Emerging Adulthood at 24

When I hit rough patches in my life, I often try to make myself feel better by looking back at the crappier times that came before. Progress tends to reveal issues that were always there under the surface; only when they come out into the light can I begin to deal with them.

At present, I feel lost in a broader way than I used to. The confusion is not just about Jewish identity anymore. That issue, once in crisis, has stabilized, allowing previously shelved questions about how to make my way as an adult in this world to take center stage.

I have struggled to find the kind of job that could take care of my various needs. Right now, I teach at school, which I enjoy and which nurtures my soul (in a figurative sense) – yet it is constricting because the school is yeshivish, and it is socially isolating because I have no real peers there.

I have a dream – publishing fiction – and better yet, I am actually pursuing it. I got here through boldness, leaving the comfort and prestige of a top law school to live life based on my priorities, not anyone else’s. I give myself top marks on this one. I knew what needed to be done, and I did it. However, it is still only a budding enterprise, and at this point still takes from me more than it gives back.

I am lonely. I lack family. My parents’ love is no longer enough for me and hasn’t been for some time; I suppose that is just a mark of adulthood. I have friends, even a small budding community; but most of my deepest, oldest friends, the ones whom I really love, are far away, separated by marriage, graduate school, and physical distance.

Many or all of these problems are common, maybe universal. They are not connected to the difficult road I have traversed away from religion.

Not directly.

The fact is that my struggles with religion and Jewish identity tore a three-year whole in my life, delaying my development as an adult. Instead of grappling with these questions at 21, I am doing so at 24.

Beyond that, merely being in the frum bubble set me back far longer. Frum cookie-cutter young men do not sit on these questions as real people do. They squirm a bit as they feel their choices and individuality passing them by for good, and then they go to law school, marry frum cookie-cutter young women, settle down in frum cookie-cutter neighborhoods, and raise frum cookie-cutter children. It should hardly be necessary to explain that growing up in this environment was not conducive to my development as an adult. I could have been learning how to make choices and take care of myself in the big bad world when I was eighteen, or even younger. Instead I find myself at 24 trying to build the structure of an adult life while having no shelter (except for the one I’ve outgrown) to fall back to when a storm hits.

I mention all this less to rue the past (though what is more fun?) than to rationalize putting this blog post on Freethinking Jewboy. I appreciate that it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to puzzle out causes and to distinguish frum-bubble factors from the factors of my superior personal attributes. The possibility that I am just a numbskull is not lost on me. Though I generally prefer to downplay that side of things.

My First Ever Shidduch Resume

Who ever said that kofrim can’t make shidduch resumes?  (No one.)

Name: Freethinking Jewboy

Age: 24

Height: Baruch Hashem

Location: NYC

Occupation: Professional Kofer

Income: $532,000 in aveirah-dollars

Looking for: Freethinking or Extremely Not-Caring Jewgirl

The seven things I can’t live with:

  • Pretending to my children that I believe in Judaism
  • Allowing my children to be indoctrinated with religious faith
  • Forcing my children to be observant
  • Raising my children in a gender-segregated environment
  • Feeling compelled to pretend that I am religious
  • Feeling compelled to be observant
  • Accepting any more than a non-fundamentalist approach to family observance (if you can think of a better way to say this, then you just might be the one for me)

Favorite Sin: Doing the mitzvos I am going to do to you.

Favorite Mitzvah: Doing the aveiros I am going to do to you – after marriage.


Submissions Welcome


After experimenting the past few months as an ordinary tax-paying citizen, I am now delighted to recommence my calling as your friendly neighborhood kofer.  And while I will still be writing juicy stuff for you guys, I’d like to encourage you to submit writing of your own for publication on this site.  This way we can have a sort of long-form conversation between a whole bunch of us, which would make this thing so much cooler.  Plus, by writing such a piece, you get to sort out your feelings and be heard by others.  Also, this thing is hard to do by myself.  Win-win.

I’m looking for stuff relating to the conflict inherent in having Orthodox identity threatened, damaged, or destroyed by non-Orthodox beliefs.  Any story (fictional or non-fictional) or personal thoughts relating to this experience would fit right in.  What I am not looking for is a philosophical argument concerning religion or God – because that bores me.  However, the journey you took toward doubt or non-belief, told as a personal experience, would be fair game.

So, good kofer, send your tales to freethinkingjewboy@gmail.com, pick a good pseudonym for yourself, and watch as your creation is disseminated before your very eyes!

My Name Is…

Wouldn’t it be nice to have one solid name that you used for everything? One name, one identity, one home?

