This article is part of a series of profiles of formerly Orthodox Jews. A report released last month found that though many formerly Orthodox — or “Off the Derech” — Jews struggle to find new communities and feel acceptance from their families, nearly all retain their Jewish identity. You can read more about this community here.
Sukkot in Jerusalem, 2006. For the first time in a long time, Binyamin, then 18 years old, had control over his own movements. No parents, no psychiatrists, no hospital orderlies. He had miraculously made it out of New Jersey, at least for the time being. He snuck out of his uncle’s apartment to go to the Kotel, in search of — what else? — answers.
Binyamin was coming off the worst period of his life, which was saying something. Throughout his childhood his parents were emotionally and physically abusive to him and his many siblings. As a young teenager he had been labeled a Talmudic prodigy by the teachers at his yeshiva; the pressure had led him to severe anxiety and bouts with depression. His struggles were not taken at all seriously by his parents or his teachers.
“I was told explicitly that the reason I was having problems was because I was serving God wrong,” he told me.
Binyamin (not his real name) was at the start of a long journey: leaving ultra-Orthodox Judaism. He is part of a growing community of formerly Orthodox Jews — many of whom identify as #OffTheDerech, using the Hebrew term for path — which was the subject of a recent groundbreaking study.
Nearly 10% of survey respondents cited hypocrisy and double standards as reasons they left their communities. Six percent cited physical or emotional abuse, like some of the treatment Binyamin says he suffered at the hands of his family members. Yet 95% percent still consider themselves Jewish, a number that would include Binyamin despite the fact that he no longer believes in God.
Binyamin’s parents forced him to take psychiatric medications that made him so tired he could barely get out of bed. He had tried to stop taking the drugs, and make some connections in the world of New Jersey real estate — virtually the only secular line of work available to someone in his Yeshivish community — but his parents had threatened to put him in a psychiatric hospital.
Which they did. When, after 24 hours, Binyamin was ready to be released, his parents made sure that no other person would give him a place to stay. For three weeks, Binyamin begged his fellow patients for quarters so he could make calls to the outside world from the hospital’s payphone. But every time he got through, it seemed that his parents were able to find out who he had contacted. They would call his doctors, inform them that their son in fact had no one to care for him outside the hospital, and so he would remain there.
“It was the first time that I turned to heaven and said, ‘If this is really your plan, I can’t handle this pain. I just can’t do it. I want out,’” he said. “I got a resounding, ‘Too bad.’”
After what seemed like ages, his uncle intervened, and got him on a plane to Israel with his grandparents. Now, at the Kotel, Binyamin took a seat alongside the many other religious Jews who were fervently reading tehilim, or psalms. He took out his designated reading material for that day: the Book of Job. He read it cover to cover.
“I had so many questions,” he said. “But the only answer I got out of the book was, ‘Who are you to ask?’ And that just didn’t cut it.”
That was the last straw. Giving up his belief in God was a conscious decision, Binyamin said, one he made for his “personal mental health.” He began to “medicate” with treatises by some of the world’s most well-known atheists: Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett. Though he identifies as an atheist, to this day he has a complicated relationship with God.
“I talk about Hashem all the time. I’m very angry at him for not existing,” he said. “It’s probably me being angry at myself for falling for it. I mean, I devoted my life to the dude and he couldn’t even bother existing?”
Binyamin’s search for community, if not for God, is ongoing. He has been to services of every denomination, looking for places that welcome his level of Talmudic knowledge, but without the pretense — and toxic otherizing — of the stringently religious community he was raised in. He has found, in recent years, a familiar intellectual intensity in the world of futurism, and hopes to soon work for the global leaders of the technological movement, such as Bill Gates or Elon Musk.
He has also begun to feel embraced by the larger Jewish community — one that he was taught as a child to distrust, even hate. The rising visibility of the ex-Orthodox community has made him proud of his own Jewish identity, something he had not felt for many, many years. He now finds himself defending the Jewish community to formerly Orthodox friends who no longer have anything to do with Judaism.
“My point is, I don’t know about you, but I found out that I have millions of allies.”