I grew up in Crown Heights. I’m often in small talk with people when the inevitable question of my origins comes up. When I tell people where I’m from – and this is going to sound crazy – very often the conversation shuts down right then and there. It’s incredible the prejudices people have. My husband says I should tell people I’m from Brownsville. “A lot of Jews come from Brownsville; it’s right next to Crown Heights,” he says. Sure thing, maybe like a hundred years ago. You see, despite what people think not everyone who lives in Crown Heights is Chabad. Certainly most people are, but there’s still an element of the old guard from back in the day. My family was never really Chabad (till today my Litvish dad still davens Nusach Ashkenaz and my Sefardi mom still has the seder plate passed over our heads!)
I attended the only girls’ school in the neighborhood in those days, Bais Rivkah. We had a wonderful class of ninety girls, all from lovely Chabad or Chabad-esque homes. Our class was known for being the most challenging, out of control class. I wonder what they would say about us now in comparison to today’s teens with all of their issues and so much more available to them!
A couple of years ago, we had our twenty-year reunion. It was so interesting to see the directions everyone’s lives had taken. Most were still Chabad. But a couple of us are now Modern Orthodox. One girl is yeshivish, another chasidish. And believe it or not, from our rowdy class of frum girls, there are only a handful who are no longer religiously observant. A couple of girls married out, a few married other ex-chasidim, and some are just getting on with their lives, making their individual choices.
In Parshat Vayishlach, Yaakov and Esav are reunited after having been separated for decades. Considering that the Esav he left was a bloodthirsty murderer out for revenge, Yaakov is scared for his life and the lives of his wives and children. And yet, when the encounter finally takes place, it is all smiles, hugs and kisses. What happened to the Esav we once knew?
When we left Esav in Parshat Toldot, he was angry. Why? Because Yaakov had taken the holy firstborn blessings. Desperately, he still turns to his father yearning for another blessing. “Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!” Initially, Yitzchak hesitates, but then bestows a blessing upon Esav. Esav is still fuming and will not be placated. Thus begins his hatred towards Yaakov that he feels will only be resolved with his brother’s murder. But why is Esav so angry? After all, he’s not that religious. Why would he care for the holy blessings? He doesn’t believe in all that spiritual stuff, anyway!
From the beginning of Judaism, we have had people opt out of Torah and mitzvos. Some assimilate completely, others invent new sects and offshoots of traditional Judaism. The latest incarnation of people to leave the fold is called “OTD,” which stands for individuals who are Off The Derech (off the traditional path). Who invented the term? Like most offshoots, they gave themselves the appellation. Many feel lost, having grown up in Ultra-Orthodox settings and left for various reasons, but unable to find their place in society. They’re stuck in between two worlds. They want to join the big wide world but still feel inexplicably drawn to the world they have always known.
Esav was an OTD teenager. But he was typical of many OTDs in that he chose not to follow his parents’ lifestyle but still felt connected. He longed to please his father. And the value of spiritual blessing still meant something to him, way down deep in his kishkes. And so when he was denied the blessing, he was devastated. Yitzchok realized that Esav was hanging onto tradition by a thread; but he believed that by showing him love and granting him the blessings would keep him in the fold. But it wasn’t meant to be. Now Esav felt like he had nothing. And he was furious. Mad at his brother. Mad at his parents. Mad at the world. Mad at Hashem.
That’s the Esav Yaakov expects to encounter upon his return to Canaan. He is so worried that Chazal say that he put his daughter Dina in a box to protect her from him. However, when he does meet Esav, he is a changed man. He has made something of himself. He is wealthy and doesn’t want to accept Yaakov’s gifts. He says, ‘I’m fine I made it I don’t need your money’. It seems as if he is sincerely happy to see his brother. He seems to be in a good place. What happened? Esav moved on from being OTD to NLO – No Longer Observant. The anger has disappeared. Now we find an Esav who has gotten on with his life and is functioning in society.
Esav’s path through life is typical of many OTDs. When they first opt out, they still feel torn between two worlds. And so they’re angry. Mad at their parents. Mad at the world. Mad at Hashem. But most eventually choose their path in life and make peace with their families and G-d. Some transition quicker to NLO; others let their anger fester for years. It is their choice whether to remain bitter or to move forward like some of my classmates who are NLO. I have a friend who went from an OTD to NLO to BT! She had to find her own way in choosing her own path.
OTD suicide has been in the news lately. My heart goes out to the Mayer family on the loss of their two daughters. Some in the media have painted their suicides as a fault of the ultra orthodox system. Such an attitude only adds to the tragedy and is an unfair assault on the grieving parents. These poor souls committed suicide because unfortunately they were dealing with mental health issues. Not because they were not given the skills to survive in the big wide world. Not because they were in unhappy marriages. Because, they were unwell. Sadly, there are unwell people in every community. And to blame their community for their sickness is to paint all mentally ill individuals as deserving of blame for not getting their act together. Mental illness is nobody’s fault.
To blame their community for their sickness is to paint all mentally ill individuals as deserving of blame for not getting their act together.
Sooner or later, most OTDs figure out how to make it in the secular world, some become successful businessmen, some enroll in university and some find solace in helping other OTDs. Those who do decide to leave, which is a small percentage, leave for various reasons. And those who take extreme measures to deal with their departure is unfortunately due to pre-existing mental health issues. For every individual that struggles to make the transition from one society to another there are a thousand others who are not struggling, whether they decide to stay frum or not.
What we can learn from Esav is that when one chooses to leave their parents’ path they don’t have to be OTD forever. They can move forward and get on with their lives, whether in the secular world or some other Orthodox community. In fact, Yaakov is criticized for hiding Dina from Esav. The Midrash says that if they had gotten married, she would have brought him back to tradition.
The most refreshing part of our school reunion, I felt, was the way that nobody was judgmental of anyone else and the paths they had taken in their lives. Sure, as a person who loves our heritage, I hope and pray that one day my friends will come to appreciate the light of Torah that was originally thrust upon them against their will. But for now let’s all love and embrace one another and not judge other people or communities who do Judaism a little different to the way we are comfortable with.