By Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin MA
Director: Jewish Professionals Institute www.jpi.org
Our recent article “Focus on Footsteps” opened up an important discussion about young adults who leave the world of Orthodoxy and who are helped by the Footsteps organization. Thank you to the readers for their many insightful comments about this situation.
There are many reasons for what make anyone Frum go “off the Derech” (OTD). There are as many reasons as there are youth and adults who go OTD. While from the perspective of those inside the world of Orthodoxy it looks one way, for those who have gone OTD it looks quite different. Happily Frum and Orthodox people look at Frum and Orthodox life as the most wonderful thing, yet for those on the outside that same beautiful world looks quite different.
When the Frum versus the OTD crowds talk about a life of Torah and Mitzvos one would think they come from different planets. How do things reach such a situation? How do Orthodox families, schools and communities lose members in this day and age?
It is not good enough to say that it was “always” like that, that there have always been people who have left Yiddishkeit. That is true, but every age and time is different.
We know why people left Yiddishkeit in the 1800s and 1900s in Eastern Europe. Persecution under the anti-Semites became unbearable and many Jews lost hope and turned to Socialism and Bolshevism.
We know why Jews abandoned Judaism in Western Europe in the 1700s and 1800s. Enlightenment and Haskala broke down the Ghetto walls and Jews were welcomed with open arms into France’s and Germany’s newly liberated societies following Napoleon’s victories.
We know why Jewish immigrants to the USA in the 1800s and 1900s “threw their Tefilin” literally and figuratively into New York City’s rivers as they got off the boats at Ellis Island. They felt that “in America things were different” and that “the streets were paved with gold” and that the rules of the game in life to “make it big” in the “American Dream” were different to the Alte Heim’s (“old country”) slow Farshlofena (“sleepy”) pace in Europe.
And we know why many Holocaust survivors lost their faith and were Misya’eish (“gave up”). The sheer brutality of the Nazi’s “Final Solution” was such a “Churban” (“destruction”) so horrible that it destroyed the inner lives of so many who had suffered.
So now the question is, as we are 70 to 100 to 200 years away from those events and we now live in a world of freedom and opportunities and of reborn Torah in America with massive Orthodox communities of every kind, from Modern Orthodox to the most Chasidic, what is it today, in the here and now, given today’s realities that makes some people “jump ship” and not only abandon Orthodoxy, but work hard to expunge it from their lives for something they believe to be a “better life”?
Here are some testimonies as posted by Footsteps openly and publicly:
“Avi, Rochel and Ushy’s Stories: At Footsteps we found Community
Avi: When I joined Footsteps seven years ago, I found people who appreciated the many unique challenges I faced as an Orthodox expatriate: Adjusting to an altered social and religious identity; constructing a value system of my own; navigating new kinds of relationships; dealing with aggrieved family and friends; stepping into what I had been told was a dangerous world full of people I couldn’t trust; and coping with the lingering guilt and self-doubt about my decision to leave…
Ushy: …No one goes to Footsteps because they want to be alone; you go to Footsteps because you want to meet other people who know what you’ve been through. Everybody appreciates what it’s like to leave ultra-Orthodoxy in order to do something new – that’s the common denominator…
Rochel: I didn’t join Footsteps until seven years after I left ultra-Orthodoxy. I decided to go because I was feeling kind of lonely. I had secular friends and I even still had my family, but I didn’t have anyone who really understood me. It was like there was a here and there but nothing in the middle. Footsteps became that middle. Finding people who understood me gave me a sense of confidence that I didn’t have before. When I’m at Footsteps, I am in my element…”
These are not people worried about bloody Pogroms or ferocious Cossacks hunting them, nor are they in love with Enlightenment and Haskala. They did not come to America in “steerage” on creaky steamships via Ellis Island and they did not experience Kristalnacht and the Holocaust! So why are they leaving Yiddishskeit for what they imagine that “the grass is always greener on the other side” that Footsteps clearly gets and steps in to fulfill the quest of these lonely seekers?
After all, we are in the so-called “Age of Aquarius” the “Modern Age” also known as the “Information Age” and the “Leisure Age” where people have the time to meditate and think about that there must be a “higher purpose” in life that will also be “fun”!
As someone involved in Kiruv Rechokim for over 40 years I state without any doubt that these people are “Baalei Teshuva (BT) in Reverse” meaning they are going through the same angst, questioning, existential loneliness with a search for community that will accept and understand them, and a need for higher meaning and purpose that secular Jews feel when they come searching for Torah true Judaism even though they are not consciously aware of every last motivational force, including Hashgocha Protis (“Divine Providence”).
The folks who join Footsteps and the kids who leave Orthodoxy are on the same exact highway of those folks and kids who are coming into Orthodoxy but they are travelling in opposite directions on the same highway of a search for meaning, identity and community and for a higher purpose that they are not finding in their prior lives.
In both cases, for BTs and OTDs, it is the failure to understand them and communicate with them in the unique “language” of today’s day and age and not to see them as “just like” Korach or like the rebels of previous times. These are not “crazies” or “rebels” but rather these are people searching for something more in life, if only they could find people who speak their language and understand the unique condition of modern man and woman in the 21st century.
To be continued…