Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s Oct. 24 column addresses “Why Orthodox youth are leaving the fold.” He is dismayed to have met formerly chasidic youth now without yarmulkes or beards and some with tattoos. As he notes, this goes against the basic Jewish community assumption that a quality Jewish education is the best guarantee of continued Jewish observance. Looking for answers, he tells us that “a big part of the problem is distracted parenting” the failure of some parents to spend more time with their children.
From my personal experience, I think that Rabbi Boteach has failed to see that a larger source of the problem lies within the mind-set of Orthodoxy itself. I am one who was raised Orthodox, had the benefits of a full yeshiva education, the trips to Israel, and undistracted parents. Yet once I drifted in the smallest way from the strictures of Orthodoxy, I went quickly and extremely to the opposite pole – because my Orthodox education had taught me that there is only one authentic form of Judaism. It was “all or nothing.” Anything less was meaningless. I knew that I could not turn on lights in my home on Shabbat and still be a considered an observant Jew. I knew I was out.
Orthodoxy is an insular world. The world of chasidism, even more so. Members are totally involved and totally conform. Deviation is forbidden, rejected. We all know that a man who occasionally drives on Shabbat is never going to be allowed to lead prayer services in an Orthodox synagogue. When I was in yeshiva high school, one of my classmates was expelled after he was caught eating a Hebrew National hot dog a few blocks away from the school. Better to cut out the cancer of deviance than to tolerate any flexibility. I knew that once I had left the path of Orthodoxy, I was outside the fold. This was not a choice I made; it was the reality of the Orthodox world. Orthodox youth must live a life of complete conformity or be completely rejected. There is no middle ground.
It is the tragedy of the experimenting or nonconformist Orthodox or chasidic youth that there are no alternatives. Orthodoxy accepts no divergence in any degree. It is often said that “99 percent kosher is 100 percent treif.” Those raised Orthodox or chasidic who have ventured outside know of nowhere else to go within the Jewish world. Those who got a good Jewish education know that alternatives are ridiculed. Orthodox rabbis call Conservative and Reform Jews “clowns.”
In my case it was a short path from the first sneaked cigarette on a Friday night to the Danbury Fair on Yom Kippur. After all, if I wasn’t binding myself completely, why bind myself at all?” In an instant, when I wasn’t “all,” I was “nothing.” There was nothing I knew to clutch at as I fell, so it was a long fall. It was years. But the years ended for me when I moved to Teaneck and found an observant, vibrant, and active Conservative community that allowed me to be as observant as I wanted to be, without being judged, ridiculed, condemned, or excommunicated for my personal choices. I drive on Shabbat but proudly keep a glatt kosher kitchen. Those Orthodox readers who just asked themselves “Why bother?” just don’t get it. As a community, we would be better off crediting a fellow Jew for what he or she does, than to condemn them for what they do not do.
I have found a place within Judaism again. But I truly lament those lost Orthodox and chasidic youths who cannot find their own way because of the severe limitations imposed by the Jewish worldview they were taught to accept. Sorry, Rabbi Boteach, but when Orthodox youth end up far outside the fold, don’t just go looking at the parents. The greater fault might lie in the exclusionary mentality of Orthodoxy.