Yoni’s Story (Part 1 of 3)

yoni_rachokYoni is a 36-year old social worker. He lives with his wife and seven children in a hassidic community somewhere in Israel. Yoni is not a believer anymore.

Could you tell us something about your religious background?

My family was officially very Litvish/Yeshivish. My grandfather studied at the great Litvishe yeshivos before the Holocaust, and I have an uncle who is a Rosh Yeshiva. As a kid, I learned at one of the most yeshivish elementary schools in Brooklyn.

Having said that, my parents were still very open minded, both towards the right and the left.

Towards the right, my mother came from a Hungarian family, and so, even though they weren’t in any way chassidish, they still respected Rebbes and chassidim as something legitimate. For us this meant that unlike my friends at school, we would sometimes pop into Bobov or Karlin for a tish, or even to 770 for dollars or their Lag B’Omer parades.

On the left, my parents very much encouraged us to read as much as possible. They would take us to public libraries and enroll us in reading contests. They would buy us any book we wanted. They themselves weren’t such readers, and they also had a naivete in that they never really censored anything we read, and we literally got our hands on everything.

So from my extended family and my school I got a very Litvish view on the world and Yiddishkeit, while respecting chassidim, and at the same time getting a pretty good idea of what was going on in the ‘outside world.’  By the time I reached my Bar Mitzvah, I already knew something about evolution, Biblical Criticism, Christianity, as well as Western pop culture, and had also read quite a few kiruv books.

Did your knowledge of the outside world make you question things?

All this exposure didn’t make me question anything. If anything, it somewhat inoculated me, since “I know about that already,” even though that knowledge was really an embarrassment. I never doubted that the truth was anything than what I was taught at cheder. Every time I read anything which contradicted what I was taught I just assumed that there was an answer out there.

When did you first start doubting?

Although it might not seem that way at first glance, I believe that my first ‘skeptical’ thought happened when I was thirteen. I remember being at a Bobover tish and watching the thousands of men dancing. I was already old enough to know that as a Litvak, I was supposed to be looking at these people as wasting their time singing and dancing when they should have been in the Beis Medrash learning, and that thought crossed my mind. But then I thought to myself, how could Hashem let so many tens of thousands of people who are trying to serve Him make such an awful mistake? Aren’t they trying to serve Him to the best of their knowledge? They’re not Reform or even Modern Orthodox who (in my mind then) are just looking for an easy way out. But at school I was being taught just that.

This question lingered with me and bothered me enough that I felt that it caused me to lose a little of the trust I was supposed to have in my Litvishe rabbis in cheder. I couldn’t accept that they had a monopoly on what was the right way to be charedi.  This made me feel that I had the right to choose for myself if I should be Litvish or not.

I would ask my rebbeim in yeshiva to explain to me why they thought the way they did, and then go to chassidishe Rabbis to hear what they had to answer, and go back and forth.

Looking back, I realized that this was the first crack in my emunah.

Often, my rabbeim in the Litvishe yeshivas where I learned would tell me that by questioning them, or by choosing a different path than them, I’m questioning not only they themselves but the entire mesorah that came before them. At the time, I understood their argument as little more than a rhetorical device meant to keep me in place, and I’m not sure that they themselves meant it as any more than that.

However, today I realize the depth and truth of what they were saying. Charedi Judaism at its core is nothing more than trusting that your rabbis are passing on the unbroken tradition from Sinai. If you question your own rabbis as representing the authentic tradition, you’re on the path to questioning all rabbis.

But as a teen, this possibility didn’t cross my mind at all.

But you were still frum by then?

Yes, I was still frum. In a sense, I was even frummer than before. I started hanging out with chassidishe bachurim, and learned chassidishe seforim, and by the time I was fifteen I identified as chassidish.

I took on chumros that my father didn’t have, like wearing a gartel and not shaving, and I got involved in ‘avodas Hashem’ in chassidishe ways that were unheard of where I had grown up, such as davening b’hislahavus, slowly, loudly, singing zemiros with an earnestness, and making a conscious effort to control my taavos beyond the letter of the law.

