Interview with an Off The Derech community leader Part2

off the derech The interview was too long for one post and so here you have it, part two of the interview with Rachmuna Litzlon, one of the Off The Derech community leaders. We don’t need another long introduction. I should mention that I got quite a few requests from folks who wished I would interview them, if you think you have an interesting view on the frum community, I would love to interview you. If you’re just some guy or girl who wants attention, I can’t really take the time out of my schedule, unless you pay me of course. Money will buy you all the interviews you want. 

Would you marry a non-Jew?

 I don’t have anything against marrying a non-Jew personally, except that it would be devastating to my family, so I would be hesitant for that reason.

Do you think the frum community is ready for this new age Haskallah? Or will your status become like missionaries, where Rabbis will say never to debate you?

 I wish I had ruach hakodesh, but I’m very bad at predicting the future. I think they’re scrambling to deal with this issue, but they’re going at it in all the wrong ways. There are a few rabbis who get it, but most of them prefer to treat it the way they treat everything else. Cy about yeridas hadoros, hock against the internet, ban smart phones, and ignore the underlying problems. And yes, they already say not to talk to us, we’re toxic.

Is the OTD community actually healing broken people or just fueling their rage, mistrust and misunderstanding of religion?

 I don’t think those are mutually exclusive. Part of healing is dealing with the pain and the rage. But I also see a lot of healing going on besides the anger. I’ve seen peoples’ lives changed, I’ve watched people make incredible transformations – inside and out – and become better happier people.

Mistrust? Sure, but I would call it a healthy skepticism. Misunderstanding? Not at all, remember that we come from there, we aren’t outsiders, which is why we’re so threatening to the Frum establishment, we can’t be razzle dazzled by fancy Aish videos or other cutesy Frum shtick.

Why are we here? What happens when we die?

 We’re here for the same reason rocks are here. We’re here for the same reason gravity is a law. We’re here because we’re here. Period. After we die we turn into dirt, worm food. Lights out, game over. None of that bothers me the way it does some people, I actually find it comforting, but it’s the reason I want to live every moment to the fullest, and make the most of my life, I don’t believe in thechiyas hamaisim or gilgulim, so this is the only shot I’ll ever have.

Do you think going OTD is similar to becoming a Baal Teshuva?

 In may ways it is. People go OTD or BT for various reasons, and just like I don’t judge people over why they went OTD, I begrudgingly have to extend the same curtesy to BTs.

As you know, most Baalei Teshuva do not become frum because of belief, it seems to be much more about inspiration, community, and structure. Do you see any value in people becoming frum?

 As I alluded to in the previous answer, it wouldn’t be fair of me to disparage people who become Frum for other than intellectual reasons. I’ve been known to chastise BTs for falling for the “Fiddler on the Roof pipe-dream”, but to each their own.

How did you adjust to secular life?

 Before I ever dreamt of leaving, I spent years reading, watching and listing to everything I could get my hands on. Purely out of curiosity, I looked up what every American kid reads in high school, what everyone reads in college, the AFI 100 most important films of all time, the must-see TV classics, the music that everybody my age knows, and so on. I spent every free moment pouring over the material. By the time I left, I was pretty well versed in American and non-Jewish culture, but I’d never experienced it first-hand. Some things were harder than others to adjust to, but I think I did okay. It took forever for me to feel comfortable without a hat or a yarmulka on, I felt naked without it. Treif didn’t bother me, neither did Shabbos, once I lost the belief in god, those things lost all meaning to me.

From the time I left, till I joined the army, was about six months, and I slowly started acclimating, but I was busy trying to figure out what I was going to do with myself, so I wasn’t spending time hanging out with shkutzim and learning their ways. In retrospect, the army was the thing that acculturated me the most. I went from having had virtually no contact with the opposite sex, to doing push-ups inches away from them, from the New York area, to a chulent of people from all over the country, and the nice thing about basic training is the fact that everyone is freaked out and out of their element, so I may have been a little more disoriented, but I didn’t stick out like a soar thumb. I’m rather proud of the fact that in my five years in the army, I was never once “outed” as coming from a different background as everyone else. As much homework as I’d done, there is still a ton I will never know or get, but I got very good at smiling and nodding as if I know what they’re talking about. I will never know about Saturday morning cartoons, if I lived another hundred years, I will never run out of things to do to the point where I go back and watch Sesame Street, I was forced to watch four Super Bowls in the army, and I still couldn’t possibly care less about sports, and you couldn’t pay me enough to listen to Britney Spears, yet every time I tell a friend what my upbringing was like and show them pictures, they’re floored, and I get a big kick out of it.