I doubt I will ever have that luxury.

My name is Yakov, and it has always been Yakov. Every person I knew growing up, along with anyone I know now who ever was Orthodox, knows me as Yakov.

My name is Jeffrey, and it has always been Jeffrey. It says so on my birth certificate as well as countless other government records. Ski instructors, receptionists, lawyers and law students – all have known me as Jeffrey.

My name is Jacob, too, according to a 2016 court order changing my legal name from Jeffrey to Jacob Jeffrey. A handful of recent acquaintances, people who were never Orthodox, know me as Jacob.

When I meet somebody for the first time and the moment comes to introduce myself, I have only an instant to cycle through my list of first names and decide which one I should use. Yakov for the frum and ex-frum. Jeff for those who have already been grandfathered in to that name. Jacob for the non-Jews.

My list of names comes with no instructions in the packaging for the trickier situations. What if I can’t tell whether someone is Orthodox or not? What if it’s a Jew who isn’t Orthodox but who strongly identifies with his Jewishness and is familiar with the name Yakov? I tend to wing it when I find myself in these kinds of scenarios, producing a set of contradictory results.

Then there are the instances when the names collide. Being at a social event where people know you variously as Yakov, Jeff, and Jacob can lend itself to some really sticky predicaments. It would make for great comedy except for the fact that I’m the butt of the joke.

The heart of the problem, though, does not come down to awkward or embarrassing experiences. It comes down to the fundamental question of who I am and how I understand myself. Names, at least for me, are a microcosm of identity.

On the one hand, I’d like to use Yakov across the board because it is easily the name I most identify with. On the other, using Jacob outside of the frum bubble empowers my secular identity.

Each option has its downsides, too. The Yakov-Jacob option concedes the inside-outside duality that I absorbed growing up within the frum bubble. I’m not sure I want to be maintaining for myself that invisible wall between the two worlds.

Going with Yakov across the board would nicely defy the invisible wall and help make my two worlds into one. There is empowerment in this option, too. Yet it also feels like bringing something very personal and private into a zone where its meaning would be lost.

Ultimately, I worry about which alternative captures the truth. Does my Orthodox identity stay behind when I interact with the broader world – Jacob? Or do I take Yakov with me wherever I go, doomed to feel kinship with a frum society that has no real place for people like me?

I’m not sure it’s really possible to keep your identity in two pieces the way I have been attempting to do with Yakov-Jacob. It may just be a comfortable illusion, a lie that allows me to pretend to myself that I am not imprisoned by my Orthodox roots.

I am afraid of the possibility that I will always be so imprisoned.

Storytime – The Implant Ward

Akiva woke up, his mind fuzzy from anesthesia.  He swiveled his head blearily.  Something was wrong.  He was still in his medical chair, with a row of patients in identical chairs on either side of him.  Apparently he was still in the implant ward.  But patients were not supposed to wake up in the implant ward.  They were supposed to wake up outside, with no memory of the operation.

He sat upright, struggling to regain focus.  A captioned picture frame swam in front of him.  Gradually, its words came into detail:  “Faith is the basis of faith.”

A door opened and he heard footsteps approaching from the side.  A bald man with soft blue eyes and a trim silver beard came briskly into view.  What was his name?  Berlinsky… Dr. Berlinsky.

“What’s going on?” said Akiva, his mind quickening as he spoke.  “Has something gone wrong?”

Dr. Berlinsky bowed his head.  “Mr. Schwartz, I am truly sorry.  We were unable to perform the operation on you.”  He paused.  “You see, we discovered in our records that you were already implanted as a toddler with your parents’ Jewish beliefs.”

Akiva stared at him, his heart beginning to beat rapidly.  “How is that possible?  If I had received the implant, how could I possibly have lost my faith?  Doesn’t the implant… set your beliefs?  You said – you said to challenge it would be like punching a brick wall.”

Dr. Berlinsky sighed and looked away, his eyes running over the other patients lying motionless in their medical chairs.  Akiva glanced at them too.  Red and blue wires attached to their skulls and spinal cords were connected to networks of computer chips.  The sight made him feel queasy.

“The brain is the ultimate master of its domain,” Dr. Berlinsky murmured, as if to himself.  “What can I, a mere tinkerer, do that cannot be reversed by the brain itself?”

His eyes returned to squarely meet Akiva’s, and his tone sharpened slightly.  “A person who is determined to question and to reason is always capable, with enough time and effort, of rejecting the beliefs I give to him or her.  That being said, most people never reject the implanted faith.  For them, it can in fact be described as a brick wall.  But not for all.”

