Is modesty intended for G-d Almighty or the Almighty Dollar?

It occurred to me, as I read about the “tznius wars” between various frum magazine publishers – each trying to equal, as well as one up each other in frumkeit, lest they lose valuable advertising and sponsorship dollars – that women are paying through the nose just to be erased. Not just in expensive frum magazine subscriptions (seriously, have you seen a yearly subscription fee to these magazines?), but I get pop up ads on Facebook every day advertising for specialty modesty clothing, all usually quite a bit more expensive than items found in general department stores.

While it’s true that Amazon and internet-only shops without brick and mortar overhead costs have brought the cost of tznius clothing down a bit, the evolution of new chumros guarantee the continuation of women needing to purchase specialty clothing or be required to bring off the rack department store clothing for expensive tailoring to meet these standards.

The other day, yet another Facebook ad for a $100 tznius bathing suit sale popped up in my feed, and I can’t help but wonder what our mothers and grandmothers did without bathing burkas? I know that going swimming isn’t a new invention. What did they do without the plethora of basement businesses importing the latest expensive tznius fashions from the basement businesses of New York?

For sure, there are women making money off of the 21st century stringencies – whether clothing, wigs, or publishing magazines for women, without women shown in them. It isn’t only men who have a stake in oversexualizing women to the point where even our names can’t be mentioned. Until we express our displeasure in a way that targets the benefactors of the hyper tznius system where it hurts – their wallets – women will continue to be erased. Until publications lose advertisers and subscriptions, and until women stop running to buy items that adhere to the latest modesty chumra of the day, women will continue to be erased and covered into oblivion.

A Facebook group devoted to putting women’s images back into frum publications challenged members to write about why they won’t subscribe to magazines, like Mishpacha, with such policies.

I wrote that Mishpacha makes its money off of a female audience that it sees fit to continually diminish and disrespect by not including their images in its pages.

Magazines like Mishpacha with “no women’s images” policies are complicit in the growing erasure of women from frum public society – and in their case it’s purely for financial gain – their “religious” objections are a perversion of Halacha.

Just as I would never financially support the pornography industry that sexually objectifies women in order to make a buck by exposing their naked bodies, nor will I support any religious media that likewise objectifies women by over sexualizing them to the point that even their faces and modestly clothed bodies are forbidden to look upon.

At their core, both pornographers and the ultra orthodox press are the same – making money by promoting an agenda of exploitation and objectification of women.

There was another challenge in the same Facebook group that asked people to make memes about the exclusion of women and girls in orthodox media – which is why I made the meme accompanying this post.

I don’t know if “Mishpacha Masks” has any affiliation with Mishpacha magazine, or if this was just a single flyer for an independent store, but that isn’t the crux of the issue – the issue is that this erasure is happening and companies are selling products because people are beginning to approve of businesses that are too frum to show the faces of little girls – it makes them feel uber pious to patronize a store like that.

Erasing girls and women is like a hechsher that all the costumes in that shop will of course be “kosher.” People like to be seen as adhering to the strictest of standards, and if a business, organization, or magazine doesn’t show women, that’s a sign of its yichus.

Business-wise, it’s common sense that until people start boycotting female-free publications and competitors show up who do feature women, things won’t change.  As things stand, women business owners are at a clear disadvantage when men can show their faces and they can’t. Like it or not, people want to see who they will be working with – a male realtor with a photo will probably get more calls than a female realtor represented by a house logo. Also, if names are ambiguous it might not even be clear that a female business owner is even female without a photo (which could make a difference if a woman is searching for a female doctor, therapist, etc.).

I experienced a similar disorientation yesterday reading a recent Mishpacha article that had a man’s photo near the byline, and because I skipped over the author’s name assuming the man in the photo was the author – I missed the fact that the author was actually a woman (they have since changed the photo, but here is the image link in its original form)

This speaks to a larger issue of women not getting the credit they deserve – of men being the face of humanity and taking ownership of the works and talents contributed by women – as husband’s faces are shown to represent wives who have won awards, and little boys are shown celebrating holidays with no girls to be found, and grooms are engaged to nameless women in marriage announcements.

