As a formerly religious Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi, I am all too familiar with frequent interventions of the greater Ultra-Orthodox community in divorce cases between an OTD (Off the ‘Derech’ / Off the ‘Path’) and religious spouse. In fact the Ultra-Orthodox community has devoted copious resources to insure the religious spouse gains full custody over the children.
This following link is an example of just one of countless campaigns started to tear families apart for the sake of ‘saving children’; so far half of the £600,000 has been raised in a short period of time. (A few years back over a million pounds were raised for a similar London based ‘child custody war chest’.)
“London Jewry will join the holy mission of saving Jewish lives! Children are at stake of being taken from our faith. We cannot allow even one Neshoma (soul) to deter from our ways”.
The results of these efforts, some of which have been documented in news outlets and the media, are heart wrenching, leaving parents alienated from their own children and children from their parents. At any given moment one can find numerous appeals floating around ultra-Orthodox communities all perpetuating similar tropes of slander, often coupled with outrageously fabricated allegations against the mother or father who dared abandon their faith to solicit as much money as possible to fight the OTD parent in courts.
To this ends there are many “go to” arguments which the ultra-Orthodox community employs in and out of court.
● It is in the children’s best interest to remain the way they were raised. It causes psychological damage to change a child’s way of life. Consistency and stability in a child’s upbringing are paramount; therefore the least amount of change is the healthiest for the children.
● You married with the understanding that you both would be living the way you always lived. A spouse who changed their lifestyle should submit to the spouse who wants to maintain their original and mutual understanding of how they would raise their family. At the very least they should not impose their new way of life on the children or even expose the children to their new way of life at home, lest the children receive mixed messages, which is also unhealthy for the children.
● A parent who makes a radical shift in lifestyle must be displaying some deeper instability; they must not be allowed to influence their family and particularly their impressionable children because of their own their inner turmoil.
I’m sure everyone who reads these points are shaking their heads in affirmation. Of course these could all be considered sound and valid arguments. Who could possibly dismiss any of them?
The cold hard answer is the Ultra-Orthodox community itself, indeed quite robustly, with an even larger investment of resources. Simply replace a spouse going OTD (formerly religious) with a spouse becoming Baal Teshuva (newly religious) and reread all these arguments.
Since the late 60’s the Ultra-Orthodox community has invested exorbitant sums of money and resources into bringing people ‘back into the fold’. A newly religious Baal Teshuva married to a secular person who makes a radical shift to a fundamentalist way of life is never questioned about any instability, and the community throws its resources into making sure their families follow on their path to fundamentalism. Yet when a person claims that the religious lifestyle and or theology a is not for them, and they want to live in the secular world they become targets of the community’s activists and leadership, who many times stop at nothing to make sure these people become alienated from everything dear to them, sometimes resorting to intimidation and blackmail in the process.
But one needn’t discuss a Baal Teshuva parent to reveal this hypocrisy. Just look at how many Kiruv (outreach) organizations and programs were created to specifically target non-Orthodox Jewish children from secular families with the explicit goal of changing their lifestyles influencing them to embrace the Ultra Orthodox way of life. Torah Umesorah with their hundreds of satellite schools, Chabad, Oorah and so many others in the US and particularly in Israel like Chinuch Atzmai and Shuvu are just some better known examples.
Children are prime targets in the ‘Kiruv’ outreach mission and exceptional resources have been dedicated to influence them to become religious despite all the arguments listed above.
Unfortunately it has been well documented that these institutions have sometimes even deceived the parents with their ultimate objectives and children are influenced to become religious and remain religious sometimes even despite their parent’s ultimate objections.
And it doesn’t stop with trying to influence the children to leave the lifestyle they were raised in, the community will also target the spouse of the recent Baal Teshuva to ensure they are successful in their mission to integrate the entire family into the Ultra-Orthodox fold.
Now the Ultra-Orthodox will counter, ‘It’s different! Ultra-Orthodoxy is more ethical than secular society, it is important to remove these children from the embrace of secular culture and introduce them to the tenets of religion.’
