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OTD Highlights

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we sit down for a special session with our host, David Bashevkin, to discuss one of the podcast’s first topics: going off the derech.

There are many preconceptions that come with leaving one’s religious life. People often claim to know the precise psychological reasons that caused someone to leave and what kind of life they’re currently living. There are always reasons, but these reasons can be varied and unexpected, and can lead people to very different places. Some don’t even think of themselves as having left, as they have found a different derech that works for them.

  • Why do people leave religion?
  • Where do people go instead?
  • What struggles do people experience in leaving their old communities?
  • How does the desire for community manifest in trying to build a new life?

Tune in to hear David reflect on his conversations with past podcast guests about this phenomenon of leaving one’s religious community, or going OTD.

References:
Shulem Deen interview – http://18forty.org/otd/#deen
Philo Judaeus interview – http://18forty.org/otd/#judaeus
Kelsey Osgood interview – http://18forty.org/otd/#osgood
Judaism and the Twice-Born by Kelsey Osgood
All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen

David Bashevkin:

Hello and welcome to the 18Forty podcast, where each month we explore a different topic balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month we’re still a little bit on hiatus, so we’re going back and we’re looking back at subjects, topics that we’ve already explored, re-upping the highlights of those interviews and ideas, and hopefully providing a little bit more context as we look back. This month we’re exploring the topic that we spoke about just in our second month, I believe, which was the topic of OTD, which means going off the derech, people who left religious life. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big Jewish ideas, so be sure to check out 18forty.org where you can find videos, articles, and recommended readings.

When we began, we started with the subject of Talmud. The second topic we spoke about was about leaving religion, which for many people, rightfully so, was incredibly jarring, because here I am, an educator, interacting, trying to inspire people. And I am, no secret, I am a lover and believer of Yiddishkeit and religious commitment. So it seemed very strange for a lot of people, why would we be highlighting stories from people who left? I don’t want to call it an accusation, but it was a frustrated critique, was like, “Is this an off the derech podcast? Is that what you’re doing? You’re highlighting stories of people who left?” Which is, I’ll be honest, a little bit of a fair impression. It was just the second month, and we had two of our three guests this week are people who grew up in committed communities, one in the Yeshiva community, one in the Hasidic community, who eventually left. But I want to provide a little bit more context, things that we’ve spoken about, to explain why in fact we did this. So I want to address the broader question of, why talk about OTD? Especially so early on, is this an OTD podcast? People ask me that because we had guests in later months, in comedy, who grew up in the Hasidic community who had later left. So people were left wondering, is that the underlying theme?

I thought about it a little bit and I began to realize that in a way, the answer is a modified yes. Meaning, this is not a podcast that highlights leaving religion, but this is a podcast that does highlight, confront, and discuss the friction, the points of dissonance, the points of difficulty within our religious commitment. As I believe we spoke about a couple of weeks ago, I think that there are three areas of friction. We have theological friction, we were brought up with certain theological ideas, whether it’s about Halacha or the Talmud or Torah or God, whatever it is. The conception that we were brought up with, there seems to be some friction with the modern world that we live in today, that would be theological dissonance. We also have sociological dissonance. We were taught at a young age certain things about people who look differently than us. Maybe people who are from a different religion than us, a different denomination than ourselves. And now we’re living in this big wide world, and some of our conceptions of those people are starting to fray. So what do I do with the stories and the ideas that I was brought up with and the world I live in today? That doesn’t mean that the person is OTD, an acronym for off the derech again, that I absolutely hate.

I want to make that abundantly clear, and I want to talk about that in a moment. It doesn’t mean that you’re OTD, it means that you’re experiencing some friction, and it rejects the binary of course. I don’t divide the world into religious and non-religious. I do think that you can… I don’t like defining the world at all, but I do think that there are people who are contending, grappling, with the friction in their lives, and people who it doesn’t bother them. And I don’t take issue with either, but I do think that our conversations are very much trying to address those points of friction, however big or however small they appear in people’s lives. And that final point of friction, aside from theological and sociological, is of course emotional dissonance, and emotional dissonance is much more subtle. That may be the joy and conception that we thought our religious commitment would bring, it may not always materialize, may not always be clear. We thought we would be happier, we thought we would be wealthier, we didn’t think it would have as many demands. We didn’t realize the angst that was bubbling up is finally preventing us from embracing the commitments that we once thought we would be able to make. I think everybody, myself included, it is no embarrassment, has some measure of emotional dissonance at some point in their religious life. I think at all given times, we’re all driving in this car trying to get down the road, as I’ve said before in this analogy, we always have some measure of theological, sociological, and emotional dissonance in the car, and at different points, different elements of that are behind the steering wheel.

