Mandel wanted answers.
“I remember asking my father; ‘You’re a smart man — don’t you ask questions?” Mandel says. “He told me, ‘I don’t want to know. I don’t want to ask, I don’t want to look.’ But I wanted to know.”
So he joined an ever-growing number of Orthodox Jews who, when confronted with the realities of an increasingly interconnected modern world, choose to walk away from their faith.
There was a time when being an Orthodox member of the Chosen People wasn’t really a choice. An aversion to razors, immodest clothing, and the meat of animals lacking cloven hooves was just part of being born into an Orthodox family. A strict adherence to the many Covenants of the first Abrahamic faith was a birthright. Simply walking away from that path wasn’t even conceivable, let alone an option to explore.
That was before the Digital Age sowed the seeds of what could be called a modern Jewish exodus. Widespread access to information began rendering old anchors—like being born Hasidic, or any other form of Orthodox—unable to stop people from leaving their traditional roots behind. Orthodox Jews of all persuasions are increasingly reaching for the razor and giving up on kosher diets. Some maintain the Orthodox customs of prayer and ritual. Others distance themselves as far as they can from the Jewish faith, dealing with the conundrum of being a Jew without being Jewish.
These modern, former-Orthodox Jews—Mandel included—are known within the Orthodox community as being “off the derech” (Hebrew for “path”), referring to the spiritual path adherents of Judaism are expected to follow. Some depart on intellectual grounds, unable to reconcile a strict literal adherence to Talmudic and Biblical principles with the scientific paradigm of the modern world; others struggle with the confines of strict dietary, behavioral, and other lifestyle restrictions.
Some, like Mandel, depart because of both.
As a Hasidic Jew growing up in New York, marriage to an acceptably conservative Jewish woman was what defined Mandel as an adult. It was also his first taste of true independence from his family and faith. With that independence came exposure to a world that didn’t fit with the one constructed for him by the tightly-controlled media he’d been permitted access to as a child.
After fruitless conversation with his father, Mandel took his questions to his rabbis. Even with their practiced theological rhetoric, their answers couldn’t satisfy him.
“They would fall back on, ‘Oh, you just need to have more faith [and] stop worrying about these things,’” Mandel says. “Or they would say, ‘Shut up—why are you asking questions? Are you smarter than your father? Are you smarter than your rabbi?’”
Evasive answers like those weren’t what Mandel was looking for. They didn’t explain how dinosaur bones fit with the young Earth theory, or how members of his faith could overlook evolution. And they certainly didn’t explain how a personal and often vengeful deity could be so important in his life, yet seemingly absent from the world around him.
Mandel decided their answers gave him no reason to shape his entire worldly paradigm on Judaic principles.
Nor did they explain why he needed to adhere to a rigid Jewish lifestyle, avoiding foods like bacon, cheeseburgers, and shrimp, or why he was required to dress in a modest fashion, donning the well-recognized black suits and hats sported by many Hasidic Jews. He wondered why he was expected to refrain from the simplest of activities on Friday evenings and Saturdays. More importantly, his rabbis’ explanations made him doubt the need to raise an ‘ideal’ Jewish family.
“I had one kid, and I knew if I stuck around, I would be expected to have a dozen,” Mandel says, explaining that he would also be expected to raise them in the same fashion he had been. “I came to a point where I was either going to leave . . . or stay there and lose my mind.”
So, in 2007, he left the fold. Taking his young son with him, Mandel abandoned his old life. After researching other faiths to little satisfaction, he eventually replaced his faith in a higher power with atheism. He remained a Jew not by faith, but by virtue of culture and heritage alone.
He even lost his wife and, temporarily, his son—though she eventually followed him out of the Orthodox community, bringing her child with her, their relationship didn’t survive the looser structural and social expectations of secular marriage.
“Coming from the world we come from, everyone has their place in life handed to them,” Mandel says. “But as [my wife and I] developed our own identities and personalities, wants and needs, we quickly drifted apart … we just weren’t a good match. But before we left, we couldn’t have known that.”
They parted on good terms, and they still work together as friends to raise their son. For that, Mandel says he’s grateful.
Almost every one of Mandel’s friends and acquaintances, all members of the Orthodox community, stayed behind when he left. Even his own family shunned him for more than a year after it was clear he wasn’t going to change his mind and re-join the Orthodoxy.
