Elchanan Poupko

Orthdox, Sane–and Alone

An ultra-Orthodox youth with a face mask in the neighborhood of Mea Sharim, Jerusalem, on March 16, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Over the past few months, I have heard privately and publicly from too many orthodox Jews about their feelings of loneliness and isolation. They feel alone because they are on the outs of trends that have swept through much of orthodoxy and have not been before. They feel like orthodoxy has gotten a software update that suddenly does not include them. This includes people who strongly uphold health mandates relating to mask-wearing and vaccinations. It consists of those alienated by the embrace of extreme right-wing politics consuming many in American orthodoxy. 

The feeling of alienation is not only among those who favor what might be perceived as more liberal values. Alienation is felt by the old Talmid Chacham in Brooklyn, asking young people not to gather for minyan outside his door because he fears for his life. It includes those ostracized by disagreeing on any matter of public consensus and taking differences that used to be tolerated but are no longer accepted. It includes teens and people in their twenties that dare to think slightly differently and find themselves no longer tolerated—to all those I say, hear me out. 

You cannot be alone because I have heard from too many of you. As you consider your options going forward, you see two options—conform to the dominant beliefs, or leave the community or sub-community you are in.

This takes me back to the time the great Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik came to give his Shiur in the Volozhin Yeshiva just to have a bucket of water crash on his head as he entered the Shiur room, as students who opposed his appointment took matters into their own hands. It reminds me of the time Rabbi Israel Salanter was fiercely attacked for ordering the people of Vilna to eat on Yom Kippur to curb the adverse impact of the cholera outbreak. It reminds me of the pushback Sarah Schmierer suffered when establishing orthodox schools for Jewish girls in Poland, or even the rocks that were thrown at her, or the violent opposition that founders of the Novardhok Yeshivas in Europe suffered for paving their own path of Mussar and ethics. I think of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and the fierce opposition he has seen at the beginning of his career by people who now miss him dearly. I think of the greatest and most ostracized of all—Rabbi Moses Maimonides, the Rambam—harassed, attacked, and condemned for his uniquely intellectual path of Judaism. 

I think of all these people and the eternal improvements they imparted to the Jewish people, not despite their differences—but because of them. I think about the internal positive impact they have all left on who we are as orthodox Jews because they decided to remain inside orthodox while not lowering their voice one bit. Indeed they did face fierce opposition, shaming, and yes—loneliness. Yet they stayed the course Ve’sof Hakavod Lavo—their sincerity and commitment resonated with more and more people. 

Asking orthodox Jews daring to differ to stay the course and remain on the outs of their communities is a big ask. It should not be this way. Most people turn to their communities as a source of support, inspiration, and connection. I have heard the most painful accounts of members asked to not come to Shul, Mesivta students shamed by their own rebbe for wearing a mask, elderly people forced to compromised standards of their own safety to comply with the intolerance for masking, distancing, or vaccinations in their own community, and other heartbreaking stories. Do these episodes represent the majority of orthodoxy? Of course not. Yet, they do represent an increasingly tolerated intolerance, signaling out, alienating, and isolating a growing number of members of our community. 

Sadly, pleading with those willing to toss out their fellow orthodox Jews to satisfy the will of a radio talk show host or some political view they hold is a futile exercise. 

Yet asking those struggling with the loneliness of sanity, cherishing human life, avoiding political extremists, or just taking a slightly different path to find one another is a rewarding task. You exist; others exist too. You are likely among 20% of orthodoxy who feel uncomfortable with recent trends in our community and will be refreshed and rewarded to find others who both share your own life experience and ability to take a slightly different path. By staying the course, you will find the beauty in seeing those members of your community who will cherish your membership and friendship despite—or perhaps even because—they disagree with you. You may feel lonely, but know that others are looking and drawing inspiration. They may not always tell it to you, but there are those drawing strength and inspiration from the position you are taking. 

No one has a monopoly on your community, Torah, traditions, beliefs, and friendships. They definitely do not have a monopoly on those going forward. To lonely orthodox Jews who feel their community has strayed, over-politicized, or groundlessly shunning them, I say: find one another. There are too many of you to feel alone. You are not on the outs; our community is in the midst of a realignment, and this might just be an opportunity to find new and better friends. Keeping to a strong moral compass in changing times has been the hallmark of those who shaped orthodoxy for the better, and you are part of that legacy. Chizku Ve’Imtzu! 

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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