Interview with an Off The Derech community leader

Rachmuna Litzlon You may remember that guy who was trying to sell his olam habah on Ebay, but Rachmuna Litzlon AKA Ari Mandel is also one of the Off The Derech community leaders online. Between his overly active Facebook page, groups, twitter, and blog postings, he’s kind of hard to miss. He readily agreed to an interview in which I gave him the option to be funny, serious, or both. He chose the serious route, but it’s still quite funny and kind of mind blowing. You see, like anybody else who’s frum and slightly jealous of 3 day weekends, bacon ice cream, and washing past the knuckles on Yom Kippur, I always assumed that the Off The Derech community was made up of a bunch of drug and sex crazed, mentally ill people who were abused by their rebbe and have an axe to grind against “us” frum people. Let’s just say that the following interview which is going to be posted in 2 or 3 parts, is very informative and very fascinating.

I’ve heard that going off the derech is a bit like coming out of the closet, how long were you in the closet until you had enough?

 It’s hardto say exactly, it was a slow and gradual process, but I was “in the closet” for a good few years. I tried all sorts of compromises and even moved from Monsey to Lakewood, in the hope that if I could cut my beard off and put on a short suit I’d be happy, but I soon realized it was all the same, my problem was with the fundamentals, not the style of dress.

Family and friends reactions?

 They were pretty shocked. I was never a crazy Frummak, but I was a good kid growing up, I was the first guy in my class to get engaged and married, I was a decent student, I played by the rules, and so on. I was thinking about it for years on the inside, but my transition was fairly quick on the outside. We went through a rocky period, it was tough for them, but we get along now as if nothing ever happened, and I’m very happy about that.

How did it start, was there a eureka moment, an existential epiphany or did you slowly spiral into the immorality of goyishkeit by eating vegan out and getting a library card?

 It all started with goyishe books… The Rabbis are right in banning them. I’m very curious by nature, and was always reading, but I grew tired of Feldheim and CIS, so after I got married I went into the public library for the first time – which is a big no no. I snuck in right before Shabbos so no one would see me, grabbed the Da Vinci Code, and raced home. That was the beginning of the end… It made me curious, so I read everything I could get my hands on about the subject, and I just kept following my curiosity, whatever piqued my interest, I’d take out a bunch of books on the subject, and I’d study it to death.

Before long I started running into problems, I found out that everything I took for granted wasn’t quiet as obvious as I’d thought, so I took out books on those subjects, hoping to find the answers to all these new questions. But instead of answers, I only found new questions. Turns out evolution isn’t the joke we were told it is, the Big Bang isn’t a punchline, there’s a lot more to history than the tunnel-vision stories we were taught, and so on. So I started going to Rabbis, but I was shocked when they had nothing to offer me. Either their answers were silly and childish, or they’d say things like “say some tehillim”, or “are you smarter than your father? You smarter than your Rosh Yeshivas?”. It took a while, I desperately wanted to be proven wrong, but eventually I became an atheist.

As for eating out, I didn’t eat OU-D until I was an atheist. I meant it, I believed in god, heaven and hell, all of it, I wouldn’t dare break the rules.

I see on Facebook that you were in the Army, what’s the deal? Were you frum at the time?

 After I left, I was bouncing around, not sure what to do or where to go with my life, I wanted to go to school, but I didn’t have a high school diploma and I was clueless about the whole process. I was looking for some excitement, I wanted to challenge myself, I had also recently lost a ton of weight, so I thought I was Super Man, and I was also very right-wing (politically) at the time, so I figured enlisting would be perfect. I was in for close to five years and it had it’s pros and it’s cons, but I can’t complain, it helped me in a lot of ways. It’s paying for NYU, it was a crash course in American/non-Jewish culture and life, it taught me a lot about life and about myself, but most importantly, the army turned me into a flaming liberal.

If there was an OTD back to the future movie in which someone went back in time to make sure you didn’t go off the derech, what would they do?

 Stop me from ever stepping foot in the public library. Like in the Matrix, once you take the red pill, there’s no going back, there’s no unlearning or unseeing what you’ve seen or learned. One bite from the aitz haddass, and it’s all over.

