Let me state at the outset, I have not taken a survey. But lately there seem to be more and more books appearing on the shelves hinting at the enormity of the problem, sort of like the tip of the iceberg, to use an overworked cliché. The one that springs to mind is “Off the Derech,” by Faranak Margolese, but there are several others. Certainly, as the frum wife of a non-observant husband, I’ve noticed that there are many more books on the topic of going off the derech than there are for “mixed” Jewish couples like us.
As a former single mother, I’d venture a guess that one large slice of the off-the-derech population has got to be single women (who may or may not be moms) in my Baby Boomer age group who either cannot find a husband because of the unfavorable demographics, or don’t want to be married again because of bad experiences in a former marriage. (For just one example of a single woman who has been looking and looking, and who mentions the possibility of women in that situation going off the derech, see Season of Isolation.) With no “representation” in shul, a single woman is more likely to drop off the radar than any other segment of the population; I concentrate on this because I have been there, although I’m sure other segments have their issues (and I would like to hear from them in response to this article).
There is no doubt, observance is a hard road. I have no firsthand knowledge of what it is like to be FFB and go off the derech, because I am a second-time BT. I went off the derech once, then came back. So I can only speak for BTs who have gone off. If they are still off, then they probably don’t have the benefit of a supportive community like the one I have; and/or, they don’t have the benefits of being married, however atypical that is in my own case.
There is a norm in Judaism. It is the traditional family – husband, wife, and children. To the extent that an individual’s life differs from that norm, I believe that is the potential weak link in their connection to Jewish life. To differ from that norm, I believe, has as much potential for isolating the person as a physical handicap. Although B”H I have no firsthand knowledge of what it is to be physically handicapped, I can offer a snapshot anecdote: As a single mother, I was once asked if I wanted to be introduced to a man with one foot. Evidently the “handicaps” in each of us were deemed equivalent.
I recall a long time ago reading a book by a former BT who had gone back to his non-observant life; the two catalysts for his giving up his observant lifestyle seemed to be his appetite for non-kosher foods, and his attachment to a former non-Jewish girlfriend. There is no doubt that each of us has his or her “pull” to the past. And when the going gets tough, sometimes the less-tough get going…off the derech.
When I was becoming observant the first time, I read Herman Wouk’s lovely book “This Is My G-d,” and one thought this gifted writer used has stuck in my mind – that with all the restrictions of an observant life, it is a wonder there are any Orthodox people left. Certainly, when I look at a book on Judaism published in 1914 that is in my small collection of old books, all indications seemed at that time to be that Orthodoxy would disappear. Yet, as a river flowing uphill, it has come back and flourished.
But in our own BT world, it is easy to overlook the people who are leaving Orthodoxy. Maybe not enough Orthodox people are involved with kiruv, or not involved enough; that is a topic for another article. Or maybe we just want to shut our eyes to the problem, or deny that it even is a problem at all. Some of us are so starry-eyed at our own return, that we cannot comprehend that anyone would want to leave.
So why are people leaving? Is it the lifestyle restrictions? Is it the temptations of the larger society, beckoning that the “good life” means eating and dressing and engaging in everyday activities just like the Gentiles do? Is it singleness and devastating demographics?
I think that for each person, it is a different reason. Each individual has his or her own personal struggles, and some do not succeed in overcoming them. Some leave and then come back, as I did. I have had several rabbis quote to me the Possuk, “The Tzaddik falls seven times and gets up.” At any given point, we have no way of knowing what the future of an off-the-derech person will be.
But we can reach out, we can make a difference in the life of just one Jew, and then perhaps we will smooth their way back to Judaism. Who knows who Hashem’s Shaliach will be in the life of any Jew? We can only try to do our part, individually and as part of the communities to which we belong.
Originally published here on January 30, 2008