Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin
Rabbi Yitschak RudominCourtesy

The modern day "OTD" – "Off The Derech" phenomenon in America, ("Derech" being the Hebrew word for "path" [of Orthodox/Torah Judaism]), also known as "Yotzim" ("leavers") in Israel, is not like the mass defections from Orthodox Judaism that took place during the times of the "Jewish Enlightenment" known as the Haskalah of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the majority of religious Jews of Europe who had been following the strict tenets of Halacha (Jewish Law) for about two thousand years started abandoning their religious observant lives and beliefs previously rooted in Judaism in the face of growing Secularization, Modernity, Assimilation, Socialism, Liberalism and in certain cases Intermarriage and even Conversion to Christianity (Apostasy).

The modern day OTD movement is happening right now, after the Holocaust and the miraculous rebirth of Orthodox, Haredi and Hasidic life in America and Israel. From the ashes of Auschwitz came Holocaust survivors following great Orthodox community builders, Talmudic scholars and Hasidic Rebbes who rebuilt vast Torah communities who despite all the odds against them rebuilt magnificent, growing, exploding and dynamic Torah communities that collectively number in the hundreds of thousands possibly approaching a combined two million Orthodox, Haredi and Hasidic Jews that live mainly in America and Israel. All this growth of Torah life in a highly modernized, secularized and politicized technologically advanced world. This is where the "orbit" of the OTD movement is, taking place in a world where Orthodox, Haredi and Hasidic families and communities are growing at a vast pace and speed, with a huge population explosion of religious Jews all around the OTDs and the Yotzim who unlike the Maskilim of previous centuries (Maskilim means those who followed the Haskalah) – the Jewish Enlightenment movement that had previously also given birth to the Reform, and later the Conservative streams of Judaism.

OTDs in America and Yotzim Israel are sailing against the prevailing GROWTH patterns in Jewish religious life of more observance in their families of origin that they seek to abandon whereas those Jews who abandoned Orthodox Jewish life centuries ago were in a Jewish world that was SHRINKING religiously. It was paradoxically the Holocaust that turned things around, and after the Jewish religious world suffered its lowest point during the Holocaust, after that it entered a trajectory of unbridled expansion and a miraculous population explosion.

So while it is very sad that some go Off The Derech and become Yotzim, leaving their past religious life behind them they are not going to affect the ongoing growth of the Orthodox, Haredi and Hasidic communities that they have abandoned for whatever reasons.

That being said, the Orthodox, Haredi and Hasidic establishments have barely begun to deal with the OTDs' challenge and to figure out what to in the face of the growing problem of formerly religious young Jewish men and women throwing off the "yoke of Torah" and in many cases becoming anti-religious atheists.

Recently headlines were made by the announcement that the Hasidic leader of the Belz Hasidim based in Israel, Rav Yisacher Dov Rokeach had instructed his followers to set up a new organization to cater to alienated Hasidim as a result of a suicide in the community that shook them up. This caught the attention of many in the Jewish media. Israel National News reported that the "Belzer Rebbe founds organization for those who leave Torah path (May 30, 2023)...The organization, which is called, 'Ahavat Kodmim'...'They studied in our schools throughout their lives; even though they decided not to keep Torah and its commandments, we must take care of them throughout and embrace them, without any conditions,' one of the organization's founders was quoted as saying."

This milestone event was noted by some Orthodox Jewish news outlets who added a few more details to the story. The Jewish Press wrote of the "Belzer Rebbe Embracing 'Off the Derech' Former Chassidim (May 31, 2023)...Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, the fifth and present Rebbe of the Chasidic dynasty of Belz, has declared a revolutionary program in terms of Haredi politics, which he named Ahavat Kdumim (lit=ancient love), to help men and women who were born into Belz and have gone “off the derech,” or, as they’re known in Israel, Yotzim B’She’ela, a play on word referencing the opposite movement, Chozrim B’Tshuva. Yoeli Brim, Army Radio’s religion reporter, who broke the story on Twitter on Tuesday, quoted a former Belz Chassid who told him: 'We received a real hug, feeling like in a dream.'...But this is not, apparently, a move to bring these men and women back into the fold religiously, only to embrace them, to be followed by lots of holiday and simcha invitations. The idea of a major Haredi spiritual leader acknowledging the existence of a substantial number of his followers who no longer follow would have been a messianic-time fantasy only a few years ago."

This sounds like a very difficult mission by basically saying "it's outreach but it's not outreach" that would confuse anyone. The important thing is that it's at least a major step of recognition that there is a major problem and that the OTD phenomenon can no longer be ignored or swept under the rug.

The question remains how this mission to reach out to Off the Derech people will be accomplished successfully and how does one define "success" in this complex situation riddled with contradictions.

For argument's sake let us say that this is a situation of an internal cultural and religious war about lifestyle choices. As in any war each side plays to win. From the point of view of the religious community the question is how do they keep up lines of communication with alienated and disaffected former members of their communities? While for those who go Off the Derech the question is how far "off the derech" do they want to go because there are stages and levels of alienation and distancing that varies from person to person. In the final analysis, in war, there are no half measures, there is either victory or defeat. There are winners and there are losers, depending on the perspective one is coming from.

In America for example, there are programs, like Footsteps that seek to help Haredi particularly Hasidic Jews leave their former Haredi lifestyles and acculturate to being regular secular Americans, whatever that they mean to each person. They provide educational, career and mental health counseling in an organized and sophisticated way. Footsteps is not interested in reconnecting former Hasidim with their former Hasidic communities.

