The first kofer we're meeting in our new series, Better Know a Kofer, is Sara, a third year law student who lives in Michigan with her husband of five years, together with their young daughter and two pets. Sara is a former Bais Yaakov girl from a moderate yeshivish family who stopped being frum in her early twenties. She currently practices Elder Law in a free clinic and has worked in the past as a middle and high school teacher at Bais Yaakov.
Here is my interview with Sara.
Hello, Sara. I'd like to thank you for allowing me to perform this interview. To start off, can you describe the religious environment that you came from?
Yeshivish. A smaller community, not the mega-jumble of New York/New Jersey. I had classmates who were somewhat modern, lubavitch, and yeshivish. I definitely came from the yeshivish neighborhood though, and tended to spend the most time with girls from yeshivish families. My own family did have a few more modern tendencies, like limited tv/computer use, and I was encouraged to read some secular books.
Is there any experience that you can relate which captures the religious tone of your upbringing?
It's a tough question to answer. I can't really think of one experience or incident that expresses the atmosphere of my parents' home. I did always value that my parents didn't just do things the way everyone else did them. For example, instead of using a succah kit or building a flimsy one out of particle board, they bought heavy duty tarps and used metal tubing for a frame, with custom-welded corner pieces. It was a very nice succah, and much more durable than most. Yet, they applied the desire to do things well to a pretty conservative approach to halacha.
My mother is well known in the community for her skills in checking vegetables for bugs. Instead of taking the more typical yeshivish approach and simply not using bug-prone or difficult to check vegetable, she learned the different kinds of bugs and their life cycles and habits. She will get out a microscope from time to time in checking lettuce. She often teaches other women how to check vegetables better. I remember astonishing the wife of my halacha teacher in seminary by pointing out to her the the small worms that had bored into her carrots. She thought that carrots couldn't get buggy.
My mother never cooked only typical ashkenazi food. She learned to cook sephardi dishes and she also incorporated world cuisine into her shabbos menus. A special shabbos treat was ground-nut stew, an african dish that she made with chicken, beef, vegetables, and peanuts. Another was a southern-style beef stew served over grits. Most frum kids don't even know what grits are--for us they were a special shabbos treat.
There were some conflicts. My parents often chafed against the common frum attitude of "why bother figuring out the halacha, we don't really need that anyway." My mother threw herself into a fight to get updated textbooks for her students, even excising the "inappropriate" illustrations and chapters by hand. My parents kept an extensive secular library, and my parents refused to discourage their kids from getting an education, even when that meant using university libraries and then going to secular colleges. My parents also had a hard time from time to time with people who had a problem with BTs and geirim (they themselves were BTs). Sometimes it seemed like they didn't have much good to say of "FFBs"--which sure felt awkward for me, an FFB. A major point of guilt when I left was that I was now somewhat corroborating so many of the off-hand comments they'd endured over the years from people who criticized non-FFBs.
My parents also refused to keep their affection for each other hidden, especially in their own home. Unlike a lot of frum kids, I witnessed my parents being openly affectionate. They were not shy about talking about the ways in which they thought the frum community tended towards foolishness, and the wariness of open marital affection was one of those things, as well as the reluctance to eat anything that wasn't from Poland by way of New York, and the insistence that an ever-growing number of vegetables really aren't kosher enough, and other bits of foolishness. They didn't have much use for things like chalav yisrael, and they regarded chumrahs as mostly useless things. My parents found their own chumrahs, and they never coincided with the chumrah-of-the-month. It is a little funny that some people will find their spiritual solace in banning delicious, nutritious fruits, but my mother learned how to ensure that it was completely kosher. Which is the more beneficial chumrah, refusing to partake of a food, or learning how, and then teaching others how, to partake of both additional knowledge and the fruit in question?
So, I have a lot admiration for the religious atmosphere in my parents' home. I do think though, that their thoughtfulness is in small part one of the contributing factors to my having left. My upbringing gave me permission to think. And so, I thought.
I'm glad at the conclusions I came to. My parents aren't. I think that that is a risk one assumes when one has children. My parents and their community disagree.
Can you highlight an example of an idea you encountered that made you question your upbringing?