Where did you grow up? Do you still visit old friends?

 I grew up in Monsey, and I go there all the time. I visit family and friends fairly often.

Where did you go to yeshiva? Are any of your former classmates off the derech or reaching out to you about their frustrations?

 I went to chassidish yeshivas, in Monsey, Israel and Brooklyn. I have a few friends from cheder (elementary school) who went off, but nobody that I can think of from yeshiva, but there are many who’ve become a lot more “relaxed” in their lifestyles. I’ve been lucky with my friends, most of them have been very cool about me and my changes, and I’ve maintained most of my friendships. Some better than others, but most are still intact.

I have people tell me constantly that they’re frustrated with this or that thing about Frumkeit or the community, and that they agree with me on this or that point. I find that individual Frum people are mostly good, but when they get together and act as a group, they can be pretty crappy.

Do any of your old friends accept you for who you are or are they constantly trying to do kiruv on you?

 Most of my friends have accepted me, or they’ve given up on trying to change my views. A select few kept up with me as if nothing had ever changed, in fact, some of best friends from my Frum days are the  very Frum ones, not the modernish types. You can tell when someone is being nice to you for other than nobel reasons, and I tend to avoid such people.

Do you have frum friends? If so, are you constantly trying to do kiruv on them, to coax them out of religion?

 I do have many Frum friends, and I would never try to coax them away. In fact I actively avoid having those discussions with family and friends. If they davka want to go there, I’ll do it, but I don’t seek it out. I’ve had those conversations in the past, and they rarely end well. Even if I “win”, people take religion too personally, so it’s just not worth it. But more importantly, I see no need to disturb their lives, if they are seeking for the information, it’s out there, but why would I potentially throw their lives into chaos?

A lot of frum people like to point out that the OTD community is full of hate and can’t seem to let go of the past. Do you have sort of response to this sentiment?

 I hate to invoke Godwins Law, and this is only an analogy, I’m not calling the Frum community Nazis, whoever… Try telling a Holocaust survivor to just get over it. Try telling them that they’re full of hate. Do I hate the Frum community? No. But I do hate the extremism, I hate the close-mindedness, I hate certain aspects of that world, but I don’t hate people or the community as a whole.

Do we live in the past? Do Cuban exiles live in the past? It’s a defining part of who we are. Italian immigrants to the US will usually live near other Italian immigrants, will eat Italian food, and read Italian newspapers till the day they die, are they living in the past?

How large is the OTD community?

 I have no clue, but it’s huge. I’m an administrator on the main OTD group on Facebook, which has about 800 people in it, and for every one of them, I know five people who either aren’t on Facebook, or aren’t in the group. Everywhere I go, I meet people who don’t identify as “OTD”, but essentially are. And that’s not counting the huge amount of people who go off, and disappear into the world, and are never heard from again.

I find from my experience that the OTD community skews more towards Chassidish, is that true?

 Ex-chassidim tend to stick out, and stick together more than ex-MO or ex-Lubabs, (sorry, Lubabs, I know you’re chassidim too, but you’re a different breed). A MO person, who might have a degree, can speak a perfect English, knows how to shave and talk to a girl can melt into the American landscape and just be Johnny American, but ex-chassidim have a much harder time doing that, so they’re more visible.

Is there such a thing as OTD Yichus?

 Frum people like to say that mockingly, and we OTD people like to joke about that, but the truth is there isn’t such a thing. There are some of us who are more noisy and boisterous than others, but there is no hierarchy, and there’s no yichus.

To us outsiders, it seems like one big happy family. Is there community politics?

 Of course there’s politics, just like anywhere else in the world. I tend to steer clear of it, just because I like to get along with everyone, and I don’t care for drama, but there isn’t a group on earth that doesn’t have any sort of conflict.

Besides for Footsteps and Cholent, are there any other organizations that support the OTD community?

 Footsteps is the only organization that I’m aware of that is explicitly there to help OTD people. There’s Hillel in Israel, which is the equivalent to Footsteps.

Do you think Tomchei Shabbos or Hatzolah would discriminate against someone who was openly OTD?

 If Tomchei Shabbos provided walkie-talkies, they’d help OTD types… I’ve seen Hatzalah members help out OTD people, but I doubt TS would do the same.