Akiva tried to digest what he was hearing.  So his parents had long ago given him the implant.  He didn’t know how he felt about that; he’d have to deal with the issue later.  But, regardless, the doctor was telling him that the implant had eventually failed on him.  He eyed Dr. Berlinsky, who stood there patiently before him, solemn and professional, and he renewed his resolve to obtain that which he had come for.

“Do it again,” said Akiva.

“I’m sorry?”

“Do it again.  The first implant worked for over a decade before it failed, didn’t it?  Well, just do it again.”

Dr. Berlinsky grimaced.  “I can’t.  The mind… develops resistance to an implanted faith it has rejected.  There haven’t been too many cases like yours, but the results of the operations that we have done – have not been good.  Patients experience excruciating pain in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.  Soon enough, they either reject the implanted beliefs or go mad.  I am afraid that we simply cannot operate on you.”

A stone was sinking horribly into Akiva’s gut.  There was no answer, then.  He had saved up a year’s salary to pay for this operation.  He had slowly built up the courage to return to his religion by way of literally brainwashing himself, only to waver at the threshold for months, unable to make the decision and commit himself.  Then, finally, he had somehow made it to the implant ward, lying surreally in his medical chair next to the eerie line of anesthetized patients as Dr. Berlinsky had methodically explained to him how the implant procedure would work.  All, it turned out, for nothing.

“Then I am doomed to believe… what I believe,” Akiva muttered.  Could there be a worse fate?

“Yes,” said Dr. Berlinsky, breathing calmly in and out of his nose.  “Treatment, unfortunately, is out of the question.”


Thoughts?  Feelings???

Plans Raboisai

So, fellow kofrim and pals, here’s where I lay out a bit of the vision for this blog enterprise.  As I mentioned in my first post, my goal is not just to facilitate discussions over the web, but also to eventually create actual real-life meeting groups like mine, Freethinking Yidden.  I can’t overemphasize how much FY has helped me and some of my friends, so yeah I really stand behind this group thing idea.

FY is based in Washington Heights and is currently composed of mostly YU students and recent graduates.  I’d like to eventually have sister groups in Brooklyn and Queens, along with a group for older adults maybe in Midtown Manhattan.  And if there’s enough demand for other groups in frum centers like LA, Baltimore, Chicago, etc. I would support that as well.

Then there could be an overarching Facebook group (secret) linking everyone together.  I know there already exist OTD FB groups, but an additional one more narrowly tailored to “Orthodox nonbelievers” I think would be a powerful and awesome thing.

Do you have ideas, comments, criticisms?  Please do share.

(also guys please refrain from the name-using; after all this site is public.  i don’t mind much about my first name, but my last name for those who know it should be off limits on here.  you can call me Jewboy)

Letter to the Frum World – On Closeted Nonbelievers

The following letter contains what I would like to say to the frum world, though I have no intention of saying it.  So you get to read it instead!  But don’t worry, the frum world won’t be left out.  I have an OTD novel in store for them.  Actually, stories are often my preferred method of communication.


To my fellow Orthodox Jews:

I would like to share with you a scene from one of the hidden corners of Orthodox Jewish life.

Nine young men and women sit in a circle in a New York City apartment.  Three of them, wearing looks of suspense, are newcomers.  Then, one after another, all of the nine speak of what brought them there: how they came to stop believing in Judaism and how they have been dealing with the ensuing challenges.

I founded this group, Freethinking Yidden, in the spring of 2015.  At the time, I had been a nonbeliever for over two years, and I did not know a single person like myself.  I was very closeted.  The number of people who both knew my secret and had been raised with my kind of frumkeit, the kind that makes apostasy taboo, was two: my mother and my father.  I felt isolated from the only world I knew, the frum world, on account of my beliefs.

During that period, I grappled with what seemed like an impossible choice between leaving the frum world and staying.  If I stayed, I was condemning myself to a dishonest life, a life practicing a religion I did not believe in.  I would have to find a wife to marry me despite my beliefs; I would have to raise my children as believers of a religion I intellectually rejected.  And the emotional security of my future family would be forever at risk, dependent on the Orthodox identity I clung to and thus reliant on a flimsy secrecy as its teetering foundation.  On the other hand, if I left the frum world, I would be plunging into a world that I had been brought up to see as other and putting my most important relationships at great risk.  I would be leaving behind my Orthodox identity, a piece of my very self.

