As we challenge the stereotype of those who leave religion, we can begin to understand on a deeper level why some choose to leave, why some choose to stay, and how a third option of existing in the moment with doubts and uncertainty is also okay.
So I think after discussing, for these three great interviews with Shulem, Kelsey, and Philo, it’s fair to ask: What’s the takeaway? Why exactly are we listening to such unconventional stories about people who left their religious communities? And each three of these stories are stories about people who left, including Kelsey’s, which is why I think her story is all that more remarkable. But it’s fair to ask, okay, what are the takeaways here? And I think there are three important ideas that emerge from these communal interactions, from the community of people who left.
I think first and foremost, we need to acknowledge that people leave religious communities for a variety of reasons. I remember when I was growing up, I grew up in the ’90s. So when somebody left the community that I grew up in, they went out with – at least as a kid, the way I would look at them, they would get Marilyn Manson posters, and they’d be smoking cigarettes outside of the pizza shop… There was a certain aura of how we describe the people who left, and almost a stereotype of sorts. And we hang on to these stereotypes because they’re comforting, because if people only leave because they’ve been abused, or people only leave because they wanted to party, it makes the people who stay feel better about their decision. And I think that that’s lazy. I think we need to acknowledge the fact that people leave the religious community or whichever one it is, for a variety of reasons, for the same exact reason – and this is really the point of it – is the same reason that people stay for a variety of reasons. There’s no one reason why people choose to affiliate and practice within a religious community, there’s a whole bunch of reasons, and there’s a parallel, and it helps highlight that parallel when we see, there’s a variety of reasons why someone would choose to leave, and by understanding that and appreciating that, I think it gives a better sense of why people stay.
I think the second idea that we’re thinking about is: when someone leaves, it is a point of reflection on the community that people choose to separate from. It doesn’t mean that anybody did something wrong. Sometimes they did, but what can insular communities – and by insular I’m not just talking about the Hasidic community, I’m talking about any community, religious or not. Communities by definition have to be insular. There’s an exclusivity in all communities. Communities differentiate, they have their own personality, and the point isn’t to become this universalist, what I would describe as an avocado community, there’s no taste. Communities need flavor, and there needs to be a point of cohesion that they gather around. But there’s still something that communities can learn from and communities can develop from, and how can the stories of people who leave help the community improve itself and evolve? And I think that that’s an important question, and one that we should not be afraid of asking.
And I think the final idea is in many ways the most important, and it’s the undertone of both the video that we began with and with all the interviews, and that is: I hate the term “off the derech,” because the term “off the derech” indicates – the term “off the derech” gives the sense that there is one very clear path, and then there is being off of that one very clear path. And I simply don’t think religious affiliation actually works like that in the real world. I think people have different periods of their life where they feel more or less affiliated, more or less inspired, more or less closer. And the stories, and the narrative, and the language, of being able to talk about people who left, not as this exit and we never heard from them again, and it was this binary zero and one, but that it adds texture and flavor to our own religious lives, and the periods in our lives where we may be struggling with doubt.
So I think the real takeaway from all of this is that final point, which is that the term “off the derech” paints a very false binary, that there’s something that means being religious, and then there’s something that is not religious. And I think that if you look at anybody’s actual lives and you look at your own religious life, whether you have one or not, you will know that different periods, years, months, days, times of the day, you feel differently. And there are times when doubts feel stronger and they creep in and you think of leaving or you are less interested and less involved. And that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you’ve left. It might just mean that you’re having an authentic look at what it means to affiliate with a community, with a religion, with an idea, with reverence, with sanctity. Connecting to those things is difficult, very often. Connecting to any community, religious or not, is difficult, and the struggles that we have in navigating that relationship and those connections is not a binary, it’s something that unfolds over the course of someone’s life.