I enjoyed it all and was happy with it all. I remember enjoying davening so much, that I sometimes wished I could daven Shachris again, just so I could feel that ecstasy more than once a day. I loved learning Gemara, B’Iyun and B’kiyus, and altogether I loved everything about being frum.

I consider this stage an important part of my path towards kefirah because it debunks many of the claims I hear from frum people. Often you hear something like, “if he wouldn’t have been Skver/ Satmar, if he would have been exposed to Modern Orthodox / Litivish / Chabad, if he would have learned hashkafa / mussar / chassidus”, then he wouldn’t have lost his faith.

Well, I grew up Litvish. I learned Mussar, Hashkafa, and Chassidus. I hung out with friends from Skver, Emunas Yisroel, Breslov and Satmar and learned Chabad. And I still ended up where I ended up.

Something else that I learned throughout those years is that each Charedi group is utterly convinced that they are the ones continuing the Mesorah while everyone else changed, and they are often totally unaware that the other groups don’t agree with them on that point. It’s like saying that many Orthodox Jews are convinced that the Pope knows we’re right – I’ve found that many Litvaks are convinced that all the Rebbes know that they are right, and vice versa.

I had Litvish friends who thought that the Litvish Derech of learning b’iyun and Mussar is in our mesorah from Har Sinai, and chassidim who didn’t learn our derech had changed. Until I discovered that the Derech Halimud of our yeshivos was invented barely a hundred years ago by the talmidim of Reb Chaim Brisker, and the Mussar movement was around only since the 1860s, and was probably based on Ben Franklin’s ideas and wasn’t even accepted by everyone in the Litvishe world.

I also had many chassidish friends who were convinced that until recently, all Jews had long payes, shtreimels and bekitches, and only the Litvaks changed. The problem was that my grandfather and his friends grew up in Lithuania and I had eyewitnesses as to how Jews looked there.

Inside each group I also saw how it was becoming impossible to discern what was the real mesorah. I saw how Rabbonim, even within the same yeshiva or same Chassidus would talk about each other and how the other one didn’t have the real mesorah.

But throughout all this I never considered the possibility that maybe the whole thing wasn’t true. One of the reasons why is that I had never met anyone who I could take seriously who didn’t believe.

I was close friends with a lot of boys who ‘went off’. This was the mid-90s, before the frum world even recognized out loud that kids were leaving the system, before the term ‘at-risk’ was even adopted for OTD, but I had friends who were part of the crowds at Friends’ Field or Netanya Pizza for anyone from Brooklyn who remembers that.

We’ve all heard the stereotype that Charedim like to push, that no one would go OTD unless he had psychological issues. Growing up, I always felt that every one of the kids I knew personally only served to reinforce that. They really seemed to me to be only doing it for taavos. They all either came from a broken home, were learning disabled, or had something odd about them. I couldn’t say that any of them gave me any impression of having anything serious or intellectual about them.

Today, I’ve learned that “at-risk teens” is a concept that has nothing to do with Yiddishkeit. Every society and culture has its share of teens who don’t conform to what their society expects of them, often from broken and abusive homes. It’s the frum community which has taken advantage of that phenomenon to give leaving Yiddishkeit a negative connotation.

I would also add that taking Chassidus and Kabbalah seriously also kept me back from questioning, because of their metaphysical explanations of the world. Chabad and Breslov especially offer a theology which basically beg for heretical questions to exist. The result is that when confronted with questions, instead of feeling threatened by them, a chassid is instead emboldened to believe stronger. Not because he is fighting the threatening question – but because that question itself verifies his faith. I know this sounds paradoxical, but for someone living it…

Once, a talmid of Motta Frank (a mashpia in Breslov who mainly teaches American modern-Chassidim) tried telling me that if I would come to Motta he would be able to set me straight in believing in God. I answered him by shooting off all the Torahs in Likutei Moharan which I predicted Motta would use to try to convincing me. When the guy heard this, he backed off.

