Recently, my Shabbat table has been graced with a new type of guest, and I am thrilled. They sing zemirot and when asked they will effortlessly lead benching.
Yet my guests do not keep Shabbos. They arrive by car after sundown and borrow a yarmulke as they approach the table. Ex-Satmar and Belz, Lakewood, and Lubavitch, my guests no longer are religiously observant Jews. They now ignore the mitzvot (laws) of Shabbat, and while I don’t ask, I suspect that they do not keep the laws of kashrut either. They were reared in ultra-Orthodox Hasidic communities, and the religious life they experienced growing up, which they describe in painful detail, is alien to my understanding and practice of Judaism. It feels nothing like the loving embrace of Yiddishkeit that I cling to.
Where I was encouraged by my rabbis and teachers to question and to seek answers in the books of the Tanach, they tell me their questions were stifled and their education was limited, mired in the strict emphasis on ritual and rules. Where I was raised in a Judaism that combined Torah and secular studies, spirituality and modernity, they say that they felt oppressed by their rabbis’ dogma and rigidity; that they felt restricted and cut off from the world around them.
Over time, each one of my guests became disillusioned and subsequently abandoned the Hasidic universe of their upbringing. As a result, they in turn were ousted from their families, communities, and neighborhoods. Unfathomably, all ties to their Jewish past were severed. Some of my guests have lost contact with parents and siblings. Others, heartbreakingly, have been cut off from their children.
Midweek I reach out to ask if they have Friday night plans. If not, would they care to join us for Shabbat dinner? “Sure, what time?” is the immediate reply. Clearly, they still want to feel connected. They want to be let in.
While they did not know each other when they were Hasidim, they now have formed a tight bond as they attempt to navigate the outside world, about which they have little knowledge. No longer belonging to their old Hasidic life, they lack the skill-set necessary to enter the secular world that they so desperately want to join. Sharing apartments as roommates, they support each other as they develop language and cultural skills to negotiate the unfamiliar non-Hasidic world.
You may be thinking, why am I inviting ex-Hasidim whom I barely know into my home?
Simply put, they are not really strangers to me. We share a common heritage, culinary tastes, a culture, and collective memory, and it saddens me that they have lost their foothold in Judaism. No longer part of the Hasidic world, they refer to themselves as OTD — off the derech. Off the path. Yet I ache for all they have rejected, and all who have rejected them, and I want to help smooth the road on which they are now embarking. I can’t help but wonder — had they been nurtured in a more tolerant religious environment, might they be sitting at their own Shabbat tables right now?
Would they still be OTD if they had grown up in my Jewish world; a less judgmental, more open-minded community, melding Jewish ritual observance and Jewish values with full engagement in the secular world? If they were raised in centrist modern Orthodoxy, would they still feel the need to discard their pasts and extricate themselves from the path of Judaism?
While some opine that the road of Modern Orthodoxy meanders a bit, allowing for deviation, sometimes leading to an Orthodoxy of convenience, it does not ever expel anyone from the road, nor force anyone to sever ties. Unfortunately, my ex-Hasidic guests feel they had no choice other than to reject and abandon their roots, ultimately leaving their Jewish road altogether. And so, I am delighted to offer my Shabbat table, zemirot, familiar food, and the comforts of a surrogate Jewish family.
Rather than being off the road, I’d like to believe they are now on a new road of rediscovery and reconnection.
Dr. Tani Foger, Ed.D, LPC
Founder of “Let’s Talk” Guidance Workshops
for All Ages at All Stages
Email her at DrFoger@gmail.com