Below is a post I wrote in 2008 that also appeared on the Beyond BT blog. In this post I gave my interpretation of why some baal teshuvas choose to go back to their secular lives. Although the reasons I gave do apply to some folks (and I was basing my rationales on the experiences of people I knew), and ongoing inspiration and support might prevent some baal teshuvas from going off the derech, the reasons why people leave are varied and complicated. Sometimes, the matter is as simple as trying out a certain lifestyle, and realizing that it’s not for you. Until you live a religious life day in and day out for a significant period of time, you can’t really know how you are going to take to it in the long run.
This is not a valid reason to go off the derech according to kiruv professionals, or any dedicated religious person. An orthodox person believes that every Jew should ideally be orthodox. You are either on the (orthodox) derech or off the (orthodox) derech. There is no such thing as going on a different derech – still being a committed and believing Jew, but not identifying as orthodox. I have found this attitude to be true from haredi Jews to modern orthodox Jews. This might be a reason why some Jews schooled in orthodox philosophy leave all forms of Judaism behind when they choose to leave. When you are taught it’s all or nothing and you don’t want it all, you choose nothing.
Dixie Yid wrote an interesting post entitled, Where to Focus When Adults Go Off the Derech. The post was in response to Harry Maryles, who wrote about a few men who went off the derech. One of the men was a Talmud Chacham who lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Despite being a respected scholar and authoring several seforim, he recently went off the derech and is no longer religious. Both Dixie Yid and Rabbi Maryles presented their arguments for why adults go off the derech.
Dixie Yid feels that certain negative personality types – the glass is always half empty – are prone to this type of disengagement. This negative tendency not only splinters their relationship with the Jewish community, but also with family, friends, coworkers and any other relationship that requires compromise, patience, and being dan l’chaf zchus.
Rabbi Maryles feels that the frum community is at fault when an adult goes off the derech. He touched on the issue of poverty in the frum community as being an issue that can challenge faith. When the Ramat Beit Shemesh Talmud Chacham was desperate to feed his family, the only advice he was offered was to sweep doorsteps to earn a few shekels. Another man was consumed with loneliness, and took no pleasure in Shabbos or Yom Tov without a family to share it with. His isolation was so great that he felt he would get more satisfaction and concrete results from working on Shabbos and Yom Tov than simply sitting in shul and davening for parnassah.
Rabbi Maryles feels that when a frum person reaches out to leaders/teachers/community members with questions or statements that can indicate a growing lapse of faith, instead of being taken under wing, leaders/teachers/community members chastise the person or attempt to silence them. A person who asks such questions could be a bad influence on impressionable people within the community. Better to have that “bad apple” go off the derech instead of taking the risk that they might rot the whole bushel. In a way the sacrifice can be seen as pekuach nefesh – sacrificing the unbelieving rodef for the good of maintaining the believers. Whether this is an acknowledged systematic approach or simply the inability of the frum community to deal with the questions that arise from a crisis of faith, the result is the same.
Both Dixie Yid and Rabbi Maryles raise interesting arguments on where to point the blame when a frum yid goes off the derech. I think that their theories apply to those who are frum from birth, but I think that the baal teshuvah (BT) angle differs. Of course, personality type, poverty, and community support or lack thereof, can also have a tremendous effect on whether a BT stays committed to yiddishkeit. However, sometimes none of these things determine someone leaving the fold.
As a BT myself, and as someone who has known quite a few BT’s who have both “stayed the course” as well as those who left the frum lifestyle, I offer a different perspective. Obviously, this is just one type of perspective. The illustration I offer below is a generic compilation of experiences from some of the BT’s I have known who decided frumkeit was not for them. While some people turn to yiddishkeit precisely because their origins were abusive or unsatisfying, I am offering the viewpoint of the opposite.
Picture growing up as a non-frum Jewish girl.
You live with your mom and dad, and frequently see your grandparents and extended family. You have 0-3 siblings, live in a fairly spacious home with a two car garage, an expansive yard, and possibly have a canine member of the family. You live in a nice suburb with a great safety record and an amazing school system that gets top ratings nationwide. There is a large population of Reform and Conservative Jews in your area, and your family belongs to the more religious sector because they belong to the Conservative synagogue, avoid bread on Pesach, fast on Yom Kippur, and light Shabbat candles every Friday night before going out to dinner.
Every year your family takes at least two vacations – one to a warm spot in the winter, and one to a family fun destination in the summer. You grow up listening to all types of music; go to concerts; go to plays; participate in dance/drama/gymnastics and a host of sports – some coed and some all girls; attend school dances; and have your first steady boyfriend by 7th grade.
You can’t think of summer without remembering the smell of Coppertone Suntan Lotion, bathing suits matted with sand, flip flops, cut off shorts, and tank tops. You fondly remember “Shabbos walks” at Camp Moshava with your summer “boyfriend.” You remember taking dance lessons to be ready for basic ballroom dance steps with an opposite sex partner at your classmates’ upcoming bar/bat mitzvahs. You remember your dressy gown with short cap sleeves and your first shoes with heels at your own bat mitzvah when you were 13.
Gradually over the next few years a light gets turned on. You might have been invited by a friend to attend an NCSY event. Perhaps you went through high school in blissful ignorance until your shul rabbi or a JUF representative informed you about the Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel where you met some amazing frum people. Perhaps you went away to college and hooked up with Hillel or Chabad. Maybe a Jewish professor or college counselor encouraged you to do a year abroad at Neve or a similar seminary in Israel because it would look awesome on your grad school Curriculum Vitae.
