Leaving Orthodox Judaism
I was 11 years old when I started my career as a school teacher.
Up until that point, there was some normalcy in my childhood. While I vividly remember the explosive sounds of my father’s moods, his anger seemed containable. My siblings and I had a much-needed consistency by going to school. I had friends, playdates, and extracurricular activities.
But one fateful August, my dad decided that his children would no longer learn secular subjects. He came across his Rabbi’s teachings about schooling that apparently implied things like math, science, English, and history were forbidden. We were pulled out of school and my dad started on a new plan to “educate” us.
With my mom giving birth every year and my dad working hard to support his ever-growing family, neither of my parents had time to dedicate to our homeschooling. Instead, my dad took us on a family trip to Ikea and bought school desks, a whiteboard, pens, and pencils. He then handed me a grade book, unofficially crowning me as my siblings’ full-time teacher.
I still remember the feeling of power holding that grade book. I was excited, overwhelmed, and terrified. Suddenly, the responsibility of educating my siblings lay in my hands. My dad told me that my patience and maturity earned me the role. In retrospect, I could never have imagined that being a good kid would propel me into adulthood so quickly.
What followed were my life's most chaotic and lonely years. As a child, being isolated from others my age prevented me from understanding what was and wasn’t normal. I didn’t know that being beaten with a belt for reading a non-Jewish book wasn’t okay. I didn’t know that most kids weren’t tasked with teaching, feeding, and caring for their younger siblings from 7 am to 9 pm. I didn’t know the craziness I was experiencing was actually that crazy.
Teaching my siblings was like walking before crawling. I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know how to teach, and I didn’t know what to teach. So, every week I’d go online and Google questions on the Torah portion of the week. Then, I’d have my siblings memorize the answers so that when my dad quizzed them, it sounded like they knew something.
By 19, I couldn’t handle the intensifying turmoil of my family. The emotional and physical abuse was relentless - we were beaten for acting out, and we acted out because of the beatings. Religion played a role in what my dad punished us for. If we didn’t dress appropriately, we were hurt. If we broke the rules of Sabbath, we were hurt. I needed out.
I didn’t know what I wanted but I knew it had to be different than what I’d lived.
In order to figure out my next steps in life, I decided to do an experiment. I applied and was hired as a teacher at a private Jewish school in Boston. Before moving there, I promised myself to follow all rules of orthodox Judaism and try to find meaning in them. If at the end of the school year, I still couldn’t see myself following the religious path my parents carved out for me, I’d stop trying.
By December, I came to a decision. Waking up every morning and putting on a long skirt made me feel like someone was wrapping a chain around me. When I tried to ask questions, the answer often would be “just believe”. I couldn’t live when I didn’t understand the reason behind life-altering restrictions. Of course, my childhood traumas played a big role too; it was hard for me to follow the religion when it came with so many bad memories.
After weeks of deliberation, I finally applied to a community college. It symbolized my ticket out. I had grown up with stories about how college ruins people; both financially, and religiously. It was the way my dad combatted any inkling of a desire to go.
I didn’t know what I would study, but at that point, it didn’t matter. I wanted to learn how to multiply and divide, if the world actually revolved around the sun, and if dinosaurs were real. Most of all, I wanted to experience making decisions my dad didn’t approve of. But it wasn’t rebellion I was searching for. It was freedom.
I remember the acceptance letter I got from Kingsborough college. The logo at the top of the email had the school’s motto “dreams begin here”. Just like the moment the green grade book was put into my hands, here too I was scared, excited, and overwhelmed. Because at 20 years old, I was ending my career as a school teacher.
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A harrowing, intense, heartbreaking, hopeful and inspiring story Yehudis! Thank you for sharing this with the world!
This gave me goosebumps, Yehudis. A moving, powerful story. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to reading more of your writing.