Do you think that the community is growing or that it’s always been large and now is the first time one can go OTD and have a support system to deal with the trauma? Or both?

 Definitely both. The internet made it easy for people to connect and to communicate, which made it easier for people to come out, and it also made information easily accessible, so more people are going OTD. The more people leave, the more people have the courage to follow suit. Each one of those things feeds on the other, and causes more and more people to leave.

What do you think of Orthopraxy? Are they included in the community?

 I was orthoprax long before I knew the word, and I know tons of them now, and my heart breaks for them. Many of them are stuck for life, and their only respite from their prison is sneaking off to eat pork in a treif restaurant every once in a while. I go out with these people sometimes, and I wonder what the waitstaff in half the restaurants in New York think, we come in, guys with beards and payes stuffed under baseball caps, women changing into jeans in the bathroom, and goyish-looking me. They look and sound like chassidim, but they’re chowing down on bacon cheeseburgers and shrimp cocktails, while I nibble on a salad (I’m a vegetarian).

Are they part of the community? I guess it depends how you define “community”, but in many ways they are part of it. They tend to be very secretive and private – and understandably so, and I’m flattered to be an honorary “RM” (Reverse Marranno).

Do you think that going off the derech is for everybody?

 Absolutely not. I get asked that question a lot, both by people about themselves, and in general, and my answer is it depends. Who are you? Why do you want to go OTD? What are you expecting at the other end? If you’re a married guy with five kids, and you feel like smoking pot and having the occasional cheeseburger, why would you throw your whole life into upheaval just to do that? Put on a ball cap, and go do what you gotta do. But if you’re eighteen, and you’re not into the life at all, and even more so if you don’t believe in it, then I might recommend it. It’s very much dependent on the person and their situation.

What do you miss most about being frum?

 The self-assuredness. Having all the answers. Knowing that Hashem is smiling down on you, and everything you do has a higher purpose. Knowing that you’re one of the chosen few, and that you’re better than everyone else in the world. Living in that bubble is very comforting. It’s all baloney, but it’s very comforting.

A lot of people wonder why you had to throw away everything, why not just become modern orthodox or conservadox?

 There’s a good chance I would’ve never left if I were born and raised modern orthodox. Even if I ceased believing in god, the lifestyle is so much less restrictive, that it wouldn’t have bugged me as much. But I left because I don’t believe in god, not because of the clothing or lifestyle, so once I’m leaving, why bother with a watered-down version of what I don’t believe in? It’s not like I’m going to feel that much more comfortable or familiar in a MO shul than I will at McDonald’s, so what’s the point?

Did you throw away everything? It seems that you still have an appreciation for frum culture, chumrahs, boys choirs, cholent, a little shteiging perhaps. What else do you still love about Orthodox culture?

 I love the Frum culture. I say I’m culturally Jewish, but I’m really culturally Frum/chassidish. I love the food, I love the music (yes, even the boys choirs), I love reading the Jewish news and gossip, I even go to a shiur every now and then. Even if I don’t believe in it’s underpinnings, I can still appreciate it as a cultural or lifestyle choice. I go to people for Shabbos or Yom Yov meals, or I go to shul on Simchas Torah, or a HASC concert, not because I feel like my neshama needs it, but because it’s what I was raised with and I enjoy it.

It seems like everyone who goes off the derech sounds exactly the same in their opinions, they are almost always liberal and atheist. Is this true? Are there gun toting, bible thumping, right wing nuts that are off the derech?

 There is definitely a strong correlation between going OTD and becoming a liberal and/or an atheist. I like to think it’s because (as the statistics show) the smarter and more educated you are, the higher your chance of being a liberal and/or an atheist is. But there are plenty of us who are right wing, or still believe in god. I debate and argue with them all the time, and they can be more annoying than the Frummies “so Obama’s you new rebbe, huh?” “You sound just like a Frum person, you want the government to be your daddy, instead of Hashem”, and so on… And the same thing with god, “I believe in god, but I don’t believe in religion”, or “I’m spiritual” whatever that means…

Rachmuna can be reached at:

There is much more to this interview and it will be posted soon…

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