The conversation on my Facebook page was like the ones that happen between Republicans and Democrats after mass shootings: Half the posts said that we should not be looking at religious society as a cause of mental illness.
Here is a video featuring some formerly religious young adults raised in the Jewish ultra-Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch sect called: “Off – A Glimpse at the Lives of Hasidic Rebels.” They describe an environment of cult-like behavior, manipulation, intimidation, hasidic community dependence, and stories of regular rabbi-approved yeshiva fraud.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The charity helping Orthodox Jews who want to break away from their faith
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.
For at least a decade, I felt like I had a problem that had to be fixed. I desperately wanted to find some rav, some teaching, or even some segula that would cure me of my apikorsus. I spoke to countless rabbanim and frum scholars, and I would get some answers that made sense at the time. But later, when I realized those answers had holes, the questions just came back stronger. After many years of this psychological limbo, I finally had a turning point when I discovered that I actually had no problem at all. I realized it’s actually a good thing that I don’t believe claims that go against what we know today from science, philosophy, and modern Biblical scholarship, and that if anyone has a problem that needs fixing, it is those who make such claims, not I.
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