is to sponsor an OTD’ers education as soon as I have the means.
I would like to be a positive statistic to show that it is possible to succeed as an OTD’er.
I see myself continuing to live a secular life alongside the occasional kugel or zemirot kumsitz. I hope to feel more integrated within society in the future.
Everyone tells me I should write a book and publish my art, maybe one day. The world is limitless..
What advice would you like to give to people considering to go OTD
It is a journey. There will inevitably be many ups and downs along the way.
Perhaps the most important thing is to develop a network of supportive, trustworthy and respectful friends. Work up the courage to ask for help when you need it.
If you are struggling with mental health challenges try to do something about it – it might save your life and it can make your journey much more enjoyable.
Don’t cut ties unnecessarily, however, don’t hold onto toxicity.
I found that counting to 10, waiting for 10 minutes or contemplating big decisions over a few days always helped me find a calmer less impulsive approach to people, ideas and change. One doesn’t always need to have an answer instantaneously.
You probably won’t find out who you are right away (if you do, please share the formula) so be kind to yourself and be patient.
Choices can only be made with the knowledge we have, so read, learn and ask.
When you reach a place of happiness, pay it forward. We need to be here for each other not just as OTD’er but also as humans.
Hi Steve, could you describe your family’s religious background to us?
My parents are part of the Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic sect, called Bobov.
As in most other Hasidic sects, we grew up sheltered from the outside world. Movies were forbidden, there was no television at home, and even listening to the radio was frowned upon. Boys and girls were kept separated to the extent that I never chatted with any of my girl cousins! From age three and on, we wore a large yarmulke and grew long sidelocks. When we turned thirteen, we were required to follow the community’s bland dress code which consisted of a black beaver hat, a black suit and a white shirt. When a beard would start to grow, we were not supposed to shave or trim it, not even a bit.
Secular education was limited to a mere two hours a day, beginning at age seven and ending at age thirteen. From age thirteen and on, we studied nothing but ancient Jewish scripture. Going to college was forbidden because they teach about Evolution and the classes are mixed gender.
Yiddish was my first language. I grew up with parents who occasionally spoke English between themselves so it naturally rubbed off. But at age 22, when it was time for me to find a job, my vocabulary was at the level of your average American eight year old kid. Writing was even a bigger challenge and I had to spend countless hours with a dictionary and a thesaurus, figuring it all out on my own.
Did you have a pleasant youth?
Not really. All of our actions were dictated by the community and strictly enforced in school. My choice of clothing was dictated by the community. When I was 5 years old, I was sent home from school for showing up with sneakers that had white soles! My choice of music was limited to only a handful of Hasidic singers, the others were considered harmful to a Jewish soul. Even some of the mainstream orthodox singers were openly condemned!
Being a curious child and a deep thinker by nature, I feel like my childhood has been wasted on learning ancient Jewish laws that had little to no practical value. I had questions, but I was silenced. I was curious, but discouraged from exploring. I had nowhere to spread my wings, nowhere to exercise my own will. No chance to nurture my personal passions. Instead, it was expected of me to devote my entire life to studying the Torah.
Indulging in materialistic pleasures was strongly discouraged to the extent that eating nosh (sweets) was considered not in line with the reason why God sent us down on this world.
I carried around guilt my entire life, feeling that I am not a good enough Jew. I could’ve always learnt a bit more or managed with one hour less sleep, thus having more time in my day to serve God.
What was even more disturbing was the threat of hell. Being a naive child, I really believed that I would be judged after death for every little misdeed, even for things such as owing someone five cents. I was pretty horrified for what would await me after death.
So, to answer your question, the answer is no. My childhood was quite unpleasant.
So you couldn’t wait to throw off the proverbial yoke?
Not really. I grew up thinking that this lifestyle was normal. I was raised with it, so I never really knew better. My own desires and passions were so suppressed that I didn’t even realize that I had any.
It never occurred to me that leaving was an option. I just accepted my fate and expected it to remain that way forever. In fact, this lifestyle was so normal to me that I had planned on raising my kids the same way. Only later, when I lost my faith and stopped following everything blindly, did I open my eyes and realize how wrong it was. But the reason why I left my former life had nothing to do with the way I felt about it. It was solely due to a change in ideology.