Photos are just the initial representation of women losing their personhood altogether, only existing as the invisible support network – ghost writers if you will – of a male dominated society that plagiarizes their contributions and charges them for a copy to boot.

Personal update…how surgery changed my outlook on life

I’ll tell you a secret.  I’m getting old. That’s not much of a secret, but at 46 if you say you’re getting old you will be met with a chorus of “No you’re not!” or “Old? Wait until you’re in your 60s like me, then you’ll know what old feels like!” or “Please, the best years are still ahead of you!”

It may be that my best years are still ahead of me – heck, I certainly hope so. It may be that as I will only be getting older, I don’t fully know what being old feels like.  Be that as it may, I now know what it is to begin being old, to have aches and pains that were never there before, to only be able to burn the candle at one end instead of two, and to contemplate my own mortality and the modest collection of years we are given in this worldly life – knowing that most probably over half of mine are gone.

Of course, one thinks of these things more poignantly from the vantage point of a hospital bed,

hospital pic 2

which is where I happened to be last week having major surgery on my back. However, these feelings have been brewing for a while now, many months before my surgery took place.  You see, I have been training for this surgery for over seven months.  Surgery has been my summer Olympics, and I think I might be up for a medal, but I won’t know for sure until the healing process is further along.

Back in December 2015, when I first learned I was going to need surgery, it hit me that I wasn’t ready.

Although the reason for my surgery was random and probably would have been necessary even had I been in peak physical condition, I had let myself go in every way imaginable, and resultantly, had a myriad of health problems that could complicate my ability to even have the surgery, as well as complicate the possibility of a smooth and complete recovery afterwards.

Yes, I went to the gym halfheartedly going through the motions on various hamster wheel cardio machines, telling myself I was exercising.  Yes, I kind of watched my diet, although I had long started looking the other way when I ate processed foods, salty foods, and sugary snacks.  My food log app hadn’t been updated in months, because I was now doing my own version of “intuitive eating,”  which meant discounting macronutrients and eyeballing portion sizes with funhouse goggles, convincing myself that I really hadn’t eaten twice the amount my body needed. My scale collected dust, as I mentally marked my last known self-recorded weight, and it became frozen for infinity, even if my waistband said otherwise.  As long as I didn’t take a new reading, my weight hadn’t changed.

Surgery necessitates getting your bodily house in order so that you can withstand the grueling toll the procedure will take on your system.  Therefore, many visits to other doctors aside from my surgeon, scans, tests, lab work, and other fun stuff have been a regular part of my schedule throughout 2016.  I met my insurance deductible by February, and let’s just say that if frequent flyer miles were given for every medical bill I have incurred in 2016, I would be preparing to embark on a world tour by the end of the summer. There was a lot of renovation that had to be done before I could go under the knife.

It took an emotional toll, especially as I had fooled myself for the last few years by sticking my head in the sand and believing that I was in shape and healthy. Now I was starting to see myself as a sick person, as a patient, as someone with chronic physical limitations. Every visit to a doctor’s office or hospital confirmed my new invalid identity. To be told through scientific medical evidence, that indeed, I was not healthy, much of the damage incurred through my own neglect, was both humiliating and humbling.  It put me in the driver’s seat of responsibility, and apparently I had crashed the car and caused a major traffic jam.

The good news was that if I chose to go back to driving school and pay my fines (the needles, the awkward and sometimes painful tests and exams, the disbelieving looks from healthcare professionals when I told them that I actually exercised and didn’t live off pizza and cold cuts despite my appearance and lab results, the final surgery itself), I would be given the opportunity to retake the wheel and drive my health to a new and more positive destination. It was within my power to change the course of my destiny.

So I did.