I was once working on a paper having to do with the history of Jewish communities in fifteenth century Italy. In doing that work, I came across a shailah/tshuvah about mixed-gender dancing. I was shocked that in a fairly orthodox setting of several hundred years ago, mixed social dancing was widely accepted, for the purposes of encouraging suitable matches. This led me to other reading and eventually to question the system of halacha.
Was the impetus for your transition primarily intellectual, emotional, social, cultural, or some other factor?
I think it was all of the above. Intellectual issues were a huge part of it. My early concerns about halacha led into learning more about legal systems and ultimately the realization that halacha is simply not a workable system of law. People manage to live within it, but the system of denying that change exists has led to a law that is more burdensome than I can believe God intended it to be.
Emotionally, the community was mostly good for me, and I deliberately recreated some of that community structure in my life. I did leave the community in a time of extreme emotional turmoil, as is to be expected when someone makes a major life decision that she does not take lightly. I find that the emotional benefits of being able to live as I choose outweigh even the very strong positives of living within a tight and (mostly) supportive community.
Hmmm, speaking of supportiveness, there’s also the control issue. I guess that might fall under an emotional reason for leaving. I didn’t fit very well into the community and I never really was able to come up with a life plan that would garner the full support of the community. It’s important to me to not be constantly apologizing for, or facing people who expect me to apologize for, my life’s work.
Socially? Well, it seemed like in the community, everyone had someplace they fit--except me. Partly, that may have been my erroneous perceptions of the modern orthodox community. I was never very impressed with the more modern girls in my class, but I had too many outside interests to fit in well with the yeshivish girls.
Culturally? I think God has chosen everyone, or at least offered an invitation. I don’t like the approach to non-Jews in Jewish law, in Jewish culture, in daily interactions. No, I more than don’t like it. I disapprove of it and I think it is wrong. All people have an equal opportunity to do good, that opportunity is pretty what makes us human. National, racial or cultural boundaries have nothing to do with it.
Can you highlight one of the very first ways you crossed the halachic line?
I was on my way for a long Sunday afternoon somewhere, perhaps visiting my grandparents, or maybe going to another university to use the library. I was hungry, and so I stopped at the kosher pizza shop to get a couple of slices. As I took the first bite, I remembered that I had eaten some shabbos leftovers earlier in the day and was fleishig for several more hours. I ate the pizza anyway.
How did you feel at the time about violating that halacha?
It didn't feel like anything. No, that isn't accurate. It felt like I was no longer hungry, and I no longer needed to feel hungry all afternoon. One of the ways in which I dislike halacha is the heavy reliance on clocks--do we really, really think that two or three or seven hundred years ago people counted 18 minutes before sundown, and 45 or 52 or 72 or 90 minutes after? Do we really think that people counted six hours after eating meat or poultry? That's just implausible. Historically, people did not become nit-picky about time until the Industrial Revolution, when factory schedules and shifts that run counter to normal human cycles intruded on people's lives on a vast scale. This is one of the reasons why people from areas like the Northeast US tend to condemn people from many other cultures as lazy--other cultures tend to care less about clocks. Even less than chassidim, in some cases. :-)
And so, it was easy for me to first break a time-related rule. Frum Jews are too quick to confuse culture with objective reality, and time is one of the first ways I noticed this.
So, I cared a lot less than my upbringing suggested I should.
In retrospect, it felt very good. At the time, the good and the guilt pretty much canceled each other out, and it didn't feel like much of anything.
How did you family react to your leaving? What is your relationship like with them now?
I was no longer a part of the family. I was allowed to talk to them, but would receive no financial support. I would also receive little emotional support. We have had periods where there was very little contact, once for nearly a year. For a long time I tolerated slights and subtle insults. I figured that I was the one who chose to leave, and so it was their prerogative.
Then I had a child. Suddenly, insulting my marriage was a slight to my daughter’s parentage. I also became stronger in my own life and newly-formed identity, and realized that I am as worthy of respect as anyone else. That resulted in simply having no contact for a while. Eventually, we slowly reached a partial reconciliation, with much help from my brother. I have two other siblings who have nothing to do with me, and that is acutely painful. It is, however, their choice, and I can’t do much about it. We make do with the family that is willing and happy to have us.
