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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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!