Once the light turned on, you were on a roll. You were learning, you were networking, and you were shopping for new frum but fab clothing. You were learning about keeping kosher while putting your own unique spin on it – maybe some type of new-fangled Atkins/South Beach/Vegan Kosher diet. After all, just because we aspire to be a baleboosteh, doesn’t mean we have to look like one!
Once you were given the green light to date by your Rav/Mashpia, finding your bashert was almost a full time enterprise. Your parents were not involved in the decision except in a peripheral way. After all, how would they know how to look for a frum husband? No, endless heart-to-hearts with your BT girlfriends in the same parsha, and frantic phone calls at all hours to your Rav/Mashpia would get you through this trying challenge.
With Hashem’s help, you found your man. You might have lived in Israel the first year or so of marriage so your husband could learn, or you might have moved back to your hometown upon marrying. Either way, the next step was children. They might have come along quickly and easily or there might have been many challenges along the way. Those challenges might have caused you to first question your faith, or those challenges might have strengthened your faith. With children, or lack thereof, there came a new stage of life. One in which you played the supporting role, and the children and/or husband the main characters.
With your new responsibilities came stress. You have no intimate role model for how to handle large family life. Your mom did laundry once a week and no one ever ran out of socks or underwear. You can’t imagine ever catching up on the avalanche of laundry and you sometimes are reduced to (behind your husband’s back) purchasing new socks or underwear because you haven’t washed the ones you own! Your childhood neighborhood had a free school bus program to tote you back and forth from home to school. Your state doesn’t provide transportation for private schools, therefore you must be available to drive several carpool trips per day for your kids, all of whom have different schedules. Your mother only had to cook for a few people, you have a houseful – whether your own brood or guests. Your childhood family ate out at restaurants quite often. Keeping kosher, eating out is too expensive and there aren’t enough choices to make it a regular option. You must cook the majority of your meals. Your mother hosted dinner parties at Thanksgiving, Rosh Hashanah, and Chanukah. She had most of the items catered. You host the equivalent of a large dinner party each Shabbos and Yom Tov and make most of the items from scratch. Unlike when you were a newlywed, as your family grows larger, the invitations to eat out grow smaller.
You occasionally meet siblings, childhood friends, or cousins at a kosher restaurant for reunions. They marvel at the large van you drive, when they are all in smaller SUVs or sedans with their husbands and 2 kids. You and your husband make a higher income than they do, but you live paycheck to paycheck, while they have money to spare. They live in big homes and nice neighborhoods, while you are renting a two-flat and can’t even think about buying a small Georgian with a postage-stamp sized yard in your overly-inflated-priced frum neighborhood. They talk with concern about saving for future college tuitions, currently enjoying the benefits of a free grammar and high school education in their upscale communities. You can’t even imagine putting money aside for college as you scrape together the monthly tuition bill for day school. Your family reminisces about the old days and the fun times you all had. They ask if you are hot in your long sleeves, long skirt, and scarf/wig/snood as they fan themselves with paper napkins and insist they are boiling in their t-shirts, shorts, sandals, and hair pulled back into a ponytail the way you used to wear it.
Your parents worry about you. They help out when they can, but they are empty nesters. In their world, grandparents visit their grandkids and their kids at the same time. They are too old to babysit so many little ones. Financially, they give checks on birthdays and anniversaries. However, they raised you to be an independent adult, and expect you not to disappoint them. After all, they now live on social security and a finite pension. They only planned their financial future considering their own retirement needs, not the financial needs of your family.
Every day that passes feels harder. You need to relieve the burden from your shoulders, but so many people are counting on you. You decide to stop doing certain things that you find difficult that will only affect you. No one needs to know. The first day you don’t wash negel vasser. It saves you a few seconds, but you feel better. You took control. That night you fall exhausted into your bed without saying shema. You wake up the next morning, same as usual. That wasn’t so bad! You start skipping other things, like al natilas yedaim, making brachos on food, bentching. Little things that no one notices. Maybe you start uncovering your hair at home if you used to cover all the time, maybe you start wearing pants around the house, or not being so careful about kashrut when you aren’t at home. The little things add up, and gradually, you are now blaming the source of your unhappiness on being frum.
You are frum and you are unhappy. When you weren’t frum you were happy. You have frum friends and you know that they are unhappy. You have non-frum friends/relatives and they seem happy. Never mind that before you were frum you were young and single with no kids or responsibilities. Never mind that you haven’t had anything but a surface conversation with your sister in 10 years, while you and your frum best friend speak every day and she feels close enough to confide her troubles. Nevertheless, the issue becomes simple in your mind. If you stop being frum you will become happy again.
So, does becoming frei make such a person happy? I can’t say, because of the BT friends I knew who went off the derech, most of them have left and not retained ties. Can the community reach out to such a person? Of course. Would it work? It couldn’t hurt. However, sometimes the societal norms and expectations we were brought up with, affect us in ways we don’t expect as life goes on. Most kiruv efforts concentrate on bringing newcomers to frumkeit. The real challenge is further down the line when a person is thought to be cemented in the observant lifestyle. Call it a mid-life crisis, a crisis-of-faith, or simply call it a phenomenon in our community that is only going to grow as the BT population does.