But anybody who’s ever gone ice skating, I took ice skating lessons in about fifth grade, not a great ice skater. My nephew is an outstanding ice skater, hockey player. I never got into any of that, never played floor hockey. But anybody who’s ever been ice skating knows that your ability to figure out how to build friction off the ice is what allows you to be propelled forward. So I don’t look at religious dissonance or religious friction as problematic, I look at it as the very mechanism that allows us to build momentum off the ground without friction. If it’s a totally smooth, slicked surface, it is almost nearly impossible to run, which is why we have blades underneath our ice skates. I think in many ways, what we’re trying to do in 18Forty is provide some measure of friction so people don’t just slip and fall on these ideas and questions and difficulties, but allow them to have productive friction, which will then allow them to be propelled forward in their journey, wherever they may be on whatever issue it may be.

That is the broad scope, and that’s why we spoke about this issue, about people who left, which is obviously taking a point of friction and going in a different direction. But the starting point, that friction, I think is very healthy. I’ll also add two other points. I think that what we were trying to do with this topic, and it was very jarring for a lot of people, it’s very jarring because it’s much easier to look at people who left the religious commitments that maybe you continue to have, I certainly continue to have, and allow it to look at it as a challenge to your own. And the instinct is to write them off as somebody who was, I don’t know, abused or that went after their passions and their lust or whatever it was. Without a doubt, everybody has had a complicated childhood in life. I don’t like the notion that anybody who leads a life differently than our own, we need to immediately dismiss as somebody who has psychological problems or whatever it is. Though I have no issue with somebody who has psychological problems, we’ve spoken about that in the past as well. I think it’s important to be able to hear their stories.

I’ve been to many panel sessions that are very important talking about the phenomenon of OTD, but nobody who’s actually gone off is ever on the panel. And what I wanted to allow, with certain healthy boundaries, I’m not looking to undermine anybody’s faith or commitment, to hear these stories and hopefully learn two things. A, learn about the possibility that somebody else’s journey doesn’t need to undermine our own, and the possibility that the friction that propelled them in that direction can still be used in your own life to propel you perhaps in a different direction, even though it’s the same point of friction and that’s okay. And secondly, I think there’s a general communal importance to hearing these stories, to knowing that somebody who goes in a different direction, it’s not always the character we think. We need to learn how to listen to people who make choices and go in directions different than our own, both large and small. I think that that’s really important to get out of that character. It doesn’t mean that God forbid we should be encouraging our children or ourselves to leave and reject the ways of our fathers and forefathers, I think that’s a gross oversimplification. If you’re prone to gross oversimplifications, you probably already hate this podcast, and I appreciate your emails and letters. However, if you’re not one of those people, and you understand that there is still something productive to be learned from people who go in directions other than your own, whether on the individual level or on the communal level, I think these conversations are absolutely crucial and important.

So allow me to introduce our first guest that we had, and we’re going to just go through some of these snippets. He’s somebody who I am absolutely proud to call a dear friend. We have an annual dinner, which we haven’t been able to have this year with my other dear friend, Altie Karper, who’s the head of Schocken Press. And we used to go out to dinner once a year or so, it was just absolutely lovely. We would talk about books and ideas and writing. Our first guest is Shulem Deen, who wrote the book, the memoir of his own life and exit from the Hasidic world called All Who Go Do Not Return. He’s a high-profile author and writer. I found his memoir deeply moving because I felt that throughout the memoir, even though he was leaving religion in a way, or the organized religious community that he was a part of, and the entire memoir is infused with religious language and the struggle of feeling connected even when you are very much a part. His book has been seen as part of this broader phenomenon, but I think it’s very much different. Listen to what he has to say about the larger phenomenon of memoirs of people who left their religious communities, and I think it’s far more moving than you would think, listen in now.

Shulem Deen:

Let me first say regarding my book being situated within a genre of OTD writings, it’s clearly the case that it can be classified within that genre, but I wasn’t writing from within that genre. I was writing because I was interested in writing. I was interested in literature. So I wrote a book about my – and mined my own experiences for a literary project. I get that it’s my insistence on this is, as much I’m going to hock about, “No, my book is not an OTD book, it’s literature. It was a literary undertaking,” the world is not going to see it that way.

David Bashevkin:

I’ve heard you express something really eloquent about that. We one time had an opportunity to be in a high school in California together, and I remember one of the students asked you, “Why isn’t your book angrier given everything that you had went through?” Given everything, why isn’t it more emotional and more emphatic and more tearing down the place that you came from? Do you remember what the answer was?

Shulem Deen:

I got that question a lot. Do I remember what I said then? I don’t remember what I said then.

