Haredi at heart: Former ultra-Orthodox members discuss Yom Kippur

To most Jews, the weight of Yom Kippur is something that inspires some sort of religious-themed action. It’s the day when even the least traditional Jews find themselves sitting in an overly air-conditioned synagogue, listening to a rabbi’s speech they swear they heard the year before.

According to Jewish tradition, Yom Kippur marks the day when Jews are forgiven for their sins, when Jews rid themselves of all worldly pleasures in order to better reconnect with God and Judaism.

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For this reason, Yom Kippur is one day a year when Judaism seems to be placed on the front burner, when we dust off our kippot and prayer shawls, hide our doughnuts and pizza, and head to synagogue. As the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, for many it’s when they feel the most Jewish, the most connected to their religion and heritage.

But the enormous weight of the day may fall even more heavily on the shoulders of Jews who grew up haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and who left their communities. For these people, Yom Kippur can bring with it a reminder of a complicated relationship with Judaism and with God, and can exist as a marker and a reminder of their transition from one side of the religious spectrum to the other. After all, while many people experience a crisis of faith, this transition – of questioning everything about the way you were raised – is not a path tread by many.

Shmuel* is in his late 20s and lives in Austin, Texas – a place, a lifestyle and a culture a long way away from his Chabad upbringing in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and one he admits he is very much still getting used to. Just a few years ago, Shmuel left yeshiva after completing his rabbinic ordination and after working for a year inspiring students who had grown up secular to embrace Judaism, study Hassidism (Jewish mysticism), and take part in the all-encompassing lifestyle that he secretly was no longer sure he believed in.

Within the following years, Shmuel transitioned from rabbi to heretic, from preacher to questioner, from having a set path in life to a road that seemed to be filled only with unknowns, potholes and plot twists.

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Nonetheless, Yom Kippur is still a special day for him, a day he plans to spend at least part of in synagogue. “There is something so intrinsic about Yom Kippur for me, which made me feel lost when I first decided to no longer be religious because I didn’t feel comfortable going to Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox services – but then going to Reform services, I didn’t know the tunes,” he says.
But it’s not just the tunes that Shmuel couldn’t quite relate to at a Reform temple.

“For me, I always considered any form of doubt and questioning and any sense of agnosticism as taboo and not Jewish,” he says. “I know we like to say questioning is a Jewish trait, but I think in ultra-Orthodoxy, the questioning is allowed until you get to the fundamentals. Once you start questioning the fundamentals it’s taboo. Then I went to a Reform temple for Yom Kippur and they started questioning these things out loud, but then went on to pray to ‘God of the universe’ – and it felt so paradoxical and phoney to me. I remember going to my first Reform services and thinking – and I don’t know if this is true or not – that many of the people here probably consider themselves agnostic or even atheist and I thought, ‘What is everyone doing here? What am I doing here?’ There was something funny and weird about it.”

Shmuel explains that as someone who had grown up in an extremely Orthodox community and then left, because he was challenging his faith he felt at first that there was a paradox in this Reform service.

“But since then my opinions have changed and are evolving,” he says. “Now I feel that religion, like any form of human commitment and theology and philosophy, is us trying to connect with something – each other, or something broader – to the universe, purpose, God or whatever.”

He learned to identify the paradox of secularism and synagogue-going as not something hypocritical, but of something innately human, a desire to engage with a heritage that strives to connect with something fundamentally good, to care for others without judgment, and to share in an identity, while doing what feels authentic on an individual level.

He feels that each sect of Judaism – be it Orthodox, Reform or otherwise – is a truthful and authentic form of that search, and that no single one holds the only authority over true Judaism and its heritage.

DOVID, 32, also grew up ultra-Orthodox but hasn’t been religious for more than 10 years. He too makes sure to do something for Yom Kippur, but described a struggle at the beginning of understanding where he felt comfortable across the religious spectrum.
This challenge was especially prevalent during the High Holy Days.

“I think Yom Kippur is more difficult because I don’t really actively think about my religious affiliation so much until the High Holy Days,” Dovid says. “Ideally my Yom Kippur service will feel like it wasn’t an entire waste of my morning, but also not like I’m betraying my value system.

“I had made a conscious choice to not be religious,” he says about his early years away from his community. “So, [at the beginning] I felt nervous about attending a service and how that was going to make me feel about the choices I made. I didn’t want to be made to feel bad about not being religious and I didn’t want to sit there and be like, ‘they’re crazy’ and have to rationalize the choices I made to myself. I didn’t want that experience – the ‘me versus them’ dialogue in my head. Specifically in the first couple years, this was more of a concern for me, feeling like I would be betraying my own values by attending an Orthodox service.”

Dovid also struggled at the beginning to know how to define for himself his new connection to Judaism.

“When I was 24, I went to a university in New York and it was my first year of being alone in the big city on Yom Kippur, and I didn’t know what I’d allow myself to do,” he says. “Would I take the elevator up to my dorm? Will I use my key card? I was fasting, but what else would I do? And if I take the elevator does that negate everything else I’m doing? So there was a lot of that at the beginning, until I eventually became a little more comfortable in the gray zone.”

But Dovid explains that his relationship with Yom Kippur has gotten a lot easier over time.

