Today I'm pleased to bring you an interview which will differ slightly from the previous profiles. Until now, I've only highlighted individuals who hail from strictly chareidi backgrounds. Today, we will be getting to know someone who comes from a different kind of Orthodox upbringing. Elisheva is a former Modern Orthodox Jew who grew up in the Tri-State area. She began to question her faith during her high school years. In her early twenties, she married a man from an Orthodox background and together they gradually became less and less observant until they ultimately left the Orthodox Jewish community altogether. Here is Elisheva's story.
Can you describe the religious environment that you came from?
I came from a centrist Modern Orthodox home. My family were members of a local Young Israel, I attended coed Modern Orthodox day schools, studied in a Modern Orthodox seminary for a year post high school and attended Modern Orthodox summer camps throughout my life. I was also involved in youth groups such as NCSY and B'nei Akiva. My family has a "Torah U'Mada" philosophy and are very Zionistic.
What was the impetus for your transition out of that world?
My transition out of Orthodoxy had a solely intellectual basis. But I did not have any earth shattering epiphanies. Starting in high school I started to question even the basics of the "Ani Ma'amins" and stopped davening when I felt like all I was doing was faking it anyway. In college, with the help of courses in religion, political science, anthropology, psychology and philosophy, it became apparent to me that all religions were human creations and that one could lead a productive and moral life outside of a religious structure.
Did you try to reconcile these conflicts with any religious figures?
Throughout high school and especially during my year studying at a seminary in Israel I was constantly questioning my teachers and rabbis. Constantly. Some of my teachers grew so impatient with me that though I had earned a Salutatorian spot in High School for Judaic Studies based on my grades, my teachers chose to skip over me to the student ranked below me for this honor as they had concerns about my commitment to Yiddishkeit.
There was one particular rabbi in high school that had more patience for my skepticism than most. We often met one-on-one and we would talk religion and he would allow me to ask anything I wanted. He even gave me a set of books on Musar at graduation, something he didn't give any other student. I am sure his concerns for my religious future were behind the gift.
I sought out the same types of relationship with teachers and rabbis in seminary. I really wanted to believe. Life would have been much easier if I could have remained a believer. For many years I walked the walk, hoping "me'toch she' lo l'shma ba l'shma"- basically, I hoped that if I kept doing it, I would believe.
My teachers and rabbis tried. I tried. But I was always a big reader and the more I read, the more alternative ways to look at life and the world there seemed to be. I am not saying that I have all or even any of the answers, I am just saying that the Judaic version of god is no less a fairy tale to me than the FSM or the tooth fairy. Hashem is no less mythological than Zeus or Athena.
Can you highlight one of the very first ways you crossed the halachic line?
Even as a "frum" Jew, like all frum Jews, I messed up. But the first time I actively made the choice to cross a line was when I was about 21 and I had my first slice of non-kosher pizza. It was no big deal.
Were there any lines that were a big deal to cross?
I'll never forget the first time I drove on Shabbat. I had stayed at a hotel on a Friday night and there was a mistake with my reservation. They did not have space for me for Saturday night and I needed to find another hotel to stay at. It was summer and a million degrees outside. Because it was camp Visiting Day Weekend in the area, I was concerned that I would have trouble finding a place for Saturday night. I decided to get in the car and drive to look for an available hotel room for Saturday night. I wasn't a believer anymore, but I hadn't crossed that line yet. Incidentally, I stopped at an antique store on my route and when I returned to the car, I had discovered that I had locked my keys in the car. I had to call AAA from the store (these were days before cell phones). Every time I tell this story, I am asked if I wondered if god was punishing me. I didn't. And when I realized that I didn't, I knew for certain that I really didn't believe anymore.
On the other hand, I still don't eat pork or shell fish. I bit into shrimp once when having lunch with a friend. We ordered a "box lunch" which came with a variety of food. I didn't know what it was and it tasted weird. When my friend told me it was shrimp, I started to gag and had to spit it out. Some things are just still ingrained. I can't learn to think of pork or shell fish as food choices any more than I can imagine eating dog or cat.
How did you family react to your leaving?