David Bashevkin:

I think you were quoting somebody who says, “You have to write from your…”

Shulem Deen:

Write from your scars, not from your wounds.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, write from your scars and not from your wounds.

Shulem Deen:

I thought I was quoting a friend but he says he never said that, so either I made it up or I took it from someone else.

David Bashevkin:

But there’s a healing, there’s space in the book for the reader where you don’t feel like you’re being shouted at. It doesn’t feel like you were processing, or it was a cathartic book. There was distance between the literary product and your lived experience, which is why I kind of appreciate that you don’t want it placed in that genre and just stamped on that shelf of all the connotations of, “Oh, another OTD memoir.”

Shulem Deen:

Right. Certainly as a literary project, what I wanted to do was I wanted to tell a compelling story and I wanted to tell it well, and as a writer and as an artist, but as a writer in particular, I feel like I need to leave space for the reader to experience their own emotions as they’re taking this in. For me to impose my emotions in a heavy-handed way would not allow the reader to experience it in that kind of real, visceral, immediate way that you want a reader to experience a story. The question about why I was not angry, in part the answer to that is because I was once that. I didn’t leave because of all the problems of the ultra-Orthodox world. There were other things going on that made me move away from that world. Once I had a certain distance I was able to see many of the problems that many of us see in that world. But that wasn’t why I left, so when I criticize that community, I am criticizing not only that community, but also my former self who was part of it and didn’t see these as problems. That gives me a degree of forced empathy, not only because I understand the people who are there and what they’re trying to do, not only am I sympathetic to what they’re trying to do, I was once them. I was once trying to do the same thing. As the years have passed, I’ve gone further and further away from the person that I was as a religious person, so my empathy for what the religious community is trying to do and how they’re dealing with various issues, my empathy for them has probably lessened, because I see myself so much more alienated from that world now. I see myself situated, not only am I out of the frum world, in many ways I no longer see myself as part of the ex-orthodox world. I’m living my life, I’m busy with a lot of things. That makes me be more angry, when I look at some of the things that are happening within the frum world, and it’s an anger that is new to me, because I forget that I once understood what was going on in that world and wasn’t that angry, and now I only see it from the outsider perspective. Maybe not only, but I see it much more from an outsider perspective.

David Bashevkin:

As you can see, and as Shulem laid out, I do think he has a remarkable self-awareness, this emotionality when he thinks and reflects on his own life. I talk about this and think about this all the time, this quote, “Write from your scars, not from your wounds.” Which means that your writing can’t be so angry, so antagonistic, so adversarial that it doesn’t allow somebody else with a different set of experiences to step in and enter your world. It’s important advice to anybody engaged in the writing process, but more importantly, I think it’s important advice for anybody engaged in civil discourse. When we argue from our wounds instead of our scars, the tone, the tenor of the conversation tends to be so antagonistic, so frustrated that we’ve already lost the possibility of seeing who we’re engaged with. What I think Shulem does so remarkably in his memoir is he writes from his scars. There definitely was an injury, there definitely was difficulty, but there’s already been a great sense and step of healing, which allows other people to step in and engage with his ideas. The next question I asked him, I thought his answer was also absolutely remarkable, is what do you tell people who come to him? And he’s fairly well-known, who are thinking about leaving their religious community. Listen to what he has to say.

Shulem Deen:

My first impulse is to say, “Don’t.” Somebody comes to me and says, “I want to leave,” I say, “Don’t, don’t leave.” Yes, there are many reasons why people would choose to leave. The most important thing that I would tell someone who wants to leave is, “Know why not only you’re leaving but also what you’re going to. Know what you have outside of the Hasidic world that you don’t have within it. Have a clear understanding of that, or at least something of an understanding.” I had a woman who I met up with, and she said to me that she was thinking about leaving, and wanted to know whether it’s a good idea or not. So we had a conversation, and she told me that she feels like she’s a misfit in the world that she is. She had good reasons to leave, she had other reasons aside from the fact that she was a misfit, but the fact that she was a misfit, I told her at that time, “If you’re a misfit in the Hasidic world, you might be very well be a misfit wherever you go, because you might just be a misfit in society. You might just be a person who does not fit the box. So you have to really know whether the place you’re going to is a better place than where you’re coming from.”

David Bashevkin:

Yeah.

Shulem Deen:

Some people are just like, “I don’t care where I’m going to end up, I just need to get out of here. I just need to get away from Williamsburg, away from Kiryas Joel, away from New Square,” and I wouldn’t necessarily say that that’s a bad thing, but I wouldn’t encourage someone to do that. If someone comes to me and says, “I want to leave New Square,” my first question is to them, “And go where?” I had a young friend, and I write about this in my book, he was around 19, really unhappy in New Square but very academically gifted. He came to me and said he wants to leave and I said, “And go where,” and he said he wants to enlist in the military. You know, being in the US Armed Forces is a fine thing to do if that’s what you truly want to do, but I wasn’t sure that that’s what he wanted. It seemed to me that he just found the military to be a convenient place where he’ll go and find a social life, and a place to sleep, and meals, and things like that. So I said to him, “I don’t know if you’ve considered this, but you might be really good in college.” He was a kid with so little secular education, he couldn’t even fathom going to school.

