Once again, I am very excited to present a new interview for the 'Better Know a Kofer' series (see the sidebar for the other interviews). Our kofer today - a 45 year old molecular biologist who stopped being Orthodox only a year ago - tells quite a different story from our past interviewees. In fact, in some ways it's almost the exact opposite of Sara's story. Please join me in welcoming Shoshana to the blog.
Hello Shoshana, and thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. To begin, can you tell us a bit about the religious environment that you were raised in?
My background is a bit different from the other interviewees because I didn't grow up in an Orthodox home. I converted to Judaism as an adult. In fact, I was not raised in any sort of religious environment at all. My father was brought up Catholic and has a lot of negative feelings about the Catholic church. I don't know if my mother was raised with any religious upbringing; she certainly never spoke of one. When I was younger my parents did send me to Saturday morning Catholic education classes, which I think are probably the equivalent of afternoon Hebrew school. The teachers weren't very good, we didn't really learn anything, and even the nuns said the classes were a poor substitute for Catholic school. We rarely went to church and the classes ended at confirmation (age 12).
How did you get involved in Judaism?
I grew up in a predominantly Jewish suburb of Chicago and my dad was in the scrap metal business, so most of the people I knew were Jewish. I became attracted to Judaism because of them, particularly my best friend Robin. I liked the holidays, traditions and most of all the sense of being part of a community. When I got to college and began exploring different religions, I liked Judaism because I didn't have to believe in Jesus. I was never comfortable with the whole idea of Jesus.
After college, I hung around different synagogues for a couple of years. I had picked up enough Hebrew along the way that I could follow a service. For the holidays, I would usually go to a synagogue that didn't require tickets, so I never became a member anywhere. When I met my husband he belonged to a large Conservative congregation (800+ families). After he brought me as a guest on the High Holidays, the rabbi called to welcome me. The rabbi was a bit surprised that I hadn't converted, and invited me to come in and discuss it. I spent a few months studying. I had a pretty good Jewish background already, so there wasn't a lot to learn. It was during this process that I started asking fundamental questions, such as "Where did we get the Torah?" At the time, I didn't realize that that was such a politically charged question. I was disappointed that the rabbi didn't have a better answer. He told me that the Orthodox believed in Torah m'Sinai, but wasn't able to give me a coherent alternative to TMS.
So what brought you to Orthodoxy?
After about a year as a member of the Conservative synagogue, I really became dissatisfied. It was a large congregation and I didn't find it to be very welcoming or personal. I met an Aish HaTorah rabbi at a funeral and started talking to him. He invited me to attend some classes. I'm pretty sure he didn't realize I had already converted to Conservative Judaism. When it later came up, there was a very awkward conversation with his wife which ended with her suggesting that I break up with the man I would eventually marry. I don't recall who, or if anyone, suggested an Orthodox conversion, but I eventually called an Orthodox rabbi on my own to talk about converting.
My Orthodox conversion was very different from my Conservative one. I was living with my future husband at the time and obviously had to move out. I moved in with a wonderful family and lived with them for over a year. I live in a medium sized city with a small Orthodox community (100 or so shomer shabbos families). Over the years the Orthodox community has become much more yeshivish due to an influx of families from New York, but at the time, there were a handful of kollel families and the rest were BTs. Some people were incredibly welcoming, others weren't; I had a mix of good and bad experiences. I remained Orthodox for 18 years.
What was the impetus for your transition out of Orthodoxy?
My move out of Orthodoxy was due to a combination of intellectual and social factors. While I always had certain intellectual issues with some of the things the Kiruv folks said, e.g. I had some reservations about the Kuzari "proof", I was willing to push my intellectual doubts to the back of my mind in order to obtain the social benefits of being frum. Those social benefits began to decline when my son started having trouble in school. Against the advice of the school’s principal and our rabbi, my husband and I opted to pull our son out of the day school. After that, we became marginalized in the frum community - we stopped getting invitations for meals, frum kids wouldn’t associate with our son, I was virtually ignored at shul and eventually stopped going. After my husband passed away and I became a widow, I was even more marginalized.
Was it primarily the unpleasant social dynamic that was causing you to feel more distant from Judaism or were there also ideological/philosophical difficulties arising?
I think there are three parts to my answer to this question. First, there was just the general social difficulties of widows, particularly young widows. Orthodox women my age are busy with children and grandchildren; we did not have a lot of common ground. Secondly, my husband was the only person I could talk to about how I honestly felt about things. After a few years in Orthodoxy the luster began to wear off and we started to see problems in the community. We often talked about how we felt we were in the story "The Emperor's New Clothes," i.e. there were problems that everyone pretended didn't exist. Without having my husband to talk to, I found it harder to live in this kind of environment. Finally, my husband's cancer diagnosis and eventual death did cause me to have questions about my faith and belief in God and I didn't find Orthodoxy's answers satisfying. For example, shortly after my husband was diagnosed, a rabbi suggested that we have our mezzuzahs checked. I understand that the rabbi meant well, but I find it hard to believe that God would give someone cancer because their mezzuzah's weren't kosher.
