Hi Steve, could you describe your family’s religious background to us?
My parents are part of the Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic sect, called Bobov.
As in most other Hasidic sects, we grew up sheltered from the outside world. Movies were forbidden, there was no television at home, and even listening to the radio was frowned upon. Boys and girls were kept separated to the extent that I never chatted with any of my girl cousins! From age three and on, we wore a large yarmulke and grew long sidelocks. When we turned thirteen, we were required to follow the community’s bland dress code which consisted of a black beaver hat, a black suit and a white shirt. When a beard would start to grow, we were not supposed to shave or trim it, not even a bit.
Secular education was limited to a mere two hours a day, beginning at age seven and ending at age thirteen. From age thirteen and on, we studied nothing but ancient Jewish scripture. Going to college was forbidden because they teach about Evolution and the classes are mixed gender.
Yiddish was my first language. I grew up with parents who occasionally spoke English between themselves so it naturally rubbed off. But at age 22, when it was time for me to find a job, my vocabulary was at the level of your average American eight year old kid. Writing was even a bigger challenge and I had to spend countless hours with a dictionary and a thesaurus, figuring it all out on my own.
Did you have a pleasant youth?
Not really. All of our actions were dictated by the community and strictly enforced in school. My choice of clothing was dictated by the community. When I was 5 years old, I was sent home from school for showing up with sneakers that had white soles! My choice of music was limited to only a handful of Hasidic singers, the others were considered harmful to a Jewish soul. Even some of the mainstream orthodox singers were openly condemned!
Being a curious child and a deep thinker by nature, I feel like my childhood has been wasted on learning ancient Jewish laws that had little to no practical value. I had questions, but I was silenced. I was curious, but discouraged from exploring. I had nowhere to spread my wings, nowhere to exercise my own will. No chance to nurture my personal passions. Instead, it was expected of me to devote my entire life to studying the Torah.
Indulging in materialistic pleasures was strongly discouraged to the extent that eating nosh (sweets) was considered not in line with the reason why God sent us down on this world.
I carried around guilt my entire life, feeling that I am not a good enough Jew. I could’ve always learnt a bit more or managed with one hour less sleep, thus having more time in my day to serve God.
What was even more disturbing was the threat of hell. Being a naive child, I really believed that I would be judged after death for every little misdeed, even for things such as owing someone five cents. I was pretty horrified for what would await me after death.
So, to answer your question, the answer is no. My childhood was quite unpleasant.
So you couldn’t wait to throw off the proverbial yoke?
Not really. I grew up thinking that this lifestyle was normal. I was raised with it, so I never really knew better. My own desires and passions were so suppressed that I didn’t even realize that I had any.
It never occurred to me that leaving was an option. I just accepted my fate and expected it to remain that way forever. In fact, this lifestyle was so normal to me that I had planned on raising my kids the same way. Only later, when I lost my faith and stopped following everything blindly, did I open my eyes and realize how wrong it was. But the reason why I left my former life had nothing to do with the way I felt about it. It was solely due to a change in ideology.
When do you believe that your apostasy started?
It started on Rosh Hashanah, when I was 23 years old.
I was reading an article about cults, when I suddenly noticed that my own community is structured pretty much like a cult. We are isolated from the world, our personal choices are dictated by our community leader, we have an us-versus-them mentality, we are encouraged to live and socialize only with people from our community, questioning is strongly discouraged, and when we come across anything that is against the faith, we immediately shut down and don’t allow ourselves to even think about it. Those are the exact characteristics of your typical cult.
The thought that followed was: if cult leaders can manage to get people to have unshakeable faith in their false ideologies, then this proves that a person can be absolutely convinced that a false ideology is true. I immediately realized that my beliefs might in fact be false too and I’m just not realizing it, just like cult members don’t. I figured that perhaps, Judaism started out just like a cult and just grew into something large and established over many years.
How did you go about searching for the truth?
The first thing I did was to search for evidence that Judaism is a true religion and that it was not like all the other false ones (that people believe in just because they were raised with it). I conducted a thorough search through every piece of Jewish literature I was able to lay my hands on. I was hoping to find at least one compelling argument as to why I should believe. I was surprised to find that all they talk about is how important belief is. I found chapter upon chapter talking about the importance of faith without offering anything to strengthen it.
I later found (on the Internet) that Judaism does offer some arguments to support their faith. As of today, I’ve heard of four forms of evidence for Judaism: Mass revelation, divinity of the Torah, miracles, and near death experiences.
If I had approached a rabbi demanding evidence, he would certainly dump some of those arguments on me, adding a teaspoon of manipulation, just enough to make me doubt my stance and make me feel guilty for not believing. I didn’t trust these rabbis, and rightfully so. Some of those rabbis are professional manipulators, and as a salesman, I knew all too well how easy it is to use tactics to get people to do virtually anything. I wanted to review the evidence and scrutinize it on my own and reach my own conclusion, without a rabbi breathing down my back.
So I Googled it. I searched “proof for Judaism” and I found online articles that offer those above mentioned arguments.
I took the time to scrutinize all of them. And I found many many holes in the so-called evidence. It was as if someone was so desperate to prove the veracity of Judaism that they willfully ignored the fallacies in their arguments. The mass revelation never actually occurred, the Torah shows no signs of divinity, and so on.
At this point, I didn’t know anything about Evolution or about the Big Bang. In fact, I still believed in God. The only thing I lost my faith in was in Judaism. I figured that perhaps God exists and He created everything. But the notion that He wants us to worship Him, might just be not true. Perhaps, God never communicated with Abraham or Moses, and they were just like those cult leaders who lie about their communication with God. Or perhaps, Abraham was hallucinating and sincerely believed that God spoke to him. After all, they weren’t aware of mental illnesses like hearing voices and hallucinations, in those days.