Such were my alternatives as they appeared to me back then.  However, life continued to roll forward, and I slowly adapted to the situation.  I came out to many close friends and family members, and received affirmations of acceptance and love.  I traveled back and forth between the frum world and the world outside it, building new relationships in both realms.  I gradually shed much of my insecurity at moving about as a heretic among frum society.  I built much-needed community with my fellows at Freethinking Yidden, who now number over a dozen.

Things look different now.  The choice I thought I faced between leaving the frum world and staying was an oversimplified one based on an artificial dichotomy I had absorbed growing up.  The reality is that while I can no longer lay claim to full Orthodox status, my maimed Orthodox identity still wages the war of survival just like all living things.

Unfortunately, however, many in the Ashkenazic community presume the existence of an invisible wall that stands between observant, believing Jews and everyone else.  For those who believe in that wall, Orthodox identity is black and white; a person is either within the wall or without.  By thinking this way, such community members threaten to make it so.

Closeted nonbelievers like the members of Freethinking Yidden are a threat to that simplistic dichotomy.  We grew up embraced by frum family, frum friends, frum culture, frum history, and frum religion.  Most of us fit well into the system up until the moment we no longer believed in its ideological foundations.  Most if not all of us love frum life despite its faults.  Many of us still observe Halacha out of fidelity to our Jewish identities.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a more aidel, sincere, and intellectually honest group of people.

Closeted nonbelievers, among others, occupy the space of the invisible wall.  Because of this, we present a perplexity to the common frum understanding.  We do not fit the stereotype of off-the-derech youth.  We have not been substantially harmed by frum people or institutions.  We are not angry, we are not rebelling, we are not rejecting, we are not disrespecting.  But for an inconvenient belief we share, we would make ideal members of the frum society in which we grew up.

Yet we remain closeted.  We are afraid of being tossed outside the wall by those who believe in it, who by tossing us out will give it solidity.  We are afraid of pounding on that wall to the sound of silence and severed ties.  We are afraid of being treated within the wall as strangers from beyond it.

A person’s membership in a group necessarily relies, in part, on that group’s assent.  As frum Jews, your views affect the viability of the diminished Orthodox identities of closeted nonbelievers such as myself.  Do you give credence to the invisible wall I have described, or not?  Why?  I await your responses at freethinkingjewboy@gmail.com.

Meanwhile, I continue to heal with my small community of closeted nonbelievers as we share those beliefs and experiences which we feel inhibited from sharing openly in the frum world.    My heart goes out to those still going it alone.  They are an unknown number.  To them I say, reach out to us and you will no longer be as alone.


Freethinking Jewboy


What has been the story of your own Jewish identity?  And what, if anything, would you like to say to the frum world or to certain friends and loved ones?  Comment below, and don’t forget to sign up to the email list!

Freethinking Jewboy: Building Community Among Orthodox Nonbelievers

Hi, I’m Freethinking Jewboy, your friendly neighborhood kofer!  Welcome to my OTD (“off the derech”) blog.

The purpose of this blog is to build community among “Orthodox nonbelievers”: people, observant or not, who are living an impossible tug-of-war between their Orthodox identities and non-Orthodox beliefs.  I feel strongly that we need each other – for friendship, for love, for culture, for understanding – and I hope, with this blog, to extend an open hand to those of us who are most closeted and alone.

I hail from the Five Towns, and my experience over the last three or so years will appear familiar to many of you.  One day, I knew who I was and where I belonged.  The next, it dawned on me that I did not believe in Judaism.  I held on to that secret, along with my observance of Halacha, for over a year.  I felt stuck in a nightmarish scenario in which my need to be fully part of the Orthodox world battled with my need to be true to myself and my beliefs.  Eventually, after a string of bitter struggles spanning two further years during which I dropped Halachic observance and came out to many people close to me, I reached a measure of peace.  Nevertheless, I am still dealing with questions about who I am and what my Orthodox identity means for me.  The fun never ends.

It wasn’t so long ago that I doubted that there were many closeted nonbelievers like me; or that if there were, that I could find them; or that if I could find them, that they would be interested in building community with me.  You may share those doubts.  However, I have discovered them to be baseless.  Armed with just a small vision, I formed an actual group of closeted doubters and nonbelievers that meets up regularly in NYC.  We talk about our beliefs and experiences, or we just laugh and have a good time.  If that sounds awesome… it is.

This blog can provide a forum for Orthodox nonbelievers to make essential connections with one another.  The bonding should not stop at the virtual.  I would like to see other groups like mine formed, along with a broader network of upstanding Orthodox kofrim.  It’s a larger vision than my previous one, and I have my doubts.  One simply needs to have faith, I suppose.