David Bashevkin:

The military seemed more realistic.

Shulem Deen:

The military seemed like a very simple idea to him. In the end, he did go to college and he got accepted into an Ivy League, he got accepted into Cornell University and graduated first with an undergraduate in I think bio engineering. And then he recently graduated with a master’s also in… I forget if it was that or one of the other really hard sciences. So clearly he was capable of something that he didn’t even know, and he didn’t know this world existed. And he said to me, “How am I going to… How could I even go to college when I can barely read and write English?” The military seemed like a very simple idea to him. In the end, he did go to college, and he got accepted into an Ivy League. He got accepted into Cornell University and graduated first with an undergraduate in, I think bioengineering, and then he recently graduated with a masters also in, I forget if it was that or one of the other really hard sciences. Clearly he was capable of something, but he didn’t even know, and he didn’t know this world existed.

He said to me, “How could I go to college when I can barely read and write English?” And I said to him, “Well, you’re going to need some help, you’re going to need to get some tutoring, you’re going to have to get your GED, but you can do it.” I knew that he could because he was a really bright kid. That, to me, is a smart thing. I see many people who come out of the Hasidic world and they’re very focused. They really know what they want to do, they have ambitions, they have aspirations, and that is the way to do it. If you have ambitions and aspirations, aside from the fact that you should have ambitions and aspirations, they should also be such that you can’t really do in the frum world. In other words, say you have an ambition to be a physician, you want to be a doctor or an attorney. I’m not sure that that alone is a reason to not be frum. You might say, “Well, I can’t be Hasidic.” You can. Ruchie Freier is, the Hasidic world likes to hold her up as a great accomplishment, a product of their world that has reached really hard – What is she? A supreme court judge now or something like that.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah.

Shulem Deen:

What’s interesting is that they hold her up, now they’re very proud of her, although they never support a young person who says, “I want to grow up and be a judge,” they’re not going to point them in the direction of law school. But still, I think Ruchie Freier is a good example of what you can do if you can think outside the box, if you have aspirations that are different from what everybody else does. You can still have those aspirations and remain frum, so you really want to have a good reason why this world doesn’t work for you. But the most important thing is you need to really know where you’re going. You need to have some sense of what you want to be in the world, what you want to do, but also what you want to be. What’s your dream life, aside from the fact that you no longer have to keep kosher and shabbos and those things. What positive element of living a secular life is going to keep you going? What’s going to inspire you? What’s going to give you the motivation to get up every morning? I think that is the crucial question that somebody needs to answer.

David Bashevkin:

There were two aspects of Shulem’s interview, looking back now, that people pushed back on a great deal. One of which I think overall I agree with, and one of which I disagree with. If you listen back to the original interview, which is still on the site, he criticized the Hasidic community for not availing opportunities for arts and music and all of these things. Again, it was hard for me, I should have pushed back, I was just starting. I’m so totally comfortable arguing with Shulem and talking with Shulem. I think he’s totally wrong on this. I’m not from the Hasidic world, I’m not from the Hasidic community, but I think, at least standing, myself growing up from the Five Towns and Teaneck, I think one great debt of gratitude that we have to the Hasidic world is their contributions to art and to music, which have really been outstanding and phenomenal. I was surprised that he left with that experience. Again, not knowing the details of the specific community that he was from, that is definitely something that looking back now, I probably would have pushed back a little bit harder and made it more clear.

The other thing that I think people found difficult was the advice that he gave for navigating the complex family dynamics of experiencing a member within a family who’s leaving religion, and the advice that he gave. I happen to agree more or less with this, where it is very hard to accept somebody with unconditional love with overt conditions. And when it comes to immediate family members, I do think that there needs to be an underlying love and acceptance without toying around with, but when you’re in my house, you have to do X, Y, and Z. I think that if the home is presented and the religious values are presented as something that is loving and accepted without a demand, you’re much more likely to get a compliance from love rather than a compliance from frustration, especially after they have left.