So you didn’t have any doubts during this time?

The truth was that throughout this time I always had questions, but I ignored them. For example, anyone who learns let’s say, Meseches Brochos, realizes that the Amoraim did not daven the three tefillos which we have today (1). From a Gemara in Bava Metzia it sounds like normal people didn’t make havdala at home (2). There’s quite a few places which show that almost no one wore Tefillin until the late Middle Ages (3).

Or that I realized that the language of the Zohar just seemed too wordy and elaborate as compared to Midrash and Gemara, when it was supposedly written at the same time. Or that there is a history of Egypt and China going back more than five thousand years.

But I always told myself that there are answers, or I came up with my own answers. At the time, I had an impression of scientists and researchers as something like a bunch of bachurim in a yeshiva coffee room, sitting around smoking and each one offering his ideas. “I think that we came from monkeys!” “That sounds great, maybe Chinese history should go back six thousand years!”

Next: Yoni’s Story (Part 2 of 3)

Footnotes:

(1)

.מסכת ברכות (ד’ ע”ב): דאמר רבי יוחנן: איזהו בן העולם הבא, זה הסומך גאולה לתפלה של ערבית

Rabbi Johanan says: Who inherits the world to come? The one who follows the Ge’ullah immediately with the evening Tefillah. Apparently not everyone said the Shemonah Esrei after Shema in the evening! Which is difficult to understand if you believe that the siddur was fixed already by that time.

שבת י”א ע”א): חברים שהיו עוסקין בתורה מפסיקין לק”ש ואין מפסיקין לתפלה)

If companions [scholars] are engaged in studying, they must break off for the reading of the shema’, but not for prayer.

(2)

בבא מציעא מב ע”א: ואי צורבא מרבנן הוא סבר דלמא מיבעי ליה זוזי לאבדלתא

But if he [the depositor] was a scholar, he [the bailee] might have thought, He may require the money for havdalah.

(3)

ספר חסידים י’, תשובות הגאונים האם להתפלל עם תפילין – בכלל! – “מיחזי כיוהרא”, אורחות חיים להרא”ש שמזהיר ללבוש תפילין?כל יום – ופסקי הרא”ש כזה – למי הם דיברו?

Shimra’s Story

Shimra_InterviewShimra is 36 years old and lives with her husband Aaron and 3 children in Brooklyn, NY. She is a graphic artist and nowadays defines herself as an Agnostic Deist. She is somewhat of a celebrity in the Off The Derech Facebook group.

Hi Shimra, welcome to this interview. Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about your religious background?

I was raised by a single mom. She was a Baal Teshuva by way of Lubavitch, although we were never actually Lubavitch. She sent me to the local Bais Yaacov, which I attended until the end of high school. I grew up pretty confused considering my mother wasn’t all the way frum yet. She wore pants and didn’t cover her hair. I also didn’t have a ‘Tatty’ around. My classmates all had moms who wore sheitels and tichels, and were married to Tatties. We didn’t live in the frum neighborhood because my mother couldn’t afford it. All my classmates were neighbors with each other, so I felt like an outcast. My mother was really doing her best to follow her beliefs and to raise me frum. But I didn’t fit in. And I didn’t have a lot of friends.

As I grew older, I had a small circle of friends – mostly other oddballs and smart kids. School was something I excelled in, and I easily got good grades, except in math. I loved to draw and was known for my artistic talent. I was usually enlisted to help with school election posters and such. While in Bais Yaacov, my mind was conflicted between two mindsets. There was the track that God was going to get me because I wasn’t frum enough and the other was that I could be spiritual without all the extraneous baloney. In the end, the latter track won out…but it took years. Read more

Daniel Rosenberg’s Story

rosenbergsDaniel is 29 years old and lives with his Orthodox Jewish wife Raquel and four children in Louisville, Kentucky. He is an associate actuary and nowadays defines himself as an atheist.

Could you describe the religious environment you grew up in?

