Below is my response to a reader’s email previously posted here.
Dear Burnt Out BT Baal Habayis,
You write, “No experience is perfect, however, I am no longer seeing the frum way of life as better than the way I grew up.”
Your observation is a classic baal teshuvah revelation. There is always a point when someone who has adopted an orthodox Jewish lifestyle takes stock of their situation and realizes that the frum community is merely a microcosm of larger society. Any issue under the sun that plagues general society, also plagues frum society, despite the kiruv hype that says otherwise upon our entry.
Additionally, we know firsthand that the scare tactics used to keep FFB (frum from birth) folks on the derech (the secular world is a den of debauchery, depravity, immorality, crime, violence, drugs, and spiritual death) is propaganda. Many of us grew up in “frei” homes, but were still taught right from wrong. Our secular Jewish parents were still able to impart a belief in Hashem and Jewish pride, even if daily rituals and mitzvot such as kosher, Shabbos, and mikvah weren’t on the agenda.
Many BTs had a happy childhood and currently have secular relatives who lead happy, productive, and successful lives. Many of us were privileged to grow up in families where lifelong marriages were the norm and children were able to avoid the pitfalls of drug/alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, or succumbing to school dropout statistics.
When the BT honeymoon phase is long over and the rose colored glasses come off, sometimes it’s easy to look at the troubles in our lives and wonder why we ever believed that becoming orthodox would prevent problems. Part of the issue is romanticizing our past. For example, in a 2008 post on this phenomenon, I wrote –
“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.”
This outlook simplifies a complex situation. Even if you and your wife hadn’t become frum, there is no guarantee that pressures of life and increased family responsibilities would be any less stressful. Some of the challenges you currently face, such as parenting an autistic child, would still be challenges – even if sending her to public school was never in question. Non-frum Jews are also not immune to financial problems, especially in our current economy, where downsizing and layoffs run rampant in practically every job sector.
However, the other aggravating issue is that BTs are given a set of unrealistic expectations during the kiruv process. We are sold a bill of goods that by living according to Torah ideals, we will be protected from the pitfalls of life. Even if we do encounter such pitfalls, our emunah will carry us through to survive any rough patch we might encounter.
We are in control of our ability to cope based on our own level of bitachon. Those who are bathed in the religious ecstasy of the true believer will not succumb to despair or depression over their trials. The closer you come to Hashem, the closer He comes to you. The farther you wander away from Hashem, the farther He wanders away from you. The level of blessing and mazel in our lives is entirely our own doing. This concept that we can control the uncontrollable through our level of religious dedication can be disheartening when we are in the throes of a crisis.
When I was in public high school, some of my friends and I had an inspirational saying that we would utter whenever anything disappointing happened, “Life sucks and then you die.” For some reason, that gloomy quote would throw us into fits of giggles, which would distract us, at least momentarily, from our pain. At the end of the day, however, it’s kind of true – in the sense that even frum philosophers write books trying to explain why bad things happen to good people. In the end, only Hashem knows the master plan and we can’t hope to decipher whatever heavenly design requires children to die of horrible diseases, make senseless accidents happen, or causes people to become victims of random violence.
Being frum enables us to believe that there is a master puppeteer pulling the strings for the greater good, but it doesn’t guarantee that bad things won’t happen. Being frum also doesn’t guarantee that when bad things do happen, the community will necessarily have the best resources to cope with such challenges. Again, this isn’t how the orthodox community is marketed during outreach.
Depending upon who you ask, you will hear a wide range of opinions on the orthodox community’s willingness and ability to rally around a family in crisis. What I have discovered, is that the community has pet causes it feels more comfortable rallying around than others.
For example, ask any frum family who has a child with a chronic or critical health issue about communal support. Most orthodox families in that predicament are involved with Chai Lifeline and will tell you that the community is awesome. Ask a family who has a child with Down’s syndrome if the community offers support and they will sing the praises of organizations such as Yachad, whose purpose is to better the quality of life for families struggling with such a scenario.
