We Are Not Lost

by Aryeh Levine

I’m tired of seeing rabbis bemoaning the existence of OTD kids as “the loss of so many children.” I just want to grab them by the shoulders, look them in the eye, and say:

We are not lost.

We are still here.

We lost you.

Before we ever had you, we lost you.

We lost you to a book, you lost us to every other book.

We lost you to war for one country, you lost us to every other island and continent.

We lost you to ignorance, you lost us to the sum total of the remainder of human knowledge.


You mourn yourselves as victims of genocide, but are unperturbed when your own holy book gloats over your own purported genocide of the seven nations of Canaan, and you pray for a day when you will do the same to Amalek.

You mourn the loss of connection to your Father in heaven when fathers among you have abandoned their own children.

You pray for the return of a temple where the blind, ugly, and disabled cannot serve.

We left, but we are not lost.

The frum community is watching its own turn their backs on Judaism, often at the cost of the love of their family and friends, and has erected a ludicrous straw man in the place of a giant with glowing eyes. I am here to tell you that we are not broken, not the way you say we are and that we have plans to set the straw on fire, to dance around the burning man with our heads thrown back in laughter. 

I have met my fair share of “the Lost Ones,” and I am here to say these are the very best our inbred shtetl gene pool has supplied. Often we are the first in our family lines with the courage and wisdom to stop running from our collective traumas into fantasies about animal sacrifices and high courts making everything all right. We are turning around to look our demons in the eye and embrace them. We know that life is not a test, it’s a game; and your rules, frankly, are cramping our style.

We do not need your saving. We have saved ourselves. Sometimes, it took you breaking us for us to see that we needed to. Many of us have been raped and molested, many beaten, many humiliated, and almost all were emotionally abused. We bore all of that and still had the strength and courage to leave. You have no idea how much mental fortitude and clarity that takes. Your giant dream-crushing educational system is a misshapen mold that filters out the strongest among us, not the weakest. 

The people in this community of “broken souls” are some of the strongest, most compassionate, wisest people I have ever encountered. We are a group that has self-selected for independent thinkers, for skilled artists, for the highly sensitive, most deeply compassionate among us. We often leave because we are so deeply disturbed not by our own suffering, but by the suffering of others. We are so morally horrified by your treatment of those whose sexual orientations are deemed an “abomination,” of the learning disabled, and of the used and abused among you, that some of us left for that reason alone. 

We are not leaving because we are broken. We are leaving because you are. 

That you dare speak as if you have the moral high ground here is so deeply ironic and ludicrous that it thins the line between laughing and screaming. Don’t look to the Torah for how to deal with us. This isn’t a halachic shaaleh. This is a human question: The Torah or your child? 

The answer, in the typical cyclical thinking preferred by fundamentalists, is to be found in one of the first bible stories we are taught in middle school: the binding of Isaac. God asks Avraham to murder his own son. Our beloved patriarch lies to his son and ties him atop an altar until God, like a cruel, abusive boyfriend, stops him at the last second, saying it was only a test.

Ever since you’ve been ready to sacrifice us to win the favor of a God who calls himself a “man of war” and a “jealous God.” And when we tear off the ropes and escape, you excommunicate and shame us, and portray us as lustful, diseased, broken pity cases. You show God you love him more than you love your children, and we get the message. 

But we are not you. 

We are the best generation yet, because, you see, it doesn’t work the way you taught us. The best of humanity is not behind us, it’s ahead. We will be the first in our genetic lines to stop the cycle of abuse that made you the tragedy that you are: abandoning your children for fantasies. We will raise our children honestly and let them teach us, the way we are teaching you now, that there is another, more compassionate way to spend our time on this tiny marble hurtling through infinity. We will face the facts of life and death as honestly and fearlessly as we faced you, and trust me, you were good practice. 

Stop trying to save us. We’ve saved ourselves.






8 responses to “We Are Not Lost”

  1. Barbara Sless Avatar
    Barbara Sless

    Brilliantly written. Good luck to you moving forward.

    1. Aryeh Levine Avatar
      Aryeh Levine

      Thank you!

  2. peter Avatar

    I read a piece once written by a baal tshuva about why he left secular life, that read very similarly. a bit less angry, maybe. Seems to me that we are all on a journey. 20 years in, I no longer feel absolute about things, and I am less emotional. I think I lost a lot when I left, and if I am honest, gained very little that I couldn’t have gained without rejection my rich heritage. But I’m 40 now, and I think time adds perspective.

    1. Aryeh Levine Avatar
      Aryeh Levine

      Only Sith deal in absolutes 🙂 I agree, time adds perspective. My goal here was to give voice to those who don’t have the luxury of time, whose family and friends have turned their backs on them, who are in pain and could get even a modicum of relief by having their perspective voiced articulately. It is an emotional rant; that was my intention. I am not very angry either, but I live with immense privilege; I have it relatively easy. I do not want to forget those who do not.

  3. Tzvi Harpaz Avatar
    Tzvi Harpaz

    Of the million thoughts roiling in my gut, I’ve got but one ready to be set loose. Given all you’ve said, accepting all of it without judgment, I’m left wondering – why, then, embrace “Off the Derech” as your defining name? Would it not mean so much more to define yourself by yourself, and with words declaring who you are and want to be? Can you be truly free while still focusing on what you’re off, rather than what you’re on?

    1. Aryeh Levine Avatar
      Aryeh Levine

      This is a question that is constantly raised in the OTD community. Everyone has a different answer, but generally, we say that we have adopted the acronym out of irony- the idea that there is one path is so ludicrous to us we kept the name for laughs. Here is a relevant piece I wrote about a different term for the same kind of person, one I am also very willing to use for myself, precisely because it is so ludicrous:

      Much can be discovered about a society from the study of their slang. The Frum lexicon is no exception, and a particularly powerful example of this hit me the other day. The Yeshivah ‘shprach’ as its called, is the bastard child of some sort of linguistic orgy including English, Yiddish, German, Aramaic, and Biblical Hebrew. The term they use for people like myself is a derogatory one- and is a word immortalized in iron on the gates of the worst death camps in history- most famously at the entrance of Auschwitz. Wrought in iron, the Nazis displayed the words ‘arbiet macht frei’ works make free’ or rather, Jewish prisoners did- and flipped the B in ‘Arbiet’ as a personal fuck you to the Nazis. Here the power of language is evident-even a single letter can display all the defiance of a people on the brink of extinction. Frum people use the very word ‘frei’ to refer to people like myself, who left the fold and live a life determined by our own morals and ideas. Is there anything more telling about the depths of mental enslavement of a particular group of humans than the use of the word ‘free’ as an insult?

      The names do not define us. Our actions, our freedom, our diversity does. We are free, especially from the religious notion that words have such power over us- we are comfortable with irony, which often becomes one of life’s greatest pleasures in this bizarre journey out of religion.

  4. Naomi Hynan Avatar
    Naomi Hynan

    beautifully written.

  5. Binyamin Avatar

    “We are not leaving because we are broken. We are leaving because you are.”

    Succinct but entirely true!

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