On the other hand there are programs run by the organization called "Jew in the City" who actually responded to the initiative of the Belzer Rebbe: "The Belzer Rebbe Has Created a Program to Support Ex-Hasidic Jews (June 6, 2023)...we congratulate the Belzer Rebbe and leadership in the Belz community for not just creating this program, but for raising awareness about the importance of unconditional love of children, which we have discussed here on many occasions, as a crucial piece of preventing and healing the OTD phenomenon. Ahavat Kadumim does not compete with our Makom branch or even have the same mission or programs. Makom was created after ex-hasidic Jews told us they wanted to remain observant, but didn’t know how to find their place in a new Jewish community. We built programming specifically for Jews raised Haredi who want to explore the broader Orthodox Jewish community. Ahavat Kadumim is specifically for ex-Hasidic Jews who no longer wish to be observant, to be supported emotionally and physically. We have reached out to the Belz leadership, as we believe that our programs could refer to one another. We hope their courageous start will lead to more Haredi communities following with similar initiatives."

So this new chapter of not just bemoaning and giving official recognition to the Off the Derech population but to actually reach out to them and do something, anything, as ,long as hard core alienation does not set in to the point where God forbid, OTD's want to commit suicide out of desperation and feelings of abandonment.

This brings us to the next part of this essay and that is, what organized professional efforts can Haredim and Hasidim make to stem and deal with losing their own people to the Off the Derech movement and learn from the better known Baal Teshuva movement, if at all?

When Orthodox, Haredi and Hasidic Judaism started its rebirth in America and Israel after the Second World War (1939–1945) and the horrific Holocaust, the main effort was on establishing yeshivas, Jewish day schools, and Kehillas (Torah communities) for already religious Jews, there was very little attention given to reaching out to secular Jews to bring them close to Torah observance. There was certainly no educational and organizational infrastructure as to how to go about reaching out to secular Jews. By the the time the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s came around there was a counterculture movement and youth rebellion taking place in the West and certain visionary rabbis and brave organizations, especially the Lubavitchers realized that it was possible to break through the ice and successfully reach out to secular Jewish youth and quite a number of them started to be attracted to Torah Judaism and even became fully religious.

It took time, and initial scepticism was overcome as more and more rabbis succeeded in building organizations such as NCSY for Jewish teens, outreach centers, Chabad Houses near university campuses, and even Baal Teshuva yeshivas in Israel and America and so the trickel turned into a great wave as tens of thousands of formerly secular Jews became Baalei Teshuva, returnees to Orthodox Judaism. Today these Baal Teshuva organizations and organizers continue to exist and function as established legitimate entities.

The question for the Haredi world is will it be able to replicate the pathways that were proven successful with the recognition and establishment of the Baal Teshuva movement to have programs and venues, a solid infrastructure, with full time staff funded with ample fund raising, such as for example is done by Chabad, Aish HaTorah and the OU's NCSY, to establish, run and organize programs and organizations for the growing number of Off the Derech people that is now reaching towards some sort of critical mass?

The Belzer Rebbe's initiative is some sort of clarion call that the time has come for successful practicing Orthodox, Haredi and Hasidic Jews and communities to go beyond mere official recognition of the problem which is in any case pretty obvious to watchers of the religious world, and to move forward just as Jew in the City launched its Makom program, as it states on its website: "Makom helps disenfranchised Haredi Jews find a positive place in Orthodoxy. Social events, educational classes, Shabbos placement, Shabbatons, and one-on-one encouragement is offered to those seeking support. We call this moving from darkness to light and allows JITC to move from discussing the conflicts within parts of the Orthodox Jewish community to finding solutions for them. Through hundreds of events and classes, we have been able to transform the lives of countless Makom members in a positive way."

In contradistinction, the people at the anti-religious Footsteps organization go all out with big financial backing and elaborate services, and it is time for pro-religious Jews to back organizational and programmatic efforts to counter the corrosive decay to religious life of the Off the Derech movement.

Some of my previous articles about the Off The Derech Crisis as published on Matzav.com: "Deciphering Off The Derech: Perspective of a Kiruv Rabbi" (Sep 18, 2016); 'Deciphering Off The Derech: Lessons from the Kiruv Paradigm" (Sep 26, 2016); "Deciphering Off The Derech: Differences Between Kiruv and Chinuch" (Nov 18, 2016); "Deciphering Off The Derech: Role of Siblings" (Dec 18, 2016); "Deciphering Off The Derech: Focus on Footsteps" (Jan 1, 2017); "Deciphering Off The Derech: Understanding the 'Language' of Footsteps" (Jan 9, 2017).

Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin was born to Holocaust survivor parents in Israel, grew up in South Africa, and lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is an alumnus of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin and of Teachers CollegeColumbia University. He heads the Jewish Professionals Institute dedicated to Jewish Adult Education and Outreach Kiruv Rechokim. He was the Director of the Belzer Chasidim's Sinai Heritage Center of Manhattan 19881995, a Trustee of AJOP 19941997 and founder of American Friends of South African Jewish Education 19952015. He is also a docent and tour guide at The Museum of Jewish Heritage A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Downtown Manhattan, New York.He is the author of The Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy.Contact Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin at[email protected]