However, there are other causes that don’t get as much public support. Families who have kids with severe mental health issues will mostly say that communal and financial support is virtually non-existent. Families who struggle with drug addiction don’t merit widespread tzedaka campaigns. Special education for kids who “can pass” in the mainstream classroom, but struggle to keep up, don’t attract many big donors. Families who have children that run away and have behavioral/discipline issues also struggle without formal charities to provide counselling and assistance, particularly outside of the New York area. The community will rally around certain socially acceptable challenges – others not so much.
Things are definitely changing. There are organizations popping up to help victims of abuse, help for agunot, and for divorced mothers. Positive changes are happening, albeit slowly. Social media has brought a lot of hidden issues to the forefront. The formerly frum, chained women fighting for their freedom, abuse survivors, those who struggle with mental illness, are all speaking out about unaddressed problems in orthodox society. The more we speak about these types of issues, the more the stigma and secrecy surrounding social ills starts to vanish.
I believe there are many people in the community who are as disenchanted as you and your wife. However, people are afraid to speak out lest they be labelled “at risk” and become ostracized. It’s fascinating to me that so many people will express their discontent off the record (at shul kiddush, the shabbos table, during informal conversations). However, in public, they would never dare say they disagree with the community leadership or status quo. Really, most folks are no different than the ones who vocally express dissent – it’s just that their silence connotes acquiescence.
Most community members don’t realize how often they complain. The difference is that most are complainers who have no intention of making a change – they are content to just complain but still feel powerless to do anything different. BTs have experienced another way of life and can more easily transition back to their former mode of existence. Yet, people are still shocked when families go OTD (off the derech), despite the fact that they themselves might have been bitterly bad mouthing the system the day before – and added to the negative atmosphere.
A commenter called, Shmilda, raised a common solution that many dissuaded frum folks turn to, in response to your letter:
“Growing up outside the community, you can probably well appreciate the positives of a tight knit community with high shul attendance. Hang out on the fringes of it, ignore the yentas, and educate your kids as is best for them – but don’t abandon it.”
Hanging out on the fringes to regroup is a common strategy for some people. Sometimes temporarily withdrawing from the larger community is necessary to take stock of what is making you unhappy and what can be done to make things better. People retreat to the fringes to varying degrees. For some, it might mean cutting back on organizational involvement, PTA activities, taking a leave from shul boards, or lessening contact with community members who are being judgmental. For others, it might mean a more complete withdrawal, confining their observance to their home and family, until they are emotionally ready to reengage.
One of the benefits of hanging out on the fringes is that it allows for observation from the sidelines. This observation can be useful because it allows families to shop around for a different communal niche. That might mean changing the shul they belong to; trying out different minyans until they find a spiritual base that’s a better fit. Along with that, maybe the rabbi they have been affiliated with just isn’t the right fit – finding a rabbi isn’t just about hashkafah and halachic knowledge – there is also the personality factor. Sometimes people just don’t click. It’s important to find a spiritual leader to respect and relate to. Another strategy for change might be interviewing and enrolling at different day schools. Still another option could be moving to a different community – which might mean a move across town, across country, or across continents.
The bottom line, as another commenter, Apikorus al ha’esh said, is to “Define your own derech.” Part of becoming a baal teshuvah, for many of us, was to be told that we were ignorant of how Hashem wants us to live our lives because we never learned Torah. We were told that our instincts and knowledge that had served us well until becoming frum, were not to be trusted anymore. What is discovered through years of living in the frum community, is that community values don’t necessarily equal Torah values.
It’s important not to abandon common sense and the lessons learned by experience, parents, and even secular teachers. For example, you know that your children have special needs that can only be met by the public school system. As such, you must trust your experience and instincts, even if they go against communal norms and expectations, and enroll them in the school that best meets their requirements.
I believe that, as baal teshuvas, we have the ability to create derechs that combine the best of both the secular and frum worlds, even if those innovations rankle those who follow the crowd. It takes koach and courage to buck the system, but BTs have already been there, done that. By bucking the secular system and joining orthodoxy, we have already proven ourselves willing to go against the grain. We have the ability to enact social change, and while that might make us dangerous to some, it also makes us pioneers to others.