Why Observant Jews Leave Judaism

Having run the gamut of observance herself, Faranak Margolese devoted five years to researching, interviewing, and surveying hundreds of people who left Orthodox Judaism in order to better understand the “off the derech” phenomenon. Her 2005 highly acclaimed book “Off The Derech: Why Observant Jews Leave Judaism, How To Respond To the Challenge” is perhaps more relevant than ever and has just been adapted into an Israeli edition, which debuts this Fall in English and French.

Margolese is the great-granddaughter of the former Chief Rabbi of Iran, was raised in a traditional Sephardic home and went to a Jewish day school her whole life. “I had excellent teachers. There was a lot of joy and curiosity about traditional Judaism in my house. I was very fortunate in that way because I got an excellent foundation.” Although during her post-high school seminary year in Israel she became more frum than she was raised (i.e. fully Orthodox), she was disillusioned by negative experiences with teachers and rabbis.

After seminary, she became friends with other Jews who were raised in observant homes but no longer kept anything. “I found myself in an environment where it was really quite difficult to hold onto what I wanted to hold onto.” Although she found herself giving up observance, eventually she chose to return and with that, she developed a mission to uncover what makes people leave and more importantly, how to inspire them to want to stay in the first place.

“For the vast majority of our history most people were halachically observant. But since the enlightenment that has changed.” She contends that what was once a God-centered world is now a man-centered world. A person has to compete with all manners of distraction in order to try to discover a reason for belief. “Open society challenges living an observant life.” Once someone questions it, three generations later we see intermarriage. But according to Margolese’s research, there is a single place where the repair of this rift begins: “Meeting children’s emotional needs. When we can create happy children who feel loved and secure and safe in their environment, and whose exposure to Judaism is loving…we will be more likely to create kids who are observant.” If not, there will be a real obstacle in staying religious. “The greatest thing that we can do is take care of our kids, primarily in our homes, but also in schools to ensure that they have those basic needs met…What our kids believe and why, how we can strengthen belief, that all comes later.”

No matter what kind of Orthodoxy is lost, there is commonality as to why it happens. “Emotional issues are universal. Every child has needs that are the same.” The environment in which the children are being raised either creates obstacles for them to overcome, or tools to overcome obstacles with. For Charedim, the boundaries that protect Judaism can work against those questioning it. With Modern Orthodox, “they walk in two worlds and it’s very easy to choose one over the other …Torah observance needs to be passionate or it’s easier to walk away.” Providing emotional support and joy in Judaism are non-negotiable.

Other factors which can keep children from choosing Judaism are abuse and fitting in. “Any kind of abuse really compromises a need to feel safe and secure and loved in the world. It often results in the most extreme kind of…reaction [against] living an observant life.” This sad motivator is unfortunately often what it takes for an individual to leave the Chasidic world. “It can create great anger towards religious people and…God.” In terms of fitting in, some children of ba’alei teshuva never quite felt that they integrated. “Ba’alei teshuva can be a little bit more stringent with their expectations of their kids…when you’re born into it, you’re more flexible.” Because these children are sometimes rejected as a direct result of their Judaism, it makes it more likely that they will respond to that rejection in a religious fashion. Though there is more awareness now than eleven years ago when the first edition premiered, our lives are distracted more than ever, endangering our being as emotionally available to our children as needed.

The book connects the dots for many people who felt lost before seeing it. “I have people who said they felt understood for the first time…There have been many parents who have…changed the way they raise their kids.” All because of reading the book and seeing what the need was or is in their family, and then trying to rectify it…I’m very thankful that it did have an impact that way.”

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  • Avatar photo Dana says on July 6, 2016

    I love this book idea
    I would have my.own story to add.. Of almost going off the derech… Really wanting to… But holding strong

  • Avatar photo Rukhy says on July 12, 2016

    There’s plenty of agunot fleeing violent husbands but remain as observant as they can be, despite being marginalized by the Orthodox community including by incredibly inaccurate and harmful articles that media such as JITC regularly posts as apologetics. The overwhelming majority of agunot were horribly abused by the husbands before leaving. And they remain rooted in their yiddishkeit despite, not only the suffering they have to endure from their limbo status, but often the impoverished and bullied status they end up in Orthodox communities including religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox communities. I don’t even want to hear about the 100% guarantee against agunot via pre-nup: JITC has been erroneously advertising it as 100% failsafe with a small disclaimer of “only when it’s properly implemented” when Orthodox and other Jewish women’s rights activists have pointed out the problems with the pre-nup quite a bit. Yet, these abused women, now unable to marry, often alienated from their communities regardless of the hashkafa of the community, often impoverished, remain observant, with strong emunah and bitachon. If they can’t afford kosher food, they will go vegetarian. There are tons of stories out there of the faithful agunah.