So, my relationship with my family is limited to my parents, one brother, and his wife and child. We visit my parents every couple of weeks for a couple of hours, and are planning more contact for the future.
What connection do you currently have to Jewish identity, religion, or culture?
A few books. Christianity, which some may consider a connection, and others may not. (I don’t, incidentally.) Contemporary frum Orthodoxy bears little resemblance to the common ancestor of modern Catholicism and modern Judaism.
I don’t feel much kinship with the more modern movements in Judaism, like Reform or Conservative. I experimented for a bit, but they had some of the same problems that I felt about Orthodoxy, and I wasn’t really comfortable. I do however, tend to feel a kinship with Jews, especially Jews who are Reform or Conservative, because they have a strong sense of Jewish identity but don’t seem to feel obligated to pass harsh judgment on me.
What is something from your religious past that you miss in your life now?
The songs! I do miss the community as well, but I am more ambivalent about that. I think everyone who has ever lived in a close community realizes that there are some drawbacks, and I tended to feel those rather keenly, but on the whole I liked belonging. But I definitely miss the singing—on shabbos and yom tov, in shul, etc. Of course, now I am actually allowed to participate in the singing, whereas before it was mostly a vicarious pleasure.
Are there any behaviors or perspectives from your past religious life that are still dominant in your life now?
Well, at some point my analytical thinking started being more the product of law school than anything else, but it is definitely still there, and it got started learning halacha.
I do still often say brachos over food, although I am deliberately less than punctilious about all the laws of doing so. I still tend to sing or say psalm 39 (aka Mizmor L’Dovid) on all kinds of occasions, including when an ambulance passes by—a habit I picked up in seminary.
I often prefer to wear skirts, and tend to dress pretty modestly. It did take me a while to get comfortable dressing appropriately for running, and I still prefer to run indoors or after dark.
Most importantly, I still usually remember to judge people favorably. I’ve had to learn to look at all possibilities frankly when working with clients or legal issues, but I still remember the importance of judging favorably or not at all. It makes life more pleasant, and it makes the world a better place.
One of my current religious observances is to enjoy any food that is good. I try to appreciate the bounty of the earth, both in the foods themselves and in the innumerable ways of preparing them. These are gifts. To shun them based on a few amorphous words blown up into tomes full of nit-picky details is just silly. That's my current chumrah. Of course, another of my current chumrahs is to touch anyone when the situation warrants; there are inevitable commonalities between people and the occasional light touch on the hand or shoulder helps people relax and realize those commonalities. When one works in law and dispute resolution, putting people at ease and comforting them in tough situations is important. Touch is another gift from God with incredible powers. It would be foolish and mean of me to not use it.
How do you currently view the religious community you came from? Is there hostility? Fondness? Indifference?
All of the above. I am mostly very cautious. I taught in Bais Yaakov for a few years, and so for a long time maintained a distance from the community for that reason. I felt that even though I had left, that couldn’t destroy the obligation I’d taken on to lead those girls in a certain direction. Once I could no longer do that in good conscience, I felt obligated to stay away. I was pretty wary of running into anyone. However, now that my students are all pretty close to adulthood and my own life is more firmly established, I am getting more comfortable being around the community. I don’t really enjoy it though.
One thing the community doesn’t seem to get is that it is entirely possible for me to be happy, fulfilled, busy, successful, etc. I don’t hate the community and I certainly don’t hate myself. It’s difficult to be around someone who operates from a position of assuming certain very negative things about my personality. It just wastes some time. I had one friend who tried to stay in touch, but every other message was about kiruv. Seriously now, I studied kiruv training methods. I didn’t instantly drop forty IQ points and forget where I came from when I picked up that first cheeseburger. It’s just frustrating trying to deal with those preconceptions. They get in the way of maintaining meaningful, positive relationships.
Do you still believe in some form of God or in some version of Judaism?
Yes, I still believe in God. I have chosen a somewhat unusual path: I’ve become a Roman Catholic. That was mostly an intellectual decision. I felt that I wanted to belong to a structured religion, a religion with some sense of tradition, but I wanted a religion that accepted that change happens. And so, I ended up in a religion where the concept of time and laws and their interactions is more closely aligned with my own. Those ideas go beyond time, too. I like that Christianity is inclusive. I was never comfortable with the idea of being a race apart, it seems inherently unjust to me.