Lest you think this is a story about giving myself a big pat on the back for having lost 30lbs since the beginning of the year, it’s not.  Lest you think this is a story about how I revamped my workouts so that I enjoyed them again and worked my way up to running a complete 10K app three times a week, it’s not.  Lest you think this is a story about how I lowered my blood pressure and overhauled all of my blood labs for the better wowing my doctors, it’s not.  Lest you think this is a story about how I track my calories and weight and blood pressure on a regular basis, it’s not.  Lest you think that this is a story about how I’ve been able to reduce the number of medicines I take and the dosages of those I still take, it’s not. Lest you think that this is a story about how all of these things led to having a smooth surgery with no complications and being released 2 days earlier than expected because of my surprising mobility, it’s not.

I did all those things, and maybe more that I’m not thinking of, but this is a story about perseverance. This is a story about a 46 year old woman setting a goal for herself and sticking to it, despite obstacles and despite self-doubt.  This is a story about how my health scare made me realize the fleeting fragility of life, and how I can’t waste the short time I have left (and yes, even if that’s another 46 years, it’s a short time!) slowly steeping in a toxic brew of negativity and resentment. I love myself too much to resign myself to such a fate.  This is a story about how I realized that I can take back the wheel and drive myself to whatever destination I choose.  The road might be bumpy, I might get lost sometimes, there may be gaper’s delay slowing me down – but as long as I have a vision of where I want to end up, and a constantly updated map of how to get there when obstacles get in the way of my original route, I’ll make it.

Seminary Gap Year in Israel – Individual Growth or Frivolous Waste of Prime Shidduch Years?

shaalvimSha’alvim for Women

How much do we value our daughter’s education? Are her years in elementary and high school merely a perfunctory exercise in preparing her for the practical skills required for running a Jewish home and providing a modest income for her family? Is higher Jewish education for a young woman a luxury or a requirement? Furthermore, how important is it that her post high school Jewish education be accomplished in Israel, rather than at a local American seminary?

These were the questions that struck me as I read an opinion piece by Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin on the Matzav website. The main subject of his article was how the shidduch crisis could be helped if only girls did not put themselves “in the freezer” during their prime years of desirability by leaving home to attend Israeli seminaries. His statement,

You don’t have to be a great sociologist or Chochem to know that a girl is most desirable and in the prime of her youth from the ages of 17, 18, 19. When a girl turns 20 she is already in a different category.

caused a great ruckus among quite a few readers.

Rabbi Rudomin clarified that he was merely making the honest observation, that despite a communal push for young men to get married younger (somehow this solution will leave fewer girls “on the shelf” past 21), these younger 20-21 year old men will still want girls younger than themselves – which means 17, 18, and 19 years old. If the girls in that age range are wasting time gallivanting in Israel, there will be no girls of that age range left in America to marry these younger, yet still older, boys. The solution to have men marry at a younger age can only work if the women make themselves available to also marry at an even younger age than the men – because men will always want to marry someone younger.

I will leave the arguing over Rabbi Rudomin’s shidduch solution to the peanut gallery, but I was more interested in the responses he gave in the comment section of his article where he attempted to clarify his position, such as this one:

A girl at 21 is not “more mature” just because she spent a great super luxurious vacation, all expenses paid by “PHD” (Papa Has Dough”) in Israel for a year or two than a girl of 18 who remains in Brooklyn or Lakewood or Monsey or the Five Towns or Chicago or Toronto etc and gets on with real life, study and everything else normal people do.

In fact, the girl who is “supported” in Israel like a princess Mamash for a year with her parents spending fortunes on her, in fact during her year “away” her royal highness has to come back to the USA to take care of “very important things” like Lemoshul, getting her tooth braces readjusted, seeing the dermatologist for a rash, attending cousin Rivkie’s wedding as well as brother Shloimie’s Bar Mitzva, and “has to be home” for Pesach as well as Sukkos (even though she has hardly settled in Eretz HaKoidesh since arriving), and she needs frequent changes of her clothes from her “Fall” to her “Winter” and then “Spring” wardrobe, not to mention constant airlifts to her of shampoos, rinses, creams and all sorts of Vaibisha Zachen, and much else, and one would think we are raising a nation of celebrities and people who will want to live in luxury and be treated like this for the rest of their lives.

