Shimra 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.
What did you do after high school? Did you go to sem?
By the time high school was over, I was more sure of myself and what I wanted in life. I wanted to go to a seminary that would answer all the big questions that Bais Yaacov teachers couldn’t / wouldn’t provide me with: Is there a God? Is Judaism really discriminatory against women? In BY we were usually told that we weren’t on the madreiga to understand the answer, or we got pat apologetics.
I got into a very good seminary, Darchei Bina. I loved my seminary and gained a lot from my year in Israel. After that, I went to art school in New York City. That was a huge culture shock for me. My big dream was to be this famous artist and use my talents to better the world and show everyone you could be frum AND contribute to humanity. Wow, I was such a hopeless idealist with delusions of grandeur :P.
I planned on aliya after college. In the end, I ended up becoming much more modern, and lost a lot of my idealism which was replaced by a soured cynicism. I was barely religious by 2001 which was my last year of college. Then 9/11 happened, and scared the hell out of me. I thought that Moshiach was coming and I’d end up going to hell or something for my misdeeds. You know, like making out with guys and eating dairy at non kosher restaurants.
In the end, I got married at 22 to a guy from my hometown during my last semester in college. My mom was our shadchan. We got engaged after 6 dates. His family went to the same shul as my mom, who by this point was married to my stepfather. My stepdad used to learn with my ex-father-in-law so everyone knew each other. Everyone thought it was a great match because we were both ‘out of the box’. My mom was thrilled because the guy had great yichus and came from a well-respected family. I was moving up in the world, in her eyes.
How did your renewed religiosity work out for your marriage?
My husband was also pretty religious. We both had the same goals and it seemed like a match made in heaven. We were centrist Orthodox. Basically black hat, but still ‘with-it’. We wanted to make aliya. He had gone OTD as a teen, he had a troubled backstory. He got an offer to go to Aish on scholarship and so he did. He was also a Chovesh (EMT) for Magen David Adom. By the time I met him, he was fresh off of his Israel high. I was so grateful that I married a guy who understood me and accepted me the way I was – not a frum Stepford wife. But we needed more than matching hashkafos to make a marriage. They don’t tell you that in kallah class though.
What was it that put you back on the OTD track?
A lot of things.
Since we are using my real name here, I don’t want to go into too many personal details. But it was definitely a perfect storm of several different factors: My husband and I were struggling financially for many years. We were living in Michigan, which was undergoing an economic depression at the time. The lack of money forced us to live with my mother, so we could stay in a frum area.
It’s not talked about a lot, but the number one reason I quit being frum, was money. Yes, there were other complicating factors, but I LEFT because of the more immediate needs of food and shelter. I couldn’t keep living with my mom indefinitely. I was already in my 30s. Something had to give.
My kids were still young, but they were being bullied in yeshiva and treated like crap. We didn’t fit into our community. In places like Brooklyn, there is a much wider range of communities you can fit into. Oak Park, Michigan is a small town. If you don’t fit into a community, you’re stuck. The community helps you when you’re in crisis – that much is absolutely true. But they won’t be your friends if you don’t fit in.
I didn’t want to be a tzedaka case anymore. The person that people were politely friendly to because they had to be – but someone they’d never associate with in real life. People weren’t hostile or mean or anything, it was just that we were very out of place. People would be friendly, but wouldn’t let my kids play with theirs. My kids were very lonely. My sons were 4 and 6 years old at the time and they needed friends. I remembered my own lonely childhood, with few friends. I felt like an outcast – I didn’t want the same for my sons and newborn daughter.
To complicate things, my husband was already OTD and I had been the frum spouse in the marriage. Our marriage had been rocky from the beginning and this didn’t help either. I wanted to stay married. I knew that if I went OTD, it would help us a lot as a couple, besides the financial strain that being frum had on our marriage. My mental health had suffered, being frum – and that had been going on since childhood. I was struggling very much with OCD and being frum exacerbated it to an untenable degree.
Once we left our community and moved to another state, we still struggled to find some permanence. Although my mom helped us, we ended up moving around a lot which was pretty stressful on all of us. Although my husband loved the rural and country life, I didn’t.
When I originally took off my sheitel, it was with the intention of going back to frumkeit at a later date. I still believed in Torah M’Sinai, but I had deep doubts going all the way back to when BY teachers would hem and haw at my annoying questions that they had no answers to. After a year or so, outside a frum community, I started coming to the realization that it wasn’t that they didn’t want to answer me – it was that the questions had no answers. There wasn’t going to be some wise rabbi who would come along and make everything make sense for me. I wasn’t a bad person for eating bacon and Chinese takeout. I wasn’t a sinner for leaving religion after all. The Off the Derech Facebook group was instrumental in helping me come to these realizations.
It quickly became my community. I felt an instant bond. After I met people who went through similar crises of faith, I realized my religious doubts that went all the way back to elementary school weren’t the result of personal weakness and failure – they were a sign of strength and intelligence.
