by Philo and Judy Judaeusletter-to-our-family-and-friends
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.
This new On My Own Derech website with 11 stories of people leaving orthodox Judaism was created by an awesome young lady called Chai Landau, as part of her senior thesis project:
By: Sharon Berger (March 16, 2018)
I HAD MY GREATEST revelation about Judaism while studying Arabic in Cairo. I was in the middle of my master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford. Part of the course requirement was spending the summer learning a language. So a few classmates and I spent the summer eating ful, falafel and koshari and studying Arabic at the British Council in the Egyptian capital.
It was my first time in the Middle East outside of Israel and the scale of this bustling city of millions was different to anything I had ever experienced. There were people everywhere, including communities living in the cemeteries.
I made an effort to attend synagogue in both Cairo and Alexandria. It was sad to see what had once been flourishing communities reduced to shells of their former selves. There were no rabbis, no one who could lead services and no Hebrew-Arabic siddurim, which meant services had more of a social than religious emphasis.
Walking back from synagogue one afternoon I realised that there were many religious Muslim women who, according to their tradition, were modestly dressed. As this was the ‘90s, that included wearing trousers and sometimes a loosely-tied head scarf over their hair. According to their religious leaders (all male), this was acceptable and the women were devout practitioners of Islam.
Our religious leaders (all male) had come to a different interpretation of what modest, or tznius, entailed. In addition there is a Biblical injunction that women cannot wear men’s clothing, so frum Orthodox women do not wear trousers or shorts even if they are loose fitting and designed for women.
Seeing these “frum” Muslim women wearing trousers made me feel that the religious norms we accept are rather arbitrary and often interpreted through the lenses of men, if not man-made. This has been reinforced over the years as the male interpretation of modesty has become more extreme in both Islam and Judaism.
Today women in Cairo routinely wear hijab or niqab, while young Orthodox girls in Beit Shemesh in Israel face verbal and physical abuse for wearing sleeves that stop at the elbows.
I don’t mean to diminish the enormous wisdom and knowledge of our sages but I find it hard to accept that all this wisdom, including how women should dress and act, was all interpreted, stored and passed down to men, giving women no say in matters which directly affect them. Talk about disempowering.
These feelings were recently reinforced while watching a video from Israeli TV, in which Orthodox Rabbi Dov Halbertal, former head of the Office of the Chief Rabbi, publicly defended a Haredi magazine’s decision to blur the image of women in the Holocaust.
Rabbi Halbertal claimed it was done to “protect” the women and their image. I was angered at the idea that a man, no matter how learned, could be making such a presumptuous opinion about me and all of my gender, particularly those who had suffered so deeply in the Holocaust and whose identity was now being erased – in their “honour”.
This sentiment is not new for Rabbi Halbertal, who previously said “there is no greater value for Haredi women than modesty,” in justifying opposition to a campaign to raise awareness for breast cancer screening in the Haredi city of Bnei Brak. So without discussing the idea that saving a life should trump the needs of modesty, I think it’s important to recognise the increasingly damaging effects of such attitudes, which are not isolated to one or two rabbis.
Targeted advertising campaigns to the Haredi community in Israel have been the norm for many years, with advertisers attempting to show respect for community norms. However, as increased stringencies become more commonplace, women have literally been erased.
Last year, Ikea in Israel printed an entire catalogue with no women in it, in deference to Haredi norms. If that wasn’t bad enough, government-funded institutions like health funds routinely show only male images in Haredi areas, effectively rendering 50 per cent of the population invisible, even though the women pay taxes and are users of these health funds.
Last year, Ikea in Israel printed an entire catalogue with no women in it, in deference to Haredi norms. If that wasn’t bad enough, government-funded institutions like health funds routinely show only male images in Haredi areas.
In Israel this campaign is not just about printed images but also extends to women dancing and singing in public, with Haredim refusing to attend ceremonies where these events occur. As the Haredim continue to grow demographically and politically, these exceptions become the new norm.
The separation and marginalisation of women manifests itself in increasingly extreme outcomes. Haredi soldiers refuse to stay on a base with women, there are separate sidewalks for men and women in Haredi areas and the list grows. This effort to remove women from the public image has huge ramifications for our daughters and ourselves, actively diminishing our role models and possibilities.
By controlling and marginalising women, organised religion continues to play a role that today seems antiquated to me. For this reason I have found a new home in the Masorti community where prayer and opportunities are open to all and not divided on gender lines. And nobody cares what I wear.
Yet after moving back to Sydney – and 11 years later – I am surprised how often I continue to feel marginalised at community events. More often than not an entire evening will have all male speakers, or at best a token female moderator. Organisers either don’t notice or don’t care that 50 per cent of the audience has no public representation. It makes me feel invisible, irrelevant and angry.
While this is nothing on the scale of what is happening in Israel, it’s hugely detrimental to both the men and women in the audience and the community in general.
Photo: Ikea’s Israeli catalogue for Haredim did not show any images of females
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