Josh is in his thirties, lives together with his non-Jewish girlfriend, and works in IT.
I met Josh on www.reddit.com/r/exJew/, an excellent resource for people who left the Jewish faith.
Hi Josh, what can you tell us about your religious upbringing?
I grew up on the east coast of Canada, so there wasn’t a real Orthodox shul around. For whatever reason, my mother was hell-bent on us having a Jewish identity. She was the main driver behind us going to shul, going to Hebrew school after regular school, and so on. She didn’t grow up religious but my dad did and had left it. They’d come to my school (I was the only Jew there) and do presentations about the holidays and what not. Anyway, I went to a not very religious summer camp (shout out to Camp Kadimah), had a bar mitzvah, and the whole deal. We also randomly went kosher one summer.
The summer of my 14th birthday, we moved from Canada to the midwest United States, where there was a real, but small, orthodox community. That’s when things kicked into high gear. We went to shul more often and got more involved in the community. It was my first year of high school and my brother’s last. He went to the local yeshiva and I went to the local public school. It was a rough time for me for reasons having nothing to do with Judaism. That summer I was sent to an NCSY summer program in Baltimore.
And how did that summer experience pack out for you?
The camp was a lot of fun. Great field trips, sports, the whole deal. My main issue is that they [the camp] found out that I was thinking about changing from public school to yeshiva. It was a question of what was good for me vs. what “they” thought was right for me. My choice for sophomore year was between going back to public school or going to a boarding school yeshiva in Chicago. So obviously the “right” choice was to go to yeshiva.The counselors and staff worked on me all summer, I was taken aside many times, and brow beaten and emotionally manipulated, until I relented and said I was going to yeshiva. Looking back on it all these years later, it was a pretty shitty thing for them to do to me. They thought they were doing the right thing. I do admit going back to public school wouldn’t have been much fun either, so who knows.
How was your yeshiva experience?
Well, it’s hard to separate the stuff that was going on in my personal life, as my parents got divorced over that summer, from the rest of my time in yeshiva, but it was still a nightmare. I had moved from Canada to the US, attended public school, and was now going from public school to yeshiva in a different state. So I went in knowing no one, in a boarding school, in a different culture, and it was tough. I was also put in a lower grade than my peers, so that was also a tough thing to deal with. The worst part was actually the education. Jewish classes in the morning and secular studies in the afternoon, and then more Jewish studies in the evening. I’d had minimal Jewish education going into it, and I was in class with people who had gone to Jewish private schools their entire life. I remember turning in my first Gemara (Talmud) test blank, not because I didn’t know the answers, but I couldn’t read cursive Hebrew. I couldn’t even read the questions. It was very demoralizing. Eventually, I was able to pick some things up, but not having any remedial help and just being thrown into classes was pretty awful.
My social life was also rough. I didn’t have the same background as a lot of my classmates, and dealing with my home life caused me to be a very angry teeanger. It’s rough feeling isolated in a class of 35 kids.
Living in the dorms had its own problems. The college-aged dorm counselors played favorites to the more wealthy students; they got to break the rules, borrow their cars, have cell phones without them being confiscated. This favoritism to the wealthy donors permeated the school. I was assaulted and thrown head first into a brick wall by another student and the school just ignored it. These were the older students and Rabbis that I was supposed to put my trust in and look up to, and they didn’t seem interested in my well-being or doing their jobs. I mentioned that I had turned my first tests in blank – by the end of the year I was getting 60’s and 70’s, [which was a huge improvement!]. However, the award for most improved in my class went to a wealthy donor’s kids who got A’s all year anyway.
I was very angry. I took my anger out on others. People seem to forget a lot of people who were bullied in high school were also bullying other people. It took me many years and a lot of therapy to overcome my anger. I am deeply sorry for those I lashed out at and ask their forgiveness.
When do you think that the first cracks in your faith surfaced?
Hmm, probably around two events that occurred when I was in yeshiva in Israel. One Shabbos afternoon in Jerusalem I was walking back from lunch with a friend of mine, and a car pulled over and asked us for directions back to the highway. They were lost and trying to get back to Tel Aviv. I of course gave them to him. I think I remember being scolded by someone who was sitting on a bench watching us.
Later that week, my friend and I were talking to a high-up rabbi in the yeshiva (the same rabbi who will feature in my next story), and I asked him what I should have done. He told me that I should have laid down in front of the car to stop the Jewish family from driving on Shabbos. I didn’t realize that at the time, but this was a family lost in an unfamiliar city, looking to get back home on their weekend, asking for directions from me, a nice Jewish boy, and I was supposed to get down on the pavement in front of them to stop them from driving? It seems to be missing the point.
My second involves the same rabbi. He was in charge of giving out meals on Shabbos. So you’d get a post-it note with a name, address, time, and a little map of the area. The guy has a mind like a GPS / Rolodex. So one Friday afternoon, I went to ask him for a meal, and he asked me if I wanted to have Shabbat dinner with the rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Weinbach, who has since passed away. Of course we said yes. We got the information and we were on our way. It turned out that the first Rabbi got the time wrong and we were about 45 minutes late for dinner, which didn’t go over well, although we had done what was on the note. So, the next week I overheard a loud argument in the beis medrash (study hall) between Rabbi Weinbach and the other rabbi. It was just so childish, giving him so much shit about a missed dinner time. These are supposed to be two of the top talmidei chachamim in the world and they’re yelling at each other like school children.
Anyway, for me it was mostly environmental issues. When I was in yeshiva, I was religious-ish. After I left yeshiva, not so much. There was a weird transition point where I had one foot in and one foot out, but eventually it all just faded away.
These days I’d call myself non religious. I have some great memories of being frum and some really awful ones.
So actually, you did not need to leave your family or a community. That’s what I call a clean-cut exit!
Yeah, it was very easy for me. I can’t imagine what people do when they’ve grown up frum-from-birth and have spent their entire life being religious, and tied so deeply into the community. I’ve read the book Unchosen about Hasidic people getting out, and the things they have to go through is just awful. I grew up not eating kosher, not keeping Shabbos etc, so going back to that was an easy switch. My heart goes out to the people that are doing these things for the first time in their lives in their teens or 20’s or later.
What is the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen in Judaism?
A hasidic Tish was pretty crazy. Also, going to the Gerrer shul for Friday night services. Everyone lined up on one side of the room, and the Gerrer Rebbe sat at a table. People ran across while he made eye contact with them and wished them a good shabbos. It was weird.
In what way do you still feel connected to the OTD community?
It’s a little bit of therapy, and just a connection to my past. I don’t know many OTD people or Jews in my day-to-day life, so there’s a huge part of who I am and how I became that person that I can’t even talk about with anyone regularly. I also like posting in /r/ExJew to try and help people who are reaching for someone to tell them it’s okay not to be frum anymore. Eating bacon isn’t going to cause you to explode, pants aren’t made by the devil, and so on. I’m reaching out from the other side to people still in the community that need a hand.
Anything else you wish to add?
While I gave a lot of (deserved) criticism about Judaism, NCSY, and yeshivas, there is a ton of amazing things to be experienced in Judaism. I did get a chance to see many of them.
Thanks to Bethami Gold for editing this story.