The High Price of Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Life

The High Price of Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Life

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.

Chabad Young Adults Break from Cult Mentality

Video: Chabad-Lubavitch Young Adults Break from Repressive Cult Mentality

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.

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

Documentary on BBC about Stamford Hill OTD People

Off the Derech, Heart and Soul – BBC World Service

The charity helping Orthodox Jews who want to break away from their faith

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

Apikorsus

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.

–Shloimie

Questions

I thought I was the only one. You know, the only baal teshuva to go off the derech. Surely, no other BT had gone off the derech before me and my little family. Except that I wasn’t yet thinking about it in those terms. I was thinking that we had to flip the circuit breaker, or we’d lose a refrigerator filled with food, including all of the food for Shabbos. I was thinking how ridiculous it sounded to ask a non-Jewish neighbor to press a button for us. I was thinking how if there was a god, why would he want us to suffer yet another financial loss, and this time, for something we could control ourselves? It was several more months before my husband, children, and I left orthodoxy completely. And those months were filled with questions that that nobody could seem to answer in a way that made sense to me.

–Rebecca