Imagine, these darling Sheifalach come home and then they quickly get engaged and married and they find out that marriage is about cooking dinners, washing dishes, doing the laundry that includes doing your new husband’s socks etc, caring for a husband who is a complicated human being, respecting Ameilus BaTorah Yomam VaLaila, mopping floors, taking out the garbage every night, even going to work and hosting guests, not to mention having babies and changing diapers and running to the pediatrician, so tell me, how does any seminary program in Israel “prepare” them for that?

Teach your daughter how to get and hold down a responsible job, that will help her support a husband in learning, or how to be a happy, smart, supportive spouse and partner with her husband when he has to work and encourage this sense of Es Kumt Mir known as entitlement in English!

And then, how is any 18 or 19 year old girl who is not exposed to this fake life “inferior” or “less mature” than her 20 or 21 year old counterpart who has lived like Mamash a “Cleopatra on the Nile”?

You see, we have adopted messed up priorities, and that is why we have things like this ridiculous “Shidduch Crisis” — and we are very far from “Houston: ‘The Eagle Has Landed’!”

Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin”

The glaring omission is that he fails to put American boys who attend Israeli yeshivas in the same category, and I would posit that there are plenty more reputable American yeshivas to attend for post high school boys than there are American seminaries for post high school girls.

Why then, doesn’t he describe the boys who put themselves in the freezer in order to have a “great super luxurious vacation, all expenses paid by “PHD” (Papa Has Dough)” in the same category? Why isn’t he exhorting boys to get married right out of high school and skip the Israeli gap year (or two)? At the very least, why aren’t boys encouraged to attend American yeshivas where they can study and date simultaneously, instead of being supported in Israel like a prince Mamash for a year with his parents spending fortunes on him?

So far, I’ve only had one child go to Israel (two are quickly following, one later this year, and one next year) and that child is a boy. He spent one year learning full time in Israel and part of one year learning full time in America. I can tell you with the certainty of actual comparison that it would have been much cheaper to have him skip Israel and learn in America. Girls might have different expenses when they are studying abroad, but boys have just as many expenses, just different.

One big expense many Americans can expect to pay for their boys is on food. Most Americans aren’t used to the sparse Israeli diet that many yeshivot offer – count on supplementing their school’s meal offerings by a lot – especially if he’s over 6 feet tall and built like a linebacker. Eating out at restaurants, fast food joints, or buying snacks at the local makolet is a staple of the yeshiva diet, and I’m willing to bet the guys eat a lot more than the girls.

Another area which wasn’t mentioned in the original article, but applies to both boys and girls, count on paying out of pocket medical expenses while your child is in Israel. Israel is a much more physical place than America. What I mean by that is that America is a nation on wheels. We are used to driving everywhere and have to make a concerted effort to get physical exercise. Many orthodox American Jewish day schools either have no physical education program, or offer some kind of gym class one period per week. To suddenly come to a place where walking most places is a requirement, steep hills are common, school sponsored hikes, zip lining, and water trips are standard, all done in searing heat – you have a recipe for injuries. Alternately, if your son plays a lot of sports, it’s likely that he’ll injure or re-injure himself throughout the course of the year. Thanks to football league, basketball, and an old back injury –  visits to the chiropractor, physical therapist, and a new and better mattress than the one the dorm provided were among our expenses for sports related injuries.

Also, just because they are boys don’t discount the need for a new wardrobe (clothing that is appropriate for Chicago weather isn’t necessarily appropriate for Israeli weather), expensive new pieces of luggage, and sundries (American shampoo, body wash, deodorant, toothpaste, cologne, etc.). Of course, another equal opportunity expense are the plane tickets, which cost the same for both men and women.

The point is, the year in Israel for boys isn’t much cheaper than it is for girls. Back in the 1980s, before it became standard for every boy (or every girl) to go to Israel after high school, there was more scholarship money available. My husband had no problem getting money for Israel, and we weren’t prepared for the high cost of our son’s education. We assumed that because our son had good grades and references that he would be offered a sizable merit scholarship. Think again. The truth is, that in most cases, the tuition from American students goes to subsidize the tuition of Israeli students, as well as to fund the overall operational costs of the yeshivot and seminaries. If an American student is truly impoverished, there are scholarships based on need to be had. However, anyone who can seemingly afford the full tuition on paper, will need to haggle to get even a fraction off of a tuition bill that seems to average between $23,000-$25,000 for the year. Merit scholarships of any significant size are a throwback of the 1980s.