It was also an emotional decision, but I’m not really comfortable talking about that.
What are some of the drawbacks of your decision to leave? Do you regret it at all? Is there any guilt?
I regret how much it hurt my family. At the time, I was very worried about how it would affect my brother’s chances of a good shidduch. Since then, he has married a wonderful woman and they’ve had their first child, and they have been enormously helpful in helping rebuild some bridges with my parents.
Are there any particular struggles or challenges that you find especially difficult in the transition?
Everything. Leaving frumkeit was hands down the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I include four years of law school in that tally. It took me a year to get comfortable ordering fast food. Learning how pants fit was a whole ‘nother adventure. Learning how to build in spiritual and personal renewal time when it is less strongly mandated is a challenge I am still working on, as is building a community for myself and my family.
I still have not found a way to pray that I am comfortable with. Often, I revert to a few Hebrew prayers of specific meaning to me, ones that aren’t anti-Christian. Praying in the vernacular is not comfortable for me and Latin is a foreign language.
When I left the community, I lost most of my family. I lost my job, and I lost my career expectations (I had planned on teaching long term in Bais Yaakov). Cut adrift with unpaid debts to the university, I had to leave and take an apartment and a job. I had a very hard time learning to make it in the world. It took me about three years to get reasonably stable and another year to get ready for the next step: moving forward with my dreams. Now, eight years out, I’m pretty happy where I am, although a closer community would sure be a comfort as I face a difficult job market ahead.
Can you name something significant which you are currently doing in your life, or that you've experienced, or which you hope to achieve in the future, which would have been difficult, if not impossible, in your former life?
Well, I’m about to participate in an American Bar Association-sponsored competition in client interviewing and counseling. The competition is on a Saturday.
In the larger sense, I’ve married someone who fits me and my personality and my goals, and we are very happy. I had little chance of finding someone like him in the community. I’ve been able to take on more responsibilities and obligations within school and the local legal community than would be possible for someone keeping shabbos. I’ve been able to channel my financial resources where I choose. I was able to move closer to the school of my choice, and out of the large metro area that I never liked. Large urban centers are not for me. I love living in a smaller city, something not really feasible for most yeshivish families.
I also love to run, several times a week, and hope to run a marathon within the next few years. I love camping and backpacking (I fantasize about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail), but would not be able to find time to fit those pursuits into the work-week. I did try for a while, but it’s certainly pleasant to have weekends.
Oh, and then there’s law school. Sure, a frum girl can go to law school. But it would not be encouraged or condoned.
As for the future, I am on the cusp of a promising career in which I have ambitions of promoting and expanding the use of certain alternative dispute resolution techniques into various legal areas where they are underused or could be used more effectively. Part of my ambition includes expanding into small towns.
Above all though, the thing I treasure most about my life that wasn’t possible in the frum community is that the schemes and plans and ambitions I formulate are not viewed with suspicion. I don’t have to worry about balancing everything against religion. My religion recognizes a greater diversity of human activity than frumkeit allows itself to recognize. So does my community of friends and associates. My uniqueness in these ways is treasured.
What surprised you most about the world outside ultra-orthodoxy?
They are totally clueless about Judaism. It is kind of humbling to say “I used to be an Orthodox Jew” and they neither know nor care what that means. It was a big shock how much the world is unaware of Judaism.
What is one misconception or stereotype about ex-frum people that you'd like to correct?
That we have unstable relationships. I have worked steadily for eight years at finding a happy medium between respect for my parents and respect for my husband and our family. I’ve been in a total of two relationships, one of which broke up quickly after several dates and the other one is with my husband. I also went on one shidduch date. That gives me a grand total of three dating experiences, the last of which resulted in a very happy marriage. My husband and I have had a lot of stresses placed on our relationship-family, cultural differences, illnesses, miscarriages, law school, lack of money, etc.—we’ve had a few difficulties in our marriage as a result, but those we have had we settled lovingly and with understanding. I don’t have very much time for lots of outside friends, but I have close collegial relationships and one very close friend that I’ve known for a decade now. My life is all about stable relationships. We’ve been married five years now, and together for a couple more.
