Off the derech

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Off the derech (OTD), from the Hebrew word derech (meaning 'path'), is an expression used to describe someone who leaves an Orthodox Jewish community. The term applies to a broad range of ex-Orthodox Jews, including those who leave Hasidic communities, ultra-Orthodox or Haredi communities, and Modern Orthodox communities. At times, individuals who move from a stricter form of Orthodoxy to a more lenient form of Orthodoxy are considered "off the derech" by their original communities.

OTD is not a movement per se, as there are no leaders, established groups, single philosophy, or organized outreach. OTD individuals find their own paths in life, ranging in degrees of connection to Judaism or to spirituality, while some embrace other religions and some are secular and/or atheist.

There are three broad groups of those who have left Orthodoxy. There are the "kids at risk" – those people who behave badly, do drugs, engage in criminal activity, and do not keep halacha; those who are well-adjusted and have stopped keeping halacha; and those who still keep halacha, but do not share the beliefs of their previous form of Orthodoxy.[1]


The term was originally derogatory, coined by Orthodox Jews to denote that someone had left what they considered to be the one true path. However, OTD individuals and groups have reclaimed the term and often use it to describe themselves, despite the previous negative connotations. Some use it simply as a convenient shorthand, while others use it in the sense of being off a narrow path and on a wider one. Some use OTD to cheekily mean 'on the derech', arguing that they have found their own paths. Within the broad range of OTD individuals and groups, there is a difference of opinion on whether it is better to reclaim the term or to use a new one altogether. One alternative is XO, a term coined by an OTD individual to signify 'ex-Orthodox' while also playing on a term for 'love'.

Though people have left religious Judaism throughout history, the term is anachronistic if used to describe an individual who lived before the 20th century. The contemporary phenomenon of OTD shares some similarities with the Haskalah movement in its disaffection with traditional modes of religion, its secularization and interest in secular education, and in experimenting with a secular Jewish culture. Like Haskalah, its members tend to be secularists and religious decentralists.[2]

Reasons for leaving[edit]

Nishma Research carried out a survey of OTD individuals in 2016, which revealed a widely-varied and complex set of reasons people leave, and the process in which they do so.[3]

The dominant Orthodox perspective is that people leave because of ta'avos, temptations, which they are too weak to resist. The Nishma study, as well as a study by Faranak Margolese, found that not to be the case. Rather, "Most formerly observant Jews today seem to have left, not because the outside world pulled them in, but rather because the observant one pushed them out. They experienced Judaism as a source of pain ... so they did what was natural: run in the other direction."[4]

Other studies point to the social and emotional aspect of Orthodox Judaism, and individuals' feelings of being silenced, marginalized, or ignored within the rigid social structure.[5]

Emotional and intellectual factors in an individual's decision to continue practicing Orthodox Judaism or to leave cannot be separated. As Margolese writes, "Observance = Positive feelings + Belief + Ability to implement (in that order)."[6]

Some selected reasons revealed by these studies:

  • bad behavior in the community, especially from community leaders
  • oppressive community norms
  • experiencing religious observance as a condition for parents' or teachers' love or approval
  • difficulty reconciling strict interpretations of Torah and Talmud with knowledge of natural sciences

Processes of leaving[edit]

One study by Roni Berger found four milestones common in the narratives of study participants: 1) initial questioning; 2) growing doubts; 3) beginning to share selectively with a small group of trusted others; 4) revealing a new and altered identity.[7] This process of religious disaffiliation is echoed by Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh (1988) in an article about ex-nuns.[8] In the case of nuns, Ebuagh says the process is 1) first doubts; 2) seeking and weighing role alternatives; 3) a turning point; 4) establishing an ex-role identity.

Lynn Davidman's book acknowledges the often messy process of leaving, including a period of "passing" when individuals would move between two worlds.[5] This period is characterized by confusion, doubts, depression, and defiance, but also by self-confidence and courage to leave the regimented world they grew up in and begin to live in another world.