I noticed that all the other religions, all of which are considered to be false according to Judaism, believe in their religions for the same reasons we believe in ours. Almost everyone follows the religion that they happen to be born into. They all believe that their prayers are answered. They all claim to have amazing miracle stories. They all claim to have evidence (that crumble when subject to scrutiny). It was clear to me that if my parents were Christian, I too would think that Christianity is the one and only true religion. I was left with absolutely no rational basis for believing in Judaism (or in any other religion).
At that time, were you able to share your experiences with someone else?
No. I kept it a secret for over a year. I was afraid that my wife would divorce me the minute she learnt about my beliefs. I was also sure that my mother would suffer a heart attack.
Losing faith in Judaism is serious business. It would likely ruin the blissful lives of my wife, my parents, my in-laws, my grandparents, etc. Too many people would be hurt and it was very possible that at least some of them would cut off ties with me.
In addition to that, I stood a great chance to lose business from clients who wouldn’t want to support a heretic.
I stood to lose too much if I were open about it. So I chose to hide it and to live a double life.
How long were you able to keep leading a double life and how did it come to an end?
It lasted for little over a year.
During that year, one of my sisters, who unbeknownst to me, left the faith many years before me, came out openly as non-religious. At first, I was afraid to confide in her. I was so paranoid that I didn’t trust even one person with my secret. But after a year, this double life started taking its toll on me. I felt miserable. I kept on dwelling on the fact that I could’ve been free if only I’d be willing to accept the consequences. I felt like a slave, contemplating whether the cost of escaping is worth the freedom.
To fake this double life, I had to put up a show as if everything was normal. I had to spend hours every day praying, all the while believing that prayer is meaningless. I had to keep all the nitty-gritty details of the Shabbos laws, all the while believing that I will not receive any reward for it in the afterlife. It was tough. Doing things that have no meaning, cannot be sustained for too long.
Thirteen months after I lost my faith, I came to a point where I couldn’t keep it in me for much longer. I opened up to my sister. Getting it off my chest was so liberating!
She introduced me to a Facebook group with people who are in a similar situation. To keep my identity secret, I joined the group using a pseudonym.
Learning from others who shared my challenges, was extremely valuable. It gave me the courage to start moving forward. A few weeks later, I finally felt ready to join a live meetup where I met others like myself, thus revealing my identity to a few more people. Over time, I slowly became more and more comfortable to reveal my true status.
Despite lacking the courage to tell my wife, I started to let down my guard with the hope that I’ll be caught. I so badly wanted to be open with her. It wasn’t long before my wife figured it out and told my in-laws and my parents. I never actually had the courage to break the news to any of them so I was relieved that she did it for me.
What are some of the basic misconceptions about OTD people in your opinion?
There are many. In my opinion, the most prominent misconception is that those who leave the fold, do so out of pain. Some even go as far as painting those who leave as emotionally disturbed, to the extent that they can’t think logically.
While it’s true that many leave because they were hurt by the system, it’s not the case with everyone. Many (probably the majority) leave simply because they lost their faith.
The community would rather further the myth that the only reasons for leaving are pain and poor rationale, than admitting that there are good reasons for losing one’s faith.
One would think: If so many are leaving, wouldn’t that raise a red flag? Wouldn’t people start thinking that something must be wrong with Judaism? Reinforcing the myth solves that problem. By making them believe that those who leave are just in pain, and that deep down they still believe, it all makes sense and it keeps them from asking questions.
And it doesn’t even surprise me. They did the same in Soviet Russia under Communism. People who wanted the leave the Soviet Union were painted as mentally ill. Something is surely wrong with them, because what normal person would want to leave such a wonderful country.
How do you see your own future?
As of now, I am an Atheist and I already lead a completely secular life. So, regarding my personal life, I’m basically there already. The only two things I have yet to break through is, walking around my jewish neighborhood without a yarmulke and driving there on Shabbos.
One of my goals for the future is to write a book, exposing fundamentalist religion. I’m already doing it in the form of short articles on blogs and on Facebook, but I believe that a well articulated book will have a stronger impact.
My hope for my kids is that I’ll be able to raise them without the negative aspects of the ultra-orthodox lifestyle. Ultimately, I want to raise them with the proper tools. I want to teach them how to think logically, how to question things, and how to evaluate claims, so when they grow up, they can make their own choices of what lifestyle they want to follow.
What advice would you like to give people who are considering leaving the fold?
My experience and the experiences of my friends showed that, although the transitioning stage wasn’t easy, it was well worth it.
When I first lost my faith, I was sure that I’ll never actually have the courage to come out and tell anyone. I was sure that I’ll die with my secret. I couldn’t fathom the idea of myself becoming the outcast of the community. I didn’t think I’ll ever have the courage to shave my beard. I didn’t think that I’ll ever be able to face my parents and tell them that their oldest son, the one that they had their highest hopes for, the one that spent four years in kollel (Rabbinical College), the one that promised to raise generations of holy orthodox children, will no longer be following in their footsteps.
My advice would be: surround yourself with people who are going through the same thing and learn from them. I found the “Off The Derech” Facebook group to be very useful. You learn from others that are struggling with similar challenges. I made very little progress in the first year after losing my faith. It was only after I joined Facebook and I saw how others progress, that I gained the courage to start taking baby steps that eventually led me to greater achievements.
It’s a tough journey but it looks worse than it is. When you don’t know the future, you prepare for the worst and hope for the best. But it usually doesn’t turn out as bad as you’ve imagined. Give it some time and you’ll find yourself doing things you thought were impossible!