When do you believe that your apostasy started?
It started on Rosh Hashanah, when I was 23 years old.
I was reading an article about cults, when I suddenly noticed that my own community is structured pretty much like a cult. We are isolated from the world, our personal choices are dictated by our community leader, we have an us-versus-them mentality, we are encouraged to live and socialize only with people from our community, questioning is strongly discouraged, and when we come across anything that is against the faith, we immediately shut down and don’t allow ourselves to even think about it. Those are the exact characteristics of your typical cult.
The thought that followed was: if cult leaders can manage to get people to have unshakeable faith in their false ideologies, then this proves that a person can be absolutely convinced that a false ideology is true. I immediately realized that my beliefs might in fact be false too and I’m just not realizing it, just like cult members don’t. I figured that perhaps, Judaism started out just like a cult and just grew into something large and established over many years.
How did you go about searching for the truth?
The first thing I did was to search for evidence that Judaism is a true religion and that it was not like all the other false ones (that people believe in just because they were raised with it). I conducted a thorough search through every piece of Jewish literature I was able to lay my hands on. I was hoping to find at least one compelling argument as to why I should believe. I was surprised to find that all they talk about is how important belief is. I found chapter upon chapter talking about the importance of faith without offering anything to strengthen it.
I later found (on the Internet) that Judaism does offer some arguments to support their faith. As of today, I’ve heard of four forms of evidence for Judaism: Mass revelation, divinity of the Torah, miracles, and near death experiences.
If I had approached a rabbi demanding evidence, he would certainly dump some of those arguments on me, adding a teaspoon of manipulation, just enough to make me doubt my stance and make me feel guilty for not believing. I didn’t trust these rabbis, and rightfully so. Some of those rabbis are professional manipulators, and as a salesman, I knew all too well how easy it is to use tactics to get people to do virtually anything. I wanted to review the evidence and scrutinize it on my own and reach my own conclusion, without a rabbi breathing down my back.
So I Googled it. I searched “proof for Judaism” and I found online articles that offer those above mentioned arguments.
I took the time to scrutinize all of them. And I found many many holes in the so-called evidence. It was as if someone was so desperate to prove the veracity of Judaism that they willfully ignored the fallacies in their arguments. The mass revelation never actually occurred, the Torah shows no signs of divinity, and so on.
At this point, I didn’t know anything about Evolution or about the Big Bang. In fact, I still believed in God. The only thing I lost my faith in was in Judaism. I figured that perhaps God exists and He created everything. But the notion that He wants us to worship Him, might just be not true. Perhaps, God never communicated with Abraham or Moses, and they were just like those cult leaders who lie about their communication with God. Or perhaps, Abraham was hallucinating and sincerely believed that God spoke to him. After all, they weren’t aware of mental illnesses like hearing voices and hallucinations, in those days.
I noticed that all the other religions, all of which are considered to be false according to Judaism, believe in their religions for the same reasons we believe in ours. Almost everyone follows the religion that they happen to be born into. They all believe that their prayers are answered. They all claim to have amazing miracle stories. They all claim to have evidence (that crumble when subject to scrutiny). It was clear to me that if my parents were Christian, I too would think that Christianity is the one and only true religion. I was left with absolutely no rational basis for believing in Judaism (or in any other religion).
At that time, were you able to share your experiences with someone else?
No. I kept it a secret for over a year. I was afraid that my wife would divorce me the minute she learnt about my beliefs. I was also sure that my mother would suffer a heart attack.
Losing faith in Judaism is serious business. It would likely ruin the blissful lives of my wife, my parents, my in-laws, my grandparents, etc. Too many people would be hurt and it was very possible that at least some of them would cut off ties with me.
In addition to that, I stood a great chance to lose business from clients who wouldn’t want to support a heretic.
I stood to lose too much if I were open about it. So I chose to hide it and to live a double life.
How long were you able to keep leading a double life and how did it come to an end?
It lasted for little over a year.