As some quick background, my family moved us to Zurich, Switzerland when I was 2 years old and we lived there until I was 10, after which we moved to Austin, Texas. There are some religious differences between the two areas we lived, but overall we were slightly more observant when we were living in Switzerland than when we were living in Texas (at least that’s how it seemed to me). Also, I am the third oldest of a family of ten children, so that is a little unusual for a non-Orthodox Jewish family.

I grew up in a conservative Jewish home, more on the traditional side. We kept basic kashrus1, including having separate dishes for milk & dairy, but we didn’t worry too much about whether any of the food had a hechsher2 (although it was a plus) so long as there wasn’t any treif3 in the ingredient list. We attended shul4 usually every Shabbos5, although we drove there. When we lived in Switzerland, we had regular Friday night meals at home. Also, in Switzerland, I attended a nominally Orthodox Jewish elementary school, but began attending public school when we moved back to the States.

Overall we were mostly secular and I lived life as a normal kid, but being Jewish was very important to my parents and it became very important for me as a result. However, being Jewish to us was more about doing Jewish things like keeping Kosher, observing the holidays, going to shul on Shabbos and the holidays, etc., and in terms of belief there wasn’t much that was essential other than believing in God.

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The Story of Rebecca M. Ross

BecInterviewRebecca M. Ross is a writer, teacher, playwright, blogger, and community activist. She lives with her husband, four children, and very large dog in the Hudson Valley. She loves coffee, Phish, and making people laugh.

Hi Rebecca! I am thrilled to interview you today. You are a longstanding friend of mine on the OTD online scene. We first ‘met’ on the now defunct blog ‘Haven Not Heaven’. Today, we are both admins on the Off the Derech Facebook group. Could you introduce yourself in terms of your religious background?

Hi! Thanks so much for including me in this very important project. It’s an honor and a privilege to be here.

In a nutshell, I was raised in a liberal Conservative home–I went to public school and we didn’t keep kosher, but we lit shabbat candles and made kiddush. I also attended a Conservative Hebrew school and had a bat mitzvah. I dabbled in orthodoxy in college. When I got married, I kept a kosher home, but then ended up frumming out several months later after an intense trip to Israel. About a year later, my husband and I went off the derech. Several years later, a move from Brooklyn put us in touch with the local Chabad. We ended up frumming out a second time, making aliyah, and then moving back to the US a year later. We went off the derech a second time almost a year after returning to the States.

What made you and your husband decide to go Off the Derech the first time? Was it a conscious decision or a slow process?

The first time we just left we were living at the edge of Midwood, a community made up of both orthodox and non-orthodox Jews, as well as Mexicans, Russians and Pakistani families. We rarely went to shul and never integrated into the orthodox community. Because of this, very few people noticed when we went off.

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Becoming Acher by I.M. Acher (part 3 of 3)

Chapter 5:  Denial; Not Just a River in Egypt.

FullSizeRenderThe conversation that woke me up to how far I had fallen off the path.

He called himself Rabbi E.  He stood outside the store trying to convince people to sign up for Birthright.  He had been doing so for several years now.  I’ve walked by him many times.  He should have known I work in the store.  He had been pitching his Birthright trip outside of the store for several years.  But never once did he even look me in the eye.

He kind of reminded me of C-3P0.  Or at least what C-3P0 would look like if he was human.  He wore a small black velvet kippa.  He had tzitzit sticking out.  He had small payyot tucked behind his ears.  He had red hair and a 5-o’clock shadow that was beginning to turn white.  And like most campus missionary types, he spoke the language of the college neophytes.

At least that was his target audience.  Clearly, he was ill-prepared for a hardened heretic.

I only stopped by his table because an old friend was preparing to film him.  I hadn’t seen Shlomo in a few years.  Shlomo had graduated a few years before.  Now, he was a cameraman.  He did a lot of work for Jewish organizations.  Now, Shlomo was about to film the Kampus Kiruv Klown in action.  I just stopped to catch up with Shlomo. I had no interest in engaging the Kampus Kiruv Klown.