Traumatic effects of leaving[edit]

Individuals who leave Orthodox Judaism often face rejection from friends and family members. This knowledge often leads individuals who have doubts to first try to reconcile their doubts, in order to avoid the risk of losing family and friends. At this stage, individuals often experience anxiety and depression.[5]

Leaving any faith-based community has its traumatic effects, including the need to come to grips with losing a sense of reliance on a god, and reconciling one's self to the idea that one must stand on one's own two feet.[9] OTD individuals also struggle with ideas ingrained about god's punishment, often leading to extreme feelings of guilt.[5]

Leaving a close-knit community where every member of the community is taken care of is often financially challenging as well.

The suicide rate among those who have left Orthodox Judaism is disproportionately high.[10] Faigy Mayer's 2015 suicide was covered by many media outlets, which led to a spate of think-pieces about OTD suicides.[11]

Connection to communities[edit]

Individuals who leave Orthodox communities often have difficulty extricating themselves from the religious life while still maintaining contact with families, and they often have difficulty adjusting to the secular world after leaving the insularity of the Orthodox enclaves. Many individuals form groups of friends who get together for shabbat dinners and other practices with cultural significance.[5][12]

Some Haredi Jews never leave the community despite losing their faith, and they are sometimes referred to as Reverse Marranos,[13][14] double-lifers,[3] or Orthoprax Jews.[15] The decision to stay is often influenced by fear of being ostracized and having to rebuild community, or by fear of losing one's spouse and/or children.[3]

Many OTD individuals become activists for various causes. Some examples: ZAAKAH works to prevent child sexual abuse,[16][17] YAFFED advocates for basic secular education[18] among ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, and JQY focuses on LGBTQ+ causes.[19] Many OTD individuals are also involved in "Unchained at Last",[20] Unchained at Last which works to end child marriages and forced marriages.

Orthodox communities' responses[edit]

The perspective of Orthodox individuals and leaders toward those who left range from considering them apostates to be shunned and derided, to wayward people in pain who need to be shown love.

Agudath Israel of America, a leading ultra-Orthodox organization, addresses the topic of individuals leaving Orthodox Judaism often. At their national conventions in 2015 and 2016, they addressed the topic in panels titled "OTD: Why Do They Leave? And What Can We Do About It?"[21] and "Diving Off The Derech The Emerging Adult At Risk Phenomenon."[22]

Groups and resources[edit]

Ad-hoc OTD communities have developed, with the most established being Footsteps,[23] founded in December 2003 to help orthodox Jews who want to explore the option of leaving their insular communities. Informal communities have developed on websites, blogs and Facebook groups as well.[24]

Personal stories[edit]

A few stories have been recorded, as in the documentary film One of Us and in a trending New York Times piece by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Off the Derech profiles OTD individuals' stories,[42] and many blogs detail the process and journey of questioning, struggling with doubt, leaving, and adjusting to secular society.[43][44][45][46][47][48]