I remember one specific day when I was about 24 and already married with a child. I had gone with my father to visit my ailing grandfather. Afterwards, I sat him down at a Dunkin' Donuts (a kosher one of course) and told him, "daddy, we (my husband and I) are not shomer shabbos." He didn't say much in response or argue with me. I don't know what he took away from that conversation and I did not bring up the status of my religious observance again and neither did he. Years later he found out from a sibling that I had met my non-frum aunt and uncle for lunch on a Shabbat when they were visiting from out of town. My father called me seemingly shocked that I would meet someone at a non-kosher resturant on a Shabbat. I was shocked that he was shocked. I thought I had made myself clear many years before that I was no longer an observant Jew and I didn't understand his reaction. This led to some intense verbal conflicts. Basically my father told me that he simply expected that "the pendulum would eventually swing the other way." He was shocked that it hadn't. After a handful of heated discussions, things quieted down.
Both my husband and I are ex-OJ Jews. We celebrate many religious holidays with our parents and siblings at their homes and do our best to be respectful of the their beliefs and practices. Our children have been raised to follow their family members' more stringent observances when we are with them as to respect their way of life. We mostly actively avoid talking about religion as it is an uncomfortable subject. I think that our families love us but are hurting because they believe that we are not living life as Hashem intended.
What connection do you currently have to Jewish identity, religion, or culture?
Though I consider myself an atheist, I am a member of a Conservative Jewish shul and send my children to a CJ day school. In shul, however, I do not participate in the services. I avoid the High Holidays but on many Shabbatot, I am a member of the "lobby minyan," which is basically a whole bunch of us who come to shul solely for the sake of community. I do not consider myself a Conservative Jew because I neither believe in the tenets of Conservative Judaism nor do I observe halacha to CJ standards.
I don't like everything that my children are taught in school. However, I am focused on the fact that they are getting a good education and being provided with an avenue to develop a solid Jewish identity and understanding of their heritage. They are learning to speak Hebrew and are being taught to love Israel, and they are being provided with a values based education. The values are certainly Judaic derived, but the school is egalitarian, includes children of gay parents and invites Jews of any denomination to attend. So the values that I value are included in the curriculum and the ones that I find aversive are (for the most part) not there.
I have mixed feelings about the fact that my children are being taught to believe in God, but I am finding that with this particular school, the benefits outweigh the discomfort I might feel on this issue.
How do you handle it when your children come home from school and want to celebrate a Jewish holiday or ceremony?
There are whole Jewish movements, such as the Reconstructionist movement, in which Jews celebrate holidays and traditional rituals but do not believe in the concept of god in the OJ sense. I don't think of myself as a representitive of any particular Jewish movement but I am no different than many of the Reconstructionists in this way. My family eats matzah on Passover, builds a sukkah for sukkot and gives Mishloach Manot on Purim. We often share Shabbat meals with friends and when we do, we light candles, make kiddush and eat challah. Like the millions of non-OJ Jews who participated in a seder this year, we do this for the sake of tradition, not halachic observance.
How do you currently view the religious community you came from?
At first it was just a place that I didn't fit into anymore and for a very long time there was no hostility at all.
I discovered the J-Blog world about 2 years ago. Since then, I have to admit, I have been exposed to a number of Orthodox people, who, when free to anonymously spout what is on their minds, have shared some thoughts and beliefs in the name of Orthodox Judaism that I have found deeply offensive. I have found some of their notions so offensive, that I am finding myself developing an "anti" point of view. I wonder sometimes if I really understood what I was being taught growing up in the Orthodox world, and I feel like I am seeing some things completely differently now that I am both an adult and an outsider.
Do you still believe in some form of God or in some version of Judaism?
No. I don't believe in God. I do believe, however, that the evolution of Judaism (like all religions) derived out of the nature of human beings to want to develop civilized societies in which prosocial behavior is promoted and anti-social behavior is discouraged. Human beings are social animals always in search of ways to successfully coexist and share resources. I have a lot of respect for where the evolution of Judaism has taken human beings and recognize that Judaism has had a major role in civilizing the modern world.
What are some of the drawbacks of your decision to leave?
I miss some of the people with whom I grew up. There has always been a part of me that found it easier to make friends with other people from MO backgrounds, because of the common culture and upbringing. That, however, has gotten easier over time.
I kept my kitchen kosher for many years. However, my family would not eat my cooking or on my dishes because I am not Shomer Shabbos. Though I accept my family's reasons, I find it painful that I can never host Shabbat, Yom Tov or even Thanksgiving at my home unless the food is ordered from a kosher place and eaten on paper. I cook for friends all the time. I wish that I could cook for my family.
I have no regrets about leaving, but I wish I had done a better job of involving my family in the process. I thought I was protecting their feelings and treating them with respect when I kept my lack of observance quiet, but I found out later that the way I went about it hurt them and they felt that I had been keeping secrets from them.