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Becoming Acher by I.M. Acher (part 2 of 3)

Chapter 2: Elisha dies, Acher’s Inception

And [Jesus] said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.  Therefore, the son of man is also the Lord of the Sabbath.—Mark (2:26-7, NKJV).

Washington Heights, Summer of 2002.  FullSizeRender

People often wonder what caused me to become such a heretic.

There is no simple answer to that question.  Many things spurned me on.  It had been two years since I was makpid on davening every day.  Or even putting on tefillin.  I had dropped out of YU.  The previous semester had been spent taking 2 classes at Brooklyn College, habituating in a basement apartment in Boro Park, and working part-time in a group home for severely disabled adults.

But my first foray off the median, I remember it like it was yesterday.

Chapter 2.2:  To My Left, Gabe.

That summer, I moved back to Washington Heights.  I was planning on attending City College that fall.  I was planning on getting my shit together.  I was still working at the group home part-time.  The rest of the week was spent getting drunk, smoking cheap weed, playing video games, watching TV, and being completely unproductive.

I was sharing a 2-bedroom apartment with 5 people.  They were good friends, so I didn’t mind.  Stu was the first friend I made at Yeshiva University.  Gabe was my favorite smoking buddy and a former coworker of mine.  We worked the graveyard shift at the Caf. Store.  When we were done, we would get drunk and high together.

Gabe was fun to get high with.  He kind of reminded me of young Seth Rogen, only with a higher-pitched voice.  My fondest memory:  Winter of 2001 one night, our shift at the Caf Store was over, so we headed to my place to get high.  Our friend N.C. was with us.  I decided to microwave a Fettuccini Alfredo TV Dinner (munchies!).  Gabe and N.C. raided my pantry to look for munchies for themselves.  One of them found what looked like a bag full of potatoes.  They asked me why I had so many potatoes.  I didn’t know.  I didn’t cook.  My roommates didn’t cook.

I examined the bag closely.  True. I was high.  But I could still read.  Those were not potatoes.  They were deli rolls that had expired 3 weeks before.  They were so mouldy, that they looked like potatoes!

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Becoming Acher by I.M. Acher (part 1 of 3)

Photo credit: Shmully Blesofsky. Taken July, 2014 at a Phish concert

Genesis

The following is the three chapters (1, 2 and 5) of my memoir, tentatively titled I Am Acher. Some of the material has already appeared on my blog, I Am Acher. While the market already is saturated with plenty of OTD memoirs, many of which are more interesting and gut-wrenching than my story, I still hope that by putting my thoughts out there, I can positively contribute to our cause—that being to encourage people to think for themselves, to live their lives to the fullest potential, and to encourage those trapped in an unconducive lifestyle to break free from their shackles.

I come not to tear down the pillars in every shul and to encourage every frum child to drop out of yeshiva and pursue a living instead. I come instead to truly examine what exactly they believe in. I come to invite them to open their eyes to the world around them. I come to encourage the frum world to not keep their kids from receiving a secular education, but the join the free-market of ideas; to invite themselves to study the ideas of others. And to freely discuss how their views agree or disagree with the others.

Some people ask what I have to complain about. Most of the OTD memoirs I have read come from people who were raised Ultra Orthodox. Their upbringings were definitely more subversive than mine. However, I contend that growing up Modern Orthodox was no bed of roses. It took me years of self-destructive behavior, psychological counseling, sexual frustration, on-and-off weed and alcohol, reading, researching, making a complete ass of myself, and continuously picking myself up to completely divest myself of the traumas—which may or may not have been worse if I was raised Ultra Orthodox, or even completely secular.

Ger Hayiyti ba’Guf Sheli.

It is better to follow one’s destiny, though imperfectly, than to follow someone else’s destiny with perfection—Krishna (Bhagavad Gita 3:35).