I have a very close friend who left the religious community that he was brought up in, not a Hasidic community. I remember talking to him, he was inviting his parents to his apartment for the first time, and he was talking to me about whether or not he should put on a yarmulke when his parents come. I’m always a fan of everybody on each side doing little gestures to show that they appreciate one another. And I told him, “Yeah, I think that would be a very beautiful gesture.” After they came over, I had asked him, “So what in fact did you end up doing?” And he said, “I actually found a really nice compromise. When they came in, I was not wearing a yarmulke, which I no longer do. But after they walked in, I made a deliberate effort to walk inside my bedroom and put one on.” To show them that, look, I’m not keeping up appearances, I’m not doing this to pretend like I’m always wearing this, but to show you that I’m doing this as a sign of respect for you, which I actually thought was quite moving, and the way that I think that implicit unspoken religious dialogue of giving what families with different religious orientations a gesture that you appreciate and respect one another without demanding it, I happened to appreciate it as the way to go. And it’s somewhat similar to I think the message that Shulem shared with us right now.

David Bashevkin:

What are the successful – You must know some people who either tenuously stayed or still have relationships with their parents, even though they’re not living a traditionally orthodox lifestyle. What are the ingredients that those parents are able to kind of break out of their comfort zone and be able to embrace a child?

Shulem Deen:

There are the easy situations, and the easy situations are: just don’t hock your child to always, how they dress, what they’re wearing. Your child comes home with a tattoo, compliment them. Say, “Oh, that’s nice. I wouldn’t get one, but it looks good on you.” That’s a difficult thing for many parents. A tattoo is not something that charedi parents are generally in favor of, but your child chose to go a different route, lives a different life, and the only thing you can do if you want to maintain a positive relationship with your child is to say, “Okay, whatever you choose, I accept that.” Now, if you want your child to feel like they belong and… Going back to your question of: “What environment do you create that is going to allow your child to thrive with authenticity, individuality, within this world, within the ultra-Orthodox world?” Sometimes the child is simply not going to fit the mold and you need to accept that, and you need to accept that whatever level of attachment they choose is something that you have to be okay with, and then the child can choose that level of attachment. But the moment you say, “No, you can’t do this…” You can say, “I don’t mind if you don’t wear a yarmulke, but you cannot get a tattoo,” or, “I don’t mind if you get a tattoo, but,” and here’s a big one, “you can’t marry a non-Jewish person,” or, “I don’t mind if you marry a non-Jewish person, but you cannot be openly gay. You can’t marry a person of your own gender.” The moment you say this, then your child no longer feels that they can live in your – not even live in your world. Certainly they can’t live in your world, but they can’t even maintain a healthy attachment to it, because fundamentally you are opposed to something that they are fundamentally not only in favor of but something they need.

David Bashevkin:

What advice would you give to the child? So often you’re navigating a new relationship in a way that you’re going off into this new world and, as you said, you can forget that former self and those former values. How do you council somebody who leaves to maintain a relationship with a parent who is still in that world, or family members who are in that world, in a healthy way? Or when is the point where you have to cut them off?

Shulem Deen:

I think what I have to say on this is the opposite of what we hear often, and I think this is what the frum world would like for OTD people to be saying, and that is: respect the community when you come back. Wear a yarmulke, be respectful, but my advice to people who leave is in fact, respect is not a one-way street. You do not have to always accommodate their requests if they do not accommodate yours. This is not because, get back at them, it’s because, if you want to have a healthy relationship, then it requires both sides to accept that the other side –

David Bashevkin:

Reciprocity.

Shulem Deen:

Has – Well, it’s not so much a reciprocity question of quid-pro-quo, tit-for-tat kind of thing, “Okay, you’re going to do something that’s disrespectful to me, I’ll do something disrespectful to you.” That’s childishness. But you also cannot… I’ll give you an example. One of the things that I’ve made a point of is that when I meet with my family, I will sometimes wear a yarmulke and sometimes not. The reason I do that is because I need them to know that I do not wear a yarmulke generally, and I’m not going to always wear a yarmluke just because I’m around them and I need to respect them. I need them to respect the fact that I don’t wear a yarmulke. Now, I wouldn’t walk into a shul without a yarmulke, but that’s also a bit because I’ll get thrown out, or it’s some practical thing. I think shuls should be accepting of people who walk in without yarmulkes. You can suggest, “If you’re looking for a yarmulke there are some on the table there,” but the moment you say, “You need to do X,” that’s the moment the person leaves.