People aren’t really meant to be loners. The one thing the Torah had right was that man isn’t meant to be alone. I was pretty depressed until I found people like me. Finally, I wasn’t the nebach case loser – I was some people’s inspiration, so they too could find the courage to leave.
How did your going OTD affect your relationship with your spouse and children?
Well my baby didn’t know the difference 🙂 My sons each had a different reaction. My oldest son’s reaction was: “yay, I can watch cartoons on Shabbos now!!” My middle son was more perplexed and needed time to get used to it. My husband was very happy and said “it’s about time!”
But really, we weren’t ever truly compatible. Financial strain definitely contributed. But we also both wanted entirely different things out of life. He wanted to completely disconnect from the Jewish world and live a country life. I didn’t. I wanted to send my kids to Hebrew school and observe some Jewish holidays. I preferred living in a city, with a decent Jewish population – could be Reform for all I cared – but I needed people like me that I could connect with. I wanted our kids to know they were Jewish and have some sort of connection to Judaism. We divorced after 10 years of marriage, in 2012. We made some beautiful and intelligent kids though!
Now that both of us are with other people and happy, we get along very well and enjoy co-parenting together with a lot of help from our wonderful partners.
Where any particular struggles or challenges that you found especially difficult in the transition?
Yom Tov was the worst. That’s when I felt the loss of my religious beliefs and community the most. It was extremely distressing. I was out in the boondocks, in rural Kansas. I felt even more isolated and alone scrolling through FB friends’ posts about Yom Tov meal plans, Sedarim and hamantashen. At that point, I was still a believer and it was not an easy transition. My then husband was pretty accommodating and, even though he wanted nothing more to do with anything Jewish related, drove our family the 100 miles or so to Wichita for a communal Seder being held in a Conservative shul.
And yet, I felt confused. I didn’t know where I belonged. I didn’t belong in the frum world, but I was really a sore thumb out in the country where people never met a Jew before. The comfort of feeling like I really knew the meaning of life, was gone and in its place was a disturbing emptiness – a void. Many times over, I wanted to go back to being frum. Even if I didn’t believe in it anymore – because I was seriously jealous of believers. The perfectly coiffed sheitels and easy emunah the ‘real’ Jewish balabustas had. Their enviable skills in the kitchen. Yom Tov tables set elegantly with new China dishes filled with handcrafted, masterfully cooked delicacies. Their perfect marriages and happy, well dressed children who would never know poverty or have any more discomfort other than an occasional ear infection or lost toy. I felt like a total failure in comparison: as a Jew, a wife and mother, and as a person.
Of course, this was a real distorted view of the world I had left, and it took time to get these feelings out of my system. To an extent, I’m still working on it. Facebook and the OTD group, ended up being my lifeline so I could connect to others and work through the transition. I even met my current husband through the OTD group! I asked him out in early 2013, and we had a long distance relationship for a year. Over time, it got to be too painful to be so far away (at this point I was living in Denver as a single mom). Until I made the big move across country to be with my then boyfriend – parting was not such sweet sorrow – it was agonizing. Moving to Brooklyn really made such a difference – I had a ready made circle of friends already as I finally got to meet all the people I’d been building bonds with online for 2 years. I married my husband this year and I’ve never been happier!
What’s the best thing about not being frum?
Not worrying about upsetting God for mixing up milchig and fleishig. Seriously, it’s the constant feeling of worrying about bringing on the wrath of God for some minor infraction like accidentally turning on the light on Shabbos. I don’t miss that at all.
What is one misconception or stereotype about ex-frum people that you’d like to correct?
That we’re rebellious and looking to have fun (sex/drugs) or that we’re all in our late teens or early 20s. I left Orthodoxy at 31 years old. I was no teenager at that point, and was already a married mother of three kids. I wasn’t looking for fun or to go to clubs or do drugs. I was trying to make the best life for my kids. And I’m far from alone. I know lots of people in my age group who are leaving. Married folks with children and stable lives.
Is there anything that provides you with purpose and meaning in life now that you no longer believe in Orthodox Judaism?
The Dalai Lama said that kindness can be a religion, so I’d say that’s mine. I try to be as considerate and kind of others as I can be. I still believe in God and pray on a regular basis. Not out of a siddur, but from my heart. I strive to raise kids who don’t spend their adulthood recovering from their emotional scars – but who are ready to be happy and thrive all through their lives. I’m a devoted wife to my wonderful husband and he’s helped me be the person I am today. I wouldn’t be who I am today without his constant love, support and fortitude. As I mentioned before, we married this year and we have a beautiful blended family.
Do you have any parting message for people who are still going through the process of finding their own derech?
Don’t burn bridges with your family or your frum ex-spouses. Unless they’re truly abusive or toxic in which case, proceed with absolute caution and get a lot of support from trusted therapists and friends. There is no one right way to be OTD – everyone has their own path!! We are very much a diverse community of varying beliefs and attitudes.