There is no guilt. Leaving OJ was the right decision for me. I am living a life that I am proud of. I try to be a good person in a humanistic sense and aside from people who might cast me off because of my lack of belief in god, I really don't think that there are too many people who would disapprove of how I lead my life. I only feel sorry that my decisions have hurt some of my family, making them wonder if they have failed in some way.
Are there any particular struggles or challenges that you find especially difficult in the transition?
I found it overwhelmingly difficult to transition and I did it a little bit at a time. When I started, I had no idea where I would land and for a while it felt like I was in some sort of free fall. For a long time, as I became less and less observant, I still socialized primarily with the OJs. The process of leaving the OJ world was very lonely and I felt lost and disconnected from what had been my whole world. I was afraid that I would never again feel like I could fit in anywhere.
And how long did it take for you to feel like you did fit in again?
When my husband and I first got married, we lived in an apartment building that can best be described as being like a YU dorm for young married couples. We stayed for 7 years while we finished graduate school, started our careers, and saved money to buy a house. We had a lot of OJ friends there and it was wonderful when we had young children to always have someone's door to knock on when the kids needed a change of scenery. We had a lot in common with the people we lived around, we were in our twenties, we had young children, we were all saving up for houses, many of us were in graduate school or in the early stages of careers and almost all of us came from MO backgrounds. It was only with regards to religious observance that we didn't fit in.
We knew a lot of what we had in the apartments was good and wanted to retain some of the positives of living in a tight knit, supportive community where there is a focus on family life. A somewhat distant cousin suggested that we look into his neighborhood and the school where he sent his children. An ex-OJ himself, he related to us not wanting to "throw out the baby with the bath water." We wanted to be a part of a close knit community as we were accustomed to. My husband felt very strongly about sending our children to a Jewish Day School but did not want an OJ one. After spending some time in our cousin's neighborhood, we decided to buy a house there. I fit in pretty well in my current community. Though many of my friends are more observant CJs than we are, in our community, there are many like us as well and there is no pressure to hide what we do and do not observe or what we believe.
Is there anything that you hope to achieve now which wouldn't have been possible when you were frum?
No. I never felt that being frum held me back from any of my dreams. I wanted to have a family. I wanted to earn a graduate degree and build a meaningful career. I wanted to be a part of a close knit community. I am fortunate to have fulfilled these dreams. All of this would have been just as possible if I had stayed in the Modern Orthodox world.
What is one misconception or stereotype about ex-frum people that you'd like to correct?
Well, there are a few that come to mind. I want people to understand that my parents, teachers, youth leaders and community did nothing "wrong." I didn't leave the frum world because I was traumatized, angry or rebellious. It was a gradual process for me and I Ieft because I lost my belief in god and no longer believed Orthodox Judaism to have a monopoly on life's "truth."
How does your life now compare to when you were frum?
It is not as different as one might expect. I dress a little differently, eat in non-kosher restaurants and am not Shomer Shabbos. But I am a family woman, involved in chesed, and am an active member of my Jewish community. I care about Jewish causes, I often have Shabbat meals with friends and share Yom Tovim with friends and family. We may drive on Friday night to get to the meal, but it still has that community building feeling. I have fewer OJ friends (though a couple of my dearest friends are practicing Orthodox Jews), but still primarily socialize with Jews.
What's the best thing about not being frum?
Being frum was never a hardship when I believed in what I was doing. When I was a believer, I had no complaints. When my beliefs changed, my way of life changed, so I guess I am just glad that I never felt trapped into continuing in an OJ life past the time that I believed it to be truth.
What's the best thing that you recall about being frum?
It was great to believe that I had all the answers to life's questions. It was comforting to have a belief that there was a purpose to my life, that there was a reason that I was here and that there was some "right" way to be.
Is there anything that provides you with purpose and meaning in life now that you no longer believe in Orthodox Judaism?
I work in a helping profession and knowing that I am making a difference in people's lives is very meaningful to me. I also found that since becoming a mother, I certainly haven't lacked for purpose. I am not really all that bothered by existential angst anymore. I just try to live my life as a good person (by Humanist definitions), live up to my responsibilities and find joy where ever I can.
Do you think there's anything that the frum world could have done to keep you "on the derech"?
No. I don't think so. My siblings remain Orthodox as did almost every one of my childhood friends. I can't point to any specific reason or something that happened or didn't happen with me that was so different. The only thing that I could imagine that could have kept me "on the derech" is if I was kept from getting a higher education. But I am not sure that would have kept me "on the derech" either.