David Bashevkin:

My next interview was with a dear friend who I actually went to Yeshiva with. He for a long time operated on Facebook under the name Philo Judaeus. This was controversial to a degree because it was a Yeshiva person who learned in kollel for many years with children, and I think for many people the fact that somebody who’s so steeped in learning and Torah and commitment would then leave after being married with his family, with his kids, is extraordinarily jarring for people to listen to, and I think upset a great deal of people. I’ll be honest, I’m sorry for that. I’m certainly not looking to upset people for no reason. I understand why this is upsetting, because this is not somebody who left to smoke cigarettes outside of the pizza shop wearing a leather jacket, like The Fonz. This is somebody who left because, intellectually he felt uninspired in a way, intellectually. And that was very difficult. Now, Philo is somebody who’s really amazing and I do think he’s worth highlighting because even after leaving, he is what I would really say, and I know this for an absolute fact, is the opposite of anything even close to antagonistic. When people come to him with doubts, I know many people who he has sent directly to me who have been in my office, talking about their religious lives. Many, many people. He has a great respect, integrity, and affinity for people with religious commitment. He is not dismissive in any way of people who have such commitments.

I don’t know that I would characterize and say that he laments the fact that he left, but I do think that there is… Again, I’m characterizing my impression, I’m not putting words into his mouth, but I do think that there is a longing, or an enduring appreciation for the world that he was once a part of, though he no longer is. In his search for a meaningful and honest life, Philo’s read through the most and dealt with the most complex philosophical questions on religion. It was his insistence in coming on the interview that he would not talk at all about reasons why he left, about any sort of things that he read that sent him in the wrong direction. Instead, what we really spoke about was, A, what are the reasons to stay? What would you tell somebody are reasoned, philosophical reasons to be a part and continue your religious commitment? And then we spoke about a group that him and I are a part of which engages in Frum/OTD Dialogue, dialogue between people who remain religious and people who have left the world of committed Jewish life. Together in a Facebook group we both serve as moderators. And I began my dialogue about how each of these groups can learn from one another and listen to his principle answer.

So let me ask you now, coming to this dialogue question. You began a group, you didn’t begin the group, but you now moderate a group, which I also facilitate on called Frum/OTD dialogue. I want to begin with two very basic questions, doesn’t need a long philosophical answer, but: What do you think the frum community should be learning from the OTD community, and what do you think the OTD community should be learning from the Frum community?

Philo Judeaus:

So the purpose of the group is essentially to build bridges between the frum community, frum people and OTD people, to build understanding, not necessarily that we’re going to reach each other, and you can still disagree very strongly with people, but accept them as wonderful people, and respect them as good people. By meeting people online who are from the opposite group in the frum OTD divide. So it works both ways. The frum people often have very strong misconceptions about OTD people. As you alluded to, there’s this… We grew up with the stereotype of someone who goes off the derech. There’s also –

David Bashevkin:

They do it for their lust, and they want to party and gamble and do this. And that’s not why everybody leaves. Some people leave, I would almost describe as… I don’t want to say legitimate reasons, but yeah, they leave because they were not able to wrap their heads around their faith. It did not work for them.

Philo Judeaus:

Or they leave for lots of other reasons, like, it really honestly doesn’t work for them. Some people leave because of perceived hypocrisy or misogyny and racism –

David Bashevkin:

The list goes on.

Philo Judeaus:

It goes on and on, and I will also point out that, while we’ve been talking about people leaving from intellectual point of view, I think it’s perfectly legitimate to leave for emotional reasons as well. People become frum for emotional reasons, that’s commonplace, and people live for emotional reasons. If you think it’s perfectly legitimate to come, then at least you should consider the possibility that it should be perfectly legitimate to leave, also for emotional reasons. But in any case, so people leave for lots of different reasons, so that’s one thing that is a stereotype-buster –

David Bashevkin:

And that’s something that the frum world needs to learn about the OTD world. Meaning, don’t use a caricature, just because somebody is leaving, to project why they left based on the reasons that you learned when you were in seventh grade or tenth grade. You have to really learn their story to understand their decisions, and it’s unfair to cast them into a stereotype. That’s something that the frum world can learn from the OTD world.

Philo Judeaus:

Yeah. And I will say further that it’s often actively harmful to misdiagnosis why someone left. If you relate to them on the assumption that they left because they want cheeseburgers and partying with girls or in cases of girls, partying with boys, that’s not… And really they left for something completely differently, maybe because they’re gay, or maybe because intellectual reasons. You’re going to do it completely wrong. Your relationship with them will be completely off balance if you do it that way. That’s the frum people – That’s one of the things that the frum people can learn from the OTD people, and they learn that OTD people are very normal, wonderful, upstanding people.

David Bashevkin:

And could be well-balanced people, not everyone is, not everybody has their lives fell apart. You could be a well-balanced, healthy person.