During that year, one of my sisters, who unbeknownst to me, left the faith many years before me, came out openly as non-religious. At first, I was afraid to confide in her. I was so paranoid that I didn’t trust even one person with my secret. But after a year, this double life started taking its toll on me. I felt miserable. I kept on dwelling on the fact that I could’ve been free if only I’d be willing to accept the consequences. I felt like a slave, contemplating whether the cost of escaping is worth the freedom.
To fake this double life, I had to put up a show as if everything was normal. I had to spend hours every day praying, all the while believing that prayer is meaningless. I had to keep all the nitty-gritty details of the Shabbos laws, all the while believing that I will not receive any reward for it in the afterlife. It was tough. Doing things that have no meaning, cannot be sustained for too long.
Thirteen months after I lost my faith, I came to a point where I couldn’t keep it in me for much longer. I opened up to my sister. Getting it off my chest was so liberating!
She introduced me to a Facebook group with people who are in a similar situation. To keep my identity secret, I joined the group using a pseudonym.
Learning from others who shared my challenges, was extremely valuable. It gave me the courage to start moving forward. A few weeks later, I finally felt ready to join a live meetup where I met others like myself, thus revealing my identity to a few more people. Over time, I slowly became more and more comfortable to reveal my true status.
Despite lacking the courage to tell my wife, I started to let down my guard with the hope that I’ll be caught. I so badly wanted to be open with her. It wasn’t long before my wife figured it out and told my in-laws and my parents. I never actually had the courage to break the news to any of them so I was relieved that she did it for me.
What are some of the basic misconceptions about OTD people in your opinion?
There are many. In my opinion, the most prominent misconception is that those who leave the fold, do so out of pain. Some even go as far as painting those who leave as emotionally disturbed, to the extent that they can’t think logically.
While it’s true that many leave because they were hurt by the system, it’s not the case with everyone. Many (probably the majority) leave simply because they lost their faith.
The community would rather further the myth that the only reasons for leaving are pain and poor rationale, than admitting that there are good reasons for losing one’s faith.
One would think: If so many are leaving, wouldn’t that raise a red flag? Wouldn’t people start thinking that something must be wrong with Judaism? Reinforcing the myth solves that problem. By making them believe that those who leave are just in pain, and that deep down they still believe, it all makes sense and it keeps them from asking questions.
And it doesn’t even surprise me. They did the same in Soviet Russia under Communism. People who wanted the leave the Soviet Union were painted as mentally ill. Something is surely wrong with them, because what normal person would want to leave such a wonderful country.
How do you see your own future?
As of now, I am an Atheist and I already lead a completely secular life. So, regarding my personal life, I’m basically there already. The only two things I have yet to break through is, walking around my jewish neighborhood without a yarmulke and driving there on Shabbos.
One of my goals for the future is to write a book, exposing fundamentalist religion. I’m already doing it in the form of short articles on blogs and on Facebook, but I believe that a well articulated book will have a stronger impact.
My hope for my kids is that I’ll be able to raise them without the negative aspects of the ultra-orthodox lifestyle. Ultimately, I want to raise them with the proper tools. I want to teach them how to think logically, how to question things, and how to evaluate claims, so when they grow up, they can make their own choices of what lifestyle they want to follow.
What advice would you like to give people who are considering leaving the fold?
My experience and the experiences of my friends showed that, although the transitioning stage wasn’t easy, it was well worth it.
When I first lost my faith, I was sure that I’ll never actually have the courage to come out and tell anyone. I was sure that I’ll die with my secret. I couldn’t fathom the idea of myself becoming the outcast of the community. I didn’t think I’ll ever have the courage to shave my beard. I didn’t think that I’ll ever be able to face my parents and tell them that their oldest son, the one that they had their highest hopes for, the one that spent four years in kollel (Rabbinical College), the one that promised to raise generations of holy orthodox children, will no longer be following in their footsteps.
My advice would be: surround yourself with people who are going through the same thing and learn from them. I found the “Off The Derech” Facebook group to be very useful. You learn from others that are struggling with similar challenges. I made very little progress in the first year after losing my faith. It was only after I joined Facebook and I saw how others progress, that I gained the courage to start taking baby steps that eventually led me to greater achievements.
It’s a tough journey but it looks worse than it is. When you don’t know the future, you prepare for the worst and hope for the best. But it usually doesn’t turn out as bad as you’ve imagined. Give it some time and you’ll find yourself doing things you thought were impossible!