“Now I don’t think it’s so hard for me as it was,” he says. “Now I’m less worried about it, now I’m like ‘if it happens it happens.’ And it usually happens. For me it’s about understanding why I’m doing it.”

“Me fasting isn’t about me being religious, it’s about the traditional aspects that we do on Yom Kippur. It’s less about the Halacha (Jewish law) part of it and more about the tradition and narrative behind it. It was important for me to figure out what fell on either side of that line. Like not wearing leather – is that something that falls under tradition or law? Is that something I want to keep, or is that something I don’t want to feel tied to? If I’m using the elevator then I’m turning on lights then I’m using my phone, where do I draw the line?” Dovid says.

But as with many people who leave the communities where they were raised, Dovid felt that his connection with Judaism was tied very closely to his connection to his family. This was another reason why doing something for Yom Kippur was especially important.

“I think at the beginning too, it was harder for me because of the connection with my family,” he says. “Like the questions of ‘How was your holiday, or your fast or your shul.’ It wasn’t about hiding [not being religious], but me making an effort to find something that we can talk about. There are a lot of parts of my life that my family is uncomfortable talking about, so it was easier for me and important to me to build something that we can connect on.”

WHILE SHMUEL and Dovid still feel connected to Yom Kippur, others who made similar transitions don’t feel exactly the same way.
“Last year, I actually had such a healthy Yom Kippur,” says Rivka, who grew up one of eight children in a haredi family from upstate New York. “I had gone away with some friends and we were just hanging out and I was sitting in a Mexican restaurant and I suddenly realized that it was Yom Kippur! I was really proud of myself that I had gotten to the point where I didn’t feel guilty about it, but also didn’t feel the need to not keep it out of spite.”

While Rivka, who is working toward her master’s degree in social work, is no longer an ultra-Orthodox Jew, she still takes pride in her upbringing and heritage, hosting Shabbat meals at her Brooklyn home and serving friends who come, both Jews and non-Jews, with big steaming bowls of cholent.

“That’s the thing with me,” she says. “I love my heritage, but I love embracing it in my own way and in the ways I want to. I love that now I can choose to do what I’m comfortable with and that’s it.”

Dovid feels the same way. “I don’t really miss doing the full ultra-Orthodox Yom Kippur because I don’t really feel the need to check off all the boxes or anything. For me it’s more important to just commemorate the day and have the feel of Yom Kippur.”

However, Rachel, who grew up in Flatbush as one of 14 children with a rabbi as a father, does not care to mark Yom Kippur at all. Nonetheless, she explained that she isn’t angry at the religion, and dislikes when people feel the need to point out that they are no longer religious by “posting a picture on social media of themselves eating a cheeseburger on Yom Kippur,” she says.

Instead, she simply finds Yom Kippur to be an unfavorable experience. “Growing up, Yom Kippur was depressing, long, and really just wasn’t exciting,” she says. “I mean there is nothing good about it.”

She remembers fighting with her sisters over who would be able to stay home for the day to take care of the younger siblings so that they wouldn’t have to suffer through the long hours of synagogue. She explains that more often than not her mother would step in and stay home to watch the kids. Rachel believes it’s because she, too, did not want to sit through the long hours of synagogue.

Now, seven years after she changed her way of life, Rachel still lives in Flatbush. She works with children with special needs – most of whom come from the community she grew up in.

When asked what she will be doing this Yom Kippur, Rachel responded: “I don’t know. Probably working.” For her, this means having the children she works with from the community in her home, watching them while their parents spend the day at synagogue.
In this way, it seems as though Rachel will finally be fulfilling her childhood Yom Kippur dreams.

SHMUEL, TOO, feels like certain aspects of his childhood will never be too far away. Though he no longer regularly wears a black fedora – or even a kippah – he feels he will never really rid himself entirely of the philosophies and world outlooks that he was raised with, nor does he want to. For this reason he dislikes terms like “ex-haredim” or “ex-hassidim” to describe people like himself.

“It feels disingenuous,” he says. “If someone is born in France and he lives there until he is 23 years old and then moves to America, he isn’t ex-French. He is still very much French. The same is with my upbringing. Yes, I no longer practice and I don’t really believe in the divinity of it, but so much of who I am and the way I see the world is through a haredi and hassidic lens, and I appreciate and love that.”

And as if to prove this point, Shmuel launches into somewhat of a hassidic parable to describe his more current views of Yom Kippur, a viewpoint that has, perhaps ironically, largely been shaped by his dramatic lifestyle change.

“I think Yom Kippur actually gets at something which I think is maybe the most special part of Judaism,” Shmuel says. “It’s a day where we dress ourselves in a white death shroud and you’re fasting – or not – and the songs are more melancholic and somber than other days.”

“Imagine you’re in a bad fight with a family member or close friend, but then if they die, you know you’ll be at their funeral. You know you’ll be there because you know that at the core you are connected and you forgive them and they forgive you. I think Yom Kippur is that day for Jews or humans. Whether you are Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, secular, or any other way you connect with the day – there is something intrinsically special about the Jewishness of it and the humanity of it, of having this long day of forgiveness and of working on yourself.

“And you can’t miss it, you have to just be there as if it’s the funeral of your family member. It touches at the core of your connection with the religion, the tradition, and the people,” he says.

* Names and identifiable personal details have been altered to protect privacy.

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