Instead of seeing the world through a set of characters, biases, biases or whatever it is, Philo asks us to live I think in a much more textured life. I think this is more honestly, perhaps it’s even a little bit more vulnerable, in the way that we choose to see people and the decisions they make on their terms without superimposing our preconceived thoughts or feelings on them. I think this is something important, not just for when we interact with people who leave, or people who are differently religious than us, I think this is important for how we relate to our own lives and our own past. How do we make sense of those moments, periods in our life where we were differently committed, less committed, more committed, absent? In whichever way, how do you reach out and reconcile those periods in your own life? I think the textures and the heuristics that we use to create that meaning internally within our own lives is so important. The next question I asked him is what can the OTD world, people who left the world of religious commitment, learn from the frum community? And I thought his answer was incredibly sensitive.

Let’s go to the other side, and what you think the OTD world could learn from the frum community?

Philo Judeaus:

So a lot of OTD people have had very bad experiences with the frum world. It’s very good, I think, from my perspective, it’s very good for them to interact with frum people who are normal, accepting, wonderful people, who do respect the other people with very different belief systems, and do accept them as wonderful people. When they realize that the frum world is not necessarily that awful world that they experienced –

David Bashevkin:

The same caricature goes both ways.

Philo Judeaus:

It goes both ways. So that’s just one thing. There’s bridge building in ways that I totally don’t anticipate, I honestly don’t know all the ways that it’s useful. People keep telling me that this is such a wonderful group, it’s like… One thing we do regularly, and David, you participate in this as well, is we kick people out, unfortunately, sometimes.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. I happen to love it, that you are such a strict enforcer to make sure that the dialogue is respectful, is not attacking, not attacking religion, not attacking people who left religion. You are the architect to make sure that the bridge, so to speak, remains sturdy and well paved –

Philo Judeaus:

So one of them, yeah. There’s several moderators –

David Bashevkin:

I along with others, but I think you’re the most vigilant. You’re very careful and you’re very sensitive, which I always appreciate, and it really is a lens to the complexity of religious life, but in a deeper way, it’s the complexity of life that you see in the group. Because not everybody’s religious in the group, obviously. So it’s the complexity of what goes into people’s decisions and stories, you see so much there that I find fairly moving.

All of this of course brings us to our final guest, which I think, of all of the interviews that we may have had on 18Forty, this may stand out. It certainly stands out in my mind. I, as I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve referenced earlier and I said initially in our introduction, I don’t like the term OTD because it looks at religious commitment as this binary, in or out, yes, no. I think religious journeys are far more complex than that. And to highlight that, the last person we had is really an amazing soul and personality who’s not so well-known but should be, and her name is Kelsey Osgood. Kelsey Osgood, I came to learn about her because she wrote the review of Shulem Deen’s book in the New Yorker. Which, you can’t be a slouch of a writer to get published in the New Yorker, she wrote the review for Shulem Deen’s book. What makes her even more remarkable, aside from reviewing that book, is that this theme of transitions played out in her own life but in the opposite direction of our topic. Namely, she is a convert to Orthodox Judaism. So this is somebody who’s experienced a drastic transition in her own life, but in the opposite way that we’ve been discussing, but nonetheless she retains her appreciation. Dare I say, I don’t want to call it a fascination, but an appreciation for religious transition, because obviously, in her own life, having not grown up Jewish, she appreciates the choices that are involved in religious transitions. Kelsey writes about this community with the distance of a writer writing from without, but also as someone who’s deeply familiar with the idea and experience of religious change, I wanted to ask her how her study of the OTD community informs her own religious life. Here’s our conversation with Kelsey Osgood.

Let me ask you this, and maybe we’ll close with this question as it relates to your larger story: What lessons from the OTD community do you incorporate into the religious culture in your home, and what advice, if any, would you give from the story of your journey and transition to people who are now leaving?

Kelsey Osgood:

Oh man. To the first question, I think what lessons I take and use in my own home… I mean there’s a couple things. I often think of what my converting rabbi said about himself, about being – he was raised Orthodox, and he one time said to me, “It’s not that hard for me to remain Orthodox because I grew up with it in a loving and supportive framework. It’s a source of happiness to me because that was the context.” So I try to use that in my own house so that my kids never see Judaism as a source of punishment, or I don’t want them – again, they’re too young for this kind of stuff now, but for them to see dogma without reason, for me to teach them, “This is just what we do, and you don’t have a choice and don’t ask why,” or, “Just do as I say,” kind of parental thing. And more specifically from the OTD stuff, I think, again, when I have those moments where I’m like, “Oh my gosh, what if my kids don’t want to keep shabbos,” which to me has always been the apex of the most precious thing from my religious life, and I have to remind myself that once upon a time, I didn’t keep shabbos, and people change and grow in all sorts of unexpected ways. If you had asked any of my family members when I was younger, nobody would have seen this coming… My aunt on my wedding day was like, “Well, who would have guessed this.” I was really a tyrant about being, about atheism and skepticism when I was young. I think you never really know, and the best you can do, I think, is just be right there as your kids or your spouse or whoever, is trying to figure out how to incorporate all this stuff.

