More than a few people on their way out or fully out of the fold have asked me how I could choose being charedi as a way of life. “You had every choice in the world. WHY would you choose this?”
I am going to answer that question as earnestly as possible through this imaginary conversation between someone who is on his or her way out and me. I’m not trying to answer for every chozer/chozeret b’teshuvah — these are my answers. I’m also not trying to get into the head, and especially not to speak for, everyone and anyone who is burning out. The questions that The Questioner is posing to me, and his or her answers, are closely based on real conversations I have had with a number of people. I don’t — in any way at all — mean to speak for you, or your sister, or your cousin. If you would like to address this issue in a way that is different from the way I am addressing it, I invite you to write an essay and submit it to Hevria or Neshamas.
The Questioner: Why would you pick this way of life, where you don’t have any choices?
Me: I picked this way of life because it resonated with me. Now that I’m here, I’ve committed to it. And in any case, beyond responsibility to my family, I could never return to the goyishe velt and not die inside. Who would I even talk to? What would we even talk about?
But … what do you mean by, “you don’t have any choices?”
The Questioner: I went to yeshiva / girl’s school my whole life. My only choice was which white shirt / black skirt to wear. I didn’t ask to be born into this. Everything I’ve done in my life was prescribed for me. Now I’m living this life, I have a few kids, and I didn’t choose this!
Me: OK, but have you considered that I didn’t choose to be born secular? I’m envious that you got to learn Torah from birth, and that you got to learn Hebrew and Yiddish from nursery school onward. My text skills are not so hot and I’m jealous of everyone who got to learn that stuff from early childhood. You can pick up a sicha and read it like second nature.
The Questioner: Trust me, it’s not that great. You can’t understand unless you went through the system. Nobody cared if we were actually learning. They just wanted us to be the same. How could you do that to your kid?
Me: Public school was no picnic, either. It was humiliating, demoralizing, and soul-sucking for me. The best day of my life — even better than my wedding day and the day my son was born — was my high school graduation. I felt like I had been released from prison. I have never felt so free in my life. Is it possible that school just stinks for everybody?
The Questioner: But you had choices …
Me: From birth, I was told that my goal in life was to do well in school, go to a good college, and get a good job. My choices were how well I would do in school, and what college I would go to, and what career I would aim for. That was it — that was my whole purpose in life. I watched my parents work and work and not really enjoy life. I want my kid to grow up knowing who he is. I want him to have a purpose in life and at least the possibility of happiness.
The Questioner: He’s not going to get that in school.
Me: Yeah, but he’ll get it at home. At least he will have the tools for learning Torah, and a Jewish education.
The Questioner: Why do you think that would make your kid happy? I have that and I’m not happy. I know a lot of people who aren’t happy.
Me: You’re saying that having a Jewish education made you unhappy, and you’d be better off without it? I know that going through school was hard for you, but do you mean that you resent the outcome of you having a Jewish education?
And you should know that most of my classmates in public school weren’t happy. Three have already overdosed. A couple are in jail. When I was twelve, there was an actual rape (meaning not just attempted) in the lunch room of my middle school. We had girls with eating disorders. I even knew an anorexic guy. Kids were unbelievably mean to each other. Why do you think that, in any way, secular kids are more happy than religious kids?
The Questioner: Going to school and getting a Jewish education are the same thing. You grow up your whole life with same people, and everyone is trying to pretend that they’re the same.
Me: Can you separate Torah from Jews?
The Questioner: You can. You came in from the outside and can choose to see what you want to see. You can choose the people you hang out with. You came in through Chabad houses, and I grew up with it forced on me.
Me: I get what you’re saying about choosing the people I hang out with. This is as far away from my hometown, emotionally and spiritually, as I could get. I totally understand wanting to get away from the community you grew up in. I choose the pocket of committed, conscious people I hang out with. I’m not forced to be around the dysfunctional people. Do you think that Chabad houses lie to people?
The Questioner: They don’t lie, but they don’t tell you what it’s really like to live here. They act like frum Jews are accepting and that everyone is welcome, but it’s not really like that in frum communities. People get pulled in by Chabad houses but then they get the shock of their lives when they live here.
Me: I know what you mean. I’ve seen that. I’ve seen people be like, “It was so inspiring when I first got into it. Where are all the inspiring people here? Nobody is inspiring me!” But I always want to say to them, “Sorry, kiddo. Nobody’s going to inspire you now. You gotta do it on your own.” To survive as a BT, you have to be self-reliant. If you expect other people to do all your inspiration for you, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.
The Questioner: How do you not have questions? How do you not backslide into the old world? Most of the baalei teshuva I know backslide into their old ways.
Me: Most of them? That’s not my experience. In my experience, the ones who put on the wig and hat but didn’t actually do teshuva are the ones who frai out. It’s always the ones who toe the line the hardest or who weren’t really committed in the first place. The ones who are like, “Oooh look at me I’m so frum” in the beginning are the ones who leave. They’re fakers. Most baalei teshuvah who sincerely stay frum have questions, but they look for answers. I don’t think that having questions is the same as backsliding into the old world. If I have questions, I get answers. But it’s not going to stop me from living my life. Why do you let your questions stop you from living your life? Why don’t you just look for answers?
The Questioner: Because I am tired of it. I want to see what else is out there.
Me: I saw what’s out there, and it didn’t work for me. I saw every single thing that’s out there, and I don’t want it. Sometimes on a superficial level I want it, but I don’t really want it.
The Questioner: But don’t I deserve the opportunity to see what’s out there? It’s easy for you to say since you already experienced everything you wanted to experience.
Me: There are three things I wish I had done before I became frum, because I can’t do them now: Party in Ibiza, eat Italian food in Italy, and eat Chinese food in China. I wish I had traveled around the world more as a non-kosher person. But I wouldn’t trade the life I have for some pasta and a beach party. I mean, they’re not major regrets. On my death bed, I’m not going to be like, “Damn. I had a fulfilling life and a beautiful family, but I never went to Ibiza.” Are you?
The Questioner: I went to Ibiza on Merkos Shlichus.
Me: Weren’t you sort of glad you weren’t eating octopus and getting wasted? Did it gross you out on some level?
The Questioner: No. They looked like they were having a good time.
Me: I find that when I am disengaged and not talking to Hashem, that’s when I bug out. I have to make a good time for myself — but I don’t define a good time the way I used to. I get as much as I put into this life.
The Questioner: Plenty of FFB’s put in everything they have. I was totally into it in yeshiva / girls school. But after a while, you realize that it’s not worth it.
Me: I think that’s the difference between us. I think it’s worth it.
Chaya Kurtz is on Twitter: @chayakurtz.