Can you describe the religious environment that you came from?
Chassidish. Beard, Peyes, Shtreimel, Williamsburg, Monsey. You know, Chassidish.
Yeah, I think we know what you mean. What can you tell us about the religious tone in your home?
As a kid I wanted to join the Miami Boys Choir, but they were deemed too “modern”.
Can you highlight an example of an experience you encountered that made you question your upbringing?
My fathers brother - who is not frum - is married to a non-Jewish woman, when he came to visit us for a family simcha, he was informed that his wife was not welcome. In theory it was not a new concept to me, but to see that upfront really bothered me.
Was the impetus for your transition primarily intellectual, emotional, social, cultural, or some other factor?
A combination of a few of those, as I told one the “experts” sent to talk sense back into me: I don’t believe, I don’t care, I don’t want, I don’t like. At first it was the extremism that bothered me, but as I started to dig deeper, everything I grew up believing in started crumbling before my eyes.
In what way did you dig deeper? And what were some of the things that started falling apart?
I read books, spoke to "professionals" aka Rabbonim, and researched matters of faith, religion, God, nature, etc. to death. The more I looked though, the less proof I found for the things I grew up believing. Everything from the truth and/or infallibility of the Torah, to general claims of the supernatural, all the way to the belief in god, came up short in the evidence department. When my father confronted me, I asked him the questions I was having, and after yelling and screaming for a while, he basically said there are certain places he won't go (figuratively)...
Can you highlight one of the very first ways you crossed the halachic line?
Probably the first thing was not putting on tefillin, and at first I felt very guilty, but over time it stopped bothering me. Aside from that I remember the first time I ate gebrucks, heard “goyishe music”, and ate a cheeseburger, but by then I didn’t care anymore.
How old were you then?
About fifteen. It started out as indifference, and the feeling spread.
Was this period accompanied by intellectual challenges?
No. I wasn't having any big theological thoughts at the time. I believed in all of it, I was just cutting corners and feeling (at times) slightly guilty. When I got married, I was a perfectly content Chasidishe Yungerman. The intellectual issues that I mentioned all came after I was married.
How did your wife react to all these changes going on, and how did you get her on board?
At first she thought I had gone crazy, but eventually she came around. We had a lot of discussions and I made it very clear to her what I felt, but I didn't force her to agree with me, and eventually she got it. At the time, it took a serious toll on our marriage, but we pulled through, and we're happier than ever.
How did you family react to your leaving?
Surprise ("You, out of everyone?!"), sadness ("What are people gonna say?!"), anger ("You loser!"). At first they wouldn’t talk to me, but they slowly came around, and we are pretty close to normal now. I still love my family, warts and all.
What connection do you currently have to Jewish identity, religion, or culture?
My dog-tags say Jewish on them. When people ask I say I’m Jewish, but I don’t really do anything overly Jewish. On the other hand I keep track obsessively with news and gossip from back home. Oh, and I’m hopelessly in love with Jewish music.
What is something from your religious past that you miss in your life now?
Yamim Tovim with family, some of the food, but mostly the assuredness. Ignorance is definitely bliss.
Are there any behaviors or perspectives from your past religious life that are still dominant in your life now?
I am no prude, but I do think the outside is a little over sexualized, but who am I to complain about that? In addition, my eating habits are definitely influenced by my past. I don’t like bacon, seafood, pepperoni pizza, or cheese on my burgers.
How do you currently view the religious community you came from? (Hostility, fondness, indifference, etc.)
Again, a mix of the above. While I disagree categorically with everything they stand for, I still am a bit jealous of the naivete and innocence of most of the people I grew up around. Plus, I still have many good friends there.
Do you still believe in some form of God or in some version of Judaism?
Absolutely not. I am a 100%, flaming atheist. And not because of any experience I had growing up, but rather through years of studying and trying to reconcile what I believed growing up, with science and nature.
What are some of the drawbacks of your decision to leave?
Not being as close to my family as I once was bothers me. Hurting them through my actions as well, but the alternative was for me to have had a nervous break-down. I chose the former.
Are there any particular struggles or challenges that you find especially difficult in the transition?
Leaving the community was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was gut wrenching, and took years to actually go through with. I basically lost all my friends and family, and had to restart my life from scratch.
What are some things that helped you get through those difficult times?
My grandparents - who are not frum - and my wife, who wasn’t far behind me in our journey. Also getting up and leaving the area entirely. I got on a plane and flew across the country just to get away.
Can you name something significant which you are currently doing in your life, or that you've experienced, which would have been difficult, if not impossible, in your former life?
The very way I make a living. I’m in the Army. There’s no way I could have joined before. I wanted to serve my country, I was looking for an adventure, and excitement, and I wanted to prove to myself that I had it (whatever it is) in me, and I was able to do that by joining the Army. I have a job satisfaction I never had before, even in jobs where I made many time more than what I make now. None of this would have been possible before.
Is there anything that you hope to achieve now which wouldn't have been possible when you were frum?
Get my PH.D. (working on it), run a marathon (working on it), and most of all blend in with society (done).
What surprised you most about the world outside ultra-orthodoxy?
How regular and mundane it is, we were told growing up that the outside world is like a scene out of Mad Max, just death, destruction, crime, and rape (it's not). Another thing is the reaction I get all the time from people, “You’re Jewish?!” Yeah, uh what did you expect - horns?
What is one misconception or stereotype about ex-frum people that you'd like to correct?
Well the obvious, we’re not all miserable, drug addicts, sex-hungry, or crazy. I was happily married, doing well financially, had many friends, and happy, but I still chose to do what I did.
How does your life now compare to when you were frum?
I am by far a much happier fulfilled person now, and as I said I was a perfectly happy, adjusted person before.
Can you give an example of something that has completely changed in your way of thinking since you left?
Before leaving, I was very conservative (I voted for Bush twice), since leaving I’ve become a lot more liberal in my thinking (not only did I vote for Obama, I cried when he won), which is one more thing I don’t discuss with my family.
Are there any societal and/or cultural experiences which have significantly shaped your worldview?
Being stationed in Korea (great Chabad House), and just by studying society and culture, through books, the internet movies, and so on.
What's the best thing about not being frum?
FREEDOM OF CHOICE. And the fact that when I finally stopped believing in God, it was a huge burden off my shoulders. People say religion is comforting, I see it quite the opposite. Aside from the constant guilt, unattainable goals, and illogic, religion tells you there is somebody to blame when things go wrong. How is that comforting? (I know all the arguments, don’t waste your time) Nature on the other hand is organized chaos, who are gonna blame for that? By the way, I did not set out looking for the conclusions I found. At first I genuinely thought I could find a way to make my beliefs jive with what I was learning about science. But alas, it didn't work out that way.
What's the best thing that you recall about being frum?
Like I said, yomim tovim, simchas, family and friend gatherings, etc.
If you could change one thing about the community you left, what would it be?
To be more open-minded. But then they wouldn’t be the same community I left.
Do you think there's anything that the frum world could have done to keep you "on the derech"?
No. I tried all different level of Orthodoxy, even Conservative, and Reform Judaism, they all have the same fundamental flaws.
What flaws are you referring to? Aren’t there fundamental differences to the three branches?
They all believe in the supernatural, to one extent or another.
Is there anything else about your life you'd like to elaborate on?
Sure. Check out my blog: http://heathenhassid.blogspot.com/
Sure. Check out my blog: http://heathenhassid.blogspot.com/
Are there any parting words you'd like to tell the frum world?
Don’t hate the player, hate the game.