“They cut me off, they wanted nothing to do with me, they encouraged my wife to leave me, they cursed me out and called me names,” Mandel says. These malfeasances ultimately prompted his wife to start her own journey off the derech.
His father, who had told him that he didn’t want to know about the outside world, was furious.
“My father looked me in the eye and told me he was going to make sure I never saw my son again,” Mandel says.
His immediate family came around eventually, and within a year of his departure from the Orthodox lifestyle, they acted as though nothing had ever happened. Today, they get along with Mandel perfectly, having ultimately adjusted to the dramatic change in their son’s lifestyle remarkable well.
“Within the Orthodox community, it’s very much all or nothing,” Mandel says, who was eventually built up a social network through joining the army and meeting up with fellow Jews who had strayed off the derech via online communities. “Either you’re Orthodox all the way, or you’re not at all, and they’re not part of your life.”
Yechezkel Altein is a rabbi and Eugene ambassador of the Chabad-Lubavitch (Chabad) movement, one of the largest Hasidic communities in the world. He disagrees with the claim that all Orthodox communities are intolerant.
“I don’t think you’re bad just because you grew up different,” Altein says. “Some people will tell you, ‘You have to change your ways if you want me talk to you.’”
Altein is very clear that he isn’t the kind of person who limits his friendships to people who believe exactly as he does.
“I’ve had many very close friends who, while maybe they didn’t necessarily go off [the derech] all the way, swayed to the right, to the left, and then maybe back to the right,” he says, referring to both Chabad members and non-members alike.
“Some of them had intellectual questions when they were 15 or 16 and their teachers didn’t have good answers,” Altein says. “But when they were 17 or 18, they realized their teachers had good answers, but they had been too young to understand them.”
He says it’s not at all surprising that many Orthodox Jews stray from the path at least once in their lifetime, especially given the influence of the United States’ cosmopolitan culture. Most return to the faith, he says, but even those who don’t aren’t held in ill regard by the Chabad movement.
Altein’s surroundings in the Eugene Chabad Jewish Center speak volumes about his personal commitment to Orthodox thought.
Leather-bound religious texts with gold-leafed Hebrew running down the spines line the bookshelves within the old Victorian house. Accompanying them are pictures of revered Chabad leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who gazes knowingly at the occupants of the house.
That’s to say nothing of Altein himself—conservatively dressed, yarmulke present and accounted for, beard unshaven. Clearly, his personal conviction is sound.
While Altein believes in tolerating religious differences, he doesn’t agree with the lifestyles or beliefs of those who choose to go off the derech. In fact, he says, he actively finds such people to be living in error, and he certainly wouldn’t want his children spending time around them.
“Even when being accepting, it’s something we have to be very careful about,” Altein says.“Our kids must always know what our philosophy is and why we believe what we believe.”
Still, he reflects the Chabad tenets in his own philosophies, and believes in an open dialogue between Jews of different levels of faith, even if Altein would rather his children not be present for the discussion.
“You can come in here with whatever notions you have and that’s perfectly fine,” he says.
“And we’ll talk and we’ll learn and we’ll discuss and we’ll discover together, and either you’ll come to see it my way, or you’ll choose not to, and as long as we stay friends and remain happy, that’s what counts.”
Even so, suave public relations campaigns may not be enough to bring many off-the-derech Jews back into the fold anymore, says Mandel, mostly due to one particularly prevalent product of the modern age: the Internet. With it, Jews who find themselves off the derech can connect with one another and organize like never before. They can also get together in person to swap stories about their time within the Orthodox faith.
Mandel’s own favorite tale to recount was his first experience of Yom Kippur in the U.S. Army. He was in the middle of boot camp and was given time off with his fellow Jewish recruits to celebrate the holiday. Rather than participating in a somber day of atonement and reflection the way Yom Kippur is intended, the day turned into a party. It was the first time Mandel had ever felt free to act that way on a holiday. For him, it was “completely and utterly surreal.”
At the end of these informal tale swaps, Mandel feels unburdened and pleased he made it this far off the path he had once trod so devotedly.
“I genuinely love life now,” Mandel says. “I marvel at how far I’ve come and I’m just happy to be alive.”
Members who choose to leave the faith are given the opportunity to re-define their lives. For Mandel, going off the path meant making his own.