When one person hurts another, even if she did so unintentionally, she should still apologize. That’s why I’ve decided to write this post. Because I didn’t understand the pain that some people who grew up Orthodox experienced until pretty recently, and not understanding made me not sensitive enough. During my proud secular Jewish childhood, I was raised to hate the Orthodox community. We only knew them from afar, but they were “extreme,” “closed-minded,” “uneducated,” and “backwards.” They had nothing to do with us.
Then, at 16 years old, after being launched into an existential crisis at age eight due to a father of children in my school who murdered them, then killed himself, I accidentally met an Orthodox Jew up close, and for the first time since that awful tragedy occurred, I was full of hope that life might not be completely pointless. The guy was nice. He was normal. Not only was his life not horribly restricted, he had something that I was missing — meaning. I felt betrayed that I was not given this information despite having been privileged to receive an otherwise excellent education.
After discovering the riches contained within a religious Jewish life, I slowly made a journey to observance to follow in the footsteps of my forefathers, but my family thought I had lost my mind. I challenged them to base their opinions on knowledge, not stereotypes and, one by one, as they began to learn, each of them saw the beauty of Torah and mitzvos and joined me. This phenomenon was the catalyst for starting an organization – Jew in the City. If I felt shortchanged by not having had a chance to see observance correctly, it seemed only right that every Jew should get to know of the beauty that is possible in a life of Torah and mitzvos.
While I ultimately landed in the right-wing side of the modern Orthodox world, I have spent considerable time with Orthodox Jews from every community and have many close friends and relatives from these places. Our goal at Jew in the City has always been to be “big tent” about Orthodoxy. To show the beauty contained in every branch. I went to a seminary called Darche Noam which stresses that there are numerous valid paths to observance and that each Jew should find his or her own. Some communities emphasize chesed (acts of kindness), others emphasize a commitment to Torah study, others stress tolerance, while others accentuate faith.
I never saw ugliness in the Orthodox Jewish community, up close. I never saw the judgments or the boxes so small that human beings can’t fit into them. I never saw cheating or fear-based education. Or cover ups. I saw beauty, so I told Orthodoxy as I knew it.
But the people who experienced the ugliness — who only experienced the ugliness — came to our platforms and called me a liar. I didn’t understand. There were several years of contentious social media threads. Me describing Orthodoxy honestly (from my perspective), them accusing me of whitewashing. While I understand that these people came to our platforms with frustration and feelings of betrayal of my simply not getting their reality, unfortunately, a conversation based on vitriol does not lead to a dialogue.
Then, a few years ago, some of the people who experienced the ugliness took a different approach. Instead of calling me a liar, they approached me in a respectful manner. They believed that what we describe on Jew in the City is true and they wanted it for themselves. A sincere and growth-oriented one that is integrated with the world, but careful about halacha. That contains room for self while developing a connection to the Almighty. Because this conversation began assuming that I did not purposely mislead, a real conversation could begin and I started to learn up close about the horrors they had lived through.
That was the impetus for starting Project Makom. Not to “make OTD religious again” and not to “make happy charedim modern Orthodox.” We built Project Makom to help interested Jews who had been raised with a dysfunctional Orthodox Judaism find a healthy and happy one. Not every person who comes to Project Makom wants to leave the charedi world. Some simply want to connect with healthy members of the charedi world — the amazing ones that I have been privileged to know.
So back to my apology — to the people who grew up experiencing Judaism as a weapon – I’m sorry that I didn’t understand what you went through. I simply didn’t know it was happening. Hearing the stories of the members of Project Makom over these last couple years, I understand it more now than ever. It’s not supposed to be this way, and I’m sorry that it was. I’m sorry if our rosy depiction of Orthodoxy made your experience seem invalid. It is not. We did not intentionally gloss over problems. They are just so far from how we’ve experienced Orthodoxy.
The point of Jew in the City was never to worry about image instead of goodness. It was to publicize actual goodness. We can only be a kiddush Hashem when our actions ARE a kiddush Hashem. There is MUCH kiddush Hashem in the Orthodox world and so much I am proud of and feel blessed every day to be part of. But there are problems which need to be fixed and the chillul Hashem will not go away until the root of the problems are corrected. Our mission ten years after our founding is the same as it was the day we began: every Jew should know that there is beauty and meaning in Torah and mitzvos. And anyone who is interested in partaking of that beauty should have the chance to do so.