Put aside the argument whether or not Ultra Orthodoxy breeds a more ethical society, and whether or not the counter argument is more valid, i.e., that one would be doing their children a service by extricating them from such a highly fundamentalist religious group. But even taking their argument at face value, is bringing children into what they consider the more ethical society of observant Judaism really the prime objective? Is this why over the last couple of decades Ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, seminaries and organizations have started specifically targeting Modern Orthodox children and youths as well?
“Flipping out”. The Modern Orthodox community has coined this expression for teenagers who decided to embrace the fundamentalist tenets of Ultra Orthodox Judaism after their gap year in Israel. But did we ever step back and realize how many Ultra-Orthodox run schools specifically targeting 17 and 18 year old MO high school graduates have started over the past few decades? And as some Modern Orthodox have observed many Ultra-Orthodox elementary school age Kiruv programs also target children from originally Modern Orthodox families, so indeed, to these programs influencing modern Orthodox to become Ultra-Orthodox is clearly also a prime objective.
One might even posit that the mission of bringing more people into the insular fold of Ultra-Orthodoxy isn’t about ‘ethics of religion’ whatsoever as much as bolstering their numbers and building their community for posterity (and of course a nice side benefit — more numbers = more political clout/resources down the line, which may also help explain why Chabad and Aish HaTorah enthusiastically target wealthy and influential secular Jews.) But regardless of the real motives behind ‘Kiruv’, the objective remains the same.
Perhaps another time we can discuss yet another sad reality exposing the real motivations behind Kiruv outreach further- the prejudice many of those who became religious face after they are ‘converted’ into Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Whether it be shidduchim (being set up for marriage), getting their children into schools and later sometimes even with their own children’s shidduchim- years, even decades after the parents joined the fold. The Ultra-Orthodox community goes to tremendous ends to rope secular Jews in, but once they are hooked they are often left on their own to contend with the community’s prejudice against them. (Dear Ultra-Orthodox born reader, what would you do if a matchmaker’s first suggestion for your child’s first date was a Baal Teshuva? Not when your child is past their prime, has some ‘unmarketable’ trait, has a chronic illness or your family has some stigma attached to it. We know the answer, a matchmaker inclined as such would soon be alienated by the Ultra Orthodox community).
It boils down to one stark reality. In instances where a formerly religious parent decides as a parent that they want to introduce their children to the secular world or wants to influence them to become secular, the Ultra-Orthodox community has poured tremendous resources into lawyers and legal teams with the express goal of alienating that parent as far as possible from the children. To that end, they often employ the veiled lies and blatant hypocrisy that suddenly they are concerned about the children’s and family’s status quo. But when it comes to the community’s own objective of influencing secular children to become Ultra-Orthodox there is a no holds barred approach.
Will we see any change? Will Ultra-Orthodox Jews stop their war against formerly religious OTD parents? Likely not. Will they stop targeting secular children with their Kiruv outreach programs? Also likely not, but if at the very least we can expose this hypocrisy and the deception at the core of this dynamic we can at least try to level the playing board so a newly secular parent married to a religious spouse or a secular parent married to a Baal Teshuva spouse (and their lawyers) can both be more knowledgeable about the methods this community employs.
Perhaps another point to address but not to burden the main article is the smear campaign within the Ultra-Orthodoxy against those who go OTD. The common trope is that anyone who leaves the community does so for shallow hedonistic reasons, to satiate carnal pleasures, or as a result of mental illness. The idea that someone left their faith because they went through an intellectual process which led to the realization that the Torah was man-made is unfathomable (They were weaned to believe that no one can ever intellectually counter the truth of the Torah) so instead they feel obligated to denigrate and dismiss the entire phenomenon and those who leave.
No we are not just teenagers; many of us are well educated from yeshiva/kollel, older, established in life, respected in our communities but came to the realization that the worldview we were taught from birth is a fallacy. And many of us are still in the closet, secretly non-believers but living a full Torah observant lifestyle. We could be your neighbors, family, even your community leaders.
Hillel Ari Ess is a formerly religious Ultra-Orthodox rabbi. This post was borne out of discussions in the Frum/OTD Dialog Facebook Group (a group created to bridge the gap between the Frum and OTD communities)