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Unorthodox Social Distancing

Jews keep their distance from the ex-Orthodox. We should be helping them.

Eliyahu Stern
December 08, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Jewish and American culture has long benefited from—and been fixated on—the ex-Orthodox. Last century, ex-Orthodox men like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mordecai Kaplan inspired new spiritual and religious movements, while ex-Orthodox women from Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, to politico Bella Abzug shaped our communal, and national, politics. In this century, the ex-Orthodox influence is everywhere in culture, as the obsession with “off-the-derech” memoirs and TV series like Unorthodox and My Unorthodox Life make clear. There has never been a time when those who began in the Orthodox world, then took their learning and passion into less strict, even secular, realms, did not inform Jewish destiny.

Given this remarkable history of the people sometimes called “exiters,” it is unfortunate that the mainstream Jewish community is taking them less seriously than ever. While the stories of a small, talented minority—or an exoticized, Orientalized minority—may end up on TV, even on people’s coffee tables, the organized Jewish community largely ignores this growing demographic slice. And this is not accidental. As Jews have become more focused than ever on “continuity,” more resources are poured into making Jews more observant—thus leaving those who would become less observant out in the cold, on the doorstep.

First, some background on how we got to this point—because, as I will show, the organized Jewish community did not always ignore exiters. But since the 1970s, the organized Jewish community and a coterie of communal sociologists have promoted a “conservationist” model of philanthropy that purposely overlooks the needs and dreams of exiters. The theoretical underpinnings behind the conservationist model are exhibited in Steven M. Cohen’s influential study, “A Tale of Two Jewries” (2006), as well as the writings of noted scholars Jack Wertheimer and Sylvia Barak Fishman. The general assumptions of this model are that secular Jews should marry earlier, embrace more observances, and express stronger identification with the State of Israel. “Shabbat traditions,” Barak Fishman writes in her 2018 article “Why the Modern Orthodox Family Works and What We Can Learn From It”: “encourage intimate time for couples after a candle-lit dinner with wine—Friday nights is the rabbinic version of date night.” For Wertheimer, “outreach [offers] a new resource to complement existing religious movements, synagogues, and educational institutions in their collective mission to inspire Jews of all ages to draw closer to their religious tradition.”

Most notably, conservationist ideology has been at the center of large-scale identity programs such as Birthright, which sends thousands of young people from Jewish backgrounds on an intensive 10-day educational trip to Israel. The outcome has been young Jews becoming less acculturated, more observant, and more pro-Israel. While the goal of programs like Birthright are anything but to make liberal and secular Jews Orthodox, they work to cultivate stronger intra-ethnic ties and increased Jewish observances. In short, they move the Jewish community in one direction, ignoring those who may be moving in another direction. 

The conservationist model thus rejects—as not needing philanthropic assistance, or being worthy of it—the needs of a budding cohort of those who consider themselves “OTD,” which stands for “off the derekh,” or “path.” There has been a sense, Fordham professor Ayala Fader wrote in 2017, about the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community, “that more and more [young people] were either leaving their communities altogether, going ‘OTD’ (off the derech [path]), or living what community members called ‘double lives’: practicing religiously in public for the sake of families, while secretly exploring secular socialities and subjectivities online and off.” Sociologists continue to debate the precise numbers of exiters from Orthodoxy in the United States. Some estimate that 6.5% of the ultra-Orthodox community move beyond its borders. Research conducted by Eitan Regev (based on data culled from Israel’s Central Board of Statistics) has revealed “a steady increase in the number of ultra-Orthodox Israelis who were abandoning the Haredi lifestyle (not necessarily to become secular, but to become less fervently observant). The data also shows that younger Haredim in Israel (between the ages of 20 and 24) are much more likely to leave the fold than are older Haredim. Among this younger age bracket, the rate is already 12% and growing.” In fact, given the daunting challenges and the little support offered to them, these numbers might already be seen to be surprisingly high.

Exiters want to fit into the mainstream, and stand ready to.

Irrespective of numbers, there are good reasons why American Jews should be invested in assisting exiters of Orthodoxy and “double lifers.” While, according to a 2016 study on exiters conducted by Nishma Research, a nonacademic market research group, “OTDers are ‘post denominational’” and “[v]ery few … labeled themselves as belonging to any of the typical Jewish world denominations,” 60% still considered being Jewish very important to them, and half remain or wish to once again become active in Jewish life. And they have the potential to fit in with the Jewish mainstream: nearly 50% of exiters identify themselves as either “liberal or very liberal.” While Zalman Newfield’s research from 2020 points to exiters’ lingering conservative reflexes on race and gender, only 9% of exiters identify as conservative or very conservative. In fact, based on available data, the off-the-derech community reveals strong commitments to the values embraced by much of the non-Haredi community.