When our son decided to come back to the US for a second year of learning, instead of remaining in Israel, there is no question that the tuition was cheaper. However, it was a completely different experience. It wasn’t better or worse, but it was different. Going to Israel was one of the best years of my son’s life. He wouldn’t have missed the opportunity for the world. Did he have fun? You bet! Did he immerse himself in Torah in a way that is only possible in Eretz Yisroel? Definitely. Maybe if you don’t have Zionistic leanings, learning in Jerusalem or learning in Brooklyn are interchangeable. Those who have a love of Israel, and want the chance to see firsthand not only the holy historical sites of our people, but whether or not aliya might be in their future, can have that opportunity by studying in Israel during their gap year. When would most of us ever get the chance to spend one or two years completely devoted to Torah study without the stressors of college courses, jobs, spouses, children, bills, etc.? The post high school years are the only brief period of time when a person can grow and develop as an individual, without the crushing weight of adult responsibilities.

Rabbi Rudomin’s solution would rob young women of that opportunity. As he mentions, once a woman marries and has children, her life becomes a cycle of dirty dishes, dirty laundry, dirty diapers, and a series of other chores that need doing again as soon as they are finished. Why have them start these responsibilities any earlier than they need to? Why not give them time to themselves to study, daven, see a bit of the world, live away from home and learn to be more independent (many girls living at home have their mother doing their laundry, the dishes, the cooking, the mopping, the grocery shopping, the financial budgeting –they might learn from observation, but nothing prepares a person more than doing for themselves).

Some communities have set up a system where appearance and youth are everything for girls. They can’t then be mad about the expense required to maintain that beauty and youthful appearance that is now required for shidduch consideration. How can  girls be told that they need to attend the “right seminaries” in Israel because staying at home will be a red flag on their shidduch resume, and then have parents be angry about spending the cash needed for their tuition and expenses?

I’ve had conversations with people who claim that some seminaries are merely businesses designed to take money from rich American families who can afford full tuition in exchange for their daughters having the “Israeli Seminary” box checked off on their shidduch resume. These are institutions opened by amateurs who have little educational background, but do have a lot of connections in the community who will send their daughters and their tuition dollars. I agree that for families who care more about the checkbox than the depth of learning and unique environment that Israel offers, spending a seminary year in Brooklyn is a far wiser choice than attending such a school.

However, for those girls who really want to challenge their intellectual and spiritual growth, nothing can replace the Israel experience. I haven’t fully looked into Israeli seminaries for girls yet, although my daughter is just about at that point, but schools like Sha’alvim for Women, Darchei Binah, Michlalah Yerushalayim, Nishmat, Migdal Oz, Michlelet Mevarseret Yerushalayim, to name a few, are intense programs for serious minded students who aren’t looking for an Israeli Disney Resort experience.

The implied meaning behind the article seems to be that for women, going to an Israeli seminary is frivolous, while for men, taking time off for Israeli yeshiva is worthwhile (Holy books for men! Picture books for women! ~Yentl). If the sum of a woman’s worth is to be a wife and mother, than any other pursuit is merely a distraction from achieving her true purpose. With this mindset, it makes sense that sending a daughter to an Israeli seminary is simply a costly and misleading detour to her eventual destiny, which will be anything but glamorous.

So, how much do we value our daughter’s education? No two communities will have the same answer, just as no two families will have the same answer. It could be that Rabbi Rudomin’s opinion makes a lot of sense given the culture of the community in which he lives. If the main objective for the women in his community is to get married and start families as early as possible, perhaps spending a year in Israel is a waste of time and money.

Those of us in different orthodox communities who value higher education for our daughters, value the opportunity for them to build a spiritual foundation independent from the influences of the men they will be dating (it’s all too easy for a girl to agree to take on the customs, stringencies, or religious laxities of a boy she wants to marry, only to be regretful of the compromises she made after marriage), and value the experience they will have managing their own space away from home as preparation for managing their future marital homes, might have a very different take on the importance of sending our daughters to seminary.

