Going off the Derech

No. it wasn’t the restrictions; it was more than that. It was like being imprisoned. I walked around my house feeling trapped on all four sides. I walked outside feeling ambushed by my community, my ultra- Orthodox community. Wherever I went, it was like there was a rope tied around my neck, blocking my blood flow. It’s because within the community I lived, I couldn’t do anything.

Perhaps you think I’m exaggerating, but I’m truly not. I never felt comfortable in my own skin. I’m not a person who does anything like the rest of the world. No, I’m not what you’d call the typical gal. I always loved fashion and being myself. I always loved color, but no one knew that; no one was allowed to know that. I was confined to the dress code that the rest of my community wore. There was absolutely no individualism. I was like a caterpillar trapped in a cocoon waiting to erupt and flourish into a butterfly, a metamorphosis complete.

Yes, there was a lot of hypocrisy too. We are supposed to be good people, the best of the best. As you probably know, we’re also known to be family-oriented. We are the Jewish people, and we are supposed to be proud of it. But if we are the best, why do we constantly pass damning judgments upon others? Why do we judge anyone harshly when he or she is a little different from the rest and look upon non-religious Jews as though they are bad?

Well, you’re asking the wrong person. Many of our schools insist on dividing the sexes; in fact, in my school it was considered a crime to talk to someone of the opposite gender. So my answer to what I feel about Judaism is that, to me, it was just laws being stuffed down my throat.

When I’m asked how I feel about Kiruv programs, I realize that the question itself disturbs me. I was never fully comfortable with the concept of Jewish proselytizing in the first place. It’s nice that the Jewish people don’t want to lose any of their fellow brothers, but I think they’re taking it to a whole new level. Having Chabad homes is great for people who do want to be involved in the Jewish practices while still having a place to pray on Shabbat. But I think that when someone goes off the “derech,” our communities make such a big deal out of it. I think they need to let go. It’s okay to be different. It’s okay not to dress how they want you to dress. What’s important is that we are good people. That’s what they should be stressing. They don’t understand that most of us are simply looking for a way to express who we really are, a way to come out of our shells.

I think many people involved in the Kiruv business don’t realize that by supposedly trying to bring “kids at risk” back on the right track, they’re in fact only forcing them further out of the fold. That’s why many in the ultra-Orthodox end up rebelling, doing drugs, and smoking. They don’t mean to be hurting anyone, but they don’t know how to deal with the pressures from within.

I think it’s important for us to have our own space. We, the many Jews who have strayed from our religion’s traditions, are not bad people. We’re not trying to hurt anyone, so please just let us be. Let us be accepted for being true to ourselves, instead of following the prescribed rules of an antiquated society. Even without the restrictions of halacha, I think that we too are moral and righteous.