Just a Casualty

Dear mom,

If only you would be more concerned with my wellbeing
and less concerned about religion
You would still have me

If only you would give me what I need
And not what you want me to need
If only if only…

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We Are Not Lost

by Aryeh Levine

I’m tired of seeing rabbis bemoaning the existence of OTD kids as “the loss of so many children.” I just want to grab them by the shoulders, look them in the eye, and say:

We are not lost.

We are still here.

We lost you.

Before we ever had you, we lost you.

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Living in Two Worlds

People who are still living as an Orthodox Jew to the outside but on the inside have left Orthodox Judaism, have to deal with living in two worlds: the orthodox home / society / family on the one hand, and the personal beliefs and private actions of this person on the other hand.

Dealing with this phenomenon is one of the hardest parts of being a ‘closet-OTD’. Often, it is the difficulties associated with living a lie that bring people to come out about their true beliefs. One blogger that went through these experiences and documented much of it, Abandoning Eden, has written a powerful post on the topic of lying.

Reasons Why People Go OTD

There is a widespread misconception (based on Sanhedrin 63) that the only reason why people leave observance is to indulge in their desires. In general, we can say that there are plenty emotional and rational reasons why people leave Orthodox Judaism.

Rational reasons include:
  • Lack of belief in the notion of God
  • Lack of belief in the authority of Torah sages (‘Daas Torah, ‘Emunat Chachamim’)
  • Disagreement over halachic issues, such as the status of women and non-Jews in halacha
  • Conflicts with science (age of the world, e.g.)
  • Philosophical disagreements
  • Questioning dogma and beliefs in general
Some emotional reasons could include:
  • Never having felt a spiritual connection to a God
  • Being fed up of always having to be obedient and subservient
  • A general or specific desire for freedom (non-kosher food, away from community pressure, sexuality)
  • Abuse (emotional or sexual)
  • A general feeling of unhappiness or burnout connected or not connected to religion
  • Exposure to more tolerant forms of experiencing spirituality
To learn more about some reasons why people leave observant Judaism, the book Off the Derech by Faranak Margolese can be helpful, although many ex-observant people disagree with some of the premises and conclusions in the book. Nevertheless, it is the only book so far that seems to address the issue of why people leave orthodoxy.

Seder Questions

By C.

It’s that time of the year again.

It’s nearly midnight, the table is laden with silver, the family is gathered around expectantly, and everyone is hungry.

My father, resplendent in his kittel and shtreimel, claps his hands and intones “Kan haben shoiel”, as he calls upon my youngest brother to begin the mah nishtaneh.

As my brother begins his well rehearsed rendition of the four questions, my father’s first phrase reverberates through my head. Kan haben shoiel, here the child asks. The implication couldn’t be any clearer. Questions are for children not adults. Adults are meant to have faith. To believe without any sort of questioning. Kan, haben shoiel.

My little brother, sitting to my left, lies sprawled out on two chairs. Apparently merely leaning to the left does not quite suffice for him. He chimes in, reciting a dvar torah about how tonight as God’s children, we’re all allowed to ask. We can ask for anything, he explains. He’s going to ask for a better understanding of whichever sugya he’s involved in, and for good chavrusas no doubt.

However, I too have questions. Questions that cannot be asked out loud at this seder.

Why do I have to choose between drinking four cups of wine, or the guilt of having caused my father anguish? Is it his fault that I’m on a rigorous diet?

Why was my father raised in a manner which forces him to believe that if I grow up to be irreligious he has failed as a parent? Is my striving to be a good person not enough?

If tonight is “leil shemurin” or a safe night, why do I feel unsafe by being who I am at this Seder? Why can’t I be my true self, just as my younger brother can?

Is there truly a God who will cut me off from my people because I don’t celebrate an undocumented event in the way an ancient book prescribes?

My questions run on and on inside of my head, until they’re cut short by my father turning to me. “Es iz tzeit tzi fraigen di kashes” he says, seemingly inviting me to ask what’s on my mind. But I don’t. Instead I recite the words I was taught to recite. Instead of asking about what’s truly bothering me, I ask the wrong questions. I say “Mah nishtana halaila hazeh m’kol haleilos”, but I’m unable to silence the real questions, playing inside of my head.

Celebrating Freedom

In just the past couple years, I’ve had so many moments where I would let off a sigh of relief and realize how great it feels to be free. I was helping put on a Pesach Seder at a Conservative temple when the first night fell out on a Friday night, and we needed hot water from the kitchen sink. My first reaction was, “But it’s Shabbos!” After that split second of anxiety, I sighed and realized how fortunate I was that I could now enjoy Shabbos and Yom Tov without the anxiety, and I opened the hot water tap. I felt so good not having to sit in shul for a second day of Rosh Hashanah and do the exact same things I did the first day that I sang Rosh Hashanah songs on my way to work! While I think observing Yom Kippur has been very beneficial for me in the past, I just didn’t feel like dealing with the intensity of it this year, and I just felt such a release of tension when I decided I could just skip it this year. I’ve attended classical, folk, and rock music concerts with women singing, flamenco performances with women dancing, toured medieval churches, and enjoyed so many varieties of foods. Besides satisfying my taste buds in new ways, it’s cool to discover what of other cultures consider their “cholent and kugel.” This year I got to see what a real Christmas was like, including evening Mass and Christmas dinner. My friend even got me a Christmas stocking! All of these experiences have given me healthy enjoyment, fulfillment, and exhilaration that I would have not been able to experience if I were still frum.

