When Ultra-Orthodox Jews leave the fold…


I did something I said I wasn’t going to do anymore: I read an online essay by a woman who left the “ultra-Orthodox” fold. At first I skimmed it, enough to glean that the writer had been brought up being told what to think, and that the Internet led her to freedom, albeit at the cost of her marriage, her family and her community.

I try to avoid these tell-alls, but they’re hard to resist. (It’s worth pondering why tales of “how-I-left-my-religious-upbringing” garner mainstream appeal, while stories of people’s return to Jewish observance never get past Jewish book stores.)

I could relate to some of the writer’s feelings though. I also grew up feeling slightly uncomfortable in the world I was born into. When I started to learn about Torah Judaism, I discovered there was more to my religion than tradition (I didn’t even know my great-grandparents, why should I live like them?). Eventually, the evidence supporting G-d’s revelation to the Jewish nation at Mt. Sinai became hard to ignore. It was also hard to embrace.

Only G-d knows why I chose to climb this difficult mountain of Torah life, somehow trusting that every bodily mitzvah would condition me for my daunting spiritual tasks, among them, to love all Jews unequivocally, to put others’ needs before my own, to forgive when I preferred to be angry. When I look down, I see how far I’ve climbed; I also know I have a way to go.

I also appreciate the writer’s zeal for her new outlook on life, but I question her judgment in sharing so quickly her disdain for her past. If she didn’t want to shave her head, she could have easily found one of hundreds of observant Jewish communities where women don’t do this. If her parents were unenlightened, or even awful, she’s still here because of them. Why didn’t she wait until she was better immersed in her new life to sing the praises of her new friends, her new pastimes, her new perspectives? How does she know she made the right decision?

It took almost thirty years to know I made the right decision to return to Jewish observance. There was and still is some pain surrounding my upbringing, but I try to be discreet about sharing the details. My posts may not go viral, but being sensitive to others is what Judaism is all about.

I know it’s not my place to judge the writer, or anyone. But because I worked so hard to journey back to Jewish observance, it’s hard not to wonder what she thinks now about G-d, or the divinity of Torah or, say,  Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith that articulates, oh right, what Jewish people are supposed to think for all eternity, even if the Internet comes along and offers easy access to…everything.

I know how challenging it was for me as an adult to completely change the way I thought. Fortunately for me, the Lubavitcher Rebbe elucidates Torah concepts in terms that make “thinking like a Jew” accessible in all aspects of life–everywhere. In fact, Lubavitcher Chassidim are encouraged to live outside ultra-Orthodox enclaves because the entire world is viewed as a receptacle for G-dliness, not an impediment to it. Relationships, especially sacred ones like family and lifelong friends, are potential encounters with the divine as well. It can be challenging to handle everyone with G-dly care, but I made the decision to try. And the most important thing is to try to keep people close, especially when it comes to sharing simchas, which is what I try to do.

About the Author
Lieba Rudolph, her husband, Zev, and their young family returned to observant Jewish life when they were both over thirty. Now, after spending equal time in both worlds, she shares the joys and challenges of her journey, answering everyone's unasked question: why would anyone normal want to become religious?