    Regardless, all this Chassidic-bashing does not sound, especially in the context of what is published on this site elsewhere regarding Chareidim, as a true concern for social issues in the Chareidi world. JITC is marketing her brand of Judaism in part via attacking a competing brand and exploiting the social issues within the Chassidic world to do so, while minimizing or outright lying about social issues within broader Orthodox Judaism or within modern orthodox communities. Instead, JITC would be wise to help those still observant, who desperately want to stay observant, who aren’t necessarily from Chassidic backgrounds, but are marginalized by the abusive interpretation of halacha throughout the world of Orthodoxy. Advocating for the pre-nup is great if you do it in a manner that is clearly consistent with the facts: it doesn’t, and cannot, always work. In fact advertising the pre-nup in this way sometimes result in agunot being told it’s their fault for not getting the pre-nup, or not doing it right, etc. Advocating for allowing annulments is even braver and better, and has sound halakhic basis. Performing a cheshbon nefesh as Elul is approaching is proper for JITC as to how to accomplish her goals on this site without causing undo harm to the most vulnerable members of the Jewish community. That would include not publishing articles by rabbis claiming that some modern female rape victims in secular society choose to stay with their rapist as justification for the whole “marry the rapist” thing in Torah. Find a less stigmatizing and erroneous way if you want to defend that concern. Clearly Ms. Josephs is an intelligent, well spoken person who does appear at times to be compassionate: please redirect these talents to either truly helping those within the Orthodox world who are marginalized, or to continue to to try and make yiddishkeit understandable to the outside world in a manner that does not harm.

    It has been mentioned that blaming parents for children going OTD can have a disastrous effect on all family members even if the parents are not abusive. Please stop perpetuating this tradition. There is conflicting research regarding trauma in the Jewish community in general; cherry-picking a book to suit the mission of JITC is an approach that will turn some educated people away. If JITC is not aware of modern research methods and has erroneously cherry-picked, please get some basic education regarding scientific research. If JITC truly wants to help, whether via Makom or otherwise, JITC should stop invalidating the experiences of the frum marginalized, including those who remained on the derekh as best they could. And that JITC advocate for change on a societal level, starting with the leadership.

    Clearly JITC is unprepared to tackle those who lose their emunah simply because they do not believe anymore, regardless of whether their emotional needs as children were met or not. In all these years I have yet to see an intelligent argument on this site against the concerns of those questioning Orthodox Judaism due to doubt regarding Torah m’Sinai. JITC should simply steer clear of this, and address social issues within the observant community, among OTDers who have been forced off the path (including those from MO) and would like to return, and stick to what would be helpful.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on July 15, 2016

      Thanks for your comment, Rukhy. Lots to unpack here. First off – I didn’t post this interview to “cherry pick.” I have a weekly radio show which I need to fill with guests. I had read this book a while ago and thought it had a lot of interesting things to say, so I brought the author on the show and we wrote it up afterwards. Her book goes into FAR more than emotional issues. Her research showed that lack of emunah, when things are OK emotionally, is not enough to push most people out completely. They may be Orthoprax at that point. It’s when someone (need not be the parent) – teacher, member of the community, does something traumatic to a person, plus the faith is not strong, that a person can be pushed out. After emotional needs are met, Mrs. Margolese talks about people living self-actualized lives, talks about helping people to find compelling reasons behind Torah and mitzvos. That’s all there, but not the first step. In terms of helping people deal with the emunah issues – we try to go through challenging parts of halacha and sections of the Torah for better readings, understandings, and sometimes conclude things are simple challenging and the essence of being a “Yisrael” is to “struggle with God.”