It was very difficult for me to lose my faith. I really did enjoy every aspect of being frum. I enjoyed learning and davening. I liked the frum look. When I was growing up I dreamt of having sons with long, curly payes. I liked feeling connected to generations before me who I was following in their path.
I especially connected to the idea of having a Loving Father in Heaven who I can trust is making sure everything is working out and who I can turn to whenever I needed anything.
This helped me to understand that the truth lied in the opposite of what many religious people like to say. My bias was that the Torah should be true, not like frum people say that non-believers have a bias that it shouldn’t be. The allure of being connected to the All-Powerful Omnipotent Being as His beloved Jewish child is much stronger than we realize.
It hurt me to understand that I had no reason to believe in God, as much as I really wanted to. I had every reason not to believe in Torah, as much as I loved it.
The first shabbos that I was in Boro Park after I had really started to lose my faith, I remember walking down the street and thinking about the men in their bekitches and shtreimels. Just a short time before that I had felt that a shtreimel was a special way to identify with our ancestors, by keeping their traditional clothing, and thereby to connect with our Jewishness, and from there to God. And now, for the first time, I saw them – and myself – as fools who were wearing this outlandish outfit to connect to a fantasy that had never really existed.
It hit me how scary it was that millions of people have lost their lives and are continuing to lose their lives because of some political move of giving Yoshiyahu a Sefer Devarim, setting off a chain reaction leading to a group of people believing that they are God’s Chosen People who must give their lives for that belief, and spinning off world religions who spent centuries fighting for world domination.
It was horrible to realize how the lives of everyone I know were being controlled by nothing more than a bluff.
What are your plans in regard to staying or leaving?
At the time I initially lost my faith, I thought that I would just pick up and leave. But then I thought about it and I realized how many people I would have to answer up to, from my own family, my wife and her family, and everyone who knows us. I couldn’t imagine having to face up to all of them and have to answer up.
I once saw a blogger write that in order to leave, one needs something to push you out or to pull you out. I would try making a list of the pros and cons of leaving or staying. I felt that that I didn’t have any personal negative experiences being frum, so there wasn’t anything pushing me out. And I couldn’t think of anything I was really missing on the outside that would be pulling me out. Not to say that I wasn’t missing anything, just nothing that i could think of that would justify leaving or facing up to everyone I know.
But today I find it very taxing on me emotionally to keep up this charade. Having to pretend and to hide myself to the extent which I do now seems to me a good enough reason why I should have left. The problem is, the older I get the more difficult it is to just get up and go. I feel that my only choice is to build up the courage to just get out.
How does your observance look today?
I went on for a few years pretending all the way. I came to shul, said shiurim, and did everything I was supposed to. I convinced myself that I would be able to say the words of davening even if I didn’t believe in it, and that I would be able to say shiurim in things I didn’t believe in.
But as time went on, it started becoming a real burden to daven and say words mindlessly. Little by little I stopped going to shul. I started hating to give shiurim, to try motivating people to live up to ideas which I believed to be pure bluff.
Now, unless I’m with people I have to keep a show for, I don’t daven, make berachos, etc. I let myself read and watch watch what I want, etc. But for the most part I still look the part.
I decided to get a degree, and I chose Social Work.
What were your motives in choosing Social Work?
One reason was that I’ve had experience in helping people in a non-professional way. I wanted to learn what science and academia has to say on the subject.
Another reason is that I saw it as an opportunity to get a rounded education in the social sciences. Here in Israel, at least, to get a degree in Social Work it’s necessary to take courses on a wide variety of social sciences, such as sociology, criminology, psychology of course, ethics, etc.
Of course, knowing the hard sciences certainly could help a person come to heresy. But I found that even the humanities and social sciences can have a significant influence, and in some ways even more. They might have a larger margin of error than physics, but at the end of the day, all of their claims have to be backed up by research, and presented with empirical testing.
Torah, besides its claims about the world which can be disproven through simple biology, zoology, history and archeology, also makes claims about the human, or Jewish psyche, sexology, sociology, and criminology. The deep insights of Chassidus and Mussar claim to know how and why we do things and what would be the healthiest way to live and conduct our relationships and society. When you hold them up to what objective empirical research has to say about all of that, you realize how so many of the assumptions of religion are just so plain wrong.