In short, exiters want to fit into the mainstream, and stand ready to. But whatever they might have in common with progressive or liberal Jews, the exiters stand apart in terms of class and education. Orthodox exiters lack the basic requisite educational skills necessary to support themselves. The ultra-Orthodox community for the most part shuns secular studies, working around government regulators to minimize non-Torah educational curricula for its children and young adults. While women’s curricula provide greater attention to secular studies, most girls do not receive state recognized high school diplomas or pass GED exams. Whereas children of the Amish are given full days of secular education from first through eighth grade, “most Hasidic boys,” explains Deena Davis, in a 2017 report on the State of Education in New York City’s yeshivot, “receive only 90 minutes of secular education a day, from third through eighth grade, and some receive none at all.”

By the time someone is in a position to entertain leaving the Orthodox community, years of academic malpractice have compounded to handicap them in secular arenas and cripple their earning power. Female exiters, who tend to leave at later points of development than men, are placed in an even more difficult situation of trying to obtain a high school or college diploma while still supporting multiple children. For women from these communities, attending college becomes nearly impossible due to early childbirth. Those wishing to leave are often deterred by daunting tutoring costs to pass a high school equivalency exam. Moreover, exiters lack critical networks of support, such as parental guidance and mentorship, that often work in tandem with higher educational attainment. Many would be the very first person in their immediate family to graduate high school.

Exiters are also deemed ineligible for many of the remedial programs offered through government-sponsored institutions. Since Orthodox exiters never attended public high schools, they are blocked from publicly funded initiatives, such as those run by New York City’s Young Adult Borough Centers. Even those government programs that are open to ultra-Orthodox Jews are often ill fitted to assist those who have strong study habits and have not been through the criminal justice system.

Because they are shunned by the organized Jewish community, and bureaucratically overlooked by the state, the burden of assisting exiters has fallen to nonprofits. In New York City, where the majority of American ultra-Orthodox Jews reside, volunteer programs run by the non-Jewish group Footsteps (founded by OTD Jews to serve as a half way house of sorts to help OTDs enter the secular world), BC Bound: High School Equivalency to Degree Program, and New York State Educational Opportunity programs have been at the forefront of providing assistance to ultra-Orthodox Jews seeking to complete high school degrees, and enroll in college programs.

The organized Jewish communities’ lack of response is shocking.

But the organized Jewish community has no programs directed toward assisting those in the OTD community. With the exception of Naftuli Moster’s organization Yaffed, focused on increasing secular educational opportunities for Orthodox Jews, there is nothing from any local federation, or from any one of the huge family philanthropies. Nothing.

Considering the historical record, the organized Jewish communities’ lack of response is shocking. We may not think of it this way now, but what exactly were the settlement houses, but philanthropic efforts to provide those with little knowledge of secular American folkways, including many from what we would now call Haredi backgrounds, with basic material needs? From the late 18th until the last third of the 20th century, secular-education initiatives were the centerpiece of Jewish philanthropy worldwide; they had an explicitly progressive agenda to help those from lower classes and Orthodox backgrounds enter civil society.

Already in 1822, the Germany-based Verein für Kultur und Wissenschaft der Juden (Society for the Culture and Science of the Jews) raised funds for sending children from observant backgrounds to German universities. Similar educational projects were soon undertaken by others across Europe. The French-based Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) established schools as far away as Morocco and Turkey. These initiatives contributed greatly to the social, economic, and educational advancements of their graduates. Likewise, in Russia secular educational initiatives were the mainstay of Jewish philanthropy. In 1857 Evzel Gintsburg donated 5,000 rubles for an endowment for Jewish students wanting to attend Russian universities. Another fund of 7,500 rubles was established the next year in Kyiv by a group of Jewish merchants. Eventually, similar funds were set aside by others in Kharkov and Moscow. Between 1840 and 1886 the Jewish student population increased by a factor of more than 100 with the largest increase occurring between 1876 and 1886.

American Jewish philanthropy was built upon its European and Middle Eastern predecessors’ efforts. One of the first and most important initiatives was the Baron de Hirsch Fund, established in 1891 to assist Jews from Eastern Europe and Asia to immigrate to the United States and become self-sufficient. In addition to loans and provisions for travel, the fund supported a range of educational programs, including handicraft, mechanical, and agricultural training as well as instruction in the English language and in civics. The Educational Alliance (originally named the Hebrew Institute), an organization established by wealthy German Reform Jews, made education the primary vehicle for Americanization of the Jewish immigrant population. It offered both educational and recreational programing to the Lower East Side Eastern European Jewish immigrant community; it mixed religious and traditional cultural programing with secular and Americanizing initiatives.