Are all OTDers drug and sex crazed people? Or is that merely one aspect of throwing off the yoke of years of repression?

 OTDers (I hate that term) are as sex and drug crazed as Frum people are, or any group of people for that matter. There are some who throw off the yoke in a big way, and go a little crazy, but like everything else, it gets old after a while and they go back to normal.

Is there anything the frum community could do to retain people or absorb people back on the derech?

 The ever-increasing extremeness and rigidity is a huge turn-off, for the life of me I can’t understand why they feel the need to constantly move to the right, and act like it’s a chumra competition. Where the Jews of a few generations ago not Frum enough? Were they bad Jews? It makes no sense.

Being that I left because I stopped believing in god, if I had been taught real science as a kid, maybe I wouldn’t have been so shocked to find out that I was so horribly misled all those years. I know Chareidim are afraid of real science and history, but if they took a page out of the MO chinnuch book, maybe people like me wouldn’t be rocked when we find out that everything we’d been told was demonstrably false, and just plain laughable. I’m not saying I subscribe to the beliefs of say Natan Slifkin, or any other MO type hashkafah, but at least they’re trying to reconcile their beliefs with reality, as opposed to burying their heads in the sand.

Having said that, I do have a bit of an affinity for the extremists, at least they put their money where their mouth is, they don’t care what the science shows us, they don’t care what historians say, they ignore the world around them, and are (to some extent) intellectually honest.

There are plenty of other things, but those comes to mind right away.

What do you think is the biggest reason that people leave Judaism?

 I don’t think there is any one “main reason”, that’s like asking why people become Frum or convert, every person has their story. However in my experience, a very large percentage say they left for intellectual reasons. We’ve done informal polling here and there, and a very strong majority say they left for similar reasons as I did. Being mistreated in one way or another is a very close second.

Do you know of any currently employed as Orthodox Rabbis that are not frum?

 If the Frum world knew the quality and quantity of closeted OTD people in their ranks, they would hold McCarthy-esqu hearings. I am constantly shocked and surprised by the people whom I find out are non-believers, or secretly OTD. I’ve met Chassidim, Litvaks, MOs, Rabbis, cheder rebbes, dayanim, magidey shiurim, chazzanim, and on and on.

Since you are a liberal, does that mean you still give some sort of respect to the “when in Rome” situations that must arise when you go to frum events? Or do you just stick it to the man?

 When I visit family or friends, I always wear a yarmulka, I don’t whip out the phone on Shabbos, I park around the corner, etc. I’m not there to make a statement, I’m there to visit and get along.

Do you think any sort of cooperation between the frum and OTD communities is possible, or will it be similar to that of the frum relationship with Reform and Conservative?

 I do a lot of work behind the scenes, and although it doesn’t happen as much as I’d like, there is some cooperation between the “two sides”. There are a select few leaders in the Frum community who are willing to work with us, and stick their necks out to do so. I think it’s in both of our interests to cooperate, simply because fighting will hurt everyone involved. They have money and connections, but we have a lot less to lose, and we don’t mind going to the media, it’s our most powerful tool, and as much as they might say they don’t care what the world says or thinks of them – they care a lot. Media pressure has forced huge changes in the Frum world, whether they admit it or not.

On that note, what do you think of non-Orthodox Jewry?

 I don’t identify with non-Orthodox that much, because it’s as foreign to me as Catholicism would be. I don’t have anything against them, and I’ve been to various services and events at this or that denomination, but when I go to shul I’m not going to daven, I’m going for that heimish feeling, the songs I love, the kiddush with booze, schmaltz herring and overnight kugel, and the kind of people I grew up around, even a MO shul feels foreign to me for those reasons.

How did you become such an OTD Gadol?