Even to learn a philosophical or psychological approach to ethics helped me to understand just how shallow and childish the frum approach is to good and evil, right and wrong. The same thing when you learn a little bit about art, writing, storytelling.
Do you think there’s anything that the frum world could have done to keep you ‘on the derech’?
Not really. Being that I’m a naturally curious person, I would have eventually found everything out anyways. I’m impressed that they were able to keep me in for so long, and frankly, I’m embarrassed with myself that I let them.
Not having access to internet or libraries without taking the risk of getting into trouble only worked to an extent, but for someone who really wants to know, it can’t go on forever. I probably would have found books eventually, somehow, I just don’t know when.
I never understood the internet ban. Whoever wants to find anything out will eventually. Whoever wants to access the internet will do it anyways.
Is there anything that provides you with purpose and meaning in life now that you no longer believe in Orthodox Judaism?
OJ does all the work for you. It tells you what your meaning in life should be, and it also tells you that there’s no meaning besides what it teaches. I find that condescending. Unless you’re God Almighty, who are you to tell me what’s meaningful and what’s not?
You know, I feel that I find more meaning in looking into myself and searching for what’s really important to me and what I really care about, instead of having someone else tell me what I should want and feel. That search in itself gives me meaning and a reason to live.
Are there any misconceptions or stereotypes about OTD people that you’d like to correct?
Of course. Most of all, the misconception that I had that there’s nothing out there besides taavos and that’s why people leave or choose not to believe.
I think the frum community subconsciously knows that it’s dangerous to acknowledge that Haskala is not dead, and that there are more than plenty of intellectual reasons why not to believe. They know that it’s dangerous to consider that there might be sociological and psychological benefits to not living frum, and that there may be ways to find meaning outside of the frum world.
In recent years the frum community has begun to understand that not all their parents, rabbis and authority figures are trustworthy, and that their own communities aren’t heaven on earth. But they still don’t let themselves see that the outside world isn’t hell, and that there is something intelligent and intellectual, and even meaningful, to not being a believer.
Also, the idea as if belief is necessarily connected to happiness, as if a happy person with a happy life would never consider questioning his faith. It’s as if you dared question, it must be that you have something emotional which is pushing you. For some reason, the emotional ulterior motives of Baalei Teshuvah aren’t questioned.
Everyone, if you look deep enough, has some type of issue. I see that frum people, instead of dealing with the threats to their faith head-on, rush to find that issue and blow it up. They’ll blame your mother and your rabbeim and which chassidus you were part of, etc. They insist that something else must be pushing you other than intellectual honesty.
To close off our interview, is there anything you would like to give along to people like you who are still ‘in the closet’?
I find chizuk in reading and hearing about people who did take the step. But I’ve come to understand that everyone has a unique predicament. There are so many reasons and variables why someone would choose to stay or to leave, or how much to cover up or divulge. This means that not only shouldn’t we be judging other people for their decisions – we also shouldn’t be judging ourselves, comparing ourselves to others and wondering why can’t we just be like them?
At the same time, I do believe that many of us, and I myself am guilty of this, are sometimes afraid of our own shadow, and tend to exaggerate our fears or how difficult our situation is. Yes, we’ve all heard the horror stories that can happen when someone takes a step. We certainly are entitled to choose for ourselves to endure one difficulty in order to prevent something worse. But often, irrational fear prevents me, prevents us, from being true to ourselves in whatever amount of freedom we really do still have for ourselves.
One of the things I’ve learned in my study of psychology, is that often the things that I’m afraid of are nothing more than things I’ve been conditioned into avoiding over my lifetime. In other words, more often than not there really isn’t what to be scared of, just we’ve trained ourselves over so many years to avoid those things which cause us to feel that fear and anxiety.
This is true about phobias and anxieties, and it’s also true about social phobias, the fear of presenting ourselves confidently as we really are, the fear of making ourselves vulnerable. I feel that the few times which I let myself choose not to give into my fears helped me to see that things can turn out much better than I would have previously imagined.
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