When I first started looking outside of Orthodoxy, I needed to address my original question of "Where did we get the Torah?" This was the question that got me into Orthodoxy. If the Torah was from Sinai, then, at least according to my thinking, I had to follow it. When I was involved with Aish HaTorah I heard the Kuzari argument and I am now embarrassed to say that I believed it. All it took was a quick internet search to find lots of counter-arguments, perhaps not enough to convince someone that it isn't true, but at least enough to introduce doubt. I am embarrassed to say that I didn't do this research earlier and that I bought into the Kiruv arguments. I should have been more skeptical and less trusting. I feel like I got taken by a con man.
Can you highlight one of the very first ways you crossed the halachic line?
My first acts were for convenience rather than to make a statement, e.g. if I forgot to turn off my alarm before Shabbos, I would turn it off on Shabbos. My thoughts were that it was ridiculous to spend all of Shabbos listening to the alarm because I wasn’t allowed to flip the switch. Later, when I started doing more public things, such as driving, I felt guilty when I was in the frum neighborhood; if I wasn’t in the frum neighborhood, it didn’t bother me. I think the first time I drove on Shabbos was when I was out of town. My son got sick and we decided to come home early, rather than stay through the weekend. I didn’t give it a second thought when I loaded up the car and drove off on Shabbos, but I was concerned about getting home before dark and having someone see me.
How has your family reacted to the changes you've instituted in your life?
My family has always been wonderfully supportive in everything I’ve done. They didn’t object to me converting or becoming frum and they haven’t said anything about my going OTD, other than to ask if I would be joining them when they went out for dinner.
How have the Orthodox people from your past reacted? Has it affected your relationship with them in a significant way?
At this point I do not have any contact with my Orthodox friends. I have been avoiding them because I'm not ready to explain my decision to go OTD. I don't want to hurt them and I don't want to fight with them. It would be nice if they could see that I am happy and accept my decision, but I'm afraid that they won't.
What connection do you currently have to Jewish identity, religion, or culture?
I currently belong to a wonderful Jewish Renewal congregation and am actively involved.
Can you elaborate on what Jewish Renewal is?
I don't know that I'm the best person to do this, as I'm still trying to figure out what it is myself. Basically, the synagogue I attend now is very free flowing, do what feels meaningful for you. Very 60s. There is a lot of singing and talking about individual spirituality, not a lot of structure. Also a lot of emphasis on building community. Every service is different.
What is something from your religious past that you miss in your life now?
I really miss Shabbos. I always attend Shabbat services and come out feeling wonderful and refreshed, but then I get in my car, some idiot cuts me off in traffic, and the whole mood is spoiled.
Are there other aspects of shabbos which you observe besides going to services?
I try to do things that are "shabbosdik", e.g. read, meditate. I don't go shopping, do chores, check my email or do other things I would do during the week. I prefer that my son not watch television or play video games, but that's not a battle I want to fight.
How old is your son? How has he adapted to changing his lifestyle and living without halacha ruling his life?
My son is 14. He never liked being Orthodox, never fit well in the Orthodox community, so he is thrilled with all of the changes. We talk a lot about things I consider important, e.g. be honest, kind, etc. and things I don't consider important, e.g. dressing like a penguin.
Are there any behaviors or perspectives from your past religious life that are still dominant in your life now?
I like to think that being frum taught me about ethical behavior. I am still very conscious of shmiras ha lashon. In fact, I still read the Chofetz Chaim's "Lesson a Day." My husband was also very careful about what he said. When we decided to pull our son out of the day school we spent hours discussing what we would and would not tell people because we didn't want to say anything negative about the school or people involved in the school.
How do you currently view the religious community you were a part of?
Although I can understand why some OTDers might have very negative feelings about the frum world, I don’t. My son still has a lot of anger and I am trying to help him work through it so he can let go of it. I think it takes a lot of energy to be angry and I don’t want to waste energy on the people who hurt me. I miss some of my friends and being able to have some of the experiences; other people I don’t miss at all.
Do you still believe in some form of God or in some version of Judaism?
Yes, though I am still working out what it is.
What are some of the drawbacks of your decision to leave? Do you regret it at all? Is there any guilt?
As I said, I miss Shabbos. I don’t regret leaving; I think it’s one of the best decisions I ever made. If anything, I regret not leaving sooner.
Do you think that becoming frum was also a good decision?
That's a question I've given a lot of thought to. At this point, I regret becoming frum, though I do see some positive things came out of it. If I hadn't become frum I probably would not have gotten married and wouldn't have my son. Additionally, I learned a lot. When I first started going to the synagogue I attend the rabbi commented that I might be frustrated because I am far more knowledgeable than most of the membership.
Are there any particular struggles or challenges that you find especially difficult in the transition?
It has been hard losing my Orthodox friends. At some point I am going to need to talk to a few of them and let them know what's going on with me. It would be nice if they could accept my decision, but I've heard the way they talk about the synagogue I now attend, so I don't think they will.