It's ludicrous for the frum world to condemn us as being unable to sustain relationships and then use our broken relationships with family and friends as evidence. It is they who will not permit those relationships to continue normally, not us. I can and I do sustain relationships—when they are not toxic to me and my family. I chose to leave frumkeit. My family chose to let that impede our relationship. I’m very thankful that things with some of them are better, but it didn’t happen without a lot of dedication and love from all of us.
Are there any stereotypes about general society that you found to be true?
There is a dearth of community generally, and there is a lot of hypersexuality. However, that is generally speaking. When it comes to individuals, there are always ways to build community and maintain decency in sexual matters. It is even possible to be restrained and decent in sexual matters without keeping them totally hidden in virtually every way. I enjoy being able to choose my own comfort level with these things. Oh, and most people are hugely stressed out by Christmas. Many enjoy it, but most are also quite stressed out by it. Me too, by the way.
Can you give an example of something that has completely changed in your way of thinking since you left?
Gender. The nature of gender, the nature of relationship between people of the same and of different genders. Mostly, I have learned that stereotypes and generalizations almost never apply, at least not totally, and often don’t apply at all.
Are there any societal and/or cultural experiences which have significantly shaped your worldview?
Did I mention law school?
What's the best thing about not being frum?
Just one? Probably, I would have to sum it up as having options. There are so many things I can do without worrying about halacha, from martial arts to riding horses to law school to shaking hands to dressing however I want—which is generally pretty restrained, by the way. As for the best thing, I’d have to go with my marriage.
What's the best thing that you recall about being frum?
Succos and Pesach. Oops, that’s two things. Seriously, the seasons of holidays, especially the longer holidays. It's awesome having a physical, spiritual and emotional retreat from the world for a week a couple of times a year.
If you could change one thing about the community you left, what would it be?
Well, I don’t really see the community as having traits. I do wish the quality of education was better. My mother is an educator and sometimes it seemed that she faced an impossible task. The students, and all too often, the parents, have the attitude that Jews are smarter, and so they don’t need to work as hard, and why bother anyway? It’s only English! Of course, this actually goes for limudei kodesh too, because not much is demanded in terms of teacher qualifications other than decent grades and a decent seminary. Teaching ability doesn’t seem to matter, and I recall some really great and some really not so great teachers from middle and high school. Mostly though, they were just young women supremely unqualified for what they were doing. One or two stumbled into a great talent, but most did not. I include myself in this, by the way. I taught for almost two years and was not, to be honest, very good at it.
Perhaps a strange choice of criticism, but I can’t really think of anything else that is a feature of the community as a whole. Certainly, as in every community, there are some individuals’ behaviors I found off-putting or upsetting, but not much that’s really systemic.
Is there anything else about your life you'd like to elaborate on?
Yes. I have experienced mental illness. I have this in common with a huge proportion of the population of the world. It’s neither a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just a fact. It doesn’t mean that I’m an “at risk youth”--I’m thirty, for goodness’ sake. In fact, I wasn’t an at-risk youth when I left. I was a Bais Yaakov teacher, a remarkably good girl with an odd insistence on attending a secular university.
Now, this is the part where frum people tend to say “Aha! See, normal people don’t go off the derech! There’s something wrong with her!” The thing is that occasional mental illness is about as normal as it gets. That makes about as much sense as saying “Aha! She’s a diabetic! No wonder she left!”. Sure, people can do rash things unthinkingly, but leaving frumkeit is rarely one of them. Mental illness rarely removes one’s ability to think.
To the rest of the world, I’m an intelligent woman in a happy marriage with one kiddo and another on the way, with a good record in law school and a good career ahead of me. To the frum world, I’ll always be “that crazy kid who left, who's got something wrong with her”.
Now, we all have myths we gotta cling to, but that particular one—that everyone who leaves is too crazy to make up her own mind, that we somehow need help to see the light—is more worthy of the Soviet Union than of Orthodox Jewry. I remember hearing stories of how the Soviets would label people who wanted to leave as crazy. It seemed horrifying. I never dreamed it would happen to me, but from the frum community. That’s just wrong.
Are there any parting words you'd like to tell the frum world?
You gave me a good start, too bad it didn’t work out. I’ve moved on, you’ve moved on. Truce?