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A Tale of Two Orthodox Judaisms

A Tale of Two Orthodox Judaisms


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It was the best community. It was the worst community. It was a God of love. It was a God of terror. It was a school where children thrived. It was a school where children were abused. It was a time for exploring all the kosher parts of God’s glorious world, it was a time for everything to be restricted. It was an age with deep wisdom. It was an age where questions were forbidden. It was an epoch of honesty and truth seeking. It was an epoch of hypocrisy and fraud. It was a season of tolerance. It was a season of judgment. It was a spring of hope. It was a winter of despair.

For years, I was only exposed to the best of the Orthodox Jewish world. Sure, I’d occasionally come across someone on the street who gave me a judgmental look, but since I become observant over 20 years ago, living mostly among right-wing modern Orthodox Jews, but having yeshivish, Chabad, and hasidic friends, I was privileged to see the best.

I was privileged to discover a loving God, who holds me through life’s uncertainties. I was privileged to be around healthy people who mind their own business when it comes to my religion, but overextend themselves when it comes to my well-being. I have been privileged to have wonderful, compassionate rabbis who not only have a balanced and thoughtful approach to Judaism, but who have always have considered me as a total person whenever issuing a ruling. I have been privileged to be exposed to beautiful and deep Torah wisdom, which has enhanced the meaning in my life and allowed me to freely question. I have been privileged to marry a man I love who is giving and caring, kind, and hardworking. And I have been privileged not only to get to enjoy so much of the world’s kosher delights, but to give my children the same and raise them in a school where they are getting a deep and meaningful Jewish experience, that is their foundation of their lives, while at the same time, they are being educated in a way that will land them in top positions in well-paying fields if they so choose.

It has been the best of times becoming an Orthodox Jew. In fact, I couldn’t fathom a better way to live. I was able to take the happy and healthy secular life I was leading and add spirituality into it. My entire family joined me on this journey. But then I met the people who were failed on multiple levels in the Orthodox Jewish community through our work at Project Makom, and I realized that there is a whole second world of Orthodox Judaism.

So many of our members have been raised with a God of terror who not only punishes them, but delights in their suffering. So many of our members have been judged and belittled for stepping outside of community norms in even the most insignificant ways. So many of our members have been tortured by rabbis who not only lack any basic compassion, or common sense, but in some cases actually abused them. So many of our members were never exposed to a Judaism that allowed mitzvos to be enjoyable or Torah to be deep, in fact, they had large swaths of Torah not even taught to them and when it was taught, all nuance was missing and any questions they had were considered heretical. So many of our members were forced into marriages that they never wanted, only to continue to be abused in their adult life after suffering as children. So many of our members were not allowed to learn much about or enjoy the kosher parts of the larger world either in home or at school. For many of them, this not only limited their ability to appreciate all the wonders that Hashem created, but also their ability to make a livelihood.

Despite hearing so many horrific stories on a regular basis, I am still so positive about Judaism. I am still so hopeful. People are confused by this, but to me it’s simple. The Torah of truth and compassion and thoughtfulness is the real Torah, and it has always been the real Torah. And when I get to see one of our members meet the kind of Orthodox Jews that have been in my world, experience mitzvos like I have and learn Torah as I do, meet the rabbis that I know, and see the beauty that is there, it is the best of times for them too.

Of course it is a tremendous task to ensure that every Jew has knowledge of and access to this type of Orthodox Judaism. But what is the purpose of privilege if not to share it with those who have less? So I plan to spend my life publicizing this message to every Jew who has seen this beauty so they can help us gather the tremendous resources we will need to help those who have not yet had the chance. And perhaps, with God’s help, one day, there will only be the best Orthodox Judaism.

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  1. Fantastically put- every word rings true.

  2. Charles Zalta : May 30, 2019 at 10:58 pm

    This works but the question begs—-how do you reach out to the persons that are hurt and help them quietly ?
    What is orthodox ? Does that term even mean anything anymore ? I’m from the Sephardic community, and our version of orthodox , is it acceptable to you or whomever ?