We know that there are different methods of education that appeal to different communities when it comes to younger children. For example, it has been widely reported that Jewish day schools in some communities emphasize secular studies for girls, while those subjects are downplayed for boys, because Torah studies are primary concern for males, while supporting future kollel husbands and children are the goals for females. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that people from those communities are questioning the validity of sending post Bais Yaakov girls for further Torah study, when that was never an area of emphasis before. Likewise, it should come as no surprise that in communities where boys and girls receive a relatively egalitarian education with equal emphasis on religious and secular studies (even if the classrooms are separate sex environments), there should be equal importance placed on giving both males and females further Torah education at the geographical epicenter of Jewish spirituality – Israel.

I find that I no longer get outraged or angry when I read articles like this one by Rabbi Rudomin, because it would be the same thing as getting outraged on behalf of an Amish woman who isn’t allowed to adorn her shoes with buckles or becoming inflamed upon learning a Mormon woman can’t drink caffeinated coffee. These restrictions are a part of their culture, and they might be totally ok with it. I’m not part of the kollel community, and it isn’t my culture or lifestyle. If the men and women of the kollel community are fine with a woman’s primary route to spiritual greatness being through marriage and motherhood – who am I to protest? The communal attitude of my culture is equally as foreign, and in some cases objectionable, to those in the yeshivish velt. Thankfully, there isn’t only one derech to rely upon, and those of us who have different attitudes than our neighbors about women’s education or life in general, have other avenues available to us.

White Girl Weaves for Frum Women

weaveI admit that I am a hair and beauty junkie.  I love watching Youtube videos that give makeup and hair tips.  Lately, I’ve been seeing videos of women who have Caucasian hair getting sew-in hair extensions, known informally as “white girl weaves.”  The process involves braiding the client’s own hair into corn rows, and sewing wefts of weave hair over and into those rows.  While many women who wear weaves leave out the crown layer of their own hair to blend in with the weave, there is also the option for a full closure that completely covers the client’s crown with the weave hair.

When I saw the process and the end result, I immediately thought that would be a cool option for women who wear wigs.  The weaves last anywhere from 3-6 months, with touch ups required for outgrowth.  However, they look very natural and can be washed and styled easily the same as one would care for their own hair.  At the end of the day, wearing a weave would be no more costly than buying an expensive sheitel and taking it to a sheitel macher for washing and styling every few weeks.

I brought the idea up to my husband, who thought that there would be an outcry against such a natural looking head of hair.  However, if technically all of a woman’s own hair was indeed covered by the weave, halachically there should be no more of a problem with it than wearing an expensive European sheitel.  Some rabbis would probably be ok with it, and some rabbis who decry the beautiful wigs already worn by women would also be against weaves.

The other big potential problem with a weave is wearing it into the mikva.  I was thinking that if the weave was sewn or otherwise semi-permanently adhered to the wearer’s own hair, it might be like a part of the person.  However, a search on Nishmat showed that their psak says that one can’t wear a weave (or hair extensions) to the mikva – it must be removed prior to immersion.   The time and expense of installing a weave isn’t worth it to only wear it for a few weeks.

Along with the Nishmat site, I found an older blog post by a Jewish woman of color who talked about the major difficulty that not being able to keep a weave in for mikva imposes on those with African American hair texture.  Wearing hair extensions or weaves are a staple for many women of color, and having to remove them for the mikva every month is actually a major problem for them.

In that light, it seems that mikva is a very Caucasian centered ritual, assuming that women can easily wash and comb through their own hair to perform the mitzva.

What do you think about the concept of using hair extensions/sew-in weaves as a method of hair covering? Do you think African American Jewish women are treated unfairly by having their hair styles not be deemed ok for the mikva?  In that light, wouldn’t it be fair to say that any semi-permanent hair style should be ok for mikva, just like hair dye is?

Defining Our Own Derech

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.