– Shloimie Ehrenfeld

My Own Derech

Living in the heart of a major frum community, I thought there was no one like me. I either had to decide to remain in the community and keep going to shul even though I didn’t believe in Hashem, or I had to go off the derech and completely let go of all the things I liked about Yiddishkeit – or so I thought. Having to make this choice was very stressful, and having to make it alone was brutal.

But then one day, listening to NPR, I heard the story of Samuel Katz, chasid turned atheist turned Fulbright scholar (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/08/139220021/leaving-the-fold). When he mentioned an organization called Footsteps that supports people who are finding their own derech, I took the bus in to New York for their next event. That evening changed my life because I discovered that many, if not most, who leave traditional Orthodoxy do not go “off the derech;” they find THEIR derech of Judaism. I didn’t have to choose all or nothing after all!! For instance, one person told me how she still celebrates Shabbos, but if she wakes up Shabbos morning and wants a coffee, she’ll use the coffee maker. It may sound simple, but for me, it opened up a different world!

I later discovered the marvelous Off the Derech Facebook group, which provides an online community for hundreds of people who understand each other, as they find or have found a place within or without Judaism that suits their beliefs and makeup, and Off the Derech Torah Discussion Group, which is wonderful for people like me who still love learning Torah. Since I don’t live near Footsteps, though, I’m still working on finding an in-person community that is ideal for me.

–Shloimie

Connection

For me, well, I didn’t even know that being “off the derech” was a thing. Of course, in the back of my mind, I knew people left orthodoxy, but I didn’t know that people talked about it, not in the way I needed to talk about it. I thought maybe they left and disappeared, somehow melting into the secular world. But I needed people to be there, I needed validation that I wasn’t alone, and that I wasn’t damaged or a bad person for leaving. I also needed someone to say that I wasn’t a failure, for having become a baalat teshuvah and then having left—twice.

If it wasn’t for the internet, I would have surely gone crazy. My first Google searches were awkward attempts at understanding what I was going through, and trying to put a name on it. “Leaving orthodoxy.” “Stopping orthodox Jewish observance.” “No longer religious, help.” Silly phrases like those led me to others which named my condition. “Off the derech.” Those words opened up the world of the off the derech bloggers—people like me, who had also left orthodox Judaism. Blogs like Abandoning Eden and Formerly Frum were empowering. I no longer felt alone.

–Rebecca

Not Alone

Being the token orthodox Jew in a small rural town was lonely enough. We had moved here because it was cheaper and closer to my husband’s job. I made a place for myself as a sunday school teacher and organized rosh chodesh events for the women who were eager to learn more of what I had grown up and spent my whole life learning. But as my observance and faith waned, I started to feel like a hypocrite and an outsider. Now I was the only ex-orthodox jew around and I thought in the entire world, no one else had left their orthodox upbringing. I was all alone. Then by chance I discovered an old college friend living near by, who I remembered had thrown off her orthodox upbringing, and by the time she and I had become friends, she was a completely secular jew. Reconnecting with her opened up a whole new world to me. We talked about dealing with family and their reactions and to my amazement she mentioned their was a whole burgeoning community of ex-orthodox jews in the NY area. That night I searched the world wide web and discovered my people. I found blogs of people who had been on the same journey as I, and one blogger mentioned a facebook group called off the derech. I had no idea about facebook groups, but I joined this newly activated group and became a facebook addict. Off the derech has become my virtual community, but on occasion I have actually been to face to face meet ups with my compatriots and it is like returning home. I’ve also begun to expand my network of ex-religious friends, especially since joining the local UU church. Unitarian Universalist is a community of both non-believers and eclectic pick and choose spiritualists, who come together to support our freedom to choose our own path. I still feel like no one understands me like a fellow otder, but the local community has helped me organize high holiday and chanukah gatherings and we are even planning a “freedom” seder in conjuction with the local reform synagogue. Working together with my online otd community to create a website has given me an additional sense of belonging, that I haven’t experienced since going otd.

–Suzanne

Skepticism

I think skepticism is part of my nature. I have always been one to question and probe, but until my last year in high school, I hadn’t thought to question my belief in god or the practice of my religion. During that year we had a weekly “mishmar” class that dealt with Jewish philosophy and that is where I started to hear both my fellow students and myself start to express doubts. I think that is very natural at that age, and at the time I felt like my rebbe provided me with some good answers, though I continued to seek deeper theological understanding. I really wanted to understand what god was. This type of probing was too intellectual for the seminary students and teachers in my year in Israel program, and my belief began to founder, while at the same time I felt compelled to increase my stringency in halakhic observance. The upshot I guess of the seminary experience was to learn what god supposedly wanted, but not what god was. I started coming up with my own answers, that I later learned were similar to Spinoza’s god is nature. It helped me keep davening and I remained observant. Though I flirted with conservative Judaism for a bit, I kept coming back to orthodoxy, where I was most at home. I skirted the edge of orthodoxy, however, and stopped following chumras, reinterpreted and accepted the most lenient opinions, and became increasingly disappointed with the clash between my liberal, feminist views and the orthodox establishment. It took me 20 years to get out of this limbo state of adherance to Judaism and doubting. Ultimately I had to make up my mind that I didn’t need to believe, I didn’t need to follow anything but my conscience, and that I could be myself.

–Suzanne