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : May 31, 2019 at 9:06 am

      Project Makom is our effort to help the people who have been hurt. We didn’t seek them out. I started jitc to show the non-orthodox world what my life looked like. We accidentally attracted people living in abusive orthodoxy. We use the term “orthodox because it is only used for the bad. So our goal was to show all the good that it includes. Of course it includes Sephardim. But for the good and the bad. Observant Sephardic Jews that practice Judaism with kindness, tolerance, sincerity and critical thinking would be what I consider healthy or authentic. Those who practice judgment, abuse, dishonesty and don’t use seichel I would say are part of the orthodoxy that is harmful.

  3. I went to an orthodox Jewish girl’s school in my youth. Most of my family was orthodox. I have never been exposed to a more misogynistic, xenophobic, judgemental, ignorant group of people. I repudiate the lot of them.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : May 31, 2019 at 9:02 am

      I know. But this is not the entirety of the frum community. It was such a devastating discovery for me to make since it is the exact opposite of what Judaism is actually about.

  4. I don’t think this is a fair to Judaism. Judaism is not a “modern” set of ideas, necessarily, just because some Jews want to present it as such. The thing I think is going on is, kiruv feels a distinct need to present Judaism in a particular, glowing, modern assumptions, light. It fears turning people off to the reality: Judaism is old, and many of its statements and pronouncements are simply not what modern people want to hear – so kiruv tries to downplay or simply bury whatever in Judaism feels harsh to a modern ear. It’s the same way that parents coddle their kids these days. Kids are given a huge amount of attention, are fawned over, told they can do “anything,” and yet we see the results: the real world interferes, and many kids are not prepared to deal. They are anxious, depressed — how many kids these days are medicated? How many were medicated two or three generations ago? What accounts for the difference? One thing that has to be true to help account for this: we lie to kids, and reality slaps them in the face. Kiruv does the exact same thing: it fears turning off young Jews, so it frankly presents a Judaism that is simply consonant with modern views. Then it gets all freaked out when real Jews and real Judaism — warts and all – shows up, courtesy of some very frum rabbis, and communities. We like to call that kind of Judaism “inauthentic.” NOTHING is inauthentic about ANY kind of Judaism, or Jewish life. It’s just a turn off, and therefore the kiruv rabbi (the “mommy” and “daddy” in this story) try to shield people from it. But reality is pretty, it is ugly, life is meaningful, it is meaningless, G-d is real, G-d is lost, Torah is real, the Torah is a lie — Jewish reality has always confronted every reality. And reality ain’t always pretty. And that is what upsets you. And that is what kiruv tries to bury. Reality. Truth. The whole, cold, ugly, beautiful, awful, love filled, despair filled enchilada. Judaism lives — but the modern world presents such challenges, we strain kiruv through this awful barbie-doll strainer. And we are shocked that the sweet version simply can’t erase the real, and we are shocked that sweet doesn’t even feel real to most Jews, since every Jew knows: nothing is all sweet.
    And we wonder why so many Jews shrug and say, “nah.” Regards, T

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : July 8, 2019 at 11:38 am

      Thanks for your comment, T. It is true that there are parts of the Torah that don’t fit so easily into modern times but some troubling topics are less troubling when you delve deeper into them. We spend a lot of time doing that on this site. Any Kiruv organization that makes it seem like being religious will make you rich and beautiful is not being honest, but the truth is that in a halchic life you can both have a lot of access to the world and a framework to give meaning in hard times. It doesn’t make the community perfect, it doesn’t mean some parts of the Torah aren’t hard to deal with, but it can be a very rewarding life. The people who are in Project Makom, when they meet the people we connect them with experience Judaism like night and day. So I would suggest to you that your experience has been the negative but if you met the right people you might see it differently.

  5. Youre absolutely right. There are so many good frum communities who are living a beautiful, Torah observant life. I wish everyone could have the fortune to see the beauty of Torah and mitzvos.

    Every single community, of any religion and culture, has both good and bad people. It’s just how it is. But you are doing a good thing you are healing the world by showing people the good and true and authentic way of Torah.

    You’re a wonderful person and you have a wonderful mission. I wish there were more people out there doing what you are doing.

  6. […] It is easy to assume that one’s life experiences are everyone’s life experiences, but that is obviously not the case. And the interesting thing about Jew in the City is that the more we speak about the good that exists in the Orthodox world – and there is so much good to speak about – the more we attract feedback from people who experienced the opposite. […]

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Allison Josephs

Allison is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City. Please find her full bio here.

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