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.
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
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Ezra is 23 years old and lives in New York City. He tries 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.
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.
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.
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