David Bashevkin:

Navigate that cosmic drama.

Kelsey Osgood:

How to navigate… Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

And I think the next part, for many parents and families and loved ones, being there can be the absolute hardest part. Being present for a loved one who has made a change that can be deeply painful. And let me be absolutely clear, I am not undermining or dismissing the very real pain, sadness of any family who experiences somebody who makes a choice to live their life in a way different than they were brought up with. We don’t need to be ashamed of the fact that that can be a deeply painful experience. But learning how to love without judgment or concern is something that I think my conversation with Kelsey really emphasizes.

What advice, if any, would you give. Do people reach out to you from the – I mean I know you used to publish on pious and you definitely knew Shulem at a point. What advice would you give to people who are now leaving a community? Because you left, in some ways, your community, what advice would you give them as they leave theirs?

Kelsey Osgood:

I think there are aspects of the OTD journey that I – There are certainly aspects of it that I will never understand because it is a different dynamic for me, but I do understand feeling distant from your family of origin because you have different belief systems and practices than they do, and as long as… I don’t know if I could give them advice so much as empathize with the fact that that can be very difficult, and that you just have to try your best, and hope that you can reach some point of understanding. The same thing for parents I think. It’s always been, even with my husband’s parents, I think sometimes people assume that it must be smooth sailing because they’re Jewish and we have a shared vocabulary, but there’s a lot of stuff that comes up, and we just have to constantly meet each other in the middle, and that can be frustrating because sometimes you think, “Oh, I’m going to get to a spot where it’s going to be good and we’re going to understand each other,” but things come up all the time, and you just have to keep plugging away at it. As long as there’s a mutual understanding that you want to be in each others’ lives, you can continuously work at it, I guess. That’s the only… I would never profess to say how that worked, and I would never tell them how they should do that, but I can… I do relate to that, I do.

David Bashevkin:

I want to close the exploration of this topic in talking a little bit about listening to people who left reflect on what Jewishness means to them. I do think that this is an important perspective of sorts because I think the lived experience of what Judaism is, especially for people who are no longer in the community that they’re a part of, can give us a different lens and maybe a breath in how we reflect on our own Jewish identity. So returning back to my interview with Shulem, I have a very simple question that I want to leave our listeners and our treatment of this topic with, and I posed it to Shulem. What does Jewishness mean to him? And listen now to his answer.

What is your Jewishness mean to you now?

Shulem Deen:

I got this question a lot over the years, and I find that my answer to this has changed over time, and this is interesting to me. But I think my answer now is: Jewishness to me is the most important aspect of my identity. There is no other thing that is as important to me as my Jewishness. For instance… I’m not religiously, philosophically, ideologically opposed to the idea of intermarriage. If I was to marry a non-Jewish person, I wouldn’t need them to be Jewish, but I would need them to have an appreciation for how deep my Jewishness goes in me. That’s something that I’ve realized over the years, I haven’t consciously chosen, and I cannot consciously discard. It’s simply there. I would have to say it’s a connection to the myth of shared ancestry.

I think primarily that’s what it would be: the myth of family. The myth that we as a people are not just a religious community, but also a family. The Torah doesn’t refer to Jews as people of a certain faith, the Torah refers to Jews as the B’nei Yisrael, the children of Israel, or Bet Yaakov, the house of Jacob. The Torah refers to Jews as members of a clan, of a tribe that is biologically connected. Now, I don’t think Modern Jews, contemporary Jews today, have that biological connection, and Judaism doesn’t insist on it either because one can convert to Judaism, but there is still even within that, when someone converts to Judaism they take on the name so-and-so Avraham ben Avraham, because that now ties them in a filial way, because Judaism emphasizes the notion that we are a family. So when someone converts there is a very explicit, very conscious, bringing into the family so to speak: an adoption that makes them, not just join this faith community, but actually being adopted as a family member. To me that’s one thing that I just cannot ever see as unimportant. It’s simply part of me. It’s something that I deeply value. The implications of that may be a bigger question, but that’s for another conversation.

David Bashevkin:

Thank you so much for listening, we’re still on hiatus and we hope to be back in a week or so with a fresh, new, delicious new topic. So thank you again, and it wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a little bit of shnorring, so if you enjoy this episode, or any episode, please subscribe, rate, and review. Tell your friends about it. It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. If you’d like to learn about this topic, or any of the other great topics we’ve covered, be sure to check out 18forty.org. That’s the number 1-8 followed by the word forty, F-O-R-T-Y.org. You’ll also find videos, articles, recommended reading, so much more to delve into. Thank you so much for listening, and stay curious my friends.