 I like to think it’s thanks to my sharp wit, brilliant sense of humor, sharp insight, and fascinating backstory, but mostly it’s my big mouth, absolute lack of shame, and thirst for attention.

What sort of advice do you give to those who are about the come out of the OTD closet?

 Do your homework/research, talk to as many of us before you make that move, make sure it’s the right move, have a plan, and brace yourself for a very bumpy road. But in the end, it’s worth it, freedom and autonomy is worth the trouble it takes to get there.

The OTD community seems just as judgmental as the frum community. If someone who’s off the derech decides to become frum again, will they be ostracized in a similar way that they were when they originally went off the derech? It also seems like you have to jump on the band wagon in terms of opinions on politics, religion, science, etc…and that the community doesn’t really turn people into the individuals they hoped to be.

 Sure, we can be judgmental, but is that a bad thing in and of itself? Some people or actions are deserving of judgement. I’ve known people who’ve gone back to being Frum, and we might snicker at them behind their back, but I haven’t seen any overt hostility, and as for ostracizing, that would require us to all agree on something, and we don’t all agree on almost anything.

If you’re looking at us from inside the Frum bubble, we look like carbon copies of each other, because all you see is everything we aren’t. We’re no longer Frum, we might move towards the left on political issues, we might have a new-found love for science, we might have a negative opinion of the community we left or all religion, but that’s because of the prism you’re seeing us through. To a complete outsider, we’re a lot more normal than you’d think. Most young people in this country lean to the left on politics, trust in science and scientists, and have a healthy skepticism of religion. And we argue and debate all of these issues amongst ourselves, so we’re hardly a united voice.

Which sect of Orthodoxy do you hate the most?

 I don’t “hate” any of them, what I hate are certain aspects and certain things they do. I have a big problem with the extremism in the chareidi world, it was one of the things that drove me away once I stopped believing.

Why don’t those with fake facebook profiles at least come up with good names?

 I agree, some of them are pretty darn lame. In fact, I think part of my popularity is due to my clever name, if I may say so myself… I should point out that it’s no secret that my name is Ari Mandel, and the only reason I use the fake name is to try and stay out my families face with my antics, even though that’s gotten harder to do over time. I recently changed my Facebook name to my real name, and I was flooded with public and private messages, berating me for it, and saying they didn’t know “Ari Mandel”, they knew the fake name and face they’ve come to recognize, so I changed it back to the way it was.

Is there a lot of drugs and sex at these OTD meetups?

 I keep asking the same thing! But apparently I keep getting invited to all the wrong meet-ups. We usually end up sipping wine, and discussing philosophy, or science, or history. It’s quiet disappointing, I know.

Do you think the secular media’s fascination with formerly religious Jews is just a fad?

 Possibly, but anytime there’s a juicy story, they’ll be more than happy to cover it. I just hope I get my book out before the interest dies down… I haven’t written a single page yet.

What will you do when your attention whoring doesn’t get attention anymore?

 Become a BT? Drink my own urine? I’ll think of something. Although pretty much everything that’s ever gotten me attention has just sort of fallen in my lap, I didn’t plan on getting noticed for them.

What will it take for Mishpacha, Yated, or the Zev Brenner show to notice the booming community?

 Each one of those has already taken notice of us, and addressed it in their own ways. Of course being Frum outlets they had to take the Frum angel, but they’ve all discussed the “OTD crisis” in one way or another.

Do you care to explain to our audience why the kids at risk crisis of the middle 90’s is nothing to do with the current state of affairs.

To be honest with you, I don’t know a ton about it. I was busy being a good chassidishe yeshiva bochur in the 90s. If you’re referring to kids screwing off and smoking weed, my impression is that they were just being teenagers, and most of them eventually went back to being nice Frum Yidden. The OTD people I know (for the most part) were never part of that scene, and we aren’t rebelling against our parents.

Where do you see the OTD community in 3 years from now, 5 or 10?

 I have no clue. I’m sure we’ll have grown in numbers and strength, but I can’t say what it’ll look like.

A local kiruv Rabbi once asked me if I think “we’re” losing more people than we bring in. Do you think that the OTD community will become large enough to the point that BT’s won’t be able to replace the population?