Being OTD is still very new for me. I've landed in a Jewish Renewal synagogue, but I don't know if that's where I will stay. It's a comfortable place for me to be right now while I figure out what I believe and what I want.
What helped you get through the challenges of leaving Orthodoxy?
The people at my new synagogue have been tremendously welcoming and supportive. At first, I was afraid to tell them that I had been Orthodox, but no one has held it against me.
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?
Not really, but I never totally conformed to the frum code of behavior anyway. I just completed my first marathon, but I would have done that anyway. I want to do some serious mountain climbing and through hike the Appalachian trail. My son’s life has been much more affected than mine. He has been in plays and traveled with the school chess team, which he wouldn’t have been able to do because of Shabbos.
What surprised you most about the world outside ultra-orthodoxy?
Nothing really, but I never totally left it. I guess the one thing that surprises me is that no one has held it against me that I used to be frum.
What led you to believe that they would?
I've heard non-frum Jews make negative statements about Orthodoxy, just as Orthodox Jews make negative statements about other movements.
What is one misconception or stereotype about ex-frum people that you’d like to correct?
That we’re all angry, lonely, bitter drug addicts. We’re not.
When you were frum, what was your reaction when you heard some of the stereotypes that were expressed by frum people about general society?
At first, when I heard some of the outrageous stereotypes I just kept quiet. During my conversion I didn't want to do or say anything that I thought would jeopardize my conversion. My husband and I would talk about things, particularly later when we started to see flaws in the Orthodox community, but I didn't discuss it with anyone else. After he died, I lost the one person I could talk to about how I honestly felt about some things which made it harder for me to stay in the Orthodox community.
How does your life now compare to when you were frum?
Much, much better.
Care to elaborate?
I think what's better is that I'm living honestly. When I was frum I felt like I couldn't always say what I was thinking or I wasn't free to disagree with things I disagree with. There was a lot of pressure to conform. Now I'm not afraid to speak up when I disagree.
Are there any societal and/or cultural experiences which have significantly shaped your worldview?
Watching my husband die of cancer has definitely changed the way I look at things. I have less tolerance for BS and I am less concerned about other people’s expectations. I refuse to live my life just "going through the motions."
How did being frum play a role in how you dealt with that ordeal?
Being frum was both helpful and not helpful during the ordeal. It was helpful in that many people in the community were tremendously supportive of my physical needs. People brought me meals, helped with rides to doctor's appointments, etc. I will always be grateful for their help. However, I did not find much psychological support. Being a caregiver is emotionally and psychologically exhausting, but the frum perspective seems to be "suck it up" because "it's a mitzvah." I also tired of people trying to link my husband's illness to a behavior, e.g. check your mezzuzahs, don't speak loshon hara, etc.
After my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer somebody called me to tell me that different ailments are associated with certain types of aveiros and lung ailments are associated with loshon hara. I'm sure the person thought she was being helpful, but the implication was that my husband's lung cancer was a punishment for speaking loshon hara. I understand that because frum people believe that everything happens for a reason they have a real need to find a cause for every bad thing that happens. But, I can't tell you how upsetting it is to be in the midst of trying to cope with a fatal illness and getting calls from people who think they have ruach hakodesh.
By the way, from my conversations with other widows I know that kind of behavior isn't limited to frum Jews. But it did kind of surprise me. A lot of frum Jews like to claim moral superiority, but when it comes to helping people in crisis, my experience with frum Jews is mixed. Some people I knew were great, but some weren't. And it was my non-Jewish neighbors who noticed that my grass needed cutting and came over and cut it.
Is there anything positive in your life that you would attribute to having gotten from the frum world?
I learned a lot about Judaism by being frum. My Hebrew is better than almost anyone I know outside of the frum world.
What’s the best thing about not being frum?
I don’t have to put up with judgmental, holier than thou attitudes.
What’s the best thing that you recall about being frum?
Shabbos. I miss the peace and calmness I used to feel on Shabbos. When I go to services now I do get into a peaceful state, but then I have to drive home and as soon as I get in traffic I get tense again. I try to create the Shabbos feeling as much as I can. Recently I started making Shabbos dinner again and then I go to services afterward (services don't start until 8) which is nice, but it's not the same.
Do you have a favorite character or incident from the Bible?
I've always been intrigued by Orpah. Even when I was frum, I wondered what it was that made Ruth stay with Naomi and Orpah return home. I wonder if it's just that she missed her family or if she saw something in Judaism that she didn't like.
If you could change one thing about the community you left, what would it be?
I would like it to be more tolerant and accepting, less judgmental. I would like people to be a little less sure of themselves and more aware of the gray areas of life.
Do you think there’s anything that the frum world could have done to keep you "on the derech"?
Not unless they were willing to change their entire mindset.
Are there any parting words you’d like to tell the frum world?
There is a lot of good in the frum world, but the frum world does not have a monopoly on goodness. The frum world is not as good as it thinks it is; the outside world is not as bad as the frum world thinks it is.