      Regarding the prenup – I don’t know WHO is blaming women for not getting one if they didn’t but that is awful. My husband and I signed a postnup and publicized that and heard from many women who were inspired to do the same. I have worked closely with rabbis from ORA, who champion women all day long. They are the ones who have never had a case where a prenup (properly implemented) has led to gett refusal. I don’t know how to respond if you tell me that’s not true except to ask you to produce a case where it didn’t work when properly implemented. No one who has ever made that claim to me has ever produced such a case. We did outreach to many charedi rabbanim and pushed them to add their name to a list. We are now working on a charedi version of a prenup and will be publicizing that too. In terms of an annulment – I do not understand the halachos well enough to know why it has been rejected, but the rabbanim that I’m close with are kind, compassionate people who are not afraid to push for change and are horribly pained by this issue. They have found that the prenup works and that annulments are problematic. If getting the charedi world to buy in prenups has been so hard, pushing for annulments would be impossible. We’re trying to deal in reality.

      In terms of women fleeing from abusive husbands, we did an article about Sister 2 Sister – calling out the Orthodox community for not being welcoming enough to divorced women. We’re not trying to “sacrifice people for the sake of kiruv.” Most of our readers are already religious. We’re trying to make sense of challenging topics, speak out against problems, own up to things which are immutable but hard to swallow and show the beauty in so many parts of Jewish living and Torah study. Why does this website and organization exist? I had a beautiful, happy secular life which was pierced by a triple murder (a father killing his two children and himself) when I was 8, which made me realize that I’d die one day and I had no idea what the purpose of my life was. That knowledge tortured me. I found Torah observance in my teens and though I’ve learned over the years that it comes with its own set of challenges (I have not personally experienced them, but the Makom crowd has giving me some insight into how it looked for them), Torah study and observance has taken the beautiful physical life I continue to have and imbued it with meaning and beauty. We do not exist to “save souls.” We believe everyone should find their own path in life. With JITC, we’re trying to best show how Orthodoxy looks to people who live self-actualized observant lives. Makom was started bc ex-chasidim told me they wanted the kind of Orthodoxy we describe here. So we built a whole program for them. The purpose is not to bash the chasidic community either. There are many beautiful things about it. We can’t change halacha. There is a process to it. I respect the process, even if I feel challenged at times. We wrote about unceasing leadership roles for women – not to become rabbis, but to consider if posekot could be possible. I had some meetings with some people after that. Calling to oust people from leadership positions is not going to do anything. We find it more effective to put forth examples of great leaders and help people access communities where they can live more freely.

  • Avatar photo Rukhy says on July 12, 2016

    I would like to add: advocating for a positive image of Orthodox Judaism in such a public manner is problematic, I understand. The non-Orthodox Western world is quick to misunderstand. They are often quick to jump on faults within Orthodox Judaism as evidence of the inferior nature of Orthodoxy to their own culture/religion, while conveniently overlooking the problems within their own culture. However it is disturbing to sacrifice victims of the Orthodox social issues in order to perform kiruv or address curiosity of the non-Orthodox. This has been a long-standing problem on this website. It’s important to consider: what is the true intention of JITC? Is it OK to sacrifice the victims for the sake of the Orthodox public image?

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on July 17, 2016

      Thanks for your question, Rukhy. I wouldn’t call this site “kiruv.” It’s an informational site meant for people of all backgrounds. It began as a way for me to share *my* experience so that people could know about Orthodoxy firsthand and come to a conclusion with a balance perspective as opposed to the bias that is normally out there. Our goal is for people to be informed and to use their bechira to figure out how they want to use that info. Now something happened – I have had a really nice life, but through this site, I learned about people who didn’t. People who suffered as agunos, from abuse being covered up, from not having access to the kind of education they wanted and so we made a decision here – to not only do PR and explanations but also get into activism. So I know that you don’t love the prenup, but our team spent months speaking to leaders in the charedi world to educate and push for more acceptance. We have written about abuse being covered up, chasidim not sitting on airplanes (even got a quote from Avi Shafran calling them out on bad behavior), and we started Project Makom to give people who were unhappy with the Orthodoxy they were raised with a chance to explore other communities which might work better (this came about bc people approached me asking for this exact thing.) The best part about getting into activism after you’ve been in the kiddush Hashem business is that it has given me the ability to push rabbanim. When I tell them how much I hated Orthodox Jews growing up and if we don’t change X, Y, and Z, people will be justified in hating us – we’ve had a lot of success. So it’s not just about showing the kiddush Hashem – it’s ALSO about making sure we *deserve* the kiddush Hashem.


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