Being a Modern Orthodox Jew is like walking on the median of a busy highway. You are safe as long as you stay on the median. If any cars happen to swerve, they will hit you. And if you try to get off the median, you will get hit. And so, you have no choice but to keep on walking; maybe the traffic will clear up and you will be able to safely disembark. However, many people are perfectly content to remain on the median and continue walking the straight derech.

By the time I was 22-years-old, I had serious vertigo from watching all those cars speeding in both directions. As a good Modernishe Yid, I received a quality secular education; I had a TV; I listened to the same music as the Goyyim; to the untrained eye, the only differences between me and the Goyyim were the yarmulke on my head and the tzitzit sticking out of my shirt.

On the other side of the road I had the religious education I received. Modern Orthodox Jews are equally as critical of the secular Jews (Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, et al; not that we knew or cared what the difference between them is) and the Ultra Orthodox Jews. Yes, if I decided to shuckle too hard while davening, be makpid on washing negelvasser in the morning, or say oi instead of oh, I was chided with ”don’t be such a chnyok!” However, I still did receive a religious education. We still had to daven—in Hebrew too. I came out of high school knowing how to shteig a blatt of gemara about as well as I could write an essay, neither of which were that impressive—though had I not squandered my education, perhaps I could have been reasonably competent in both.

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Shana’s Story

1724171_1530637980552356_3522793952121040408_nShana is in her forties, mother of five and lives with her partner in the tri-state area. She is a writer and an English teacher.

Hi Shana. On your Twitter account (details below), you describe yourself as as “Survivor of ultra-orthodox Judaism, atheist, lesbian, liberal, author of The Sins of Our Daughters: A Memoir.” Which one of the above do you associate yourself most with?

That’s a great question, and I had to think about that for a bit. I think that I associate most with being a survivor of ultra-orthodox Judaism, and this is because living through the trauma of that life–and subsequently surviving it–really has shaped who I am.

Could you describe in a few sentences what your religious upbringing was about?

My upbringing was an interesting one. My parents both grew up in secular homes, and the home they created was mostly devoid of any kind of religion. Then, when I turned five and we moved to a new area, my mother got a sudden burst of Jewish feeling, and we were all sent to Jewish schools, we started keeping some semblance of Shabbos, loosely celebrated holidays (we built a sukkah, had 2 seders, lit the menorah, delivered Mishloach Manos, partially fasted, etc.) and we ate kosher meat. I was sent to orthodox schools from the first grade and on, mainly because there were no “in-between” schools back then–like conservadox or modern-orthodox– in our area. So while my home was really just traditionally Jewish, I did have an orthodox education my entire life.

After my parents’ divorce and a move across country, my mother sent me to a Bais Yaakov high school, and that was really the beginning of the end for me. Feeling vulnerable and lonely and desperate for a family of any kind, I was easily pulled into the fold when I was 15. I graduated, went to seminary (pushing off my plans for college at the urging of my rabbi for fear that I would not find a shidduch), and was married by 19.

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Dan’s Story

Dan is a 28 year old single male who currently lives in Tel Aviv and is a student and archaeologist. 

I met Dan in Israel a few years ago during an OTD meetup, where he told me that he is learning under Professor Israel Finkelstein at the Tel Aviv University.

Before we start, I would like to ask you how it is to learn under Professor Finkelstein? One of the first books that I read that catapulted my apostasy was the book The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts he wrote together with Neil Asher Silberman. 

Finkelstein is great. He’s an amazing scholar and a great teacher. Very instructive, very ‘socratic’.

I mean we have lectures and seminars and stuff too, but during our meetings and stuff, its very informal. Just asking questions, and responding, creating a conversation / discussion about what I’ve done, what I think, and where and how to progress forward from there. He’s a great scholar to study under, because in addition to the actual material, he is a very successful professional scholar with lots of appointments and publications, and learning under him is providing useful for learning (at least the beginning stages) of how to do that for myself.

A note / addendum, though: Israel is only my secondary advisor. My primary adviser is Dr Guy Steibel, who is equally learned, accepting, friendly and a good teacher / mentor.

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