Rachel (pseudonym) is in her forties, and is an attorney-in-law. She lives on the east coast with her two sons.
Hi Rachel, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Please tell us something about your family’s religious background and why you know Russian 🙂
We came here when I was relatively young from the former Soviet Union. My parents were not religious but they soon became enamored with the local Chabad, which tried to involve them in every way possible. Several years after we arrived, our home was kosher, and I was attending a Chabad elementary school, and lighting shabbos candles. After high school, I moved to Crown Heights for seminary and employment, as well as college. Although college was frowned upon, I received a bracha from the rebbe at the time to go to college, which allowed me to remain accepted – relatively- in the Chabad community while also enhancing my secular education. Looking back now I see how these unique circumstances shaped my life and freedoms.
How was this transition of the whole family turning religious for you, and were you a true believer yourself?
Yes, I really wanted to find meaning in life and it seemed to me that Chabad had all the answers. They were warm, enthusiastic, and accepting. As a child of immigrants who struggled to fit in, the automatic sense of community that Chabad created was so valuable to me. I also enjoyed their joy de vivre; it seemed to me that other groups – even Orthodox ones – were colder, more distant, more disconnected somehow, whereas Chabad was so focused on unity.
When and how did you experience your first doubts?
I had unresolved questions in seminary, but these were considered non-threatening questions because they didn’t hamper my beliefs. I just accepted – as I was taught to do – that we don’t understand everything and faith is higher than reason. We would understand everything, all the contradictions, all that seemed unethical and immoral to us, when Moshiach would come. Some part of this appealed to me – I didn’t have to have all the answers immediately.
My real doubts surfaced after marriage. Because all my friends were getting married, I worried about being left behind, an old maid at the age of 20. I ended up marrying someone who had anger and depression issues, someone who was critical and also hypocritical. I tried my best to love him and meet his needs, but as our marriage declined, so did my faith. I began to wonder how Orthodoxy could be true if it did not prevent people from acting badly towards their spouses. This led to wondering if maybe my seminary questions could not be answered because there were no answers.
How did you go about resolving these doubts?
I started a blog. Initially the goal was to think through some basic questions in emunah: Did Har Sinai really happen? Does Hashem care about little details? Why do bad things happen to good people? Early on I really thought something was wrong with me and other people had answers and I didn’t. One unexpected benefit of the blog was that I was exposed to other blogs and quickly realized that I wasn’t alone with my doubts and fears. In fact, in the early 2000s, there was a plethora of blogs written by frum people moving away from their religious groups. It was such a relief, to know that I wasn’t the only one, that there were others struggling with these issues. As time went on, my blog began to reflect my overall attitude towards Orthodoxy: The tone changed from hopeful, inquisitive to snarky and cynical. Gradually, though, I realized that although my questions had no answers, religion was probably not the reason for my struggles. In other words, I no longer believed in a Divine Torah or the authority of the rabbis, but my real problem was that I was married to a controlling and angry person. This realization actually brought me to a place of peace and self-acceptance. After seven years, I stopped resenting Orthodoxy and forgave myself for buying into a system that was clearly flawed.
Looking back, are there any things you wished you would have done differently?
That’s a great question. Oddly, I think what I regret the most is not something I could have realistically done any differently. I wish I had left sooner. I wish this whole process took me two years instead of two decades. I sometimes hear about people who realize the system doesn’t work for them and three years later, Boom! They’re living a fabulous new life across the world with a new partner and family! I am jealous of those people to some extent- what self confidence they must have to be so bold and decisive! And yet, at the same time, I’m pleased that I gave this Orthodoxy and this marriage its best chance. I stuck it out for so long and I really did my best to make it work and I don’t know if I could look at myself in the mirror every morning if I hadn’t. Knowing that I truly exhausted all ways to live in an Orthodox marriage allows me to go forward with my new life with peace and freedom and a light step.
Are you in a good place now? What does your life look like now?
It’s hard to describe how fabulous my life is now. Every time I think about it, I am in awe. Five years ago, I could have never even imagined this. I have two wonderful sons who enjoy each other’s company, a job I love and that pays the bills. My cozy little house is – for the most part- filled with peace and laughter. I’m dating a kind and easy-going guy, someone who likes to make me laugh and is sensitive to my every mood and random whim. Honestly, if I knew how fabulous it was going to be, I probably would have left long before I did.
What final advice would you have for other leavers?
Don’t be afraid of change. Plan carefully, make good decisions, and know that the hard times will pass. You got this!