OTD individuals in the public eye include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Margolese, Faranak (2005). Off the Derech. Jerusalem, Israel: Devora Publishing Company. p. 26.
  2. ^ Samuel, Freedman. "Stepping off the Path and Redefining Faith". New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 31 December 2015.
  3. ^ a b c "Social Research". Nishma Research. Retrieved 2018-01-29.
  4. ^ Margolese, Faranak (2005). Off the Derech. Jerusalem, Israel: Devora Publishing Company. p. 37.
  5. ^ a b c d e Becoming Un-Orthodox: Stories of Ex-Hasidic Jews. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. 2014-12-01. ISBN 9780199380503.
  6. ^ Margolese, Faranak (2005). Off the Derech. Jerusalem, Israel: Devora Publishing Company. p. 353.
  7. ^ Berger, Roni. "Leaving an Insular Community: The Case of Ultra Orthodox Jews." Jewish Journal of Sociology 56, no. 1/2 (2014): 75-98.
  8. ^ Falling from the faith : causes and consequences of religious apostasy. Bromley, David G. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications. 1988. ISBN 0803931883. OCLC 16356164.
  9. ^ Baier, K.E.M. The Meaning of Life; in Angeles, P. (1976). Critiques of God. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books. P. 318
  10. ^ Lavin, Talia (2015-07-31). "Off the Path of Orthodoxy". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2018-01-29.
  11. ^ "Faigy Mayer's Brave Life and Shocking Death". The Forward. Retrieved 2018-01-29.
  12. ^ Ewing, Heidi; Grady, Rachel (2017-10-20), One of Us, Etty, Chani Getter, Ari Hershkowitz, retrieved 2018-01-29
  13. ^ Fader, Ayala (2014). "Anthropology and History". American Jewish History. 98 (1): 1–8. doi:10.1353/ajh.2014.0003.
  14. ^ "Introduction: an anthropological approach to Jews and Judaism". Retrieved 26 December 2015.
  15. ^ "Secretly seduced by science, Hasidic atheists lead a double life – Batya Ungar-Sargon - Aeon Essays".
  16. ^ "Ultra-Orthodox Jews Rally to Discuss Risks of Internet". The New York Times. 21 May 2012. Retrieved 26 December 2015.
  17. ^ "Why We Protested In Midwood Last Sunday – ZAAKAH". Some People Live More in 20 Years... 2017-06-28. Retrieved 2018-01-29.
  18. ^ "Yaffed". Yaffed. Retrieved 2018-01-29.
  19. ^ JQY. "Home Page - JQY". JQY. Retrieved 2018-01-29.
  20. ^
  21. ^ "Agudath Israel of America Convention 2017". Retrieved 2018-01-29.
  22. ^ Israel, Agudath (2016-11-22), Agudah Convention 2016 Diving Off The Derech The Emerging Adult At Risk Phenomenon, retrieved 2018-01-29
  23. ^ "Footsteps | Your life. Your journey. Your choice". Retrieved 2018-01-29.
  24. ^ "Facebook Off the Derech Group - Facebook". Facebook. Retrieved 26 December 2015.
  25. ^ "Log into Facebook | Facebook". Facebook. Retrieved 2018-01-31.
  26. ^ "OTD Meetup". Retrieved 2018-01-31.
  27. ^ "Log into Facebook | Facebook". Facebook. Retrieved 2018-01-31.
  28. ^ "Log into Facebook | Facebook". Facebook. Retrieved 2018-01-31.
  29. ^ "Log into Facebook | Facebook". Facebook. Retrieved 2018-01-31.
  30. ^ "Off the Derech". Off the Derech. Retrieved 2018-01-31.
  31. ^ "OTD Manual". Retrieved 2018-01-31.
  32. ^ "Challenging Sinai". Retrieved 2018-01-31.
  33. ^ "About Us - Footsteps".
  34. ^ "Helping Those Who've Left Hasidic & Ultra Orthodoxy Communities".
  35. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-02-11. Retrieved 2016-01-07.
  36. ^
  37. ^ "About".
  38. ^ "Over ons - JLJK - Jouw Leven Jouw Keuze". (in Dutch).
  39. ^ "Off The Derech (@itgetsbesser) • Instagram photos and videos". Retrieved 2018-01-31.
  40. ^ "It Gets Besser". YouTube.
  41. ^ "Home". IT'S OKAY TO GO. Retrieved 2018-01-31.
  42. ^ "Personal Stories". Off the Derech. Retrieved 2018-01-31.
  43. ^ "View from Within". View from Within. Retrieved 2018-01-31.
  44. ^ "Tales Out of Bais Yaakov". Tales Out of Bais Yaakov. Retrieved 2018-01-31.
  45. ^ "Freethinking Jewboy". Freethinking Jewboy. Retrieved 2018-01-31.
  46. ^ "The Moment You Knew". Retrieved 2018-01-31.
  47. ^ "Tales of a Wandering..." Tales of a Wandering... Retrieved 2018-01-31.
  48. ^ "The Second Son". Retrieved 2018-01-31.
  49. ^ "The Sun Is a Star". Judy Brown (Eishes Chayil), The Forward, September 26, 2012.
  50. ^ "SHULEM DEEN". SHULEM DEEN. Retrieved 2018-01-29.
  51. ^ "From Hasidism to Freedom: Singer Matisyahu Unbound". Debra Nussbaum Cohen, Haaretz, March 10, 2015.
  52. ^ "A Descendant of the Founder of Hasidic Judaism Just Came Out As an Atheist Trans Woman". Camille Beredjick, Friendly Atheist, December 7, 2015.
  53. ^ "LEAH VINCENT". LEAH VINCENT. Retrieved 2018-01-29.
  54. ^ "melissaweisz". melissaweisz.
  55. ^ "Goodbye to all that - Haaretz - Israel News |". 2018-08-15. Retrieved 2018-10-02.

Further reading[edit]