I have no idea. The more people leave, the easier it becomes for others to follow, and that coupled with the internet are making it much easier for people to leave, so the numbers and rate will continue to climb, but your guess is as good as mine as to how large those numbers will go.

Editors note I apologize for the black fonts, but these were sent in a different format I guess. 

 Do you have any heroes? Frum ones perhaps? 

I think the word ‘hero’ is over-prescribed, and I don’t like it, I do however have friends and acquaintances, whom I hold in high esteem – both Frum and not Frum, and even non-Jewish, shocking as that may be.

My third grade Rebbe is one of the smartest people I know, and we’ve kept in touch to this day. I have never once found a subject that he wasn’t very well informed on, and didn’t have a well thought out opinion on, but obviously his favorite subject is Torah, which he sits and studies all day. He’s completely unknown, doesn’t have a shul or a yeshiva, but I would put him up against any well known godol any day, he’s brilliant. But more than that, as chassidish and conservative as he is in his personal life, he’s the kindest and most gentle person to everyone he meets. He has all sorts of people come through his house, and he doesn’t give anyone even a crooked glance. When I was in Basic Training, I was shocked to get a hand-written letter from him. He went out of his way to track down a family member and get my address. He was one of only two people who wrote me.

My brother and I have a minhag of going to his house every year on Purim evening, getting hammered out of our minds, and then singing Yom Tov Ehrlich songs all night.

He’s one of the many rabbis I spoke to about faith and god, and he very quickly said to me that these are matters of faith, and there was no way to prove it. I respect anyone who is honest about their beliefs, and doesn’t try to justify or twist themselves into a pretzel in order to make their beliefs fit reality as we know it.

Some of the rabbis and lay-people I work with on the issue of child molestation and abuse are the closest things to heroes I know. I didn’t get into it much here, but it’s something I’m very involved in, and unfortunately the Frum community does everything to shove it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist, so the few leaders who don’t do that deserved to be commended.

Other than those, the friends I have from years ago who never missed a beat, and stayed close to me as if nothing ever happened, lose; life-long friends I made in the army, and my family who puts up with my shtick on a daily basis – they are all tzaddikim.

And Pat Tillman. Look him up.

 Can you give the frum community any advice on how to “deal” with the OTD issue? 

Kill us with kindness. If you ever want to have a relationship with your kids or grandkids, or if you ever want us to come back (I’m a lost cause, but some of us aren’t…) the only way you stand a chance is by playing nice. And I’m not talking about those fake kiruv smiles, between offers to shake your lulav and free trips to Uman, I’m talking about being super nice without asking or expecting anything in return. As the saying goes: “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”. Or you can continue to attack and vilify us, and you’ll never resolve anything. The choice is yours. It’s 2013, the tactics that worked 20, 40, or 100 years ago will not work anymore, some of us will fight back, but most will just vanish, never to be seen or heard of again, strong-arm tactics will not get you very far.

 Any last words, shameless self promotion, mussar…

If you’re thinking of going OTD for the treif food – don’t do it. Bacon? Overrated. Seafood? Meh. Cheeseburgers? Blech. The best food can be made from kosher sources or faked. Look at me, after years of treifing it up I went veggie, and I’m doing just fine. I think the happiest day of my parents’ life was the day they found out I became a vegetarian.

Don’t call anyone a ‘self-hating Jew’. Ever. It means nothing, and it’s akin to me calling Chareidim Nazis, it’s a conversation stopper, and it says more about you that it does about the one you’re addressing. Even if I accept your premise that I (for instance) hate Jews, I still don’t hate myself, so it’s just stupid a thing to say.

I’ve gotten the same question a lot over the last couple days: “The Da Vinci Code? Really? That’s what did it for you?” No, dummy, that’s what got me reading other books, which ultimately led to the real kfira, the Da Vinci Code itself didn’t do much for me.

I’m running the Jerusalem Marathon in March, and I’m raising money for Chai Lifeline . I’ve raised about half the amount needed, and I need to hurry up and get there. I specifically chose Chai Lifeline because they are a Frum organization, but I like what they do, and they are highly rated. They don’t do kiruv or hand out Chumashim, they help kids with terminal illnesses and their families. So spare me a few shekels! And don’t worry, I don’t get any of it, it all goes to tzedakah.