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.”