The Educational Alliance provided English classes for new immigrant children (until 1910 after which such classes began to be offered by the city), as well as Hebrew classes (as a strategy to keep children from attending cheder), and lecture series in English and German on various subjects for both men and women. It also maintained a library (with multiple branches), art schools and technical institutes, summer camps for boys and girls, a legal aid society (with 30,000 callers a year), a bureau concerned with family desertion, a children’s educational theatre and a bureau concerned with delinquency. The alliance proved extremely popular among the immigrant population; during the summer of 1903 it served 10,000 people a day. And the efforts of the Educational Alliance were enhanced by other initiatives such as the Hebrew Educational Society, which served as many as 360,000 people a year.

The organized Jewish community should once again embrace a model of philanthropy that assists those from less-well-off Orthodox backgrounds gain greater social freedoms and labor opportunities. The organized Jewish community has forgotten that the very drama at the center of the popular books and movies of young people from Orthodox homes seeking out social freedoms and economic opportunities was lived by millions of their ancestors. Currently, there is no set model or path for those looking to leave Orthodoxy. This is largely the failure of the organized Jewish community to invest in the very projects that defined Jewish philanthropy and the narrative of modern Jewry for nearly two centuries.

Some might wonder why it is in the interest of the Jewish community to support those ceasing to observe the commandments according to the strictures of Orthodoxy. Couldn’t they all become modern Orthodox Jews? For many in the Orthodox community, observance entails only a partial secular education, a limitation on possible professions, the repression of nonstraight sexual identities, and a secondary role for women in religious and secular affairs. The notion that they should be encouraged to identify with the day-school educated upper class and professionally circumspect lifestyle of modern Orthodoxy ignores the exiters’ unique background. It fails to let them harness their own cultural resources, reinvent and develop new Jewish models. Some women who were unable to have their voice heard might want to become rabbis; onetime yeshiva students might want to assist in the translation of rabbinic texts online or develop different kinds of rituals, and still more than a few Hasidim who sat at shabbes tables filled with niggunim might want to do so with a guitar or Spotify. Finally some may want to jettison all of that, and create a new kind of Jewish diasporism, ethnicism, folkism, or Zionism.

The only way exiters will want to be involved in Jewish life is if their material needs are addressed.

The truth of the matter is that before any of the big late 19th- and 20th-century Jewish political movements flourished, large-scale funds were put aside to allow exiters to physically leave Orthodox environments, work in new labor arenas and board boats to the United States and Palestine. Only once there were new material conditions, could they grow a new version of Judaism.

A better question would be what kind of resources would a secular Jew be prepared to designate for ensuring that their own children are literate, can earn a livelihood, and possess basic human rights? The only way exiters will want to be involved in Jewish life is if their material needs are addressed. Telling a starving man or women who lacks employment that they should attend pluralistic adult education classes or egalitarian prayer services is farcical. Organizations should begin the process of developing a large-scale aid fund and communal scholarships earmarked for the educational and material needs of exiters. The program would be administered through local Jewish organizations in partnership with public universities across the United States. Eligibility in the program would be based on financial need, with special consideration given to the unique challenges and burdens that are often placed upon women. Those granted scholarships would be required to work for local Jewish communities. The loan would be conditioned on it being partially “paid back” by the awardee through work in Jewish communal organizations (e.g., assisting in meals-on-wheels programs for seniors, working at local synagogue afterschool educational program, volunteering at homeless shelters, translating Hebrew texts for online use).

Such a program should be no less in size and scope than Birthright—for it promises to give far larger returns to American Jewry’s spiritual and political well-being. Simply put, one will get far better results working to channel preexisting intellectual and spiritual energies than trying to socially engineer mating partners and teaching a 21-year-old how to read the aleph-bet.

By focusing on Orthodox exiters, the American Jewish community stands to gain more stakeholders and producers of Jewish knowledge and culture than it currently garners from the conservationist model. Indeed, it is doubtful (and perhaps undesirable) that Orthodox exiters would ever feel comfortable in any of the existing denominations. But historical precedents and current sociological data suggest that, if supported accordingly, they will eventually develop new forms of Jewish identity. The disillusionment and anger that many exiters have toward their upbringing reflect similar feelings to those expressed by exiters over a century ago. In the same way the latter channeled such critiques into new denominations and political movements, so too it is more than likely that today’s exiters will establish movements better suited to this generation’s spiritual and political sensibilities.

If the Jewish community is serious about its commitment to Jewish literacy, it would make far more sense to capitalize on all those years of intense Jewish education, than to spend money introducing other young adults to Jewish customs and practices. If it is serious about its commitments to progressive values, the Jewish community should invest in those most committed to those values. Provide them with the same material resources and opportunities that their grandparents were offered and provide them with the means necessary to develop a new kind of Jewish culture based on their own knowledge and experiences. The upshot is neither a return to the old social welfare philanthropy or a continuation of the conservationist paradigm, but rather a hybrid model that cultivates a range of new Jewish identities. 

Eliyahu Stern is Associate Professor of Modern Jewish Intellectual and Cultural History at Yale University. He is the author of Jewish Materialism: The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s.

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